Alpine touring on an active volcano

[by Kellie Okonek]

Looking out over the blue waters of the Cook Inlet, I was starting to relax; our group had just successfully skied down the upper section of Mount Augustine, a 4,134 foot snow-covered active volcano rising up from the ocean off the coast of Southcentral Alaska. Then, my friend Matt, who was skiing next to me, disappeared, his body replaced by the sound of his screaming.

He clung to the edge of a gaping hole in the snow below me. The steam rising up from the smoldering island rock had hollowed the snow beneath it, leaving only a weak bridge above, which had collapsed under Matt’s weight. None of us could see the bottom. Fortunately, Matt clawed with his feet for solid ground and found it. The hole he fell in, which could have easily dropped hundreds of feet into a crevasse, was only about seven feet deep.

Skiers ascend the northeast flanks of Mt. Augustine, a high active volcano on Augustine Island in Cook Inlet. The lava dome volcano is part of the Ring of Fire, and it last erupted in 2006.

We had approached the island departing from the port of Homer aboard a chartered boat called the M/V Milo. Owned and operated by Mike McCune of Ocean Swell Adventures, the vessel is a converted seiner, outfitted to be the ultimate floating recreational vehicle. His business takes adventuresome folks like us out surfing on remote beaches, or, in our case, skiing on active island volcanoes.

Rising up from the ocean in a near perfect cone, Mount Augustine has a tendency to explode—most recently in 2006. In 1986, one of its eruptions deposited a thick layer of ash over Anchorage, 176 miles away. Still, the pristine white slopes of the mountain beckoned us. We wanted fresh tracks, and figured a remote island in Alaska, one that also happened to be an active volcano, would deliver.

“We wanted fresh tracks, and figured a remote island in Alaska, one that also happened to be an active volcano, would deliver.”

After an overnight crossing of Cook Inlet, we woke to a gorgeous view of the north face of the volcano. The surrounding ocean was perfectly calm, reflecting the mountain back at us.  After much debate about the route due to the extensive rime ice obstructing the caldera, we made our way up the flanks of the mountain. Gaining altitude on our skis, we entered a zone venting a significant amount of steam from the mountain below us.  The (thankfully) odorless mist heated the surface rocks, creating huge snow-bridged holes that, as our friend Matt would later find out, were difficult to assess.

We did our best to use crevasse-based intuition to manage the risk, but we never quite felt safe. Another member of our group, Andy, tried to gain the absolute summit and fell through a snow bridge up to his armpits. We decided then to claim victory on reaching the caldera, even if it wasn’t the true high point.

Skiers load a skiff for the return to the 58-foot Alaskan seiner M/V Milo anchored offshore of Augustine Island.

We took a playful yet unforgiving line down the mountain, staring out over the deep blue inlet without a cloud in the sky. As we descended, carving fresh tracks, we could see Mount Iliamna in the distance—another large volcano on the mainland. That’s when Matt fell into the hole. We were all a little relieved to get on the boat again that night.

As we sat on the deck of the Milo, the day’s last rays of sunlight illuminated us as a storm began rolling in from the west. We downed a few cold beers and freshly made Alaskan seafood chowder, happy to be alive, and exactly where we wanted to be.

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