Are You Prepared for the Alaska Backcountry and the Alaska Factor?

By Zachary Sheldon | Published Jul 17, 2022
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Every year, throughout the year, people come to Alaska looking for wilderness adventures. Many will consider their experiences outside Alaska of whatever adventure they wish to pursue equal to those they plan to do while in Alaska. Yes, you can find mild trails and slopes that will compare similar to those found in the lower 48. But when you hear Alaska and backcountry do some honest self-assessments, reflecting, and really take the time to learn about what it is your undertaking in the Alaska backcountry.

Backcountry maybe a loosely used word for marketing. A call to tourist from a local tourism board, an ego pump from an “influencer” who markets they’re tough, when all they mean is over a mountain pass, around line of sight from the road, up a valley, or just an under-development area that looks like wilderness. Moving forward when you read backcountry it means no groomed runs, no “trails” as you know them, no cars can meet you along the mountain. When you are in the Alaska backcountry assume when everything goes wrong it is just going to be you and your party to get you out and you’re mentally prepared to accept that. Yes, Search and Rescue and Emergency Management Services do go out when people are in danger. But if you go out thinking that's something you can count on to save you in time, you're not prepared.

A helicopter can always save me

Do not go into the backcountry assuming a helicopter can save you. Unless you should be in a hospital or are facing life threatening situations the state of Alaska is not going to send a helicopter to get you. Even though this is the land of bush pilots not every community has a helicopter or even fixed wing air taxi service. Sometimes even communities that do will occasionally find themselves without any planes or helicopters as they have been sent to job sites elsewhere or out for maintenance. Then one must consider the weather. A helicopter isn’t going to fly where they can’t see. It might be clear back in the valley or up on the peak where you are but halfway between you and the airport low clouds or morning fog have moved in, or there are winds too strong, or the temperatures are sitting right around freezing and there is potential for ice to form on the helicopter, and the pilot can’t complete the flight. Just because you want or need a helicopter and one is sitting available doesn’t mean they can get to you. Even if the pilot says they can go from what they see. Are you ready to pay for multiple flights every time you tell the pilot to go if there’s bad weather between you? Generally, a pilot will do all that they can to get to you, but even pilots with amazing skills are limited by environment.

Think of your partners

Consider the skills, and emotions of everyone in your group. Don’t get tunnel vision on what you want. We offer some adventurous tours for adventurous people. We’ve had clients show up after we’ve asked them several times are they sure they’re prepared for their tour. Then while out hiking, the person at the end of the group asks, “Are we almost halfway?” To which we’ve responded “No, you’re maybe 5% done.” The conversation follows;

Client: “How long is this hike?”

Guide: “At the pace we’re going about 7-8 hours.”

Client: “He said it was 2 hours" (pointing to the friend in front who booked the tour)

Guide: “That’s the record this trail has been hiked in.”

Client: “The longest I’ve hiked is 3 hours. How much higher are we hiking?”

Guide: “About another 3,000 ft.”

Client: “I’ve never hiked that high. My 3-hour hike was all flat through the desert.”

Needless to say, not long after, for safety concerns, the group had to turn back, and no one was happy about the situation. But it was a call that had to be made before someone ended up needing medical attention. Make sure everyone in your party knows what you’re signing them up for. Since then, we've setup DocuSign agreements where everyone in the party must sign for our higher adventure tours. You might end up annoyed with your friends, disappointed you're out money, and most importantly putting the health and safety of your friends or family at risk. All because you didn't share with them complete details of what you were signing them up for.

The Alaska Factor

Now that you understand there’s a good chance you could be on your own and everyone knows what the adventure includes. Are you prepared to go into the backcountry? We ask people this many times and most of the time people give an automatic confident “Yes!” Then when we try to explain the situation people often just keep saying “Yes! Yes.” without listening or considering they need to listen to what they’re confirming. These people often are comparing themselves to their friends and thinking they are the baddest, toughest hiker they know. They can out hike any of their friends and go places their friends are too intimidated to go. That’s not the question. Are you prepared for the Alaska factor?

The Alaska Factor: everything "tough" in Alaska is bigger and harder, when things go wrong they can go really wrong. Are you and your group ready to improvise in high stress circumstances? Can you laugh it off when your gear breaks, or your clothes are soaked? When nothing goes to plan are you going to be able to keep going? It’s so tough there is an Alaska rating scale for mountain difficulty called "Alaska Grade."

If this doesn't sound like your type of adventure, I strongly advise you find one that you will enjoy. By all means our guides are qualified, knowledgeable, and prepared for supporting your needs and tending to you along your adventures, as are most other guide services in Alaska. Though a possibility, odds are in your favor things will not go incredibly wrong. But not everyone might enjoy Alaskan high adventures in the backcountry.