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Mount Susitna - North Ridge

Skiing the Crown Jewel of Susitna Valley Snowmobile Trails

Update 2018: The snowmobile route up the North Ridge of Mount Susitna is now rarely used.  Alexander Creek lodge owners were the ones that kept this trail open for their snowmobiler clients.  But salmon fishing was shut down at Alexander Creek many years ago (due to pike infestation), and as a result, all of the lodges at Alexander Creek went out of business and the people that maintained this trail left.  End result: the trail has grown in and become impassable (to all except the most determined).

So, it is now rare that this trail, the Mount Susitna Trail that branches off from the Thomas Trail, is ever in.  Gone are the days when this trail was a well established and relatively easy route up Mount Susitna.  Low snow years and the rapid growth of alders due to a warmer climate have hindered travel on this route.  And the spruce bark beetles are back and hitting this area with a vengeance again.  So lots of downed spruce trees to contend with (just like in the mid-90s).

It is still possible to travel this route.  But if it is done by snowmobile, it will likely take a lot of snow, a chainsaw and lots of luck and determination navigating through the brush up to tree line.

Original post from 2005:

Whenever I have climbed and skied Mount Susitna in the past, I have traveled my "secret" route up the South Summit.  But I had also wanted to check out the normal route used by snowmobilers to go up the long and gradual north ridge leading to the North Summit of Mount Susitna.  I tried with Tim Miller once earlier this year to ski this route.  But at Eagle Song Lodge we found that the normal Mount Susitna access trail was not being maintained any more.  We poked around a bit trying to find a way to the base of the north ridge, but ran out of time.  On the 27th of February 2005 I tried again.  This time I found the key - the Thomas Trail.  It got me to the base of the north ridge where I ditched my snowmachine and skied to the North Summit.  This snowmobile trail is indeed the crown jewel of trails in the Susitna Valley.  Why do I say this?  Well, check out the following pictures.

Folks sure aren't trying to keep this trail a secret.  It's well marked.  I've met some of the Thomas's ... very nice folks !!! Though the trail is well marked, finding its start near Derf Lake is a bit tricky. When you see this sign at the base of Mt. Susitna stay left and start climbing.  If you cross a creek (Wolverine Creek) you are going the wrong way, will not make the top and will likely run out of gas !!!  Go back if you come to Wolverine Creek!
Basecamp 50 miles from the trailhead.  I like my Polaris WideTrak.  It can carry a lot of stuff.  But it weighs a lot - 650 lbs.  So when you get it stuck - you've got problems (more on this later). A dead Cat a long way, 52 miles, from home.  I passed this abandoned sled going up and coming down.  I feel sorry for the folks that have to come back here and try to tow this beast back out of here.  They may have an epic struggle awaiting them. Starting out I was soon in the clouds.  But I could hear a small plane fly overhead - so I knew the top of the cloud layer wasn't far above.  Sure enough - I broke out of the clouds at a little over 1000 feet.
Once above the clouds ... awesome striding up a very cool ridge. The North Summit of Mount Susitna is in the distance. You could skate some of the way up too.  Main summit to the left, north to the right.  Snowmachines had made it to the shadow line on the North Summit, but none had topped out.
On top, looking back at the trail coming up the north ridge.  A low cloud layer covers the Upper Susitna/Yentna drainages to the Alaska Range. Checkin' things out.  Every trip is a recon trip for a future trip.  You can see the communication towers on the main ridge of Mount Susitna. No hurry to leave.  What a day!  Now I've skied all three summits of Mount Susitna.  I never get tired of of exploring Dghelishla - Denaina for "Little Mountain".  "Sleeping Lady" is not this mountain's name - that's a "white man's lie", a story made up in the 1960s.

[Above] A 360 degree view from the summit (size: 704 KB).  If you expand this picture and notice yellow snow on the rock in the left foreground ... it wasn't me!  It looked like earlier in the morning a couple of wolves beat me to the top and marked this summit as their own.

These were the only snowmobilers that I saw on the mountain, they arrived in time to see my ski descent off the summit.  They were probably hoping for a crash, burn and yard sale.  It was cool kicking off the summit and skiing down the peak.  Just below this point it was steep, hard and smooth icy crust.  That's what was keeping snowmobiles off the top.  When conditions are right, no doubt some folks can ride to the top of the North Summit. Pointing west across Wolverine Creek to the Shangri-La of crust skiing ... Little Mount Susitna.  Seemingly endless miles of crust skiing terrain park.  The problem is ... getting there.
Good cruising coming down.  The windblown snow was still soft enough to turn in.  Some skating.  Lots of long traverse cruises. This is not a turn-shredding descent.  Just long and fun.  Though there is more good turning terrain as the ridge drops off at its end. Clouds floating over Wolverine Creek Pass.  Little Mount Susitna in the distance.
Paw-prints in triplets: fresh wolverine tracks.  Coyotes and wolves seem to wander, sniff, pee and check things out when they travel.  Wolverines seem all business.  Their paths are straight and purposeful.  They are machines on a mission.  They crack me up. Back below the clouds there was some really good glade skiing ... though this picture doesn't do it justice. Just as I was leaving the area, I had a lapse of attention and buried my "Polaropig".  It took me one and 1/2 hours to get out of this hole.  It took everything I had: a come-a-long, tow straps, brush saw and lots and lots of shoveling.  No one around to help.  If you travel alone a lot, like I do, you have to be prepared for these inevitable mishaps.
There are some huge swamps near the base of Mount Susitna - in winter they make for excellent sno-go traveling.  60 mph on a smooth sea of white. Cruising with the top up, Alaska style. With many cross country skiers spending all winter chasing each other around in little urban circles, it's up to the redneck, sno-go driving xc skiers to go out and ski the fun and cool places in Alaska.  It's a dirty job, but someone's got to do it.  Might as well be me.
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Photos & web page by Tim Kelley, Feb. 2005