Educator Expedition: Skiing Alaska’s Thompson Pass

By Kate Koons

Mar 10, 2016


The Ladies The ladies. Photo by Kate Koons.

For years, I have seen the pictures, heard the stories, and dreamt of skiing in Alaska.

A number of former NOLS instructors have made their way to Alaska to guide, many of them under the guidance of Don Sharaf, who still works as a forecaster and guide for Valdez Heli Ski Guides. If you are guiding in Valdez, you’re pretty much at the top of your game. Myself, along with fellow NOLS instructors Kat Smithhammer, Erin Merrick, and Becca Parkinson, decided that a girls trip was in order to check out the wild and enormous terrain of Thompson Pass. Erin and Becca both had been there on a trip in previous years, but this would be their first girls trip to the area.

We all met up in Anchorage, where we rented an RV and made the five-hour drive to Thompson Pass. While this area is well known for heli-skiing, an industry started by the late great Doug Coombs, it is also home to endless amounts of ski touring.

When planning for this trip, besides being incredibly excited to go to a place that I’d only seen in pictures, I was excited to see and ski in a different snowpack and in different terrain. Alaska’s snowpack is different from the Tetons, where I have made my home for the last 14 years. It is quite stable during this time of year, allowing us to ski steeper lines.

By skiing steeper terrain, I was able to push myself out of my comfort zone and confidently ski more committing lines. While this does not directly translate to working NOLS winter courses, being more confident in a variety of snow conditions and in all terrain is key to helping students build their own confidence in the winter environment and on skis.

Topping out Expedition member Becca Parkinson topping out on a couloir in the Iguana Backs. Photo by Kate Koons.


There are many highlights from this trip, too many to mention, really. I could talk endlessly about the beautiful, untouched lines we skied and the varied terrain we toured through to reach these lines, but the biggest highlight was going on this trip with three other like-minded women.

I feel incredibly lucky to have been surrounded by strong, competent, and engaged people living in a community dominated by current and past NOLS instructors in the Teton Valley. It’s like having a full Rolodex of people you know you can go into the backcountry with who will make solid decisions and have a great time.

On this trip, we laughed a lot, had dance parties in our RV, skied perfect powder, and ultimately made quick, efficient decisions in real terrain. We all challenged ourselves to be a little bit scared and in the end were more than satisfied.

I want to thank the NOLS Field Staffing and Training Department for helping support this trip through the Instructor Development Fund. The IDF continues to support and encourage instructors to push our skills in new environments and I am incredibly grateful. 

Summit of Hallelujah Kate on top of Hallelujah in the Iguana Backs region. Photo by Kate Koons.


Learn more about winter courses at NOLS here.

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Kate Koons

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