Life in Alaska
Outdoors & Recreation

Arctic Valley Survival

Story and Media by
Wendy Wesser
Media by
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Written by
Wendy Wesser

The moon was full, the snow was perfect, and the temperatures were well below zero. Clear skies above added to the excitement for our latest wild family adventure. We called ourselves the Fel-Jels, a name my siblings came up with to combine the last names of our blended family, Feller and Hjellen. Our group included my dad Gil, stepmother Silver, brother Eric, stepbrother Troy, stepsister Kim, and me. Braving our rowdy group and the elements with us were my boyfriend, Ralph, and our family friend, Peggy. The plan was to meet up in Arctic Valley for an after-hours moonlit ski down the mountain on a windy backcountry trail, about 8-10 miles long. This night in 1982 was almost 40 years ago, so some memories are a little faded, but as I recall, what we were doing was not exactly an approved activity. We may or may not have had to cross into the military recreational area and we may or may not have had permission. 

It was already well past sunset on a Friday when we willingly drove from our warm homes in Anchorage and met up at a small parking area near the beginning of Arctic Valley Road. We needed two cars for this activity and we left the smaller one, a 1970 Honda Civic, at this pull-off at the bottom of the trail. The plan was that the first two people to ski down the trail, expected to take 45 minutes to an hour, would drive back up to the start and retrieve the second vehicle. Eight of us crammed into a 1972 Jeep Wagoneer with our hodgepodge of winter gear and a variety of ski equipment. We were a boisterous group and didn’t mind being extra close and sharing our warmth since the temperatures outside the car seemed to be falling fast. 

All of a sudden our adventure came to an abrupt stop; a tire went flat. Most of us, including me, stayed out of the way in the car, letting my dad and Ralph deal with the problem. Peggy insisted on staying outside to provide moral support. This may have seemed like an altruistic act, but later it proved to be a poor choice for the good of our group as a whole. She was a skilled nurse, had served in Vietnam, was one of the nicest people you might ever meet, and she’d do anything for anybody. 

Peggy was a stylish dresser, looking good all the time, even at -5° F. She had on a thick wool sweater and a down vest along with a good hat and gloves. This wasn’t enough, making it even crazier for her to stand outside. The rest of us were bundled up to stay warm with no regard for our appearance because it was dark and no other people were around. We were experienced at backcountry and downhill skiing and knew we needed to have all our available outer gear on for this night. Since getting injured on our family adventures was always a distinct possibility, it was best to be prepared. Ironically, this time we felt we were extra safe having a nurse with us. We tried to convince Peggy multiple times to get back into the car, but she would not consider it while others were outside working on the tire. 

After the tire was fixed, Dad drove us up to the Arctic Valley Ski Bowl parking lot at about 2,350 foot elevation. We parked on the military side of the ski area, but it was well after hours and not a soul was there so we hoped it would be fine. Most of us brought our downhill skis and the rest had cross-country skis. Those of us with our downhill equipment were in good shape, but with the temperature noticeably colder than when we left Anchorage, the cross-country skiers had to scrape off their blue wax and apply light green on their wooden Bonnas.

What a glorious night! The full moon made our visibility almost as good as mid-day. After sipping a little Yukon Jack to warm us up, we were ready to start downhill. We soaked in the surrounding beauty of the mountains and snow covered trees. The snow was sparkling like it was covered in diamonds. Down the trail we skied with lots of laughter. My dad and brothers would ski ahead and hide in the black shadows, waiting to jump out and scare unsuspecting victims. 

One of the hazards that we were concerned about, besides the cold and skiing in the dark with no ski patrol, was encountering moose along the trail. They also liked the packed snow, but we only saw one resting in the woods as I recall. 

My stepsister, Kim, and I were partners that night. One of my vivid memories was watching her schussing down a steep downhill section, several feet in front of me. I noticed a black ribbon cutting across the snow in front of her and immediately slowed down. I only had a couple seconds to wonder what it was before it became obvious. When Kim hit the road, sparks flew in an arc 2-4 feet high behind her skis. I’m amazed she didn’t crash. Instead, she skied straight across that road to the laughter of our two brothers who were standing in the dark, waiting for the show. Kim was furious and they may have gotten in a lot of trouble for not warning us if something more serious didn’t happen next.

About halfway down the mountain Peggy’s always-friendly personality started to change. She was removing herself emotionally from us and we were baffled. When she started taking off some of her “extra clothes” we knew that something was wrong, very wrong. No one takes clothes off at below zero temperatures when they are skiing downhill. We recognized that Peggy was suffering the beginnings of hypothermia and the fun was over. We had to get her to the car quickly.

The little Honda at the bottom was already frozen when the downhill skiers reached it and got it started. The original plan for us to immediately drive up and get the jeep changed since Peggy needed to get warmed up as soon as possible. When she finally arrived with assistance from Silver, Dad, and Ralph, Peggy was being very uncooperative and arguing with Silver about putting her clothes back on and getting in the car. She was used to being in control and the caregiver of the group. She insisted she was fine and just wanted to be left alone. Somehow we finally got her in the car with Silver, but then another problem started. 

Silver would not let anyone else get in the two-door car, and she was sitting in the driver’s seat. That left the rest of us standing in the subzero weather getting colder and colder ourselves, and worrying how long we’d be waiting. Our situation was now very serious and could have gotten much worse. We tried to insist that we needed to get the Jeep as soon as possible, but Silver was completely focused on Peggy, unaware that the rest of us were also at risk of getting hypothermia or frostbite. Luckily, like I stated earlier, we were dressed for the cold, and we all knew we had to keep moving, even though it wasn’t easy in our downhill ski boots. 

Eventually we persuaded Silver that it was vital to get the Jeep so we wouldn’t end up with another victim of hypothermia. As the warm car disappeared around the corner, the four of us left alone in the silent night danced in our downhill ski boots, hoping there would be no more flat tires or other car issues. We were quite happy when we saw the Jeep’s headlights coming back around that corner.

At the end of the night, safe at home, we were all warm, happy, and frostbite free. A lot of fun memories were made that evening and a life-long lesson learned. Hypothermia can happen to anyone in any season in Alaska, even to an experienced nurse who knows the signs well. To this day I don’t go anywhere in the winter or summer without extra gear along—just in case someone comes unprepared. 

Happily for me, my wild and crazy family did not scare off my boyfriend. Ralph and I will celebrate 36 years of marriage this year. But not long after the Arctic Valley experience, our good friend Peggy moved to sunny California, and she hasn’t returned to Alaska since. I still miss her. 

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Arctic Valley Survival

Life in Alaska
Outdoors & Recreation

Author

Wendy Wesser

Writing, history, gardening, and traveling are a few of Wendy Wesser’s interests. She grew up in Alaska, living as far south as Metlakatla and as far north as Fairbanks. Her family’s history of six generations in Alaska reaches back to the Gold Rush years. She loves reading, hearing, and sharing Alaskan stories of newcomers and oldtimers alike—Last Frontier Magazine has provided her the opportunity to work in this very venue.Alternate bio for articles: Wendy currently resides in Wasilla, Alaska, but has also lived in Metlakatla, Ketchikan, Juneau, Anchorage, and Fairbanks. She enjoys sharing her life experiences of hiking, skiing, gardening, winter camping, etc…, as well as helping other Alaskans (old, new, current, or past) to share their own tales. Since she always says, “Yes!” to the next adventure, her backlog of stories is varied and almost endless. 


The moon was full, the snow was perfect, and the temperatures were well below zero. Clear skies above added to the excitement for our latest wild family adventure. We called ourselves the Fel-Jels, a name my siblings came up with to combine the last names of our blended family, Feller and Hjellen. Our group included my dad Gil, stepmother Silver, brother Eric, stepbrother Troy, stepsister Kim, and me. Braving our rowdy group and the elements with us were my boyfriend, Ralph, and our family friend, Peggy. The plan was to meet up in Arctic Valley for an after-hours moonlit ski down the mountain on a windy backcountry trail, about 8-10 miles long. This night in 1982 was almost 40 years ago, so some memories are a little faded, but as I recall, what we were doing was not exactly an approved activity. We may or may not have had to cross into the military recreational area and we may or may not have had permission. 

It was already well past sunset on a Friday when we willingly drove from our warm homes in Anchorage and met up at a small parking area near the beginning of Arctic Valley Road. We needed two cars for this activity and we left the smaller one, a 1970 Honda Civic, at this pull-off at the bottom of the trail. The plan was that the first two people to ski down the trail, expected to take 45 minutes to an hour, would drive back up to the start and retrieve the second vehicle. Eight of us crammed into a 1972 Jeep Wagoneer with our hodgepodge of winter gear and a variety of ski equipment. We were a boisterous group and didn’t mind being extra close and sharing our warmth since the temperatures outside the car seemed to be falling fast. 

All of a sudden our adventure came to an abrupt stop; a tire went flat. Most of us, including me, stayed out of the way in the car, letting my dad and Ralph deal with the problem. Peggy insisted on staying outside to provide moral support. This may have seemed like an altruistic act, but later it proved to be a poor choice for the good of our group as a whole. She was a skilled nurse, had served in Vietnam, was one of the nicest people you might ever meet, and she’d do anything for anybody. 

Peggy was a stylish dresser, looking good all the time, even at -5° F. She had on a thick wool sweater and a down vest along with a good hat and gloves. This wasn’t enough, making it even crazier for her to stand outside. The rest of us were bundled up to stay warm with no regard for our appearance because it was dark and no other people were around. We were experienced at backcountry and downhill skiing and knew we needed to have all our available outer gear on for this night. Since getting injured on our family adventures was always a distinct possibility, it was best to be prepared. Ironically, this time we felt we were extra safe having a nurse with us. We tried to convince Peggy multiple times to get back into the car, but she would not consider it while others were outside working on the tire. 

After the tire was fixed, Dad drove us up to the Arctic Valley Ski Bowl parking lot at about 2,350 foot elevation. We parked on the military side of the ski area, but it was well after hours and not a soul was there so we hoped it would be fine. Most of us brought our downhill skis and the rest had cross-country skis. Those of us with our downhill equipment were in good shape, but with the temperature noticeably colder than when we left Anchorage, the cross-country skiers had to scrape off their blue wax and apply light green on their wooden Bonnas.

What a glorious night! The full moon made our visibility almost as good as mid-day. After sipping a little Yukon Jack to warm us up, we were ready to start downhill. We soaked in the surrounding beauty of the mountains and snow covered trees. The snow was sparkling like it was covered in diamonds. Down the trail we skied with lots of laughter. My dad and brothers would ski ahead and hide in the black shadows, waiting to jump out and scare unsuspecting victims. 

One of the hazards that we were concerned about, besides the cold and skiing in the dark with no ski patrol, was encountering moose along the trail. They also liked the packed snow, but we only saw one resting in the woods as I recall. 

My stepsister, Kim, and I were partners that night. One of my vivid memories was watching her schussing down a steep downhill section, several feet in front of me. I noticed a black ribbon cutting across the snow in front of her and immediately slowed down. I only had a couple seconds to wonder what it was before it became obvious. When Kim hit the road, sparks flew in an arc 2-4 feet high behind her skis. I’m amazed she didn’t crash. Instead, she skied straight across that road to the laughter of our two brothers who were standing in the dark, waiting for the show. Kim was furious and they may have gotten in a lot of trouble for not warning us if something more serious didn’t happen next.

About halfway down the mountain Peggy’s always-friendly personality started to change. She was removing herself emotionally from us and we were baffled. When she started taking off some of her “extra clothes” we knew that something was wrong, very wrong. No one takes clothes off at below zero temperatures when they are skiing downhill. We recognized that Peggy was suffering the beginnings of hypothermia and the fun was over. We had to get her to the car quickly.

The little Honda at the bottom was already frozen when the downhill skiers reached it and got it started. The original plan for us to immediately drive up and get the jeep changed since Peggy needed to get warmed up as soon as possible. When she finally arrived with assistance from Silver, Dad, and Ralph, Peggy was being very uncooperative and arguing with Silver about putting her clothes back on and getting in the car. She was used to being in control and the caregiver of the group. She insisted she was fine and just wanted to be left alone. Somehow we finally got her in the car with Silver, but then another problem started. 

Silver would not let anyone else get in the two-door car, and she was sitting in the driver’s seat. That left the rest of us standing in the subzero weather getting colder and colder ourselves, and worrying how long we’d be waiting. Our situation was now very serious and could have gotten much worse. We tried to insist that we needed to get the Jeep as soon as possible, but Silver was completely focused on Peggy, unaware that the rest of us were also at risk of getting hypothermia or frostbite. Luckily, like I stated earlier, we were dressed for the cold, and we all knew we had to keep moving, even though it wasn’t easy in our downhill ski boots. 

Eventually we persuaded Silver that it was vital to get the Jeep so we wouldn’t end up with another victim of hypothermia. As the warm car disappeared around the corner, the four of us left alone in the silent night danced in our downhill ski boots, hoping there would be no more flat tires or other car issues. We were quite happy when we saw the Jeep’s headlights coming back around that corner.

At the end of the night, safe at home, we were all warm, happy, and frostbite free. A lot of fun memories were made that evening and a life-long lesson learned. Hypothermia can happen to anyone in any season in Alaska, even to an experienced nurse who knows the signs well. To this day I don’t go anywhere in the winter or summer without extra gear along—just in case someone comes unprepared. 

Happily for me, my wild and crazy family did not scare off my boyfriend. Ralph and I will celebrate 36 years of marriage this year. But not long after the Arctic Valley experience, our good friend Peggy moved to sunny California, and she hasn’t returned to Alaska since. I still miss her. 

No items found.

Author

Wendy Wesser

Author & Media

Wendy Wesser

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