It’s a warm July day in Girdwood, but after a 10-minute helicopter ride into the Chugach Mountains to Eagle Glacier, it starts to look and feel a bit like winter. The temperature drops, and snow blankets the ground. About two dozen women—most from Alaska Pacific University’s cross country ski team—take advantage of the summertime snow during a week-long training camp.
The athletes workout five hours a day, and spend their down time in a rustic building precariously perched beside a 5,000 foot cliff. Olympian Kikkan Randall has been coming to the trainings for 14 years, and says they’ve helped her become one of the world’s top speed skiers.
“I’ve always been really proud of Eagle Glacier and the opportunities we have here,” she says. “We can ski twice a day, and we can do so at a moderate altitude where we don’t have to modify our training intensities, so it’s pretty unique.”
While snow is a constant, relatively warm summer temperatures create less-than-ideal skiing conditions on the glacier. As the athletes trudge up a steep hill on the 10 kilometer track, they struggle to push through the slushy snow. But Erik Flora says the tough environment has its perks.
“Every time the Olympics come up people pray for nice weather, but the trail always turns to a mess,” he says. “You have rain, sleet, soft snow and that’s the magic of Eagle Glacier because as you can see in the course here it’s not easy…. We have a term for it: championship weather.”
APU skiers aren’t the only ones benefiting from the weeklong training. Each year at least one international athlete travels to Eagle glacier. Two years ago Aino-Kaisa Saarinen came from Finland and quickly befriended APU skier and Olympian Holly Brooks. The two reunited at the Sochi Olympics last winter where Saarinen took home two silver medals.
“We ran into Aino Kaisa and she stopped us and she started crying and said I want to thank you girls, because I think spending time in Alaska and spending time with you really helped me and my team earn this medal,” Brooks recalls. “Of course we wished that the U.S. had been able to bring home that medal, but that was really a priceless moment for us.”
This summer Norway’s Celine Brun-Lie traveled 4,000 miles to train on Eagle Glacier. Since thereare no places to ski in the summer in Norway, Brun-Lie says she’s having a blast in Alaska. And while she recognizes that many of the women she’s skiing with will be fierce competitors on the World Cup circuit come winter, right now she’s just trying to learn as much as she can.
“I can teach Kikkan [Randall] something, she can teach me something, and then in the winter maybe I beat her because of what she taught me, or she beats me because I told her something,” Brun-Lie says. “But I think that’s the way it should work, and that’s the fun thing about sports.”
The women’s training session ends Sunday, and APU’s men’s team will be on the glacier at the end of July.