By Matias Saari
Ever wonder what it would be like to ski the entire Equinox trail? Creating a 42-kilometer ski trail that linked campus to Ester Dome was part of the motive for the University of Alaska Fairbanks ski team when they founded the Equinox Marathon in 1963.
Initially Nat Goodhue had little faith that the marathon would endure but he figured there would at least be a Nordic ski trail to fall back on if the running race folded.
History, of course, has proven the Equinox trail to be an excellent running and hiking route — but the same can’t be said for skiing.
I have run countless miles on the Equinox trail and once biked the entire course. Recently I became curious whether today’s route, which includes less actual trail than the original course, was skiable. I’ve never heard of anyone attempting it.
So at 3 p.m. on a sunny, brisk and breezy March 13, I began my mission of skiing the entire 26.2 miles, sticking as close as possible to the current course and only removing my skis when absolutely necessary. I hoped to finish within five hours. The only liberty I took was to start at Goldstream Sports (mile 8.1) in order to tackle Ester Dome first and leave most of the true ski trails for the final third.
Given that I would be skiing a handful of miles on gravel-strewn roads, I used a pair of beat-up classic skis and did not worry about shredding the bases.
Almost immediately, I encountered tough skiing conditions.
“Had some nice gravel on Ester Dome Road but I got my Rossi rock skis so no problem there,” I dictated into a hand-held recorder.
Upon entering the new trail off St. Patrick Road at the base of Ester Dome, I was pleased that foot traffic had packed the snow. However, it was clear I was the first skier, as the trail was barely a foot wide and my ski pole plants plunged deep into the soft snow. Here I mostly just hiked with my skis on.
Once I connected to the original Equinox trail the route became wider and had evidence of a few prior skiers — but the going was still slow. Climbing lower Ester Dome took me about 20 minutes per mile.
I was forced to remove my skis for the first time just past Ullrhaven.
“As I feared the trail just past the Chute has not been broken and it’s knee to thigh-deep sugar snow,” I said.
That didn’t last long, however, until I connected to a snowmachine trail that wound around the first towers. Soon I was at the second set of towers and ready for the rolling hills of the out-and-back.
These descents were fast and fun and offered expansive views on the ridge, though Denali remained hidden. I made good time to the turnaround, where I didn’t dally because it was “blowing like hell.”
I took my skis off for the second, and last, time at the top of the Chute. I didn’t trust attempting a ski descent on skinny skis, although with Alpine skis or a snowboard it may have been doable.
“It’s way too steep (on Nordic skis) but it’s actually easier to run down it this time of year because there are no rocks or roots or ruttiness,” I said.
My hands then became seriously chilled, which took some enjoyment away from the cruise through the aspen forest following the Chute (I quit dictating into the recorder in favor of preserving my fingers).
Then came Henderson and Gold Hill roads, which I’d been dreading. Though by sticking to the far shoulder, I found enough snow — and not as much gravel as feared — to reach Mile 25 and regain a true ski trail.
I figured the first eight miles of the course back to Goldstream Sports would be the easiest, given that part of it travels on the historic Skarland ski trail, which unfortunately was littered with leaves, sticks and other debris.
But on this section I also had to traverse campus roads and Ballaine and Sheep Creek roads where progress remained tediously slow.
In no single hour did I even manage to travel five miles. After 5 hours and 55 minutes, I finally finished in waning light.
It took twice as long to ski the trail than it typically takes me to run it on race day. But I suspect on a warmer day a more skilled and motivated skier could ski the Equinox in 3 1/2 hours.
My conclusion: there’s a reason the Equinox has never become a popular ski trail like the founders envisioned. There are much better places to ski for six hours. However, with determination skiing the Equinox is possible.
I’m glad I did it. I doubt I’ll repeat it.