Tuesday, January 17, 2012


There's nothing fun about "below zero."
After literally weeks of incessant storming, the skies have cleared, and the orb of fire has reappeared in the sky, flying just a little higher than it did whenever he was last seen, sometime ago.
The thing about clear weather in January in these parts, is that it usually equates to deep cold.
I'm not talking Interior Alaska cold, like -50s or anything, which is what areas like Fairbanks see this time of year, more like -0s to -20s. I realize that Interions wouldn't bat a frozen eye-lid for Southcentral in times like these, but I didn't move here to play try and get frostbite either.
At the apartment, which lies in the toe of the Anchorage inversion zone, the mercury has struggled to climb above the 0 mark under the "F" column these past few days, while lows at night have dipped to about -10.  A few hundred feet above us, deeper into the inversion, temps are a good 10 degrees warmer.  Below us, they're 10 degrees colder.
Toward Anchorage's coast with Cook Inlet, temps again move up a bit.
This weather pattern is typical in mid-winter here.
In some ways, these days of crisp scenery, snow-clad trees, breathless winds and temps cold enough to crack the base of decades old trees in the middle of the night, are not much different than the ideal days of July that are so often equated with summer. It's just a state of mind.

On Saturday Rachel and I headed to Turnagain Pass to make some turns and tour around the Center Ridge area.  Center Ridge, as its name implies, is sandwiched between the two prominent peaks, Tin Can and Sun Burst, and protrudes a little over 500 feet above the valley floors of Tin Can and Lyon creeks, to its north and south, respectively.  The area is heavily treed, low-angle, and gets boatloads of snow. The Turnagain Pass NOAA Snowtel site is located at 1,800 feet on the ridge, and on Saturday was registering a snowpack depth of 80 inches (it has since subsided some as the snow settles over time).

This compact car-sized snow mushroom would have easily buried and likely killed me if I could have released it. Then Rachel would have been able to enjoy a ski in peace!

Sunburst seen through the trees.

Climbing with the south-end of the pass in the distance.
 Temps were -3 when we left the car in the morning, though up the ridge they felt above zero.  Temps these cold make the snow dry and very slow. This was ideal for Rachel, who is still getting used to the concept of actual snow and powder.  When we got back to the car in the evening the car registered a temp of -13, and my skins failed on the tour back.
Kickstep Peak.

On Sunday Brian and I headed north to Peak 4068 in the Government Peak area of Hatcher Pass. We were drawn chiefly by the lack of winds in recent days and expected lack of crowds. Summit Pass had been buffed out up by high-winds as the weather pattern changed, and showed signs of dangerous instability in its snowpack, while Turnagain was getting lots of attention from skiers and borders.
We chose Hatcher area for lack of winds in recent days and the 4068 area as the bowl was relatively high and would thus be warm, not mention it was partially sunlit.
We were right on all counts, except the wind. While the last few days had been calm, the fifth Chinook of the 11-12 winter had hammered Hatcher and left upper-level snow quality variable.  We enjoyed sun and a good uptrack through the day regardless, making a summit run and two runs in the 4068 Saddle.

Peak 4068, named for its elevation and lack of any other name, had a skinner to the top with one set of tracks off the top to the looker's left and another in the sun to the right.

Near the top, some of the locals were out sunning themselves.

Brian nears the summit.

From the summit, looking the Independence Mine State Park area. The squiggle lines in the valley floor are groomed XC trails.

Our tracks and the tracks of some others who followed off the summit.

We were treated to a gorgeous sunset.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

This weather

A full moon hovers clear above a snow-covered land.  White mountains catch the light, tossing it out over the coated forests that carpet their feet.
In this magical land of colorful skies and fairytale forests, the denizens appear to live happily; frolicking little snow creatures that glide upon magic boards that whisk them wherever they wish to go.
But this land is not what it appears.
Over their shoulders, the snow creatures know, a wicked demon is watching and writhing, seething with fury, her anger grows more ferocious by the day.
Without a second's notice she'll spin upon them, throw her head back into the cold, night air obscuring the stars and the moon. With wild white hair flying as she shakes her head, the snow will rise up vertically in plumes from the ground upon it once sat, and the demon will shriek, a shriek that's pitch builds and builds.  The white robes that cloaked he forests will fly away in a stinging spray, and a roars of wind bends tree to the point that they simply uproot from the frozen earth and collapse in defeat. The snow creatures cover their faces as the witch's hair whips their faces, running for the cover of their lowland retreats, praying that the rooves over their heads will stay put through it all.
-And that's just what the National Weather Service has to say about things lately.

Southcentral AK is getting pummelled this season. Some years are snowy, some cold, some windy. This year has been all of the above.  Coastal villages of Prince William Sound have seen snow totals of over 20 feet. Such a number is not shocking for that area when talking seasonal totals, but it's not even mid-January.
Here in Los Anchorage we are at a cumulative 80 inches as of this writing, with a supposed additional 6-18 inches forecasted to fall in the next 36 hours. Average annual snowfall for Alaska's largest city is about 70 inches, and the all time record is around 132 inches, set in the winter of 1954-55. Snowfall is common well into April in these parts.
But the season is as fickle as it is long. We've also seen a surprising number of "Chinook" events - sub-tropical blasts of warm, wet air that regularly cause wind gusts to exceed 100 MPH along the coast and higher elevations. Anchorage has seen five of these thus far this winter, with several other strong fall storms that preceded that.
Additionally, temps have not shied away from the negative mark, and though no records are being set in that arena in Southcentral yet this year, the Interior regions of the state have dipped to the -50s several times thus far.

This strange combo has created a fairytale feeling for the environment, where conditions have gone from fairy tale perfect to nightmare in matters of hours.

Whatever it takes...

Here's a slew of photos from the last few weekends out and about.

December 31, 2011, Colorado Peak:  "Skied with Dan and Brian (Mike forgot his boots). Four laps on main run using Pete's old skinner.  Cold but fast (single-digit temps), though the snow slowed later.  4,500 vertical feet."

January 2, 2012:  Tenderfoot traverse:  "Skied a sunset run with Rachel. Went up Tenderfoot Creek and came down the ski hill."

January 8, 2012, Wolverine Peak's center ridge:  "Brian and I got dropped off at Prospect Heights TH by Rachel with the intention of skiing Wolverine Saddle Bowl. At the rocks the winds was blowing and we decided to make a run in the hemlocks to see if weather would abate.  Wind on the ridgeline was fierce and cutting, blowing lots of snow, but exceptional skiing on the westward side into the trees. Four short laps there before descending back down to the house, 10.7 miles, ascent=4.1k vertical feet, descent=5.4k vertical feet).