Monday, October 29, 2012

High and dry

While the east coast is awash in the soaking torrents of a ghoulish winter hurricane, Southcentral has remained high and dry, though very cold.
I spent my birthday evening with a friend above Anchorage in the Rabbit Lake Valley, enjoying the moonlit snowy mountains and a camp-cooked dinner that went from piping hot to icy cold faster than we could move fork-fulls of food to our mouths.
I did not have a thermometer to confirm temperatures, but my camera battery would not stay on long enough to let the camera capture the long exposure required for a night shot so no photos, but it was a perfect way to enter year 27, and one that won’t be forgotten.
On Saturday morning Brian and I drove down to Moose Pass to Dave and Sharon’s cabin, and along the way my car reported a temperature of 1 whole degree Fahrenheit at Granite Creek in the shadowy and low south end of Turnagain Pass.

All of 1 degree at the far end of this photo on Saturday morning.
At the cabin, temps were in the mid teens. We drank coffee and let the weakening October sun climb a little higher before heading further south to the Primrose Trail Head off Kenai Lake to ride the Iditarod Historic Trail to Divide and back.
In the summer months this relatively new section of trail varies between wet and soggy to dry and loamy depending on the weather, though magical and beautiful every time.
I had heard stories though, that when allowed time to freeze before the snow falls, it was one of a kind.
The rumors were confirmed. The trail was 95 percent frozen up like concrete and completely mudless. A few sections were crystallized, though several riders who had come before had helped to smash the icy turrets back into the ground. The long bridges that cross marshy areas though this section were some of the most difficult features. Under the thick rain forest canopy hardly any snow covered the ground, but in the open, and inch or two of unbonded powder coated the wooden bridges. Even the studded tires spun.
The weapon of choice appeared to be a full suspension MTB with studded tires as I was on. Brian was on his 29r hardtail with studs and faired well, though the added plush of full-sus may have helped; and Sharon was on a snow bike. The snow bike struggled in these conditions, though Sharon did not complain.
A pair of meaty, unstudded tires would have been OK too, though the added grip of metal was helpful in more than a few places, including frozen creek crossings.
I didn’t have a camera, though my efforts to capture the beauty of this trail have never been successful.

Brian and I rode to where the trail crosses the highway in Divide and stopped in a sunny patch on one of the Seward Ski Club’s trails. The ambient was in the 40s as we snacked. Back in the much colder woods we were grateful for a few steep climbs to raise the thermostat a bit.
Andy Simmons Mountain from Primrose.

Tiehacker and Mt. Eva.

LV Ray Peak at night from Sharon and Dave's cabin.

Near full moon night lighting.

Sunday dawned a bit warmer, or at least it felt that way.

Theo, Sharon, Brian and I met up with Evie, who lead us on a 6-mile loop up and over the summit of Langille Mountain and back down Slaughter Gulch.

Gaining elevation faster than the October sun.

The first "hardest part." Sharon conquering a fear of heights and steep slopes.

We scrambled up scree fields that channeled through the ledges that guard this mountain.

We saw plenty of goats and sheep, though none let us get too close. This one was joined by his buddy moments after taking this picture that needed 40x zoom. We believe the conversation between the two went  like this: "Hey Vern, get over here you gotta see this! Get a rock. How many of these multi-colored goofs do you think we can take out with one stone?!"

A sun-striped Summit Pass.

Theo engaging 4-limb drive on another "hardest part."
Evie, who lives in Cooper, gets creative credit for this loop, and guided us through the scree fields and gullies. Though a few times we goaded her when the "hardest part" turned out to be a plural description, this hike was a blast, and except for some 4x4 scrambling, avoided any exposure or cliff-age.

These chicks don't mess around. This (sitting/resting) was a rare scene for the day.

Kenai River Valley and Skilak Lake visible beyond that.

Looking down into Russian Gap.


Considering the descent to Slaughter Gulch.

Slaughter Lake.

Our route off the ridge line.

Hoar frosted world.

Monday, October 22, 2012

The Operation of the Crow Pass Cabin Kerosene Heater: A 3-Day Course

Someone hit the light switch. It's bright. The mellow days of incessant low-pressure systems drifting waywardly through Alaska packing gale-force winds has been usurped by success-driven, storm-blocking high-pressure, high-stress, corporate ladder-climbing ridging.
That means it's clear, sunny, and cold for the foreseeable future.
The skies began to clear last week and the temperatures dive bombed, but the passing of the storms has made for gorgeous evenings and after work pursuits.
A hike with a friend to the Wolverine Bowl on Thursday revealed Los Anchorage's better side. Pizza, beer, and watching TGR's Dream Factory (LINK) after the hike at the Beartooth confirmed the city has some class from time to time.
I had Friday off, and after consulting with Keith earlier this week, a plan was set to join him and Mi Ke in Crow Pass and camp out and ski for the weekend.
Keith and Mike headed up on Thursday and enjoyed Friday on the sunny Summit Glacier mostly on their own.
I probably could have enjoyed a similar experience if I had risen at 6:30 when my alarm started buzzing, but I have been in a deep rut on early rising of late. Apparently sleep debt can't be ignored. I didn't hit the trail until early afternoon.

I was surprised to find skin tracks at the Crow Pass trail head on an optimistic two inches of snow, but coverage was enough to support it. I had my boards on within about an hour of slow trudging up the trail, happy to get them off my heavy duel-pack system.
The Crow Pass Valley was covered in wind-hammered slab on all sides. I just put a lift kit on the splitboard to give it more side-hilling torque while touring and appreciated it greatly.
Going was slow and painful. I hit the cabin around 4, and back-tracked toward the glaciers to catch Mike and Keith coming down the waterfall.

The big dogs play in the pass.

Kerosene stove operation attempt 2. Mike and Taro watch for Taro's kids, who had hiked up for some skiing and filming.
We were staying in the Crow Pass Cabin, an A-frame cabin maintained by the Forest Service the agency says can sleep 6, though we slept 10 cozily Friday and Saturday. The recently rebuilt shelter can be reserved  by the day from the end of May until the end of September. Outside of this season use is discouraged due to avalanche danger. As such, the cabin is free to use in this off period, but is first-come first-serve and at your own risk.
As the title of this post would suggest, the cabin has a kerosene heater that could best be described as finicky, but outside of this blog, I might use some more descriptive terms.
Mike and Keith hauled in a gallon of fuel on Thursday, but found the line from the 5-gallon welded tank outside the cabin frozen with settled water. The tank's fill inlet is a 3-inch 90-degree pipe with a hinged lid over the top that does not create a locked seal. After multiple storms with triple-digit winds and torrential rain and snow, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out the tank probably got a fair bit of water in it, all of which ultimately settled into the low point on the copper feed pipe leading from tank to stove. After a short-lived success, the stove sputtered out on Mike and Keith on Thursday. With limited fuel for their cook stove, they didn't want to waste it trying to thaw the line and found themselves a bit more grateful for bringing their -40-degree sleeping bags as temps plummeted into the single digits overnight.
Not knowing of the problem, I decided to leave behind the -40 bag I had at my disposal in place of a lighter +20 bag and another gallon of fuel.
When I arrived to hear the news, I immediately got to work on the line with my canister cook stove trying to thaw the line to no avail.
Fortunately, Scott, a friend of Keith's who also came up Friday got the memo in a text Keith sent and brought vice grips and a small propane torch.
I took this to the piping, and after warming it enough it began to sweat. We undid a connection behind the stove. The line started draining ice and liquid that only faintly smelled of kerosene and quickly began to freeze.
Problem solved! We kept draining the line into a plastic bowl until we got sweet, sweet, hydrocarbons.
A few minutes later the stove was humming and we had heat, so we thought.

A half hour after we thought we had found success, Taro, one of our cabin mates, noticed the stove's carburetor was puking out fuel on the floor. Not wanting to make the feature story in the paper for burning down the brand new cabin, we shut it down. After dinner, Taro spent an hour rebuilding the the carburetor, and we had heat, again.
Of course, the line refroze, again, after the stove was shut off that night.
We were forced to repeat the thawing process again on Saturday night, sans the carb rebuild.

I think by day three we successfully earned our Crow Pass Cabin Stove Operator's Certs. Wish we had known these were required.

Moon set.

The cabin, with Summit and Jewel in the background.

A group of skiers arrives around 8:30, bringing our cabin total to 10 for the night. Two others showed up sometime between 11:30 and midnight, but when they saw how full it was and that everyone was out for the count they set up bivies nearby.

Warm drinks for cold nights.

Dawn from the skin-in skin-out accommodations.

On Saturday I made laps on the Summit Glacier. The snow was soft, dry, and fast, underlain by a rock-hard icy base. By one count, there were 22 other snow seekers on the Summit/Jewel glaciers on Saturday. By the end of the day things looked Alyeska-like.
Pre-mogul conditions.

Heading out Sunday morning. Most the cabin was still asleep.


Winter in upper Girdwoodia.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Get Up and Go

Last Wednesday I went for a hike up Flattop with a new friend. Flattop is that hike that every place has that everyone has done, except that being Alaska, it's a bit more of a steep scramble compared to most other place's "everyone's done that" hike.
I had not hiked Flattop, but as it turned out, it was the perfect spot to go for the evening. Crystal clear skies, low-level fog, and an October sunset made for vistas to Denali to the north and Iliamna to the south.

The tall ones to the north.

O'Malley Peak and Powerline Pass Valley buried in fog.

Iliamna, Redoubt, and Spurr across the Inlet.
I had Friday off, and I planned for an early start to attack Johnson Pass from the north, riding it out and back. A check of the weather station near the northern trailhead at 10 am revealed an ambient of 19 degrees. That was enough to slow me down and think about maybe a more leisurely out and back to Johnson Lake, a mile south of the Pass.

Clear skies prevailed.

Bench Peak, seen from the shores of Bench Lake.

Looking north from Johnson Lake, just south of the Pass.

Maria Peak from Johnson Lake.

The trail could be described as 50/50: 50% fast, frozen hard pack; 50% other. Other consisted of freeze-thaw mud/slime, plexi-glass ice, hoar frost dirt (looks like its frozen but is actually crystallized and collapses like styrafoam), and a few wheel-swallowing muck holes that looked solid from above but were anything but that an inch or two below the surface. Going was slow, and I could not clean any of the technical sections. Vegetation was non-existent and the trail was dead quiet. I was glad I finally got to ride this section of trail, the only section of Kenai single track I had not yet ridden this year. It's a challenging, entirely different from the south end of the pass, and a place I wish I could ride more often, though the 6-foot+ tall stalks of cow parsnip reminded me of why spring and fall are the only times to come here.

Bridge, mountain, waterfall.

Cold and tired, I stopped into Cooper Landing for food, and carried on to Sterling to crash at the lodge for the night. After talking with Joe for a while on his efforts to retrieve his docks lost in the floods, I went to zonk out.
Nearly asleep, I started to notice my room was getting brighter and brighter. Light pollution is non-existent at camp, except for when ice-fogs set in, and then the ambiance id orange from sodium lights on the highway, not pale green as the rooms seemed to be.
I peered out the window and to the north the sky was alive.
I watched the aurora dance for a while before finally going outside and shivering for a bit. The show was awesome, but the pictures sucked. This was the best I got. Others are more talented in this arena than I: Time Lapse Video
Saturday I rode Crescent Lake Trail. Skies had turned gray. I put together a 1-minute video.

On the way to the Lake I passed only 2 people coming down from a night at the cabin. When I reached the little shelter smoke was still whisping from the stove pipe, and with feet cold from crossing icy streams, I helped myself to the residual warmth inside. I spend a while there, enjoying the quiet, when I noticed it has started snowing outside, hard. The ride out was pretty. Big, fat flakes were falling hard, but only seemed able to make a dusting of a coating on a trail that was otherwise frozen hard. It was one of those rides that you know you're never going to forget.
Sunday morning I was up early to meet Adam. Earlier this fall I helped Adam put is duck hunting gear out on the Knik River just north of Anchorage. With winter moving in quick it was time to pull it, and a good tide early in the morning necessitated the dawn patrol. Fortunately quite a few others had similar ideas, and there was lots of help. Unfortunately, even though we had a pretty cool sunrise, my camera disliked the low light, so I have only a 10 second video.