Monday, November 26, 2012


With no new precipitation, and only a thin snowpack on the ground, chasing winter pursuits is feeling more and more squeezed.
The holiday weekend was sunny, clear, cold, and relaxing, spent with a lot of good company, but I won’t be the first to say that winter is being a turkey up here this year.
Tired of skating around on my old rock skis, I’ve been doing laps on Sand Lake in South Anchorage regularly. One of the residents on the lake has been grooming the thin snow over thick ice, much to the benefit of skiers across town.
Anchorage is poorly endowed when it comes to thin snow years compared to the Central Kenai. While both the Tsalteshi and Anchorage trail systems need only a thin thin covering of snow to make them viable, the Cen Pen has hundreds of lakes, including Arc and Headquarters right in Soldotna that are groomed by TTA and the Refuge. In Kenai City, the golf course is groomed, and the grassy sub-surface means you can safely ski the fairways on even good skis so long as you avoid the cart paths.
Here in Anchorage, however, the pickings are more slim and a lot bonier when we don't have snow.
So be it. I enjoyed a long skate on Sand Lake on both Thanksgiving day and again on Sunday, partially in the company of another former Vermonter, and AK crust ski legend, Tim Kelley (LINK).
Additionally, the thin snow has made for continued good mountain biking, however, as the temperatures continue to drop, my limited cold weather riding gear has made it a challenge to keep warm, particularly my feet. I can safely say too that this is the latest in the season I have ever been regularly riding a mountain bike. Road bikes, sure I rode them well into November and even December, but this time of year back in Vt, riding a bike in the woods would be semi-suicidal between the deer hunting season and the freeze-thaw cycle tearing up the trails. I’m getting concerned at this point though about the minimum operating temps for my suspension and hydro brakes. Back when it was in the 20s and this clear and dry trend seemed to be just a phase I wasn’t worried, but now… who knows.
On Saturday, Mike C rallied me into the mountains. We had low expectations and were pleasantly rewarded. We set our sites on Eddie's, an aspect just north of Tin Can that I have not been to since early December 2009 (LINK). That year we similarly lacked snow through much of November, and started the ski season in the negative teens after a mild fall. A 6-foot dump broke the cold snap and hammered Turnagain durring Thanksgiving week, setting us on track for the bomber snow year of 09-10. There is hope I suppose.
Getting to Eddie's that year wasn't too bad since there was so much snow on the ground. This year we fought our way in through brambles and alders, but made use of the newly cut Iditarod Trail to get back out, enjoying single track skiing through the boreal rain forest.

While the snowpack remains thin, it has consolidated well, and skis and boards come up on step almost instantly. A layer of surface hoar makes it easy to turn the heck out of the snow and rewards the rider's ears with a swishing noise as the delicate crystals shatter and join in the descent down the slope.
The Iditarod Trail is visible cutting through the alders on the flanks of Tin Can. This trail may be a game changer for access to Ingram Creek, Eddie's, and perhaps even the Shark Fin.


The trees make it feel like the snow is thick.

No traffic coming up the Pass, a bad sign.

The highway was closed just south of Girdwood due to a tragic accident (LINK). As it turned out, the road remained closed for 5 hours in total. After we had been idling for about a half hour we were told by a stranger the wait could be 4-6 hours, so we turned south and drove 45 minutes to Dave and Sharon's cabin where they fed us and kept us company (read: tolerated our presence). It's good to have good friends all around.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Knee Deep

Knee deep could describe some of the snow conditions encountered this weekend.
Knee deep could describe the present avalanche danger in Turnagain Pass.
Knee deep could describe how this weekend felt, after three days in a row of making turns.
Whatever it means, it fits.

On Friday, Dan, Mike, and I dawn-patrolled, en route to Pastoral. We broke trail up Taylor Creek Valley through a cold and heavy freezing fog that iced up everything it touched.
We encountered settlement almost every step of the way. As the valley walls closed in, we became more and more unnerved by the fact that one step was on a hard slab, and the next went through a foot or less of airy snow to tundra or rock. At the base of Taylor Creek Pass the clouds had lifted giving us a look at what was ahead. While the pass slid a few weeks ago, offering some assurance that weak layers had ripped out, I was more concerned with what was on the east side of the pass. The east side of Taylor Creek Pass is notoriously wind-hammered, and hollow even in later season under a full winter's snow load. Better yet, below the pass is a cereal bowl-like depression, waiting to collect snow and human marshmallow lucky charms.
Between these thoughts and the realization that we'd be lucky to score two runs on Pastoral before having to exit, we high-tailed it back down the valley, broke a skinner to the ridge line, and never looked back.
A heavy freezing fog covered Turnagain Pass and the floor of Taylor Creek Valley. As we hit the ridge it burned off the lower part of our run. Perfect timing.
We found consistent snow, generally knee deep from Sunburst's ridgeline to the Taylor Creek valley floor. Though it was still possible to find tundra and rocks, we avoided the latter all day.

Sunburst's shadow over Lyon and Tin Can creek's valley floor, completely buried in the fog. Three concentric sun dogs showed through out the day. I've always seen this phenomenon from below, but never above.

Boys, boys, there's enough room on the mountain for everyone.

Pastoral, it's just over there, like, just 2 more hours of breaking trail, over there. Pastoral didn't see a single shot of sun all day.

Great light, great snow.

While the exit run skiing is still shallow, and tricky with buried layers of crust and lurking roots, rocks and stumps, skiing through the meadows of wildflowers in the evening light was awesome.

We enjoyed little competition on Sunburst on Friday, a rare treat this time of year. I knew such luck would not abound on Saturday though, so Jack and I hatched a plan to use Sunburst's access to go to Magnum.
Magnum, next door to Sunburst, is choked off below by alders, and does not have an early season trail cut to it like Tin Can and Sunburst, but we planned to cross over.
Crossing the Iditarod Trail with a steady snow falling.

A dim picture of a large slide down the back of Taylor Creek Valley on Sunburst. Better details here:
 As we entered Taylor Creek Valley, the morning light still dim, and obscured by light snow and clouds, we saw a large slide in the back of the valley about a half-mile from Taylor Creek Pass. It was hard to judge its true scale, but from a distance we could see it moved the entire shallow snow pack from the ridgeline to nearly the valley floor. Since I didn't see this when I had left Friday evening, it was particularly frightening. No major weather had come through that night, and I couldn't remember seeing anyone back there when we left, so I assumed this had ripped randomly over night.

Operating under the assumption this slide had gone naturally, we went into high alert. I was particularly concerned given that 24 hours ago we had walked under the base of this slide. We discussed whether our passage the day before had triggered the slide. Only later did I learn it was triggered either remotely by a skier, or as a result of a skier breaking a chunk of cornice (our early start meant I missed seeing the observation report online before I left Saturday morning). While both still are cause for red flags, they are less concerning then a random natural.
We crossed over to Magnum, but as we headed up it's northwest ridge, we quickly found ourselves on a hollow slab. We new as well we were ultimately en route for an aspect identical to what had slid on Sunburst.
We backed off and skied a short run into the alders. The snow was nice, but the alders choked out fast.
Back on the hollow shoulder, Jack dug a pit. We found about 3-4 feet of wind slab sitting on 6-12 inches of air over tundra. Not good. It took about a dozen elbow taps to get it to go, but it was clear if it did, it would move fast and far.

As we dropped back down into the alders to see if we could suss out an alley, we noticed a massive party on Sunburst (at least 10 people in one group) had decided to cross over and join us. I'm getting tired of seeing these super parties out there. Clearly I'm just not cool or anti social, but I can't ski with more than 4 people, let alone 10 or more.
We decided if they wanted our slabby shoulder and 500 vertical foot run to alders they could have it, and planned to mosey back over. We ended up doing one run down Sunburst's southwest aspect and then a ridge run back to the car.

I wasn't going to ski Sunday, but we got a good report from Kruser who skied the Tin Can trees on Sunday, and 4-6 inches was forecasted to fall Saturday night through Sunday afternoon. Then Dan down in Kenai called and it was on. Josh joined us as well for a couple of laps.

Kruser's report was accurate. The snow in the trees was good, and did not appear to get much attention the day before.
We found knee deep, light, high-quality turns, and snaked a few lines that have not been touched all season...or at least Dan and Josh did.
People are dumb, and it's great. We could see the lot was full, but no one seemed to be skiing the north side, and those who were did one-run-and-done: my favorite kind of skiers.

Sunny days make for great views, but I prefer this one.


Monday, November 12, 2012

Thin cover

Thin cover was the name of the game this weekend.
Thin cover and mild temps let Ethan and I enjoy a 3-hour ride through the Los Anchorage hillside, Ethan on his snow bike and I on the Trance. The trails of Far North were by far the best for me, with a scant 1-2 inches, well packed down now by runners and riders.
Traction seemed to be a bit more scant compared to Thursday night. We debated whether this was a result of the warmed temps and a loosened snow pack, or just because now that we had daylight, we were actually trying to ride lines through the roots squggling our front tires and wasting forward momentum. At night, we just put our heads down and pedal through.
Ignorance is often a good thing.
Ethan on Speedway.

Gray day over Anchorage Hillside.


Windblown Front Range.

I don't hate my skis enough to take them on the trails yet, but a few people have.

We startled two bull moose on Rovers Run and one of them started to come after me. Could it be he thought I was a paddlehorn?
Condition and stability reports from Turnagain have been depressing. A storm that was supposed to drop a few inches on the Kenai just dropped out and into the Gulf instead leaving us with trippy clouds and sun on Sunday. I met up with Jack and MW before the lazy yellow orb rose, and headed to the mecca of early season turners, booter builders, 1-run-and-done'rs and other likes: Tin Can.
We expected to make a single lap, scrape down the bases on rocks and tundra, and get out.
We were pleasantly surprised to find conditions much better than expected. That being said, Jack called it the thinnest conditions he has skied on Tin Can in 32 years.
Pay attention gunners of the deep, that says a lot...
It was reminiscent of skiing out of Pete's North in a poor snow year. Good snow up high; alders, roots, and ice on the way out; lurking rocks beneath almost every turn.

It's a good thing everyone's buying super fat skis these days, they sure must float over rocks a lot better.
I was grateful for my mono fat ski, and the fact that I don't care what happens to its base anymore.
We found plenty of geology and biology, but a fair number of good turns in between.

Eddys, Turnagain Arm, Twenty Mile Valley, and Twenty Mile Glacier.

I'm really loving my new boots, Burton Driver Xs, but my shins need to sack it up. I had to do a little duct tape repair mid-day. And yes, it is chrome duct tape.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Snow rider

I finally have a week under my belt that felt like winter. There's still not enough snow in town to even justify beating up on rock skis out on the trails, however, the Powerline Pass Trail has very good early season coverage. Though there's no real grooming up there, skiers and snow bikers have packed in the trail quite nicely, and overflow that glaciated has made a thick armor to bury most of the jagged rocks. A few are still poking through, and at night, are basically impossible to avoid, but that's after all, what old skis are for. Dan and I did a classic ski in a hard snowfall on Monday night, and Tuesday, under clear skies, I went back out. Under star-light, Ptarmigan Peak, freshly coated the night before, surrounded by heat-sucking single-digit air, looked more Himalayan than Anchorage Front Range. It's cool to be able to feel that way, 10 minutes from home.
Dan joined me again on Wednesday and we skate skied, finally. It was nice to remember what skiing was like on the old fish scale classic skis, but blasting along on skates is way more fun.
Tonight I joined Ethan for a ride in Far North on snowy single track trails using my Trance with studs.
Winter riders brag that Anchorage has more single track in the winter than summer. They aren't exaggerating. Trails that cross swamps and bogs and are all but un-used in summer, are fair game this time of year. Ethan and I appeared to be the first to ride one such trail this evening, weaving our way through tussocks and stalks of grass taller than a man is high while ridding over smooth but thick ice in a swamp between two ridges.
Snow biking, once a fringe sport, has exploded in Anchorage. With temps hanging out in the low 20s tonight, there were lots of folks out. I see riders all the time on my skis when on the multi-use trails, but when they pass me or vice-versa, they are likely just connecting segments of single track, much as I do in the summer.
Despite some rivalry with friends who ride fat tires in winter, I don't really have anything against winter biking. I'm 100% sure that if I were to ever ride a fat tire bike in true winter conditions (there's still such thin coverage one can't describe what we have now as that) I would love it.
The theorem is simple. I love bikes: thus, I would love winter biking.
The issue, is that I love skate skiing too.
I'm still fairly new to skinny skiing, so it's a challenge and I see lots of progress from year to year. It's nice too to have seasonal hobbies, and helps prevent burn out. In years like last too, where we had lots of snow, skiing seemed especially optimal. With one storm rolling in after another, the snow bikers struggled to keep trails packed in. Skis don't have that problem thanks to grooming. That was record-breaking though, and in other years bikers don't have that issue.
Brian loaned me a set of poagies, the big mits over the bars. These let riders where thin riding gloves underneath instead of bulky gloves that may be hard to shift and brake with. They are toasty.

I took my 10-year-old Cygo Lite I don't think I've used in maybe 7 years and duct taped it to an old helmet. The battery only lasted an hour. Go figure. I expected that and brought a cheap spare that worked fine.

Hilltop is blowing snow. It may be a wee little hill, but I love that I can hear snow guns from my house this time of year.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Juneau Lake Cabin

Annie and I rented Juneau Lake Cabin on the south end of Resurrection Pass Trail this weekend. We hiked in on the Bean Creek Trail on Saturday, relieved to find the skies mostly sunny after driving through all kinds of precipitation from Los Anchorage.
Bright November sun.
The trail had a thin covering of snow on it, well packed down by other hikers, and more recently, a pack of wolves that had come through in the morning.

Our nearest neighbors, Romig Cabin, at the south end of Juneau Lake, is about a mile from Juneau Lake Cabin.

Juneau Lake shoreline.

I don't spend much time scoping out the cabins on the various trails I ride in the summer, even though I ride by them often. There are only a few I might swing by to get to a nice break spot, but even then, if they have guests I will try and steer clear. I know I've been in Juneau Lake Cabin before when friends have had it rented, and its southwest-facing exposure makes it a nice place to get some sun, but in my mind it wasn't quite as nice as it turned out to be.

View from the cabin's front door.

Heading across the lake to collect firewood.
Most of the Forest Service cabins have wood stoves. This is a nice amenity for sure, but as one could guess, results in the areas surrounding the cabins getting pretty well picked over for dead wood, and a few idiots taking down live wood. With Juneau Lake frozen solid, we headed across to the far shore and immediately found a perfect-sized dead spruce.

Russian Mountain.

Toward the pass.

We found the wolf pack's track on the other end of the lake.
A party that stayed in the cabin a few days earlier wrote in the cabin register of hearing the wolves at night during their stay. We heard the wolves on the hike in, which seemed odd given it was the middle of the day, but a treat nonetheless. Other sign they left along the trail besides tracks indicated they were well fed on hare.
Annie contemplates the wolf tracks.

Hauling the wood back across the ice was easy, much better than dragging it down a trail.

The ice was 6 inches thick. We brought a maul to check the ice as we crossed but each test was the same. The ice creaked and groaned all night, sometimes making quite a ruckus.

The cabin sits a bit above the lake.

Annie contemplates a cut.
The cabin stoves are small, so it's important not to get lazy and cut the logs too big, or they won't fit, and any effort to reduce the number of cuts made will be lost.

We had to take a break from chopping wood for this. It was pretty spectacular.

While we cut wood we saw someone run by on the trail below us. Shocked that someone would be out running this far so late, or feel the need to go for a run after hiking, I quipped they ought to come help chop wood. The runner proceeded to head up the stairs toward the cabin, somewhat to my disbelief. Then I realized it was Mi Ke. A big crew from Soldotna and Homer were staying at Trout Lake, about 3 miles south of us. We were a bit ahead of them on the way in, but Mike wanted to tell me that he had parked me in, and where his key was stashed. That was awfully nice of him to run that far just to tell me, though I pointed out he could have just put a note in my car since it wasn't locked. Haha. He also told us we should come over for dinner, but with all our wood chopped, and wolves and brown bears running around, a night in seemed much better!
Stove pumping out heat, dinner on the way.

Candle light.

My night shots really didn't turn out. I stepped out sometime after 3 am and the moon had come up. My camera battery couldn't keep going for the long exposure though, so this was the best there was.

Early morning light.
Sunday dawned cloudless, but quite comfortable. Temps felt like they never dipped below the low 20s.

A lofty looking summit of Cecil.