Friday, December 20, 2013


It took until nearly mid-December for the first real shot of snow to arrive in “Alaska’s Playground,” aka, the Kenai.

The Kenai Mountains have been bereft of snow this season. I would venture to guess that so far this has been the leanest season in recent memory for that range, and is making last year’s prolonged early season snowpack seem comparatively obese.

When I drove through Summit and Turnagain passes mid-day on the first Sunday of December, I counted 0 cars in the pull outs from Summit Lake to Turnagain Arm, discounting two I spotted at Manitoba and one at lower Eddies. The two and single car, I presumed, belonged to cabin campers and a tourer on the Iditarod Trail, respectfully.

When I glanced up the east ridge of Colorado that day, it looked like sneakers with ice spikes and gaiters would have been optimal for a summit bid.

This past weekend, a well-heralded North Pacific low pulled into town, and dumped up to 20 inches on the Anchorage Hillside, and about 17 inches in Turnagain Pass. Farther north, accumulation numbers were much, much less.

That was unfortunate, because this year, Hatcher and Turnagain have traded places and bases.

Cody and I headed south and skied a few laps on Tin Can. The snow was of excellent quality, falling heavily, stacking up quick, dry, light, and fast.

Beggars can’t be choosers, but it was not the snow we needed. Our poles easily dropped through the light density accumulation and made a resounding metallic thud when the tips hit the hard, thin, icy base beneath. Tundra, rocks, and organic debris abounded.

We ventured to the top of the commons on the first lap in a pure white out, but even in the pea soup, we could see plenty of rocks close enough by to raise the flags. With another group, we made wiggle-butt turns back down the skin track. The snow was fast, but this was not welcome with the combined poor vis and coverage combo.

We mosied to the trees, where we could more easily discern up from down.

IFR tree skiing.
The skiing was great, the snow exploding in every turn, and the crowds were light by Tin Can standards. We could only make turns in the upper portion of the tree run before getting aldered out, but we encountered no rocks up there.

The exit, was a different story. Geology abounded.

We were glad to have rallied though.

Sunday, everyone seemed to have obligations, and with the copious snow on Hillside, I decided to venture up into the Front Range. I headed for Adrian's Gully on Wolverine.

The longer lateral tour was welcome, and gave my restless legs something to do and a place for my wandering mind to traipse. The woods were gorgeous, and enough traffic had traversed the trails that I was never really fully breaking trail until I hit the base of the Wolverine Trail.

Base of Wolverine Trail.
I had the massive bowl entirely to myself, except for one couple I came across early on who were headed down from a night camped out.

Chugach State Park Trail pruner working on Near Point.
It was pretty obvious the turns would not be deep, and I’d be lucky if I didn’t hit a rock.

As luck would have it, I somehow did not. Adding to this, was that the mountains were open and blue, while a heavy fog clung to Anchorage throughout the day. It was gorgeous, but frigid cold: Single digits or less on the summit ridge with a steady breeze. I worked a consolidate wind-drifted pillow off the ridge and into the gully. The snow up high was cold, dry, slightly consolidated, and slow. I was glad for the latter, and I wiggled the heck out of it on the way down, thinking constantly about sharp, buried rocks that were hungry for a ski snack.

Looking back, no sign of Anchorage.

Heavy fog trapped in a valley caught and mirrored the reflection of the low sun. Even with two suns, it was still only 1 degree.

Lots of turns down the gully.
Sometimes, when I ride my Voile Mojo, I imagine a crew of miniature submariners in the hull of my fake ship, going into the panic at the top of each powder:

“Powder sighted! Dead ahead! Dive Captain dive! Dive! Dive! Dive!”

The nose of that board seems to just beg to snub itself on what lies beneath.

At the base, I thought about going for another lap. I had the time, but the clouds had started to move in while I was on the ridge, briefly blocking me in and posing the prospect of making the rock-strewn descent without vis. It opened again  a few moments later to my relief.

I was lucky to have worked the protection offered by the wind drift and thin icy base in the gut for a rock-free run. I was pretty sure if I tried to spoon my track, I’d find all the rocks I’d missed, not to mention how many more I might find on the rest of the way out.

I began to shuffle off through the gradual bowl. Five minutes later, the clouds had moved back in over the summit, and snow was falling steadily down in the bowl.

“Good call.”

I love the XC-snowboard exit back down the trails to Prospect Heights, if only for the funny looks I get double-poling along, passing, skiers and snow shoers along the way with a wave.

Friday, December 13, 2013


The snow pack let out a big, long, sigh.
I looked over at T2, and we exchanged wide-eyed expressions. The snow underfoot had just made one of the bigger collapses I’d ever seen, heard, or felt.
It was another sunny day in mid-April of 2013, and T1, T2, and I were all skinning up a wrap-around ridge that lead to the summit of Colorado Peak in Summit Pass (Peak 4539) in what I’ll refer to as “Mile-Wide Bowl,” two drainages west of the highway.
We approached by climbing Colorado’s main east rib, before shuffling across the flat skyline ridge, past the sub summit (Peak 4325), and onward to the entry of a couloir on the eastern corner of the MWB.
Climbing from the highway on Colorado’s express route east rib was solidified rock hard by wind and sun, as is typical for the aspect this time of year, and we had experienced a little collapsing on the thin, wind-effected snow on the open exapanse of the sky line ridge. We had also seen fractures on the sun-cooked south face as we cruised to the summit on the main ridge; but here, in the north-facing bowl, so far, the only issue we had was marginal snow.
A recent, moderate wind event had left behind a mosaic that ranged from unaffected recycled pow, to inch-thick breakable crust; while ridges were firm.
The Chugach National Forest avalanche advisory for Summit Pass warned of the folliwng primary concern;
“With several days of mostly clear skies, cold temperatures and almost a week since the last snowfall, the Summit Lake area mountains have recently only been accosted by wind. North and westerly winds picked up yesterday with plumes on the peaks (see photo below). Amazingly enough however, much of the terrain we found had escaped wind effect and the riding conditions were quite nice.
That said, keeping a close eye for cracking at the snow surface and areas with recent wind affect will be wise. Places most likely to get tangled with a wind slab will be in the upper elevation steep terrain. Quick hand pits, ski cuts and feeling for stiff snow over light snow with your pole are good techniques to use while traveling.”
We entered the bowl by skiing a zig-zag, rock-strewn couloir. It skied like garbage due to the breakable. When N1 ski cut the run, we jumped at the sight of what we thought was a fracture, but closer inspection revealed it was in fact a large, broken piece of harmless wind crust, perhaps an inch thick, sitting on the buried powder.
At the bottom of the run, even though the skiing sucked, we decided we were far enough back, and the MWB had so many options for a better day, that we would at least do recon and take pictures.
The MWB is sort of divided into an east and west half, with the conical summit of Colorado Peak cutting it roughly in half. We dropped down to the bottom of MWB, and climbed back up a wide gully to the far west that brought us into a small, intermediate basin, below and west of the summit. To the climber’s right was a steep slope punctuated with rock outcroppings, ahead was an open bowl run beneath the peak, and to the left was a wrap-around ridge that lead most the way to the summit.
We might have been content to snap some pictures and ski out of the intermediate basin via a short but steep couloir we had eyed earlier, when we heard T1 holler from the summit.
T1 started an hour and a half behind us with the plan to sync up, and had just reached the top. He dropped off the summit, and we were surprised to see him carve descent turns on the northwest-facing aspect.
Fully grouped, we decided that T1, T2, and I would head for the summit and farm T1’s tracks, while N1 wanted to boot the climber’s right face and ski the outcrops. We would have a visual on N1 the entire time, and vice versa, along with the ability to yell back and forth if needed; but N1 took a talkie for some extra assurance.
The wrap around ridge was the safest way to the summit by your standard textbook definition of safe travel in avalanche terrain: Isolated from the adjacent terrain, it lifted us first up and out of the intermediate basin, before climbing steeply to the summit.
The ridge, however, was firm – though not as bakes as the express route east rib –opposed to the powder-to-breakable snow found in the bowls and couloirs.
I clicked into my ski crampons, and headed upward on a vertically-inclined uptrack.
T1 and T2 cut their own skin track at a more moderate grade.
About 300 feet above the floor of the basin, we reached a point where the ridge subverted into the steep summit cone.
The snow was getting very firm now, but the grade was too steep for my ski crampons to hold any more.
T2 was about 20 feet behind me, and T1 about 20 feet further back from him. I turned around to T2 to say that I was thinking about kicking steps the rest of the way up to the summit.
He suggested we just push out into the bowl where we would find easier skinning in the softer snow.
Though your textbook would say this would open up our exposure, nothing indicated this latter option to be a bad decision as far as snow stability was concerned, and we agreed that would be a good plan and easier than booting.
I might have taken two steps when the snow collapsed.
For a second, it wasn’t clear if the snow would slide or not. The ground just seemed to tremble. It may have slid a bit, and even stopped for a fraction of a second, I don’t know.
Suddenly, the slope started a slow-motion disintegration into blocks.
Someone might have said “here we go,” and I saw T1 and T2 turn on their tails and start trying to ski on their skins with their risers up.
As the snow broke apart beneath us, I was still facing uphill, and my feet sank down about 6 inches to the bed surface where the crampons bit in.
Between the shaking and the biting in, I was easily knocked forward, first onto my knees, then hands, then sprawled out on my stomache.
I started sliding down; the ridge growing upward before me.
All the while I was trying to keep eyes on T1 and T2 as they fought awkwardly to stay upright.
What commenced was a sometimes strange, though very articulate internal dialog.
“Wrong role. You’re in this. Stop Watching T1 and T2.”
Blocks of snow anywhere from a few inches to 16 inches thick were jostling next to me. A few bounced against my head and face, momentarily smothering my breathing with dry powder.
“This is bad! You’re not supposed to be laying down!”
I could feel my hands and ski crampons scraping along the hard bed surface.
I flipped my poles upside down and began stabbing the handles at the bed surface as if I had a wippet, which I regretfully did not.
They would bite in a little bit, and I could force weight on them, but it was not enough to hold purchase, just act like plastic brakes on a child’s sled.
I kept at it. Over and over I would stab, hold, drag, release, and repeat.
I was able to start slowing down.
Blocks of snow began to pummel me in the face and slide by. I knew that strangely, it was a good sign, and I was moving slower than the surrounding snow
I felt like I was fighting, and that gave me some sense of hope and confidence.
My head was still on a swivel, gauging how far I had slid, what was going on below me, and where T1 and T2 were.
I saw that both of them were still fighting like hell to stay on their feet.
Undoubtedly they were trying to keep from going over the other side of the ridge down into the main basin. That slope, just out of my sight, was a veritable cheese grater of Chugach shark fins.
I could feel the snow trying to pull me off the other side of the ridge and back into the intermediate basin. I was less worried about rocks, but more worried about getting buried in the basin.
Thoughts continued to swirl through my head.
“This slide is 1.5 feet deep.”
“It’s not going very fast. It feels like it might stop any second, but it won’t. Why not?”
“Keep stabbing. You gotta stay on this ridge. Don’t go over the side!”
“T1 and T2 are fighting hard. They really can’t go over that other side!”
“Is my beacon on?”
“I think I could reach into my jacket and turn it on right now.”
“Are you fucking serious?”
“Why would it not be on? Have you ever skied with it off?”
“Dumb question! Focus!”
“I can’t believe I spent a week in the Alaska Range and I’m about to get killed back here.”
“FOCUS! Keep stabbing!”
As my head whipped up and down and around, I noticed there wasn’t as much snow moving above me anymore, but below me, chunks looked like they were piling up in the basin and starting to slide out across the floor toward the wide gully we climbed.
Meanwhile, I felt like I was losing my battle to keep from going into the intermediate basin.
Finally, I got too close, and felt the incredible pull of snow and gravity take over.
If I had any premonition that I had some kind of control, it was gone immediately.
The feeling wrenched the confidence I thought I had seconds ago right back and left a gaping hole filled with fear.
“If this slide runs through the intermediate basin, it could keep going down the gully we climbed up…this could get really bad.”
“This is starting to hurt.”
I was moving too fast to stab at the bed surface with any effectiveness, and accepting that I was going down to the bottom, I let go of my poles.
“Goodbye poles.”
“Will they still be here in the spring?”
Who cares?”
“Time to start thinking about taking deep breathes.”
“Cover your head, curl up, and get ready.”
“What is this going to feel like?”
“I’m scared.”
“It would be good if this would just stop now.”


The slide stopped, leaving me 10-15 feet over the end of the ridge, and maybe 200 feet from where it all started, just out of sight of T1 and T2.
“Were they still fighting on the other side of the ridge?”
“SLIDE!” I yelled.
I really don’t have much in the way of a sense of time, but it had probably been about 15 seconds since the initial collapse. All three of us were so close together when the slope let go that not a word was exchanged.
In retrospect, yelling was kind of funny, but in my mind, I was worried that somehow N1 had not seen the incident and might still be able to spot T1 and T2 if they were still in the mix.
“I’m OK!” both T1 and T2 yelled.
T1 and T2 stayed on their feet and stayed on the ridge. Both of them came to a stop bit higher than me.
“Is everyone OK?” N1 yelled from across the way.
He had heard the initial settlement, and watched the whole thing from a stadium seat.
The initial collapse was a slab that fractured maybe 15-20 feet wide about 20 feet above T1 and I, about 6 inches deep. The shallow slab probably slipped, partially arrested, before triggering a deeper slab that released below us and went much wider to about 1.5 feet deep; hence the slow start. The width was hard to judge, but probably about 100 feet wide at its widest, though as narrow as 15 feet near the top, and the debris had run about 300 feet to the floor of the intermediate basin, piling in blocks to about three feet deep at the absolute deepest.
By all accounts, the slide was rather small.
Once the main body of the consolidated slab hit the flat basin and encountered the unconsolidated powder and breakable in the sheltered bowl, it ran out of energy and cohesiveness.
T1 and T2 traversed around the ridge to where I was. T2 stopped, and banged a newly exposed rock with his pole along the way. We were lucky none of us found any of its neighbors.
We reconfirmed that everyone was OK, and got on the radio with N1, who was preparing to make his drop to meet us down below. He had made it a comparable height up the other side.
N1 said later that from his perch, he knew within seconds that no one was at risk of deep or even full burial, but he was very worried about trauma, especially if anyone went over the cheese grater.
T2 announced this was a fine time to have lunch, and plopped down on a block of debris to dig out a juicy burger from his pack.
I dug down 8-10 inches below where I’d stopped and found my poles, shook the snow out of open pockets and the open side zips of my snow pants, and began to transition.
That was it, it was time to go home, we’d seen far more than we bargained for.

Looking down from where I stopped. My pocket was open and my camera lens was smeared with snow.
So what happened? Was this one of those, we ignored all the clues?
A lot of people involved in slides will report that everything told them to go home.
As we discussed the events, no one seemed strongly of that opinion.
We had seen tell-tale evidence of instability on the flat, wind-whipped sky line, and on the sun-cooked south side, but north-facing was fine – though lacking in quality.
The avalanche forecast had warned of wind slab issues, but wind slabs are a fact of life in the mountains, and something we deal with regularly.
From a terrain management perspective, we were also climbing the least exposed line, staying high and above the typical avalanche paths – in theory anyway. In retrospect, we would have actually been safer out in the bowl or booting a couloir where the snow was not slabbed.
That being said, I think we made some small errors that did not help us:

1. Long term impact from recent weather: Four weeks prior, in late March, a warm and windy storm rolled through that formed what would become a persistent and lousy base throughout Summit. A few days after “storm 2,” came in, depositing a descent snow fall, accompanied by more moderate winds than the previous storm, resulting in numerous naturals that I and others observed in north facing terrain throughout Summit Pass.
Smaller storms and a lack of wind was briefly able to rebury the persistent base without loading slopes enough t trigger the same number of widespread naturals through the early part of April.
In the past two weeks though, the snowpack had been subject to a prolonged and unseasonable warm and dry spell that formed crust into the high elevations, only recently covered by a light storm, earlier in the week prior to our slide. After this recent storm, clearing skies brought moderate west winds that created the variable snow quality in the bowl, and firmed up the slabs on the ridges.
It was a carbon copy of storm two back in March, in which a large number of naturals were triggered.
Adding to this, we were two drainages west of the highway, and though we had elevation on our side, the snowpack was notably thinner and drier here than it was in eastern Summit Pass. We were treating this snowpack much like we would have the snowpack on Ravens Ridge or Spiritwalker.

2. Aspect orientation: Though our ridge was in a north-facing bowl, it’s final pitch ran at north-south axis, allowing it’s west side to sit in the afternoon sun. Temperatures had swung back to the cool side in the last week, and were running from the low single digits to negative single digits at night, to high 20s during the day. The cold dry air was rotting out weaker snow under the newly formed slabs, and daytime warming was making for more reactive conditions later in the day, with the caveat that the major indicators were absent (i.e., even on south faces there were few natural rollers or pinwheels because of a gentle but steady northwest wind).
3. Our travel techniques were poor. I prefer more of an “SFU” approach when traveling on wind slab, as lateral traversing on a splitboard is tough on my ankles.  My crampons let me pull steeply up firm snow. T1 and T2 cut their own skin track at a much more reasonable grade, but we were effectively isolating segments of the slope below us. I should have dialed back my approach. The ski crampons also let me sidehill easier.
When the grade steepened, T2 came up next to me so we were standing on a slab on a steep slope next to each other. I don’t fault T2 for this at all, I would have done the same thing to discuss our route options. Our combined weight probably helped to collapse the slab though.

4. Lastly, thanks to a picture N1 took from across the bowl, we were able to see that what looked like an isolated ridge from below, was actually more of a planar wing. If we truly stayed at the narrow apex of the wing, we likely would not have triggered the slide, but the farther one steps out off the apex, the deeper into the slide zone they enter. When I saw this pic a few days later, I said “duh, of course it went, how could we be so stupid?”
That being said, views of slopes from different angles can make them look wholly different. That is to say, from below, our route appeared far more reasonable than it may have from N1’s vantage.

When viewed from the bottom of the intermediate basin, our route selection look fairly straight forward. The crown is hard to see because of lighting. We are circled. (Photo: N1)

View from N1's vantage and the story seems more simple. (Photo: N1)
Personal takeaways:

1: Group travel. Skiing is social. There are times and places for piling up and chatting, but more often than not, the thought process should be: “Are we spaced out enough?”
For the rest of the spring, I was notably more snappy if anyone got too close to my tails.
2: Spatial awareness. I got a lot of days in last season, and I feel comfortable with my terrain management skills. Sometimes, I confuse this confidence and comfort into my decision-making process. I’d do well to be more weary when we push into someplace new, and ask twice about route selection. For example: “This is the safest route up by definition. What could still go wrong? What are our alternatives and are they safer or more dangerous?”
3: Think about the slide. Billy Finley nailed this one on the head last spring in an essay on his site. Sometimes, you can do just about everything right, and it still goes wrong. So long as you are pushing it, eventually, something is going to happen. I think I have a healthy amount of respect for the mountains, and fear is often my companion. That being said, as with so many other backcountry travelers, too often my only train of thought is avalanche avoidance, and not avalanche action and response as well. We don’t often think about how our current dress, gear load, topographical position, and location relative to our partners will impact us in a slide or after. Not all those factors are controllable at any given time either. Nonetheless, certain lessons were well worth paying attention too. My crampons would have made it impossible for me to ever ski downhill. In a bigger slide, or in more exposed terrain, I should probably think about exiting my bindings as a first course of action in a slide. Also, if I was using crampons, why didn’t I have a whippet?
My snowpants were zipped open at the legs to vent. When I fell into the mix, they began to fill with snow. Had I been buried, this would have expedited hypothermia. Old timers sometimes say, “wear what you want to be buried in.”
I can’t say I’ve figured out how to keep heat in check and still keep layers on, but its something to work on more.

4: We were really lucky: No, not just because we lived, and no one was hurt, but because the experience was incredibly enlightening. I would never tell someone to jump into a slide, but I also could not have asked for a more hands on experience. I have made assumptions about what happens in a slide from what I’ve watched in the mountains, and listened and read of other’s experiences, but nothing will replace being there. The allusion of having control, the bouncing along on the bed surface, the thought process, they were all lessons learned and stored; though all slides are different, and none are worth tangling with in the end.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Gold Cord Peak and the Pinnacle

I’ve got some intel.
The snowpack on the backside of Microdot in Hatcher Pass is “fluffy.”
My anonymous shred-head source informed Nathan, Cody, and I of this on Sunday evening after throwing a backflip into the shaded backside of Microdot where we were skiing laps following a spectacular couple of days of skiing.
We appreciated this late-breaking information, though perhaps the 100s of awesome lines that had been skied already on the surrounding peaks could have told us this as well, if not for our own experiences.
Fluffy is one way to describe the Hatcher snowpack, but near-record breaking deep is another.

Dork moment:
  • As of December 1, there was a 49-inch consolidated snowpack at the Independence Mine Snow-Tel site.
  • This is nearly twice as deep as normal for this date – 27.8 inches – based on a 10-year average.
  • This is deeper than the consolidated snowpack depth that was recorded on April 15 for 5 out of the previous 10 years.
  • There were only two seasons in which the snowpack measured 49 inches or deeper on December 1.
    • The winter of 04-05. That season of record, Hatcher sported a 56-inch snowpack on December 1, 84 inches on April 15, and a season max of 102 inches – the only season in a 10-year history in which the snowtel site ever topped 100 inches at Independence.
    • The winter of 03-04. That season, also of record, sported a 49-inch snowpack measured on December 1, but was otherwise the leanest season in the dataset. On April 15 there was only 42 inches, and the season max was recorded on November 30 at 50 inches.

December 1 (in.)
April 15 (in.)
Max* (in.)
*Maximum reliable recorded depth with anomalous recordings disregarded. Typically unconsolidated snow.
** Not part of 10-year average.

Buried buildings at Gold Cord Mine.
So what can we derive from all of this?
Either Hatcher is in for a banner year, a total bust, or something between.
This complex mountain range is hammered and then abandoned by even more complex weather. It can go months without significant snowfall, and has been known to get buried by large quantities of snow at any given time.
In the end, all we know for sure is what’s going on now, and that’s “fluffy.”

This season has been lackluster so far compared to the previous few, but everything changed when the skies cleared on Thanksgiving Day.

South face of Gold Cord Peak, taken a few weeks ago.
I synced up with Jack and Kruse in negative temperatures on the west ridgeline of Gold Cord Peak Friday morning.
Kruse on the Ridge.
Later we were joined by JT, Nathanael (not to be confused with Nathan), and Chris. A trail was broken up the sunny ridge line of this centerpiece summit, and frankly we all felt a bit warm.
At the top, we were greeted with sweeping views in almost all directions, and inviting lines to the west into Gold Cord Bowl.
Jack cut the run and moved a surprising amount of slough at first, but the run, which consisted of short chutes and broken bands of cliff, skied well. JT may have scored the ultimate run by venturing further up the knife edge summit ridge and taking a beautiful open slope from the top, though no one was too disappointed one way or the other.
In the cold shade of the bowl we remembered how chilly it was, and while flexing my camelbak tube to take a drink, the normally malleable plastic hose snapped like a twig making a jagged break that resembled broken glass.
Mining shack near the summit.

Climbing up for run two.

A cross skinner was broken across the lower west face back to the ridge skinner, and we skied a second run through the alpenglow down the open south face to finish out the day…though the elders of the group tagged one more line in the dusk as we youngsters scurried off for beverages.

While skiing Friday, we had all noticed a skinner and a set of tracks that had been put into the west face of the Pinnacle on Thanksgiving Day.
It certainly captured the imagination, and upon discussion with Nathan, we decided to head that way Saturday morning.
West face of the Pinnacle, Seen from Gold Cord Peak on Friday.
I flew virtual circles around the Pinnacle on Google Earth later that night and noted that from the top of the skinner, a long, slightly curved couloir ran down the southeast corner of the pillar of granite. It appeared to go.
Southeast couloir of the Pinnacle.
Aaron, Dan, Cody, Nathan, and I all headed out of Independence lot, in temps slightly warmer than the day previous, but weary of the potential for growing north winds that could reject us.
Despite it being a pretty busy day on the slopes, we were blissfully alone for almost the entire outing.
My "pro deal" hat that Cody is super jealous of, as you can tell by his facial expression.
The skinner up Pinnacle was a piece of work, and I say that with genuine admiration. Aside from making it possible to achieve our objective of skiing two sides of the Pinnacle by only having to break trail once, I can safely say I could not have threaded an uptrack through the broken cliff bands as well as the Thanksgiving Day folks did.
We were grateful. Thank you.

Nathan on the ridge.
When we crested the ridge line, we got out first look into the southeast couloir.
It was a site welcomed by couloir skiers everywhere: steep, dark blue, cold, walled in by high granite sides, and mystery around a corner.
The blue light. The upper half of the couloir from our vantage on the ridge
We discussed our approach. Returning to the ridge by coming back up the couloir looked like it could be a serious wallow-fest. Were we willing to ski out to the groomed Archangel Road and slowly plod back to the road and hitch back to the car for a one run day if the ascent proved too much? What if the winds picked up while we were sheltered in the couloir? We might not feel them, but we could be in a dangerous path of overhead dangers.
We could always ski the sunny west face too. There would be no shame in that.
We decided we were willing to make the long trek out and call it a one run day if necessary to ski this couloir.
The plan was set: Nathan would make a top cut to a small fin, and if nothing let go, board to a buttress of rock near the elbow. As long as he didn’t spot any danger below, he would signal up and Cody would ski to him. Nathan would finish out the run, and Cody would signal up to the next person when Nathan was clear. Rinse and repeat for the rest of us.
Nathan dropped in.
I could not believe my eyes when nothing sloughed.
I had pushed a small bit of slough off the skinner, not to mention what we had seen the day before. This steep couloir seemed guaranteed to get snow to move.
He boarded the rest of the way down to the elbow, the snow vaporizing in each turn.
If we were all drooling, it would have been understandable.
Nathan signaled up, and Cody dropped in next, his second outing in 11 months after being knocked out by a knee injury last season.
Our drool continued, probably freezing in place at this point.

The lower half.

Aaron in the upper half.

And the lower half.
It was as good as it looked, and despite its size, it was over way too fast.
From the bottom, we decided we would make a go of it and climb back up.
Nathan, who had informed us at the car park that he was running at 20% and would be very slow today, only to lead all the way up the west face, broke trail about 2/3 of the way back up the couloir.

Nathan starts breaking a skinner back up the apron and into the chasm left. A cross over couloir leads right.
We had our one and only scare of the day when a couple cubic yards worth of slough came tumbling off the Pinnacle into the couloir a couple hundred feet above us.
The slough arrested upon contact, but we kept a weary eye to the sky from then on. Nothing else ever fell in after that.
Eventually, the steep kick turns became draining, and we switched to booting. Nathan and I started the charge, doing 40-step or less rotations, and soon enough, we had the whole group in the mix.
It was really funny how all of us got hero syndrome on our first two rotations, trying to put more time and steps in than we agreed on, but after two rotations, and getting to enjoy the fruits of the group’s labor in the back, everyone chilled and got into a rhythm. My alter ego as Patches O'Houlihan came out to ensure that no one tried to be a hero either, and if I had a wrench, I'm sure I would have thrown it.

I’m not a big fan of booting couloirs - I like booting ridges when I have to boot - but with a good team, a good attitude, and lots of jokes, it was kind of fun.
The final 100 feet got tough: steep and deep. We adapted and did "10-step sprints," plowing upward. It worked, and we finally emerged into a golden sunlit ridge, just in time for a sunset descent.

He's back!

Post Pinnacle beers at Lizzy's ski chalet. The hostess was absent on her own Grand adventure.

Sunday was a day for doing laps. Cody, Nathan and I didn’t have the legs or inspiration to chase an objective, and the shady side of Microdot had plenty of untracked snow left, plus one ill-advised run down the summit chute.

A couple good turns but mostly garbage, we spent most of the day on the other side.

A view of a sunlit Pinnacle.

Is it next weekend yet?

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Of Moose and Men

When Outside visitors arrive in Anchorage by plane, I hope they’re seated on the right side of the aircraft. As the jetliners circle out over the Cook Inlet and make their final approach to Ted Stevens International, they’ll see out the windows a wild and expansive wilderness.

Sure, if said traveler flew in on a clear summer day, they might have seen glacier-capped peaks, and those unfortunate souls on the left side of the plane would have caught a glimpse of a forest that stretches north almost uninterrupted to the end of tree line in the Arctic; like, whatever.
The real Alaska is the 1,500 acres of lighted ski trails - replete with snowmaking, soccer fields, paved bike paths, narrow mountain bike trails, and a motocross park that is Kincaid Park.

Yes, this is the Last Frontier for hoards of people who call Alaska home. In fact, for a massive chunk of the people who call Alaska home, this is about as wild as things get. When you go to Kincaid, you might see a moose, or you might see a bear (black). You also might see skiers, bikers, runners, walkers, tourists, high schoolers, babies, the elderly, locals, tourists, and/or a hot dog vendor. It’s a city park - albeit a big one - like many others.

Why would you bother go see the “real Alaska,” you know, that one that people always talk about being “a 30-minute drive away” on one of the two deadly roads that connect Anchorage to the rest of the state?

I even hear there’s a really big state park on the city’s eastern border that has relatively poor access given it’s proximity to over a quarter-million people, making it possible to have an entire ridge, valley, or mountain tarn to oneself for marginal effort.

Forget it though! Just go to Kincaid!

Lately, if you’re lucky, you might see one of the park’s users and one of the park’s residents (a moose or a bear) get in a tussle. For the users, that means hoof prints in your forehead or elsewhere, and for the animal, it means a bullet in their aforementioned forehead.


I’m not trying to overly harsh on Kincaid.

The park is really nice, and I enjoy mountain biking, cross country skiing, and road biking there.

I’m fortunate to live very close to the Hillside ski trails and mountain bike trails, so those are typically my base of operations for the above-mentioned activities during the week, but Kincaid offers a change in scenery, different terrain type, snow making on its ski trails (yet to see this system really kick into gear, but it’s a possibility), and sometimes better weather than Hillside. Kincaid also helps to diffuse pressure from Hillside. The best thing that ever happened to the Hillside single track was Kincaid single track.

That being said, Kincaid is surrounded by ocean on two sides, and hemmed by urban development on the rest.

Part of that urban development includes one of the busiest cargo airports in the US.

The sound of roaring jumbo jet engines rumble through the hills and hollows at all hours, and the dimmer whine of cars and motor bike engines ricochet off the trees.
It’s common in the still of winter inversions for jet and auto exhaust to permeate throughout the low points along the trails, and air quality issues have caused some athletes respiratory issues.

On a warm summer day, the park is packed with all types of users. Riding through on the paved coastal trail, don’t expect to put the hammer down doing intervals. People will be out walking shoulder-to-shoulder across the paths; tourists on rented bikes, heads spinning in the wind will be gawking; runners; roller bladers; and roller skiers will help to round it all out.

Oh, and then there’s the wildlife.

Like many other park users, it’s rare that I go to Kincaid without seeing a moose or having to re-route around one, regardless of my activity.

Recent negative moose-human encounters (two moose were shot/killed this fall) there have raised the ire of a contingent of park users not happy about impingement on the wildlife and their habitat, as they see it.

Obviously, I’m not in this corner.

Bluntly, I don’t care if I see a moose in a city park.

Further, I think they are over-fed, over-tame, sometimes unnaturally over-sized – like a good deal of the city’s human residents one might add – and know of only two serious predators: the Chevy bear and the Ford bear.

The biggest moose I’ve seen in Alaska seem to live in the confines of Anchorage parks, not that I claim to be authoritative on anything moose. 

I don’t claim to be a moose hater either though. When I see a moose on a backcountry ski, hike, or mountain bike trip – in the said backcountry – I will probably stop, if I have a camera snap a photo, and admire it for its hardiness and tenacity to survive in a place I merely visit.

I get where some of the vocal folks who have put down on user development in the park as an impingement of the moose’s habitat are coming from.

The moose didn’t show up in Anchorage and call it home because they like the 4-lane highways, cookie-cutter suburban sprawl developments, and high concentration of people.

They were here first, and while their numbers have probably been somewhat helped thanks to passive protection from predators and increased production of forage (I’ve laughed heartily watching moose making carnage out of ornamental trees in front of strip malls), they didn’t ask for any of this and are helpless to control it.

I also think about the folks that have called this place home for more than a decade, or better yet, multiple, and don’t like what they have seen.

It’s no secret that Alaska’s, and especially Anchorage’s, population is transient. Many people don’t make it past two or three years here, let alone 10.

As someone who is generally adverse to change, I wonder what it will be like for me if I last another 5, 10, or 15 years here.

I think in the short-term, we are all pro-change/pro-development, but we don’t always appreciate how those little changes can stack up to big changes in the long run.

Recently, I was driving the completely re-done Trunk Road in Palmer. I drove this road once in its entirety before it was rebuilt. It was windy and narrow like all good country roads, and passed through a mosaic of woods and fields.

The new road is straight, fast, and wide, and I like it.
It’s an improvement. Sure the old road had more character, but this one shortens the drive, gets me to the mountains faster, feels overall safer, and has enough shoulder to appeal to my inner road biker.

But as I drove it one day this fall, passing through a fading green hay field, I watched a group of kids ride scooters on the paved path next to the road scooting by a yellow sign with a tractor on it.

The sight was not uncommon in my youth; a juxtaposition of the growth of housing developments into the domain of a struggling dairy industry.

I wondered, if in 10 years, I would be driving this road, parked at traffic light, surrounded by strip malls, and if some kids would be riding scooters next to the road there too.
Would I still think the project was great?

Change can be good, but it can lead to things we don’t like too.

I like the fast road, but I like the big, open fields next to it more.

I have no idea what the future holds for Trunk Road, I hope it’s not Dimond Boulevard, but if history is our teacher, I can make a sturdy guess.

To close the circle, I can see how that has played out for Kincaid.

The park is a very different place than it was 10, or 20 years ago, I’m positive.

In small increments, the addition of trails, trail lighting, parking, access, and new facilities has probably been welcomed by most.

More, because of the transience that prevails here, the base line of what was, is continually fleeting. This concept is common in fisheries biology. One generation’s perception of abundance of a depleting stock of fish will be different than the next generation’s concept of abundnce, as each generation’s baseline is lower than the former’s.

Here, the weight of long-term management and conservation of park lands becomes evident. That being said, the future of park management should come from the user groups.

Kincaid’s future has in many ways been decided by its past developments and its geography. Cornered by the sea and a growing city, its ability to serve as a wildlife sanctuary is questionable. Meanwhile, it has been developed to support high quality recreational facilities, be it skiing, biathalon, soccer, mountain biking, etc.

Scattered calls have been made to halt further, sanctioned, approved trail building and development in the park, despite incredible year-round popularity of the trails that have been built thus far (less than 10 miles at this point).
Halting development will not decrease use though.

So long as Anchorage’s population continues to grow, users of all types will continue to go to recreate at the park in increasing numbers.
Meanwhile, as this country’s waist line girth continues to grow proportionally, and our govnerment convulses into seizures over providing healthcare, it is bewildering to me that anyone would not want to see an increase in the development of opportunities for people to get outside and partake in some form of healthy exercise.

How many miles of trails the park can sustain is a good question, but limiting the miles that exist in the hopes of reducing human-moose encounters in Kincaid, will effectively spread those encounters out over a wider area, i.e., outside of Kincaid, while increasing the pressure on the already existing facilities and trails.

If users begin to feel that the trails at Kincaid are too crowded with people, or moose for that matter, they will seek out their experiences elsewhere, or demand an expansion of those opportunities into territories yonder.

When I look at the vastness of this state, and on the whole how little of it is developed, traipsed upon, or generally recreated on, I think, “It’s not so bad.”

When I think about Anchorage’s rolls of fat spilling outside its metaphorical belt into the Valley or beyond though, with its massive appetite for land to consume giant parking lots and big box stores, I think: “Anchorage should do everything it can to contain itself.”

Among other things, that means further developing Anchorage for all that it’s worth. Build higher, build denser, build more efficient, etc. What that spells for Anchorage’s parks is more of the same. We are well endowed with some great parks, but they will need to be capable of handling more use, not less. Undoubtedly, the city’s wildlife will suffer. That’s unfortunate, but I’d rather see the wildlife in Anchorage take it on the nose than wildlife in points beyond.

It seems obvious to me, that for those of us who live here so that we may spend time in “the real Alaska,” but are employed in here Anchorage for five days a week, that is a simple solution to preserve what we really love.