Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Zero to hero

Years ago I saw a mountain somewhere in the distance from a ridge in Turnagain Pass whose south face beckoned with long chutes and bright, white snow lit up by the mid-winter sun.
The mountain’s name I did not know, nor its approach. I was still new to AK then, sporting snow shoes, with my board strapped to my pack.
The mountain, as it turned out, was Pastoral, and the slope I was eyeing forms the upper most headwaters of Bertha Creek.
In the years since I have skied Pastoral's northerly aspects. The area is an excellent and reliable spring time tour for the powder hound who is not content to ski mushy corn, but willing to work for their turns.
The approach to the summit via Taylor Creek to Lyon Creek takes somewhere between 3.5-4.5 hours from car to summit. The mountain could also be approached by heading up Bertha Creek to Bertha Creek Pass, and following the mountain’s south ridge to the summit from there.
Pastoral’s shaded northerly slopes off the summit can hold powder into May, and make the sojourn worthy of multiple laps.
Those runs, while steep and fun, are relatively short compared to Pastoral’s apx. 1,500 foot south face runs to the valley floor of Bertha Creek, and the 3,000 some odd foot run to Center Creek. The latter two aspects, however, will soon begin to feel the effects of our ever strengthening sun, and the window to safely ski steeper south faces is closing.
Such is the progression of life in AK.
We are in the snow vortex – or the wash cycle, whatever you like to call it – recently, with the snow coming down steadily. One storm rolls in after another, separated by a 12-36-hour reprieve between.
The forecast for Saturday looked good, and Nathan, Dan and I set our sites on Pastoral’s south face.
I studied some pictures I had taken of upper Bertha Creek in winters gone by, and decided that while going up Bertha Creek might be a nice way to size up the slope from below, Bertha Creek Pass can sport a massive cornice that could block our route. A back up plan of skiing in Super Bowl or Gold Pan was hardly a step down, but I had more faith in the standard route to Pastoral via Taylor Creek, and the distances are the same.
I also noted from my pictures that we would do well to start our descent from just west, down the ridge, from the western-most and two nubs that form Pastoral’s summit.
Pastoral's apx 1,500 foot south face with descent drawn in, seen in 2009.
Nearing the top of Taylor Creek Pass. Taylor Creek Valley and the long uptrack behind us.

Sun coming up over Pastoral from Taylor Creek Pass.
We launched from the Sunburst lot around 10:30. Mi Ke and a friend met us there as well, though they ultimately opted to ski Sunburst. In the time it took to pull on our boots and jackets, easily a half dozen cars had pulled in. It was obvious folks got the memo, today was going to be a good day.
On the way up Taylor Creek Valley we broke trail through a couple inches of dry, light powder on top of a very firm base. We watched several groups of early risers get first tracks down Sunburst. It looked delightful, but we kept our focus ahead.
The east side of Taylor Creek Pass, though small, was terrible as always. We boot packed on a thin layer of snow covering loose, partially frozen scree until there was enough to skin on again. Then we speedily traversed the rim of the cereal bowl atop the hollow, sugar snow, looking wearily at that death trap below.
I hate that place.
East side of Taylor Creek Pass behind us.
Forward, upward progress resumed on the remnant, rolling Lyon Glacier, where we were blasted with steady, stiff wind in temps that were doubtfully double digit.
On the sky line ridge of Pastoral the wind was fierce and draining. The cliffs and spines that line the north face of this peak were heavily ensconced in rime, including both the summit nubs.
The north bowl looked tempting as ever with excellent coverage, but freezing cold and in the shade.
Wind city and single-digit temps on the sky line ridge. Felt like Alaska.

Booting off one of the summits.

Looking out over Center Creek. The long run beckoned.
We booted over the two summit nubs, peering first down to Center Creek, and soon enough down into Bertha.
Strapped in, Nathan boarded down the ridge a ways to our selected entry point.
I looked up at Dan for a second, and when I looked back down Nathan was waving “no-go” with his arms.
It was too loud to hear. So we froze.
Nathan returned his gaze down the chute, staring intently, then looked up and waved me down.
I dropped down to him, and saw then the big chunk of fresh wind slab that he had broken about a foot deep. It had collapsed and shot down maybe a foot before it arrested, failing to propagate.
The slope is hardly the steepest out there, but the sight before us was intimidating.
The spines that divide Pastoral’s south chutes are vertical walls that in some places rise two stories. The valley floor is some 1,500 feet below, and smaller spines and discontinuous rock bands interject.
It’s the kind of slope that you know, if it goes, you will die. You will be lucky if your buddies can find a few pieces of you to bring back.
Paired with constant, hammering wind, dropping core body temperatures, and knowledge that the known and stable north face was a quick, and comparatively safe and stable ski just a 2 minute boot pack away, my gut began to wrench.
I looked at Nathan.
“It think it’s good,” we agreed.
The slab had stopped the instant it hit the less wind effected gully snow, and we now knew that the gully snow had held up to that level of impact.
I could see a safe spot to bail to a few hundred feet down the run. After that, it was unknown.
I was scared. More scared then I’ve been in a while.
After a few more seconds, I ski cut into the slab, jumped up and down several times, and seeing nothing, let it rip to the safety zone.
Out of the line of fire I looked a few hundred feet back up and saw nothing but a thin layer of slough running down.
With a thumbs up to the guys on the ridge, I tore down the chute, leaving behind the wind; blood pumping with adrenaline the entire way.
Down at the valley floor it was dead quiet and windless.
I radioed up to Nathan and Dan.
I could see them high above, but I had skied down valley a ways to stay out of the slide path of the gully we were skiing just in case, and the vertical spines blocked my view of Nathan’s descent.
I watched where the rock fin ended, for what felt like minutes, but was probably only 30 seconds, in absolute silence and perfect calm.
Nathan came flying out of the chute, big contrails spraying off his board deck, and soon cut and began to traverse in my direction.
I continued to sit there silently, until his face came into clear view, and I could see the smile running from ear to ear.
Here’s what ensued:
Me: “Aughhhh!”
Nathan: “Aughhhh!”
Me: “Aughhhh! Aughhh!” *punching at snow furiously
Nathan: “That was (content censored) awesome! Best (content censored) run of the season!”
We were so elated I almost forgot to radio Dan!
Me to the radio: “Let it rip Dan!”
Goodbye sun, hello storm.

Bertha Creek Pass, surprisingly did not have a cornice, but we had spotted lenticulars on all the high peaks to the north from the summit, and it was obvious the next system was on its way in.
While the run was worthy of additional laps, as we all sat at the valley floor rehashing our runs, something caught my eye. When I looked up, a slow-moving slough slide was creeping down above us.
“Time to move” I said, pointing up.
The gods had granted us a run, and we would take it as a win.
We headed down the valley to the base of Super Bowl and Gold Pan where we ran into the first people we’d seen since Taylor Creek Pass, hours ago. The parking lots were sporting double-row parking and Turnagain was a busy place. We had somehow still found solitude, and much more. We were happy to take a run in Super Bowl as the light went from bright to flat in a matter of minutes.
We skied down to the Magnum-Corn Biscuit Lot and easily found a ride with some north bound skiers to retrieve the car.

Sunday dawned with a steady snow falling from Anchorage to Seward. Nathan, Jack and I grouped up and headed to the northeast side of Colorado in Summit.
The plan was for an easy day. Jack had skied a lot of vert the day before on his own in Eagle River and Nathan and I were dually tired from our tour
The snow was good though, really good: boot-top plus, fresh, and fast.
Despite lousy vis, we started attacking the NeCo gullies and tearing up the rolling playgrounds at their feet. By the end of the day we had logged 7,900 vertical feet.
Not too shabby for a "light day."

A view from the "flat spot" on one of the NeCo ribs.

I had Presidents Day off, and tired as I was, the skies were forecasted to clear and temps to drop.
I headed solo to Colorado, knowing that the morning light would be strong, the face protected from upticking northerly winds, and uptracks would at least be partially established from the day before.
Absolutely the right call.
A few more inches had fallen over night, but the clear, cold air had dried the snow out quite a bit.
It was the kind of day where ice crystals hung in the air, and contrails were suspended seemingly forever.
Good morning!
Our tracks from the day before had mostly been filled in.

The magical ridge to Colorado's sky line. Express Route and Clause gullies from left to right. Looks flat?
My plan was simple: Head up the main east rib and make as many tracks as I could in Clause Gully and Express Route.
Execution: Perfect.
The snow in the trees was deepish by Summit standards, but a slight wind had blown through the higher elevation that morning to harden up the rib making for eacy climbing, and firm up the gullies for very fast runs.

Same view, looking down, not so flat.
From sky line to the the meadows, the two gullies are each about 1,900 feet vertical.


Satstrugi on the sky line with Colorado summit in the distance appearing but a few inches higher.

More squiggles.
Except for a small group that headed up from the lot when I did, I came across no one else until the end of the day. The group of boarders that departed with me fell behind quicky, and appeared to have skied off the knoll and headed out. Another skier with a dog in tow made a lap or two from the top of the hemlocks, but we never crossed paths. Tele-Pete, arrived late in the day after attending a meeting in ANC to make two runs in the trees. Down at the highway we met up for an icy cold beer.

Spirit Walker captures the imagination.

It's been a long time since I've skied a whole day solo, and I was both pleasantly surprised, and slightly concerned by how happy I was all day.
Good company is irreplaceable, and perhaps I would have felt differently had we not broken in so many trails the day prior, but I made great time on the climbs and felt guiltless about skiing the long gullies in a single shot at high speed.

To ski another day.
By the end of the day I'd put in three gully runs and a little over 6.5k of vert. I hate to admit that I kind of love the numbers, but some quick math revealed that in the last three days I'd skied just shy of 20,000 feet, self propelled.
The thing is though, the numbers mean nothing on their own. What makes those numbers matter are the runs themselves, the years of dreaming about them; the ski partners that push you to climb a little higher and ski something that scares you; and the endless plumes of snow that fly from the leading edges of the board, stoking that fire to do it again and again.

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