Thursday, March 21, 2013

Spirit Walker Weekend

There it was, on my crappy little flip phone, a picture of Tony D, ear-to-ear grin, on the northern tree run with the pinnacle summit of Spirit Walker Mountain in the back drop. The caption read simply: "Spirit Walker."
If it had been someone else, I would have assumed they were skiing the low-angle tree run on the mountain's northern flank; but not Tony. Hell, without even asking, I already knew Tony had notched at least one run in his lifetime on this highly coveted Summit Pass Peak. Had he notched another?
Spirit Walker Mountain, seen Presidents Day 2013.
It's hard not to ski in Summit Pass without admiring Spirit Walker. It's lofty summit is surrounded on all sides by steep spines of snow and intimidating cliff bands far below. It's one of the few peaks in the area that generally stands alone, or at least appears to when viewed from the west. It also sits back from the road, keeping it just out of reach of an easy day trip.
A lot of people who look at the Spirit Walker and dream of skiing down its slopes envision a route that starts on the hemlock and alder-clad northerly ridge, closest to Manitoba. A closer study of this ridge will reveal massive cornices adorning a stegosaurus ridge mid-way to the summit, known as Soul Fire Face. Those who have reported on trying this route have been turned back by impenetrable sugar snow and bulging cornices.
The best route up this mountain requires a lot more flat land lateral than meets the eye. The Spirit Walker's southern ridge is often windswept and boney, but it leads the climber steadily upward from the floor of Mills Creek Valley to the mountain's summit. The climb is largely protected from exposure too, and is probably most dangerous down low. After that, the biggest risk would be geologic or seismic. This approach, however, requires nearly 4 miles of lateral just to begin the climb. From there, it's about 2 more miles and 3,300 some odd vertical feet to the summit. This is truly a one-run-and-done day except for a few super skinners perhaps.
I busted out of my office building and into the bright Thursday evening sun, and got on the phone with Tony.
"Yep," he said, they had gone for the summit the day before, but had been hampered by alders on the east side of Mills Creek, and had lost too much time on the approach to get the summit. They had made it about 2/3 the way up the south ridge any way, and stopped to dig a pit along the way, finding bomber results.
Tony: "Go get it man."
Next call was to Jack.
Dante: "Want to go ski Spirit Walker tomorrow?"
Jack: "Spirit Walker?"
Dante: "The skin track is in."
Jack "I'm in."
As Jack and I headed south out of Anchorage on the Seward super Highway Friday morning, glass-flat Turnagain Arm shimmering at our side and ambient temps hanging in the single digits in the passes, Tony called: "I'm in man! See ya on the skin track."
An hour and 20 later Jack and I were in the Manitoba Lot pulling on layers in the cold morning light, and soon enough enroute on Tony and partner Trent's super highway to Mills Creek.
The bench between Juneau and Mills Creek, looking back the ridge extending from Manitoba's summit.
We dropped back into Juneau Creek, climbed a bench that lead to Spirit Walker's tree run, and dropped again into Mills Creek to the remnants of the mining camp.

Mills Creek has a rich mining history. What's left is a small camp and some abandoned equipment.
Our route from the camp climbed onto the bench on the west side of Mills Creek, following what is marked on USGS maps as “Ditch.”
In 1895 a small group of prospectors pulled 2,000 ounces of gold from the Mills Creek area. The discovery, near the stream’s confluence with Juneau Creek, was responsible for the launch of the “Turnagain Arm Stampede of 1896.” The rush drew a supposed 3,000 prospectors to the northern Kenai Mountains, bloating the little town of Hope into Alaska’s biggest city almost overnight. Up to 327 miners worked the gravels of Mills Creek at the turn of the century. In the decades that followed the mining roads and place names we use to access and identify the slopes of Summit Pass were established. (LINK) (LINK2), The grunt work of hundreds of individuals was replaced in time by dwindling returns and more luring prospects further north, leaving only few hardy individuals and the machinery they brought with them.
Presumably, the ditch we followed up into Mills Creek was used to operate a hydraulic that blasted the hard glacial clays of the banks of Mills and Juneau Creek

How can you see the door if it's camo?
In the lonely silence of this valley, it was hard to imagine that at one time hundreds called this place home, at least seasonally. We did see a few old tracks on the lower portion of the Soul Fire Face, but other than that, the only sign of life was that of a solitary moose, who’s tracks post holed deep on the nearby hillside. I should imagine this overwintering moose is something of a sacrificial kill to the area’s predator/scavenger population. Trapped on all sides by steep mountains, a canyon, and deep snows, if this animal manages to avoid getting buried in a spring slide, it will probably take little effort for a hungry brown bear or pack of wolves to corner and kill it. It reminded me of three springs ago when we saw where two brown bears had emerged from their den on Sugar Ridge and b-lined it into Mills Creek, likely looking for another moose that had made a similar mistake, or to feast on the remains of frozen goats, buried and killed in the slide paths that cris-cross the valley.

A short but steep bushwhack was necessary to get us onto the west side of Mills Creek and onto “The Ditch.” From there, it was mostly smooth skinning on the graded "Ditch" path up valley, with only a few very short detours to circ washed out or overgrown sections. A little work with some hedge pruners, and I imagine a few well-placed rocks or boards at the drainage crossings, could probably make this pathway a pretty nice all-season trail.

Crossing back over Mills Creek was made easy thanks to a massive old snow bridge consisting of year-old slide debris, burying the bottom of the ravine. A very recent slide, approximately 3-feet deep at the crown, had ripped out of Spirit Walker’s lower bowl, stretching hundreds of yards wide and triggering several symathetics nearby. The weight of this fresh slide debris crossing the old, tunneled out slide debris, had caused the old snow bridge to crack and drop a few feet in places, revealing chunks of the snow, still un-melted from Winter 2012. We shot across the small chunks of debris and scampered into the alders, beginning the 3,300 foot climb.

Hooking into the intermediate rib. Tony caught up with us here while Jack and I stopped for lunch.
Overall, attaining Spirit Walker via the south ridge is pretty safe, and keeps climbers protected from most exposure. If the climb is broken into apx 3,000 foot segments, they would include first, the lower knoll, the intermediate rib, and the main ridge to the summit. It is in this lowest part that perhaps some of the more dangerous exposure is encountered. The angle is fairly light here compared to what lies above, but the slope is convex and rolls over into perfect terrain traps on all sides, with a good chance of getting strained through alders along the way. That being said, the lower portion of the climb could be just about anywhere in Summit Pass. Eventually this section transitions to a wind-swept rocky ridge that sits just to the north of the main south ridge. While the angle ticks sharply up from here, it’s possible to climb on a hard wind slab, making lots of short steep switchbacks. This was the first time I’d busted out my Karakoram ski crampons this year, and was glad I had them. The intermediate rib eventually joins to become one with the main south ridge. The transition can be facilited either by using a nice ramp that leads over to the south ridge, or skinning at the same pitch up the slope. The latter option opens the climber up to more exposure for sure, but delays going into booter-ville mode.
We did the former on Friday.

Tony and Trent's Wednesday turnaround.
As we crept up to the edge of the main south ridge, weary of overhung cornices, we were greeted by the sight of a steep drop below and sweeping views into Timberline Creek. Nesteld on a small flat spot, we loaded the skis on the packs and prepared climb the 3rdt segment via booting.
Expecting this, I brought along strap-on crampons. Too many times I’ve been left to kick out the steps punched into a slippery and hard packed crust by my hard-booted companions.
The added security of  six, thick, sharp aluminum spikes on my feet was fantastic. I don’t remember the last time I wore crampons, maybe the first winter I lived here doing some peak bagging in the Kenai Front Range, but regardless, I’m always amazed by how they can make a climb go from a life-affirming experience to a walk in the park...a really tall and narrow park anyway.

Steep skinning on the intermediate rib.

Connecting with the main south ridge and getting a good look into Timberline drainage.

The top of Soul Fire and Silvertip in the distance.

Booterville. The snow was great consistency here for booting. The views back into Mills Creek weren't bad either.

Eventually the ridge subverts into the mountain’s more broad and gentle summit cone, and we went back into skinning mode, making it to within about 50 feet of the top. At this point, with Tony leading the charge, we kicked steps through deep snow onto the tiny summit landing.

Back on skins, summit in sight.

There was, disappointingly, no Starbucks from which to order a skinny minnie soy macchiato with hazelnut syrup and cinnamon I had been desperately craving on the 6.5-hour approach and climb, but the view was tremendous.
From our vantage there was hardly a Kenai summit we could not spot, and our views extended beyond with Iliamna, Redoubt, and Spur to the west and Denali to the far north.
Best of all, not a breath of wind stirred.

Not much acreage on the summit of Spirit Walker.
Indeed, for much of the climb we were cooking in the sun. Tony was perhaps most prepared, and for the most part was shirtless and in shorts.
We took our sweet time on the summit, savoring this incredibly rare treat, but growing ever more excited for the powder below.
Snow quality had steadily increased as we climbed, and the upper reaches of the mountain were boot-top plus and only partially settled.

360 View from the top.

Tony cranking em.

Video grab: Tony makes the first turn of the day.

When it was time to drop in we decided to go for the cliff band run. Tony skied in first, making a few jump turns and gliding to a protruding spine.
Jack went next, then I.
We started to move a lot of slough, slough that ran and ran and ran, 1,000s of vertical feet; and it ran fast.
As the slough slid across rocks the snow jetted vertically like a snow gun.
Hmmm, new plan.
We cut across the massive face and moved down to a low shoulder, exiting through the basin.
The snow skied great, but in truth, the line was not ideal.
This is the challenge with skiing a new peak for the first time. It’s hard to get them right.
We were still ecstatic as we looked back up the mountain in awe.

Looking back.
On the skin out we stopped several times to look back.
Probably an hour later I was at the turn off where most skiers head up to Manitoba, clicking into my board and preparing for the 2-mile luge run back down to the bridge. I looked south to the beautiful profile of Ravens Ridge, basking in the 6 PM light, and thought, “That’s where I’ll be tomorrow.”

Raven Ridge beckoned.

The next morning I grouped up with Lizzy, John, Mike K, and Amos, AKA “The Wasilla-Fishhook Gang,” and headed to Ravens.
These Hatchers diehards were refuges for the weekend after the Talkeetnas had been hammered by some of the strongest winds the locals have reported up there in some time.

Upward and vertigo on Revens.

Sun, soft snow, and smiles ruled the day.

2,000-foot runs in killer snow off the top of Ravens quickly cured their wind slab blues.
From the skyline we admired the tracks Tony, Jack, and I had laid on Spirit Walker, a fresh set of tracks that appeared mid day down the Block Creek headwall, and the yet untracked Hale Bop (LINK) and Nancy Peak.

Silvertip and the Block Creek head wall.
Spirit Walker.

Can you not be stoked?
Mike shot this of me dropping in for the first turns of the day. When conditions allow it, it's nice to come into a run hot.
Amos demonstrating the snow quality.

My camera had trouble keeping a focus on Mike, he was damn fast.

Colorado, the snowy day go-to of 2013.

As the day wore on we cooked in the sun and the guns came out.

Nancy Peak, looked tempting. North side of Tenderfoot and Tri Tip have looked better though.
As we left Ravens, a consensus was growing that Sunday, we would ski Spirit Walker.
When I got home that night though, I was still a bit torn. The line down Nancy Peak beckoned as I stared at the photo I’d taken. This gnarly sub-summit to Hale Bop is not often skied, and I began to put together a tour in my mind that would link a morning run down the north side of Tenderfoot with a later descent down Hale Bop and a close out of the day down Nancy Peak in full evening sun.
As I drifted off to sleep though, other forces began to work. 
My body was racked out and hurting. Everytime I rolled over, stiff muscles roused me like a wakeful sleeping partner. In my broken dreams, I kept seeing the line down Spirit Walker I had wanted.
I was not alone. Tony too had been thinking about "The Dream Line," and as I headed south Sunday morning to meet the Gang in Girndwood, groggy and stiff, my phone buzzed.
Tony: "I'm in for Spirit Walker! See ya on the skin track!"
This time we would be with the Gang, sans Amos.
It's a Cat! She wantsa' run!
We cruised back up Mills Creek on the very firm skinner, and as we reached the turn-off to climb Spirit Walker, found the track of a lone skier headed up valley. I'd love to know where they were headed. We never did spot them even from above.

Crossing the run out of the recent slide and our old tracks.

Another one of yours truly thanks to Mike. We were discussing the route, and decided "Up" was the best route.

Somehow this one got out of order, John takes lunch on the flats at the base of the climb. Tony caught us here, skiining what took us about 2.5 hours to cover in only 1.5!

Lizzy above Soul Fire.
Tony hard charged the last section to the summit, busting in a new skinner and leaving all of us young guns in the dust. We were all impressed and grateful for the rebroken trail.

Tony making first tracks off the top.




Yet another from Mike of your truly, findng a little air time on the Dream Line.
Tony lead the much shorter traverse into the top of the Dream Line, and everyone dropped in one by one. This line fell more continuously to the valley floor. I went last, soaking in the view and silence off the edge of the face before letting it go.
The run was everything I wanted it to be, and when I finnally came to a stop somewhere in the alders, I realized I hadn't taken a breath in 1,000s of vertical feet.
We made slightly better time on the approach and climb thanks to the well-packed skinner and Tony's heroic effort on the summit pitch. Our snow was a little more sun and wind kissed, but dried out and lighter as a result, with 0 sloughing.
Looking back up the mountain from the base, it was hard not to marvel that this peak was probably as tracked out as it has ever been, and may be for years to come, who knows?

Goodbye Spirit Walker, when will I see you again?

Maybe quite soon...helloo north face.

Plumes on top of Sugar Ridge.
A few basics on this tour and the areas nearby:
All in all expect about 8 hours round trip, 6 hours of climbing and 2 to ski and get out. Overhead exposure is constant from the Mills Creek Mining Camp onward until the intermediate ridge is attained. There has been discussion of climbing Sugar Ridge and dropping its east side, and then climbing Spirit Walker. This is doable, but mostly only for heros. Mere mortals should take the lateral approach. Soul Fire Face is a very worthy and slightly shorter ski that might offer the possibility to recycling a skin track for a second lap. The summit bowl holds a few gun barrel couloirs that fall from the Soul Fire Face. If skiing into the summit bowl, remember that the cliffs at the bottom get bigger skiers left, and smaller skiers right. There's a descent line the goes skiers right from the summit over or around a skiable section of cliff into the slide basin. The trade-off is a lot of vert will be skied in the much flatter and probably chunky basin. The south face of Spirit Walker looked worthy of investigation, though given orientation, one should expect do this only mid-Jan through end of February, so expect some night skinning to get in and out for that objective. Mills Creek and its feeder drainages are packed with terrain, but worthy of a long weekend or more to make it worth while.

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