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.

No comments: