Thursday, February 27, 2014

Gullies and Gulches

The wind spit another onslaught of spindrift into my face and stung across my skin; the sight across the Pass was inspiring only by early season standards; thoughts of lurking weak layers, incoming warm weather, and legs that were unseasonably tired swirled in my head: "I'm so done with this winter," is all I could think. I was just completely burned out feeling.
All in all, last weekend was pretty sweet, but, it came at a price, and one fact has become clear: this winter has beat the hell out of me.
Some people who live here develop cabin fever this time year as the long season of cold and snow, still often weeks from relenting, finally gets the best of them.
For me, it's the opposite. While the low-landers revel in what has been a milder winter then has been observed for most of the eastern seaboard, for me, I can finally relate to how the snow-bound lover of spring feels when another blizzard pummels their world - the caveat being that it is a lack of snow that has driven me to this.
Anchorage picked up a surprise shot of snow last week, blanketing Hillside in a much needed 10 inches, with two feet or more in the Front Range.
Lizzy's truck in the driveway.
On a good tip, Dan and I headed to the end of Canyon Road on Friday. While conditions from the gate were un-inspiring, the snow depth grew quickly

Alaska Range, crystal clear over Anchorage.
We enjoyed a relatively trackless Peak 3 with only 3 other people through the early afternoon before heading back to Peak 4.

Peak 4.

View from the top overlooking Peak 3.

The FR snow skied incredibly well: consolidated and supportable powder. So long as you followed the FR rules and stuck to the filled-in gullied and lee-side ridges, a rock-free experience was just about guaranteed.


On Saturday, deterred by one objective due to visible tundra in the middle of the giant slope, and a guaranteed heinous exit, Nathan and I headed into the Girdwood Valley to explore. In keeping with how unusual this winter has been, the snow haven of Girdwood has been missed by most of the storms, and sports a thinner snow pack then even Turnagain at comparable elevations. We set our sights on a valley that looked to have some promising gullies and couloirs and made our way through the alders.

This glacier is going to need some snow or its not going to make it much longer. (Photo courtesy N.W.)
A reverse-C-shaped couloir caught our attention, and we headed for it. As we climbed higher into the alpine, the snow depth actually decreased, indicating that the winds had raged as the snow fell, leaving only a few inches of fresh powder over a hard and corrugated surface of recent and old avi debris that had spilled from our chosen line and its neighbors. We swung wide to the climbers left of the apron and then traversed back toward a rock abutment at the couloir's mouth where we planned to transition to booter-mode. Heading across the apron, I began to feel very small, isolated pockets of styrafoamy slab, and we spaced out. As I neared the rock band, I got a bad feeling.
Sure enough, a few steps later, I triggered a massive collapse. The snow under-foot settled about an inch and a half, with uphill and lateral propagation.
"Snap-crackle-pop" went the slab for about 3 seconds as friction and gravity battled beneath my feet to determine if the snow would find a new equilibrium in place, or farther down slope.
Fortunately, friction won, but it was way too close.
"We're done!" Nathan yelled from behind me.
Our spacing was good at the very least.
We lapped low-angle powder laps with much higher quality snow then we found in the alpine, burning the legs into oblivion.

The slab triggered at the base of the rock abutment. We planned to transition there and boot behind it, out of sight. (Photo courtesy N.W.)
Cody, Nathan, and I headed to Turnagain on Sunday. The wind was whipping off almost all of the peaks. Initially, Corn Biscuit seemed to be staying out of the brunt force, and the north gullies held some promise of being sheltered. Maybe we were right, but by the time we reached the ridge, the wind had cranked it up with 50 mph gusts, per the Sunburst weather station, and loose snow was blowing every which way. We were pinned by a few particularly nasty gusts, and stopped at the entrance to the first of the gullies on the summit ridge, unable to see even halfway down it at times because of the blowing snow.
The entrance was wind-blown ice, and the remaining was variable, punchy to shallow powder. It actually didn't ski that terrible, and perhaps, were it not for the wind combined with the mental and physical fatigue, we may have sacked it up and gone back for a couple more, but it was just hard to justify.

Angry winds above our run.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Overdue Post for Overdue Winter

A lack of new posts here has not necessarily been related to a lack of snow. On the contrary, conditions have steadily been improving in the Kenais over the past two weeks. How much longer our luck with the weather will run is not worth putting money on, but for the time being, the skiing has not been bad at all.
Two weeks ago, Nathan, Cody, Melissa and I got sick of this not skiing business and headed to the resort. Resort skiing is hard on the body and the wallet, but it's good for the legs, and was well worth it.
Cody, in the park, on his way to beat up some buoys.

The storied orange hat, and a moon rise over Mount Alyeska.

 The next day, Dan and I headed to Turnagain, which had received a little under a foot of very cold, dry snow, resting on the hard and icy base below. Skiing wasn't ideal, but it was a sunny day in the mountains and that's all you can ask for sometimes.

The east face of Silvertip catching the sun.

Kick Step.

Many others were eager to make some turns.

This past weekend, conditions had significantly improved, with another foot or more of snow falling in Turnagain. Nathan, Lizzy and I skied Tin Can on a gray Saturday.
Sunday and Monday were spent on the Sunny Side if Turnagain, though I neglected to take photos on Monday, in part due to heavy snow for the first half of the day.

Even in a crappy year, this place kinda kicks ass.

Big Chief.



Headed home in a cloud.

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Super Silent Sunday

This winter is not happening. Snowless, rainy, record warmth, and the forecasters are saying that the worst may be yet to come: cold, dry, and windy.
Some folks call it a calamity, but a scan through the weather records shows that while dismal, this winter is not so far off from those of 2003 and 1983.

Suffice to say, backcountry skiing has been anywhere from suicidal to marginally passable until recently.
In-town activities haven't fared much better. The groomers worked some incredible magic to transform the thin, hard packed Hillside trails into what feels like lake skiing with hills. Winter biking is marginally better, though patches of ice promise instant wipeouts or worse to the unwary. I’m grateful nonetheless, to have options.

Last weekend, Super Bowl Sunday, is one of my favorite to be out in the mountains.
On Superbowl Sunday though, snowmachiners are hard to find in the mountains.

This is not to harsh on the snowmachine crowd, I don’t have any problem with them going where they’re allowed to go, but they sure can make a racket.

Thanks to the warm up and cool down, the snowpack is pretty damn tough right now below 4,000 FSL in Hatchers.

I got it in my head that Sunday might be a good day to take the fat bike north, and ride the snowmachine trail from Independence Mine toward Willow and back.

Saturday was spent on skinny skis, skating laps at the Independence Mine ski trails with Lizzy.

The snowcat-groomed corduroy was as good as it gets in all of Southcentral, and the groomer had opened up the meandering east meadows loops as well.

We found packed powder conditions on the groomers, and at about the elevation of the Mine and upward (3,500 FSL), a sweet carvable base with 2 inches of dry snow on top. Two inches is a little thin for a split board, but practically blower for narrow skate skis. Carving turns off the sides of the trails was a sweet bonus. Crowds were very light, even on Saturday.

Sunday, I headed back up the road solo, and started my day in bright sun and total silence riding the groomed road over the pass.

Conditions on the snowmachine trail were as good as I could have hoped for. The machine’s tracks did soften up the surface a little, and it might have been nice to share “trail breaking” with another rider paceline style, but in other sections it was practically like riding pavement. I did have to push the last, steep, ~50-foot hill to the top, and likewise had to do the same on the way back, but otherwise kept my feet clipped in for the entirety of the 4-hour ride..

From the top of the pass, I had nice views into the Alaska Range.
Top of Hatchers, looking west to the Alaska Range.
I expected to get chilled on the decent, but quickly found myself back out in the sun, and stopped to de-layer.

About 5 miles from the car, I hit the Lucky Shot Mine, where I found the road had been plowed.

That was unexpected.

The grooming clearly ended here, and I didn’t see any obvious snowmachine corridor headed down valley. Perhaps the road had just been plowed?
Riding a plowed road didn’t really turn me on, but what did were a lot of tracks headed up Craigie Creek Valley.

I rode the bike off the cord and onto the open crusty snow…and kept riding.

The crust was strong enough to support my bike, though it was a little more efficient to stay on snowmachine-packed trail for the most part. Where the machines picked SFU lines up the steep moraines, I veered off and contoured around on imaginary singletrack. It was a bit surreal, and I felt almost like I was doing something wrong (stay on trail!).
Old mining buildings.


I made it 3 miles up the valley toward the base of Dogsled Pass, before steering left up to a broad, sunny slope. The crust started to get talkative underneath, and a few sleds that must have come through while the snow mushy the previous week, had left behind foot-deep trenches, perfectly square tapered on the sides and rock hard at the bottom. The thought of rolling into one conjured images of railing a deep, wood-lined water bars on a fast descent.

I called it, had a snack, and enjoyed a speedy roll back out that valley, playing on the features where they presented themselves.
Small canyon created by recent road plowing.
Time to climb.
The climb back up to the pass was uneventful. I saw only two other machiners on the way back, bringing traffic to a grand total of three for the day.
It was indeed, a Super Silent Sunday.
Was there something on TV that I missed?

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Lucky Skin Track

A year ago I was skiing with two friends on a popular peak in Hatcher Pass. Conditions were blue bird and soft, and lots of people were out. We met up with a group of skiers with some mutual acquaintances that had staged cars for an extra-long run, and though the size of the crew was exceptionally big, the aspect was a good one for a large group, and we were invited to join for a lap.

I can’t say I noticed anyone in particular on the climb up, but one skier - a short and high-spirited woman - laughed so much on the way down it was hard to miss her, or avoid laughing with.
I’m not sure if I even got her name that day, but a week later I skied with her again, and then again, and again and again.

She became my go-to partner.
She laughs and jokes the whole way up, and rips the slopes on the way back down. Deep blower pow to whale snot; blue bird viz or solid curtains of white; big objectives or laps in the sun: she's game for it all.

The fun doesn’t stop at the bottom of the mountains or the end of winter either: her laughter is no less contagious or unbridled on skinny skis, singletrack, or in running shoes,
I’m lucky to have a lot of great ski partners, and I mean no disrespect to any of them when I say this: but she is easily my number one.

I couldn’t have guessed who I was skiing with that sunny February day, but I’m pretty lucky I was on that skin track.