Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Proper and the Library

Christmas 2015 promised one day of calm, cold weather and stable snow, and an endless line up of storming and warming thereafter.
With single digit temps at the road in Turnagain on Christmas Eve, Nathan and I headed for a Library mission.
We debated going in a-la Center Ridge, but decided to take the Tin Can uptrack and make a run down the south face. We had both already skied Proper south face earlier in the month on a glorious blue bird day with a deceptively shallow snow pack. That run was 1/3 thin rocky, 1/3 fat and deep, 1/3 rain crusty. We hoped for something more redeeming.
The early signs of the impending pattern shift were present almost from the outset, with high stratus clouds moving in not long after we set off.
The climb up Proper was far less spicey than 2 weeks ago and we weren’t the first to punch to the top as with last time, though our chosen run was untracked. Nathan went down to the first knoll a few hundred feet off the top. I came down next. I admit, the delightful snow had me running a little hot, and as I neared the post up, a sudden change to wind slab caught me by surprise and I unintentionally popped into the air. I came in a few feet above and behind Nathan, crawling in slowly enough. In my mind, I’d come to a stop, but video revealed otherwise. The knoll Nathan and I were on was covered by a 20x20x1.5 slab that popped as soon as I came along side. Nathan was directly over rock and tundra and came to a stop as soon as he sat down. I was in a little deeper and blocks over the tips and tails of my board dragged me maybe 5 feet as I punched into the soft bed layer looking for an anchor. For all of a second, it looked like a really bad situation was about to go down: the run narrows and thins through a gully below, followed by another 1,500 feet or so of mountain…
As it was, the slab was small, and the blocks hit the deep surface facets and skittered away.
It wasn’t so much luck that we didn’t get into something bigger – the next level slide would have been catastrophically deep and likely involved a whole face – but bad luck for finding and triggering this small surface patch where we thought we were safe to post up and assess the next gully section. The small south-easterly facing slab was likely formed by the 30+ mph north-northwest winds that had blown over the region in the last week. 30-50 mph outflow (north-west) winds are the scariest in my mind: they easily form slabs, but don’t hammer hard enough to either cement or pop the slabs, as is more common during storm events. They also tend to occur during dry spells when snow has lost moisture and bonding potential. It was a scary reminder nonetheless of just how fast these slabs, big or small, can pop.
We leap frogged the rest of the way down the face, kicking off some impressive sloughs along the way, but never again finding evidence of surface wind slabs.
It wasn’t the greatest, though far better than our previous run down this face.
Next up, we lined up to climb one of the many sub peaks that make up the Library.
Verts on, we plowed upward.
Booting was variable: we wallowed waist deep, and we walked easily in boot top on a supportable base; the angle oscillated from comfortable to numerous pitches of 50+. Just because, it seemed that the steepest sections always had the deepest snow. Our chosen rib got too steep at one point, and we were forced to make a lovely down climb, and move laterally onto a lesser spine that was backed off in pitch. The full effect of the face’s variability was made apparent as we went from waist deep to 6 inches over shredder rocks and back to waist deep in 30 feet of lateral. So ya, that’ll be fun later for crossing spines.
Spacing out was a challenge. Our experience with the wind slab had us on edge, but at the same time, the sloughs were moving deep and fast. Each step promised to kick off at least a small cascade, and some grew to 20 feet wide and a foot deep in seconds. Getting too far behind was risky for the low man with no place to hide.
As we neared the top, we were able to abate some of our slab/spacing concerns by seeking refuge behind rock outcrops. I was thankful for the cold temps and subdued sun as I stood on thin snow next to the black rocks.
From the top, optimism resumed. We had deep, light snow, descent lighting, and a few playful spines to choose from.
Given the heavy sloughing and lack of safety spots, we agreed it was best to ski the run in its entirety rather than try and leap frog. Of course, one of my radios had failing batteries.
Nathan dropped in first and I sat tight for two very long minutes.
He eventually appeared below.
In I went next.
It was obvious this wasn’t going to be glorious within a few turns.
The slough built up fast and I was immediately heading for a high spot to let it run.
A few more turns down and I saw that Nathan had un-intentionally broken the main spine. The ensuing slough out was huge: it had picked up so much speed it wiped out some of the lesser spines along the way and entrained quite a bit of snow. Even in the gully, the remnant slough acquired speed easily, and the trench offered no safety. I worked my way down slowly, making 3-5 turns at a time before having to clear slough, holding one broken spine as long as I could before it either rolled into ledges or broke and I had to jump to another. It was easily the heaviest slough management I’ve had to deal with. The consequences of getting dragged were ever present.
The variability of depth and need to stay high on the spines guaranteed we both spiked some mean gremlins along the way too.
I’ve navigated some technical lines in spring in northerly facing stuff in Hatchers that required maneuvering through or over ledges. It can be a lot of fun, and reminds me of rock climbing, but in reverse. It’s a puzzle to solve. In this case, the puzzle was a little too intense with the depth and speed of the slough, and nothing ever felt like it clicked.
I was glad to be at the bottom after several minutes.
We watched a group of three ski a line farther down the way. It seemed they had a similar experience. Their lead skier had a beautiful run, but in the process kicked off a large slough that billowed up an impressive two-story-high powder cloud. The following two skiers seemed like they were forced to pick their way down with a lot more care, probably a result of reduced snow quality.

Smiling is reserved for easy booting and moderate pitches

Looking over at Proper

Discolored area is a view of the slab that popped

The forecasted storm series rolled in and started dumping lots of heavy new snow in north Turngain, but hardly a flake fell elsewhere. In an attempt to avoid crowding at the popular locales, we went to Summit on Saturday and skied the variable wind effect in the sun on Glider. It was a nice little foray, but not worth more than one ridge to road run. We went back to the truck and back to Turnagain. The Sunburst lot wasn’t plowed, but we shoved the truck through the DOT snow berm anyway and did a lap down the gaper slope in a total white out. There were only two other skiers on the hill plus one lone guy wallowing on snow shoes with no skis. The lack of viz was inconsequential: the snow was ridiculously good and compensated for everything. Sunday we went to Tin Can with everyone else. Off and on snow showers and 3 feet of fresh were the conditions of the day. Visibility was never really great, but we found really nice consolidating powder from the top of Common to tree line, that transitioned into much deeper unconsolidated powder pallooza. Turning was stupid, but dropping cliffs and pillows was ridiculously fun and every landing was Charmin soft. A look at the altimeter back at the car at dusk revealed we’d logged 7,000 feet of great storm skiing!
Chilly Xmas day spin in town.

Summit Pass skyline from the skyline ridge of Summit Peak,

Blurry, but I still like it. Snow wasn't great though.

Great snow, bad light, making an exit from Sunburst. Viz never really got better on Sunday, so no pics, just smiles and snow.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Pinnacle Merit Badge

To get the Pinnacle scouts badge one must ski all four corners of Hatcher’s Pinnacle Peak. There’s a separate badge for skiing from the center point of Pinnacle, also known as the summit.
Not being one for ropes and rock climbing, I’ll just have to settle on the four-corners badge…

The Talkeetnas are having a rough season on the stability front, and have been well worth avoiding so far due to some of the worst avalanche conditions in years, despite a nice cover.
Cody, Mike, Kellen and I went on a pit-digging mission on Saturday. Jed’s report was promising, but as they say in the industry: “Trust, but verify.”
We put in four pits on a knob above Renshaw’s cabin. Although we had a good spread on the compass, the pits were all within a few 100 vertical feet of each other and no more than 200-300 feet laterally separated. Pit depths were starkly different: the south and west-facing pits were shallow, a meter or less; the north and east facing were deep, in our case, close to two meters.
Results were surprisingly consistent between all pits and promising though. Numbers are averaged, but we found a thin rain crust we called the mid-storm layer about 1-foot down that collapsed at ECPT 25 with a Q3 sheer. The deep October rain crust that has been responsible for the bulk of the big slides that have raked Hatcher went around ECPT 35-40 with a Q2 sheer. The deep facet layer perched over the October rain crust showed signs of increasing stability and improving friendliness between layers. It’s still scary as hell, and when the facets were swept clean, the former Q1 sheer potential was easy to imagine. The good news was that, in the deeper pits, stability seemed much better, so, in theory, more time and loading will help future bonding, and the potential for a skier to trigger this layer, especially when buried deep, is pretty damn low.
This is certainly good news, and bodes well for the range and hopefully the season. My take away is that, similar to last year, I would stay away from Hatchers during or immediately after any large scale snow events (duh). While a skier is unlikely to set much off during low-hazard periods, the additional impact of a heavy slough (natural- or skier-triggered) while slopes are reactive could result in a step down and potential release of a fatal deep slab. There’s also a good chance that no matter how well this layer “heals,” it will rear its head on sunny slopes come spring, or during a mid-winter meltdown.
One other thought, how will the re-exposed October crust react to future loading? A lot of slopes ripped down to the crust layer in the previous weeks, leaving it essentially exposed or thinly covered with light snow, spindrift, and growing hoar crystals.
These legacy slides have left a patchwork of surfaces for new snow to fall on. The common logic would be: with a few more feet of snow, the potential to trigger a slide over a legacy pocket will exist, and the size and location of said pocket will be nearly impossible to identify. If buried deep enough – 2-3 feet – it will be nearly impossible to even recognize this hazard while traversing a slope.
That’s pure conjecture, as we don’t know how this re-exposed layer will react, and it’s loading will be extremely variable, but it should be a running background process to consider.

Buildings at Gold Cord disappearing.

Guess who got the deepest pit award. Photo C.G.

Photo C.G.

Block love. Photo C.G.

So anyway, skiing. The weather looked good for Sunday, and Cody, Nathan and I went for a Pinnacle mission. The plan was to climb Pinnacle’s northwest couloir, descend into the northeast couloir, climb back up, and drop the northwest.
With an early start, we made pretty short work of the approach thanks to in-place skinners leading into the Mushroom garden. Booting the line was pretty easy, partly thanks to all of us now using Verts, but unfortunately, also thanks to thin cover and patchy wind board in the lower 2/3. The best and the deepest snow was all concentrated in the top 1/3 of the line.
The bigger surprise came as we cautiously peered over into the northeast couloir.
It needs a lot more snow. The only entry involved either a.) A 20-foot mandatory drop with a landing directly on top of a cross-slope fracture; or b.) Down climbing a granite fin on the skier’s right and into the line. Coming back up would have been basically impossible. When Nathan moved over toward said fin, he fell to his thighs into an anti-shrund.
Message received.
It appears when Kyle, Nathaniel, and I were skiing the northeast couloir last spring LINK, there was about 10-feet more snow banked over the now protruding fin. The entry at that time was pretty intense, but this was just ridiculous.
Not helping motivation was that fact that despite a formerly promising weather forecast, high clouds were rolling in fast, and lighting was varying between poor and flat. The chasms would ski well, but we knew the exits would suck.
We skied back down the northwest couloir. While the top was delightful, the rest was survival skiing: lots of jump turns, loud powder, and punchy wind board.
I think it’s safe to say, we’ll all be looking for redemption at some future time here.

The Northwest Pinnacle Couloir hiding in the shade as seen in November 2013 with much better cover.

Transitioning to booter mode. Photo C.G.

Tea at sunrise...at 10:30.

Photo C.G.

Looking down the NW couloir from the top. Photo C.G.

Sunday, December 6, 2015


Prelude: Kyle first mentioned going to Adak to hunt caribou a year ago and it sounded like a pretty incredible adventure.
North American interests in the Aleutian Island of Adak were essentially non-existent until the Japanese invaded the islands of Attu and Kiska to the west in 1942. Adak, which had formerly been home to a small native Aluet population and some Russian fur traders, was used as a strategic launching point for the US military to push the Japanese out of the Aleutians. In the following decades, it became the site of a massive naval base that housed 6,000 people at its peak, before closing down in the mid-1990s.
Perhaps 50 people live there now (The official Census number is bull, I’m sure), along with some transient fishermen and federal employees, a few Alaska Air personnel, and the burliest eagles and ravens I’ve ever seen, plus hordes of invasive rats. Oh, and there are some 2,500 caribou too.
The latter were intentionally brought to the island from mainland AK shortly after WWII to serve as a sporting opportunity for personnel stationed at the base, and as a backup food supply if needed.
After the military left the island, the caribou population exploded from a few hundred to a peak of 3,000.
The habitat on the island is ideal for an ungulate evolved to thrive on barren tundra plains: an ample and rich food supply, mild weather (by caribou standards), and most importantly, no predators.
The US Fish and Wildlife Service has debated exterminating the herd (good luck with that) to keep the animals from invading neighboring islands, but the hunting provides one of the biggest tourism draws to the island, and the locals protested. Hunters are limited to two bulls and as many cows as they can take a season.
That being said, this wasn’t going to be a turkey shoot, and we all knew it.
Alaska Air flies to the island twice a week under federal contract, and we were to go in on Sunday the 22nd, and come back out the following Sunday.
Unsurprisingly, a seasonably strong Bering hurricane set up shop in the region the week prior – there is almost always some type of cyclone hanging out in the Bering – and on the day of our flights, the island was getting pounded by 100 mph winds. The plane didn't fly, and it appeared we'd have to wait until Thursday, the next scheduled flight, to get in. Thursday to Sunday was too short a trip, and Thursday to Thursday didn't work with my schedule, so I bowed out at noon on Monday.
Five minutes later, Alaska Air emailed us to say we were booked on an unscheduled flight the next day.

Photo note: Adak scary wet weather kept my camera tucked away the whole trip, but Logan captured the entire trip. All photos in this post are credited to Logan. 

Day 1: the flight in was non eventful. Far better organized than we had been on Sunday, we checked in and boarded the 737 freighter/passenger combi for the 3-hour, 1,200 mile flight. We cruised over an endless plain of fog and clouds, occasionally catching glimpses of a green Bering Sea and brown volcanic islands below. Adak airport terminal isn’t much bigger than a single-level family home. If, somehow, there was ever a full 737 of people leaving, it’s hard to imagine they could all fit in the building while awaiting the plane’s arrival. A man wearing camo army fatigues named Mike held a piece of paper with Kyle’s name. He showed us our early 90s Isuzu Trooper rental, which, though smelling of cleaner, still had some caribou blood and tufts of ptarmigan feathers in the back.
You have to fly all your own food out to the Island, so along with guns and duffels, we also each had a stacked set of plastic totes full of food. We brought out 16 totes total I think, hoping to come back with them full of caribou.
Adak has a number of housing complexes, almost all of them abandoned and slowly giving in to the hellish weather. Our quaint block was one of the few inhabited streets. The homes are set up to for your average American family and their 2.3 children. Wind-blasted playgrounds and a faded and blown out McDonalds are stark reminders of this place’s history.
The houses, and its neighbors, were a stark juxtaposition to the surrounding landscape. While comfortable – we had hot showers, a washer/dryer, and full kitchen – the disrepair was obvious enough. Rats had chewed through one of the front doors, the gusty winds drafted through and sucked out any heat, windows were opaque from moisture leaked between the panes, and we heated the unit with the electric oven as only a few of the base boards gave off heat.
The house received a short inspection, but with 2 hours of daylight on the table, no winds, and sunny skies, we moved fast and went for a recon hike from the Husky Pass trailhead. We moved slow and hoped to maybe see signs of bou or shoot ptarmigan. We succeeded at neither, but we learned a bit about the minutia of the topography, and the “character” of the trails.
It was gorgeous out too, though I think all of us were a bit surprised by the cold. Temps for the trip ranged from maybe 29 to a 35, but winds and high humidity combined with near constant precipitation make this place a hypothermia factory.

Day 2
Overnight the wind began to howl, as forecasted. We shuffled out of the house in the 7:30 dark – Adak is on Hawaii Time, and sits at the same latitude at Vancouver Island, first light was a bit after 8, and last light was around 630.
Thick snow was falling in every direction but down. Logan slowly drove the Trooper to the Finger Bay trailhead. The tired headlights of the rig barely pierced 10 feet into the melee. The road twisted its way up and over a ridge. Unable to see beyond the rotten wood guard rails, we pictured a frothing Bering Sea just beyond, waiting to swallow us and the Trooper if we slipped off one of the icy bends.
Eventually we came to a switchback where the road narrowed and dropped down a steep icy hill to the waters of Finger Bay. We parked and walked into the storm. Walking over a narrow telephone pole placed over a stream and adorned with basically decorative rope railings, we crossed the inlet and wrapped around the bay’s opposite side.
We found shelter from the wind here, and the snow fell in a heavy, wet, apocalyptic curtain. We thought maybe we had picked a good zone: winds were forecasted to build to 50mph by the afternoon but we were sheltered.
The side-hilling hiking trail was, as with other trails of Adak, a suggestion. “Trails” are generally unimproved, barring a rare repurposed chunk of wood or steel pipe placed over particularly nasty obstacles. Footing on trails varies as much as off trails: spongy tussock, slimey mud, and knee-deep muck holes abounded.
Eventually we steered up a wide draw to cross into the neighboring Susie Lake drainage. Our slow gain in elevation brought us head to head with shrieking wind. Forward progress ground down as we waded through knee deep snow drifts that occasionally covered even deeper holes filled with mud, water, or just more snow. At the high point of the plateau the wind hit us head on with 50mph gusts that pushed us backwards and knocked us down. A mere 400 feet above the ocean, we battled an environment one would expect at 10,000 FSL.
We worked as hard to go downhill as we might otherwise to have gone up. Eventually we lowered down enough for the winds to abate some, but were still fierce. Visibility was limited to a 1/2 mile. In an effort to think like caribou, we scoured sheltered draws. Our search yielded nothing though, and it became apparent as we headed into the funnel of another valley, that if we found any caribou, we were just about going to have to head butt them. Drenched, our faces raw from the relentless pelting, we turned around. Walking with the wind brought relief from the face-peeling rain/sleet/snow, but the same wind knocked us forward and threw all of us into holes or tumbling over tussocks we meant to avoid. Warming temperatures turned the footing underfoot to messy slush. We made it back the car 4 hours after having left, all of us feeling destroyed. At the same time, we had to give ourselves some credit: We gave it an honest shot.
We worked the ancient drier at our house hard, and fired up the oven to provide heat as the wind sucked away what minimal amount the few functioning baseboards put out.
In retrospect, we’d later realize, we should have stayed put; but fresh to the island, we were eager to get out. Had we already been on the island a few days, we might have recognized that the storm would have been a fine time for a needed rest day.

Day 3:
With the worst of the storm largely passed, we went back to the same TH. This time we were headed to Betty Lake. After climbing the steep, muddy hill to the lake's north shore, we split. Kyle and I would take the east shore, Logan and Abe the west. First though, Kyle and I had to get across the lakes’ outlet stream, which poured through a steep rock canyon. With no obvious way to hop the slick rocks over the fast moving water, we straddled a piece of 12-inch rusty pipe that was lain across the gorge, and humped our way over. On the other side, we sidled along a wall of wet rock on a thin muddy strip of wet grass: below was a 20 foot drop straight into the icy water.
The shenanigans came to an end, and we began to move up and down the low ridges that separated the draws flowing into the lake. From each, we glassed ahead, searching for any sign of life: tracks in the snow, beaten down vegetation, scat, skeletons, better yet, an animal.
If there were caribou here, it was so far mysterious. Eventually we decided we were wasting time, and scurried up valley to the head of the lake, and then upward into the cloudy and blustery Gannet Pass. 
Somewhere on the way up we heard at least 2 muffled thuds. We were near a gushing stream though. Was it a gunshot, or just a shifting rock?
Eventually we topped out in Gannet in the rearing wind. It was here we finally saw evidence of bou: an old track in some gravel. It was noon, and before we slipped over the pass, we radio checked with Abe and Logan.
Logan answered immediately. 
He could hardly hear us, but we could hear him loud and clear. 
"Bou down," he reported.
He didn't need help dressing the animal, and Abe was pursuing the remainder of the group they’d come across, so we let him know we planned to slip over the pass and out of radio contact. (Note: using radios to hunt is illegal. We used the radios solely for safety and keeping tabs on each other.)
Over the pass, we ducked down into the lee of a large rock with a perfect view of the Gannet Bowl. A veritable slaughter alley lead in just below us, and we had a great vantage over it. The on and off assault of sleet and rain seemed to abate, so we waited for a half hour.
Again, glassing, there wasn't a sign of life in the entire bowl: no obvious trails in the brush or tracks in the snow. Eventually, we had to move.
At this point, I had a real problem. My right knee was killing me. It had ached the day prior, but by the time we reached Gannet, it was getting toward serious. Side hilling and steep climbing were the worst, and I was fearful a bad step or deep plunge would be catastrophic. 
Getting injured was no joke out here. There's no rescue, no evac, and the terrain is nasty enough that getting out on one leg seemed close to impossible. We had gear to emergency bivvy, but the odds of surviving a night alone seemed close to 0.
I loaded the gun on my pack, as it was throwing me off terribly, and Kyle gave me his collapsible trekking poles. Though mostly mental, the added stability at least allowed me to move from ½ Kyle’s pace to closer to 3/4.
I felt pretty bad though. I was useless. If we shot an animal, there was no way I'd be able to help take it out. 
We covered the ridge between Gannet and Hikers pass, where we found the tracks of the group of animals Logan and Abe had likely found. We were excited our friends had taken a bou, maybe more, and happy our Thanksgiving dinner would consist of fresh meat and not deli turkey. Seeing the animal tracks too was a confirmation that in fact, there were animals to be found.
That night we ate an awesome Thanksgiving dinner: mashed potatoes and brussels sprouts from Logan's family’s farm, stuffing, and caribou backstrap and liver. Logan wanted to make the liver in particular, and it was the standout in my opinion. Prepared with leeks, it's consistency was like that of a sautéed mushroom, but thick with a rich flavor. I really liked it.

Day 4:
With my knee aching, I took a needed rest day while the boys went on a really long hike that took them through Hiker Pass to the far side of Gannet Bowl and back over Gannet Pass. They spotted a few bou mid-day, well out of range, and had the best weather of the trip to that point, with ample breaks of sun, but the odds of bringing home more than one animal seemed to be slipping away.

Day 5:
Logan had joined the knee pain train with me, and Kyle and Abe set off for what they expected to be an epic hike, but not much else, encircling Mount Reed. Logan hobbled behind Kyle and Abe until about 2/3 the way down the backside of Husky Pass in a sopping wet white out, before heading back. Coming down the front side of Husky, he found 8 caribou nearly within sight of the car! He attempted to get into position, but the gusting wind easily gave away his cover, and the herd put miles into him in no time. A little dejected, he got back to the house mid-afternoon, and an hour later, we both headed back to the TH to see if the bou came back, and to try and plink ptarmigan while waiting for Kyle and Abe to return from their trek.
The hard rain and wet snow that had fallen all day yielded to a beautiful evening, but the bou didn't come back, and an hour after full dark, there was still no sign of Kyle or Abe’s bobbing head lamps on the distant horizon. Around 7:45, after flashing the Lake DeMarie Bowl with a bright lamp for a bit and seeing no sign, we drove down the road to Heart Lake trailhead, thinking they may have gone for the nearer TH. 
Stupidly, we had left the second radio at the house when Logan came home, but confident our friends were at least a 1/2 hour out, we bombed down to town and grabbed the talkie, food, and extra clothes. I secretly hoped they had come out the other TH and caught a ride back to town with the other group hunting the island, but no such luck.
Back at the Husky Pass TH, we kept shining the bright head lamps and shot the .410, radioing to no one. 
It was starting to get late.
While we joked, and hoped, that they had massacred some bou, and were huffing them out, the very real reality of a situation began to set it.
After waiting at the Husky Pass TH for some time, we again headed to Heart Lake TH. With 930 drawing close, we began the very serious discussion of what to do about our competent but likely lost friends.
We fully trusted their decision making. Abe had an InReach. We knew if there was a serious problem, he’d likely activate it, though we weren’t sure if we’d receive any notification. Of course, we knew that professional rescue, if needed, was hours away anyhow, and would be of little value until the next day.
If they were lost – which seemed unlikely – or injured but not seriously, they might have to biv. Biving seemed like the worst situation.
We didn’t want to initiate our own search, as they could come out from either direction from their circular route, and we could easily miss them, and the last thing we needed was two parties groping around a storm-battered island in November at night.
We planned to wait until 10:30, at which point, we’d notify Mike, and prepare for a search in the morning.
We kept radioing, hoping they would respond.
Then the radio crackled a bit.
A few seconds went by.
“We got caribou bitches!”Abe huffed into the radio.
Three-quarters the way around Mount Reed, mid-afternoon, after seeing virtually nothing all day but a rat swimming in the sea, Kyle and Abe located, stalked, and cornered a herd of 4 caribou onto a small peninsula.
Cue Boondock Saints: “THERE WAS A FIRE FIGHT!”
They positioned themselves on a perfect knoll and took blasted the whole group.
It wasn’t until 8 that they had finished quartering the kills and began the pack out in the murky dark.
Their route was obviously inefficient since they couldn’t see where they were going, but at last, to our relief, their distant bobbing lights came into view beyond Heart Lake basin, and we headed out to meet them for the final stretch.
There were still 6 more loads left in the field, protected from the hungry ravens and eagles that would soon descend on the scene.

Day 6:
The next morning we were back at the TH, and with the first tinges of daylight spreading across the gray sky. We trucked to the kill site in only 45 minutes with empty frames. We took out the heaviest loads, and with the Trooper loaded, Logan and I headed back to town to begin a frantic carving and packing session while Kyle and Abe retrieved the final two quarters.
Somehow, who even knows how, we had 12 totes packed to the 50 pound airline limit with bou, plus all the guns and gear bags, piled in the airport by 4. Mike saved our tails, and helped truck out the bones and spines while cleaning up our disheveled mess at the house. It wasn’t our plan to be so hasty and leave such a mess.
I was impressed though: he’d noticed we were missing the night prior, and was really concerned when the Trooper was gone again early in the morning. When he found out why though, he was thrilled with our success.
At last, we plopped into our seats on the nearly empty 737, blood smeared on our pants and jackets, beat down to hell, but all smiles and stoke.

This was a really unique trip.
I don’t hunt and have never claimed to. My interest was based purely in the adventure and the prospect of bringing home some caribou. Whether I killed a caribou myself was irrelevant.
That being said, I can only think of one other reason I’d go to the Aleutians: some kind of misbegotten mission to ski every island’s volcano (rad in theory, probably hell in reality). Every synonym for harsh and wild you could use on this place will fail to deliver how raw it can get.
Every park from Glen Alps to the Everglades has some stupid warning about wearing warm, waterproof clothing, and being ready for inclement weather, “because the weather can change fast here!”
All those places can quite literally go take a hike. There was no singular weather on Adak, it was just constant. We had same some pretty heavy weather at the beginning of our trip as the remnants of a tropical storm In-Fa “breezed through,” but it wasn’t by any stretch abnormal, and didn’t even hold a candle to the cyclone that had deflected out initial flight. In fact, it was totally normal. What is normal weather on Adak is a crisis situation and a state of emergency in most places. More, what is happening now, or 15 minutes ago, likely has no relevance to what will happen in the next 15. 
If the weather isn’t bad enough, the terrain is worse. It’s just a tussock minefield perched on volcanic ash goo. Solid ground is rare, dry ground non-existent. The winds can defy gravity here. We literally watched the wind blow a waterfall right back up a hill in Gannet Pass. Wetness and a chill are constant. Route finding is easy if you can see, but it’s slow-going and tough on joints. I don’t hike much, and it showed.
You can rent 4-wheelers, but only a small part of the island is legally accessible. If you’re skilled in driving them, they could be a great asset; otherwise, they seem like more trouble than they’re worth. The terrain is easily shredded by their passage, and the ATV “trails” were just ugly, gnarly, wide, torn out mud ruts.
In retrospect, I think a good tactic with four people would have been to alternate days in the field: 1 day, a pair goes out, while the other pair rests and stays close to the roads, maybe looks for ptarmigan if it’s nice, or processes if there’s a kill. If the in-the-field group make kills – it’s a good idea to drop multiple animals is possible – they could use an InReach or sat phone to communicate with the resting pair and give a GPS location so they can get some help packing out. Abe might have used the InReach to text Logan and I of the situation if he could have, but the device was inadvertently turned on and its battery had dies. AT&T users have basic cell service near town and can text and call.  Verizon has no service at all. The idea though, is that the hiking and weather are tough enough. Alternating rest days would save up energy.
Would I go back?
If you asked me mid-trip when my knee was so stiff I couldn’t go up or down stairs, and was scared about the future of my ski season, the answer was a resolute: hell no.
I think now though, I would.
Would I recommend it though? Maybe to like 5 people.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

AK Fall: Best if Enjoyed in Moderation

Psst. I have a secret. I kind of like fall in Southcentral Ak.
It’s an acquired taste for sure. Perhaps not the sweetest of autumn vintages – can anything compete with Indian summer during peak foliage in New England?
Alaska fall is not something that can, or should be consumed in any great quantity, but it is sweet, even if not long to be savored.
Sometime during the endless daylight of the summer the solstice, I awake from sleep – already a scarce commodity – and lay awake in the burning light of 4 am, having just dreamt that the short summer had already ended, and darkness was returning. It’s part a horror, part a wish.
This summer was hot, dry, and awesome. I got a lot of time in the saddle. Too much? As the day’s waned, and nights grew, I had to admit, I was looking forward to a break, and a change in pace.

I caught two great rides on the Kenai with Nathan A. First on the list was the Res-Devils Loop on the last weekend and the last Sunday of August. Both of us had just wrapped up from the Trifecta races, so the legs were tired, and some very light overnight showers Saturday put a dusting of snow on the ridgelines and provided plenty of inspiration.
Despite this, the trail was still dry, and while there wasn’t much foliage to speak of down low, colors in the passes were approaching peak.

Overlooking Kenai Lake.

Juneau Lake.

Love this section.

Swan Lake

Bone dry, blue skies, bright color.

Snow on the ridges.

Looking back to the Pass from Hope overlook.

Russian Loop
I expected to spend a bit more time on Russian this fall than I ended up realizing, so in retrospect, I’m really glad we snagged this ride over Labor Day. The weather wasn’t particularly stunning, and admittedly colors weren’t quite peaking yet, but with this trail fully brushed out, it was hard to complain.

Kenai Lake break.

Cloudy reflections.

Burning fireweed below Cooper Peak.

The fact that I run is a well-kept secret. I actually run quite a bit for someone who identifies as a cyclist. That doesn’t mean I’m strong, or fast, but there are some great over-land runs to be had in AK, and this is my time of year to branch out. I hadn’t been on Summit Creek Trail since 2013, and hadn’t been over the Summit Creek/East Creek Pass since 2009. Adam was an awesome sport and joined me for a run to the col between East Creek and Resurrection Pass. From there, we turned southward and followed the ridgeline upward and eventually back around to a high col the leads to a hidden tarn just a bit below and east of the East Creek/Summit Creek Pass.


Looking down to East Creek/Summit Creek Pass.

Looking for goats. None sighted.

An after work run on McHugh Peak with Lee. Photo L.M.

Crow Pass Skiing
A typical wet fall storm parked over the region early in September delivering rain for 13 days straight. Somehwere toward the end of that deluge, temps dropped and snow started stacking up above Hatcher Pass and Crow Pass. I knew the window might open, and on Friday the 18th, I slid my bedroom shades back, planning to go to work, only to be greeted by blue skies and an incredibly low snow line.
I was grateful I’d put my ski gear away ready to go, and quickly packed my bag and went down to the garage to scrape the off-season storage wax from my bases while scarfing down eggs and bacon.
There were a few inches of sopping-wet snow clinging to the leafy alders at the Crow Pass Trail Head, and I needed my storm shell to keep dry as the warm morning sun turned the trail into a cold, wet, collapsed alder obstacle course. I was stupid enough to beat anyone else up to the pass, and from the waterfalls upward, ended up breaking the skinner in about 2 feet or more heavy fresh, underlain by a solid but saturated base. Clouds moved in as I climbed, but moved in and out at rapid intervals, providing easy windows to ski through. A few others showed up later, and I ended up doing two runs. A third would have been nice, but I didn’t have confidence the clouds would keep up their intervals. I skied all the way back to the top of the falls without tagging a single rock: Easily the deepest skiing I’ve done in September or October.

Looks more like winter than mid-September.

The Summit Glacier has suffered in the heat. The cracks are big.

Burma Road Loop
I really enjoy road riding in the Valley during the shoulder seasons, but I’ve stuck to Palmer and Butte on these rides. I’d wanted to check out a loop in the Knik/Point Mackenzie/Big Lake area that included a long chunk of dirt on Burma Road. I’d Burma was a good road, and Phil was up for an adventure. As with most other Valley riding, it was really pleasant. We parked at the Wal-Mart, and traffic was pretty light, and generally very respectful. A lot of the main roads in the valley have parallel bike paths, but unlike Anchorage, where these paths cross hundreds of driveways and side streets where the right-of-way is ambiguous, in the Valley these intersections are far less frequent. That being said, theese paths also tend to be covered in loose rocks kicked up by ATVs and quads, so they can be a mixed blessing. Burma Road itself though was excellent: good flow, narrow, rolling, winding, and well packed. There were two very large puddles at the south end. Phil, on his cross bike, rode through both. I was on the road bike with its 25C slick tires, I made it through the first but portaged the second. Other than that, both bikes were equally adept at this ride, though it was pavement heavy, and I think slicks and taller gears were optimal.

Knik Arm.

Burma Road.

For real?

I’ve been helping out with the Arctic Cross cyclocross race series the past few falls. I don’t have a burning desire to race cross for a number of reasons excuses, starting with the fact that I’m a wuss; but I do like watching cross racing since you can often see a good chunk of the course from a single point, and more importantly, I like hanging out with my friends. We added an event this year so we now have three adult races, plus a short kids race, and cross has gone from being a half-day event with maybe 50 people to basically a full-day activity with 125-200 entrants!
One day, for giggles, I stuck my Garmin in my pocket and let it run while I, umm, ran around, setting up the course, timing, and taking the course back down: I logged about 6 miles over 6-7 hours. It was neat to see. Fortunately, a lot of people pitch in, otherwise that number would be a lot higher!
Photos from the season: LINK

Do nothing
As winter turns into spring, the days get longer, and so with it, the activity list. Some of the biggest ski missions of the year come by a defacto in March-May thanks to better weather, deeper snow, and the need to chase that cold and deep snow into the higher elevations. At the same time, road riding, and soon enough, mountain biking ramp up and there’s a pressing need to start putting in more time on the saddle. Suffice to say, the spring shoulder season isn’t really a shoulder season at all. I’m OK with that, but I’m a firm believer in doing a big-block recovery, and I’m not talking about a recovery ride or mellow day, I’m talking about a real block. Some folks fret about how boring fall is here and how there’s nothing to do. I say: embrace it, take a rest.

Get out
The leaves have dropped, the sun is noticeably lower, but the snow line seems stagnant. Get out of town, get out of state, get out of country…more on that later:
6:30am in LAX Ted Bradley...