Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Vitamin Ski

The sneaker winter of 13-14 keeps on sneak’n.
Honestly, I was pretty depressed by the end of last week, and the only thing that seemed to be keeping my sanity nailed down was the fact that I’d soon depart for a week of skiing with friends in a comparatively colder and wintry Jackson Hole.
Though skate skiing is do-able in Los Anchorage, it’s far from inspirational. Ice biking on my studded hard tail (what’s the point of fat tires right now?) through the trails north of Basher Road on Thursday night with Ethan and Brian, we splashed through standing water and slush over ice.
“This is about the best thing going,” someone remarked.
If that doesn’t drill into your conscience as defeating, pass me some of what you’ve been popping.
Kyle rallied me to head up to Hatcher for an after work skate ski on Friday. The reports of firm corduroy have been descent there, and despite my lack of motivation, I agreed.
We decided to ski Archangel, and as we started, I drifted over the edge of the fast and firm trail and stabbed my pole into the un-groomed snow a few times.
Pfft. Pfft.
How can that be?
There’s a heat crust on top…but it’s wafer thin…this isn’t just skiable, this is actually pretty good.
I kept checking, waiting for it to go to crud, but as we climbed, it felt better and better, and the heat crust disappeared.
When we reached the end of the road, we pushed off the end of the groomed trail, and astonishingly, even on skinny skis, floated over the dense pow.
Kyle side stepped up above the road and began to cruise back down the valley. I followed, and we slid through the soft snow along a raised ridge until a little above Reed Lakes TH. It was worthy of a repeat and we climbed back up to the end of the road for another (well, Kyle is the true skier, so he skied the pow, I’m an imposter and prefer groomers on my skinnies).
Backcountry skiing was on, but with no snow in over two weeks, everything easily accessible had long since been hit in Hatcher. We planned to return early the next morning and cover some ground.

The day started with blue skies. We loaded our big skis and boots on the packs, clicked into our skate skis, and started gliding down the trail.
OK, gliding is awfully complimentary.
We weren’t sure skating with a full BC load would be better than just skinning or shuffling.
There was no contest between the two, and it was nice to knock out the in-bound and out-bound lateral with some comparative ease and speed.
With blue skies to start, we decided to investigate the SE Pinnacle Couloir, and turned off into the Webfoot Prospect.
Accessing the Webfoot was “interesting.”
The massive boulders presented a challenge, and we defied the laws of physics threading our way through, and over them. We ended up hugging the north wall of the valley, and soon found some old tracks. They were transformed and rock hard.
As it turns out, an assault squad had hit the Webfoot in recent weeks. They laid tracks in the SE Pinnacle and both the Webfoot-Fairangel crossover couloirs. Well done!
As we climbed higher into Webfoot, we began to see some real changes. Sloughing off the high rock faces from the warm up into many of the couloirs created chunky and more variable conditions. Meanwhile, weather began to blow in, and we soon lost sight of Arkose Ridge to our south. About the time the first flakes started to fall, we reached the base of the lower Webfoot-Fairangel CX Couloir. While short, it’s deepish and dark. Combined with the textured slough, we knew it would ski OK in the deteriorating viz.
We topped out as the squall opened up in earnest and viz cut down to nil. It felt good – to feel it snow, hard, even if it seemed obvious it was short-lived.
The line was challenging due to the transformed snow. At the one-turn-wide choke, it was bulletproof, and a slip up would have been dangerous.
Below that, the apron was smooth and creamy.
We skied back down valley a bit, and the weather abated. The early start meant there was plenty of daylight left, so we decided to head upward to the base of the SE Pinnacle Couloir and confirm it had in fact been skied.
Obviously, it had, but we decided to climb into the base of the chasm and at least ski its big, creamy apron.
As a side note, I was surprised to see how much pepper there was in that line. It’s easy to forget, the upper elevations of the Talkeetnas are sporting a mere 1/3 the coverage they had this time last season.
While we had golden light when we dropped the apron, the exit from Webfoot was far more challenging. Flat light conditions descending through the boulder fields presented a very real hazard. We slowly and safely picked our way down. We were able to stay on the wide boards (cross-country snowboard for me) along the upper section of Archangel, and snagged our skinny skis on the way to the bridge. From there, we transitioned back to our narrow gear and skated back to the car.

Lower Webfoot-Fairangel CX Couloir

High dark walls helped with viz as we lost lighting.

Pano at the base of the Pinnacle SE Couloir, left, Upper CX right.

There's some rocks, up here...some big rocks.

Base of the SE Pinnacle Couloir's chasm

Heavy load.

The man, the legend, the colonel. We ran into Ed while he was grooming Friday night and promised not to disturb the fresh cord on our way back. Our reward: firm and fast cord for our trucking mission the next morning. We were sure to thank him profusely for his late night forays when we ran into him Saturday afternoon, getting some classic in and flicking sticks.

On Sunday, Cody and I did another dawn patrol up Archangel. We decided to keep it a little closer, and went into Sidney Creek. After sizing up the options, we aimed for the kinked south face couloir on Micro Dot. We knew it wasn’t going to go, but it seemed worth taking an up and close look. The added sun exposure meant the line had it’s fill of slough and chunky debris, but on the whole, it skied fairly consistently.
As expected, when we reached the crux, we found it beyond our abilities. Wall-to-wall it was hardly wide enough to side slip; passable snow was even less: 2.5 feet wide, and bullet proof. Oh, right, the slope below measured 50 degrees and the crux kicked up from that, so, 55 degrees? Absolutely do-able, but very high-consequence as it would require taking it straight-shot and then railing the punchy corner at full-throttle.
We dropped the lower half full of beta and inspiration.
Next up, we eyed one of the shady and cold lines. Sheltered, the snow was softer and lighter, but with coverage still lacking, it’s easy to forget that the innumerable buried boulders could be a playful stunt, or a knee shredding season-ender.
The line went down smoothly, and we were able to coast and double-pole most of the way back out the drainage to Archangel.
Objective 1: South side of Micro Dot. Name?

Great snow on the aprons.

Variable in the walls.

I shoved myself into the crux. Pretty tight and steep.

Looking down from my drop in the crux.

Reverse view. Photo C.G. (

The more time you spend in Hatcher, the more reasons you find to come back..

Topping out on run 2.

Quick blast of sun on the ridge...then back into the shadows.

Photo C.G. (

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Sneaker winter

As depressing as the current weather track is, I gotta say, this winter has been a bit of a sneaker.
So far, I’ve safely logged far more ski hours than fat bike hours.
Maybe it’s partly because I over-cooked myself this year on the bike, maybe it was getting a fall trip down south that satiated my desire to ride for a while, but I’m glad that winter riding has been limited.
In the grand scheme of things, this winter blows; but, maybe in the way that last summer was a sneaker for riding, this one is the same for skiing, especially in comparison to 2014.
Access is for sure worse than it’s ever been in the Kenai Mountains, but the skiing above 2,000’ feet in Turnagain has actually been better than this year than it’s been since the big winter of 11-12 (at least until as-of-late).
The 12-13 early season was thin and faceted, top to bottom, in Turnagain, and literally non-existent in Hatcher. Last year, I only skied Turnagain once before early February. On the flip side, Hatcher had plenty of snow last year, but kept going in and out due to freeze/thaw events, not to mention, it’s a difficult place to ski during storm events.
So, by the numbers, BC ski days logged, November 1-Jan 4:
13-14 – 10 days;
14-15 – 19 days.
The other aspect of this subjective equation, “objective days” – or high-quality days. I’d define these as days where I skied, or attempted to ski, something that actually felt like real skiing, not just chasing after laps. Up to this point last year, I’d attempted and completed 2 objectives, Gold Cord Peak and Pinnacle. Both were fantastic skis.
This year, I’ve skied three objective days: Basketball couloir, the nameless Idaho face (Potato Peak?), and Government north face.
While none of these holds a candle to Pinnacle, they still felt really good, and are on the books. Really important here though, since we’ve had ample opportunity to do laps days, I felt much better on all three of those days this year than I did last year on Pinnacle or Gold Cord, where I had only skied in marginal conditions two times prior. Finally, I haven’t been nearly as stressed out about conditions or avi concerns.
One thing that for sure sucks this year: the complete lack of skinny skiing. While this is more of a mid-week activity for me, I’ve put in fewer days this year on skate or classic skis than I did by Thanksgiving in any of the previous three years!

Where will this winter go from here?
My guess, it’s unlikely to recover.
Amateur meteorologist hat, on.
Right now there are three main factors all ganging up to ensure we don’t ski much in the second half of this winter: anomalously high sea surface temps in the north east Pacific (7 degrees centigrade in the north Gulf), a powerful eastern Pacific blocking pattern that extends along the entire west coast of North America, and a weak El Nino pattern.
This exact pattern set up for the winter of 2002-2003, and it never relented. Rain and warm temperatures persisted throughout that winter season, and rarely did any cold air seep down from the Arctic in the second half of the winter. 
Big picture, is it the end of winter forever in SCAK? Probably not. Two years ago our snow shovels and thermometers were taking a beating, and in 2008 and 2010, winter took the lead and carried right over into summer. I’d say we’re on the wrong end of the decadal cycle. Unfortunately, it’s hard to get psyched that mountain bike season will start earlier or that next year could be better, knowing this one is more than likely toast.
In some ways, that’s a nice analogy for the past weekend. In some senses, it was really nice: warm temps, good company, and firm trails made for very pleasant rides. On the other hand, as enjoyable as riding was, I really didn’t want to be riding, I wanted to be skiing.

Yep, those are shorts, in January. I can't say I was wearing short too, but Phil rides hard!

A quick stop to appreciate the weak, but bright, winter sun.
I went to check out the Haesler-Norris Trails in Houston on Sunday after seeing a recent post from Tim, hoping to find slightly more winter-like conditions. I was not disappointed. The trails were firm, fast, and offered lots of traction and no need for studs.

A big sign at the entrance to Zero Lake Rd warned of logging operations. Ah...getting run down by these rigs...just like back home. This was the only rig I saw though, and I like the slogan on the side: "Got Wood?"

The trails offered a little of everything, from spruce tunnels, birch glades, recently logged sections, wide open swamps, and narrow twisty corridors.

It almost felt like a throw back to when I lived in Soldotna and would escape the deep cold or dangerous avi conditions by going to Homer to skinny ski. In this case, I was fleeing north in search of winter riding. I'll be back.

Monday, January 5, 2015

Champagne Fizz in Hatcher

Long weekends like this one are the reason you put up with so much bull from AK.
Sloppy weather at sea level in the final days of 2014 translated into some of the best snow of the season in Hatcher Pass. The Talkeetnas were largely spared the outflow winds that buffed the Kenais.
Nathan and I headed north on Thursday. The ground fog and warm misty rain was thick from Anchorage to about Turners corner; from which, blue bird dominated.
We found the Pass to be a quiet place despite the holiday, and after perusing some of the other lots and recent avi activity, settled on Marmot’s west ribs. We were the first to get the central rib, and then lapped our own tracks on the same rib on run 2. That’s a rarity. We went back up for one more with a little more late-day company.

If I could sum of the first 4 days of 2015 into one shot, this would be it.

Thick clouds covered the valley floor all day.


Friday, the word was officially, out: Hatcher was in. I headed up with Joe, and while looking around, we ran into Brian. We decided, that though the crowds had arrived, Marmot still had a lot of untracked snow, a fact that surely would be untrue by the end of the day.
We joined the throngs, but were hardly disappointed. We put the 3rd through 6th set of tracks on the upper fin, and found plenty of open space in the mountain’s mid-section for runs 2 and 3. We were lucky to be right behind Andy M. who single-handedly busted a new mid-mountain skinner in the soft snow, taking out the traverse.


 "He turns like he's got a blog." A compliment or a stinging burn? We dunno, but does it matter? Video: J.E. 



As we rolled out Friday night, Joe and I began to talk options for Saturday. Knowing the skier pressure was growing, and with temps forecasted to crash to single digits, it was time to get start thinking big.
The south face above Goldmint TH caught our eye. Near enough, very fat, lined with wide ribs to plant a skinner on, and in the sun to stay warm on a cold day.
Nathan and Cody were in, and we launched on the early side Saturday am.
Temps were chilly, but warmer than we expected, a blessing and a curse. Alders were pinned down near the trail head elevation making ideal ski snares, but about a mile and a half out, we found a way to link the meadows to our face. Two incredibly hardy snowshoers were busting their own track upward on the ridge. While I didn’t envy their mode of travel, I admired their fortitude to plow through. We veered off their track rather quickly, and the snowshoers turned around about 1/3 the way up.
The ascent sucked: deep snow and a steepish slope made for heinous breaking and innumerable kick turns. Higher up, we encountered a few suspect pockets of wind slab. As the sun began to make its presence known, these pockets became well worth avoiding.
After 2 hours we made it to a point of relief in the alpine. A half hour later we topped out on the ridge.
Up top, the snow was thin, but we had sun and no wind.
I originally had thoughts about following the ridge the rest of the way to the peak west of Idaho (West Idaho Peak?). Google earth showed that it might have some potential north-facing terrain. That being said, we had spotted slides in similar north-facing terrain in the Little Su’s tribs. Skiing blind down the peak had little appeal. Also on our mind: the continued cooking going on below us. We opted to get back down.
The run skied like a big face, but was expectedly variable. Up top, all of us found gremlins, and lower down, some of the ribs slashed down to tundra on a hard carve.
It was a proud line, but probably one I won’t repeat.

Planning the next 2.5 hours and 2,000 vertical feet of pain.

Joe tops it out. The 50 feet to the ridge was thin and easier to boot.

Goodhope Creek drainage has so much potential. Photo: C.G.

Time for the reward. Nathan speed checks after blasting through the shark-infested entry.

Sun and shade.

Yours truly trying to avoid one rock and bound to hit another. Photo: J.E.
So...I got a GoPro as a gift this fall, but there really hasn't been a good reason to bring it out.

Looking back. Our line went pretty much dead center.
While in the lot, the discussion turned to Sunday. We put Nathan’s binocs on the north face of Government. We studied it, and were surprised to see both a lack of tracks or slide activity, aside from typical sloughing. We knew there would be a good skinner for access, and the plan was set.
Sunday am the temps were much colder, reading only 1 above at the trail head. Thing is, that’s what we wanted.
As expected, access was rather easy, thanks both to multiple skinners, but also, a snowmachine highway that went all the way up and over the saddle between Government Peak and Peak 46XX.

Rant: I’ve got nothing against sleds, I think that’s clear. I’d happily use one. This isn’t motorized vs not, this is open vs closed, and protecting an incredible ski resource. This area is definitively closed to snowmachines, no ambiguity about it. There is no loop-hole, no, “it’s actually open but basically illegal to access” (e.g., south side of the Lil Su). It’s just f-n closed. The only gray area, it’s managed by the Mat-Su Borough as opposed to the state. The latter agency is far better endowed and still struggles to enforce closures in Hatcher. Translation: it’s probably going to take community enforcement to keep this bowl from turning into high-mark city.
Rant over.

Along the skin, we studied the slope. There were two small pockets that had popped, one sympathetic to the other, though surprisingly, neither went to ground. Both were escapable.
From the saddle, we had a short skin on the ridge before it was time to go into booter-mode. The boot was variable, and ranged from waist deep to supportable. I thoroughly enjoyed the waist deep sections… We rotated through lead from safety point to safety point, and I ended up doing the last pitch over the rimey summit. As I stepped over the peak, I saw to my disbelief, a group of 10 skiers approaching from the Frostbite side of the ridge.
It was the most demoralizing sight I could imagine, and as Cody and Nathan joined, we grumbled at our bad luck. The line we had picked hardly seemed like it could support 13 tracks. We made our way down from the peak and met the group exactly where we planned to drop.
“I bet you guys think we’re here to ski that line,” one of them said.
Nope, turns out, they were out for a ridge line tour, and planning to ski the sunny south slopes back to Palmer.
Relieved, we pulled out probes and p-cord and began to hack at the small cornice that over hung the slope. There wasn’t a lot of over hang to break off, but we dropped a few microwave-sized blocks.
I was expecting deep, sugary, bottomless conditions as I’d encountered the previous three days. To my surprise, the blocks bounced off a firm base and glided down in boot-top soft…whoa.
The last time I skied this line it was April in a deep year. At that time, the entry did require a mandatory from an over hang, but relief came quickly on a shelf that at the moment was instead just exposed rock.
Entry to the line from the middle has an intimidating feel: wide and steep at the top, it funnels and gets a bit tight and then opens back up.
Cody dropped first, cutting the slope with 0 reaction. Here we go Pinnacle Couloir!
He took it right down the gut, making beautiful turns in cold blue snow that just vaporized with each turn. From the mid-point safety spot, he stopped and radioed up: bomber.
I went down next. Three deep-breaths, fist bump to Nathan, and took it straight to the gut.
The snow was cold; stuck to the mountain with no plans to go anywhere. We regrouped, and skied out the lower half of the line. A hasty transition in the freezing bowl, and we scurried back up the saddle and over to the top of 46XX. From the sun-lit ridge, we watched a group of three make a beautiful descent in a similar line to ours in the back of Toilet Bowl. The descent back down to the car was the usual 4068, exit-run shenanigans: quality vertical, messing around with alders and wind lips, getting messed with by said alders and wind lips, and coming up with children’s songs about STDs.

Assessing the ridge. Photo: C.G.

Eyes on eyes leap-frogging from refuge. The visbly textured slab between Cody and I made me nervous. Photo: C.G.

The steepest section, near vertical.

One of the twin gendarmes. Later in the season there's an aesthetic entrance right next to it.

Nathan in the top of the run.

Nice perspective on the face as we headed back to the saddle for the exit run.
When we piled into the truck and coasted back down through the canyon at the base of the pass, it hit me…I leaned a bit into the pile of packs and boots, felt my head grow heavy, and realized, I was exhausted.