Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Northeast Pinnacle Couloir and Other Fun in Fairangel

Creative credit for this one goes to Kyle…kinda.
Kyle sent me an email suggesting we ski a couloir northeast of Pinnacle. He even sent me a nice map with the line, front and center. I read the email as “the” line NE of Pinnacle, and never opened the map. I was in.
In the end, it didn’t really matter that we were talking about two different neighboring lines, as the target valley was the key.
Though Hatcher hasn’t picked up even a fraction of the snow that’s fallen to the south this past month, I had a suspicion snow was still accumulating in very manageable amounts in the higher reaches, and would we’d thus not have the same, scary, stability issues plaguing the Kenais.
It was nonetheless pretty funny when we finally made the corner into Fairangel, and I had my eyes on NE Pinnacle Couloir, and Kyle had eyes on the big cross-cut couloir he had initially been thinking about, and we both realized, we’d been talking different lines.
Though the cross-cut couloir is spectacular – a surprisingly straight and wide chasm that runs diagonally across a massive cliff wall – its orientation is almost due east, with a lot of tilted southern exposure. We could see pretty quick it was catching a lot of sun.
That was no worry, the NE Pinnacle looked dark and cold!
Joining us for the adventure was Nathan R, who had some summertime experience climbing in Fairangel.
We had debated access, with the options being to either come up and over from Independence Mine, using the NW Pinnacle couloir for the climb, or making the much longer approach via Archangel Road.
Kyle and I used skate skis to access the neighboring Webfoot Valley back in January, but with spring in full effect, we knew the road would be frozen hard and rutted up in the morning, and slushy and soft on the way out. Skating pack-less would have been miserable in these conditions, so skating in with loaded packs was pretty much guaranteed knee surgery.
Though the NW couloir up-and-over was appealing for its brevity, we decided the long way in was the safer option as it would allow us to assess the snowpack and the condition of the line on the way in – after all, this is Hatcher Pass in a thin year.
We were cruising across the rock hard and icy road nice and early. The sun was out, and we made descent time to the end of the road.
I was shocked we were only passed by one skate skier the whole way. While the road was horrid, everything else was bomber crust. In my mind, if we failed to find powder, I’d already resolved to return with skinny skis the following day.
I guess skate skiing really is dying.
We didn’t have to go that far into Fairangel to start finding nice pockets of protected powder, even at the valley’s base, and as soon as we started climbing, we realized we were in for some great skiing.
The higher we climbed, the better the snow got.
By 1130 we were lined up beneath the apron of the NE and ready to start the climb.
Kyle and Nathan broke the skinner into the bottom of the gun barrel, where Kyle dug a quick pit.
We found over a foot of light density powder well bonded to a thick crust. Below this was the early March snow, and beneath that, another layer of crust covering the Hatcher Pass square powder base we’d been skiing all season.
The line had seen light to medium amounts of sloughing from snow bombs, though nothing too significant.
I strapped on the Verts and started the climb.
The line featured no real protection until pretty far up. Within the last 75 feet there were two “roofs,” however, they afforded  minimal protection, and the second roof sported a Buick-sized overhanging cornice no one was excited about going under.
Along the way, the snow took on a slightly more packed-powder feel, though promised to be very edge able.
I continually probed for hollow layers below, scared we’d push onto slab, but never found any.
Kyle took the last pitch, which required an interesting wiggle maneuver between the small ridge cornice and Pinnacle’s rocky face to top out.
There was just enough real estate for the three of us up there.
After the climb, and looking down into the NW Couloir, I was glad we’d made the long approach. The NW looked like it might have been a little crusty up top from wind and sun. More importantly, we had some critical beta, and confidence in our line. The entry was intense, and required side-slipping between the cliff face and cornice into the 50+ degree pitch, and within three turns, cleaning a crux created by a partially buried cliff band that sported some bedrock just begging to tag our bases or worse.
Nathan dropped first.
The firmer packed powder higher up skied beautifully. I was surprised by the amount of slough Nathan moved. He got through the crux without finding the bedrock, and as he entered the lower portion of the couloir, we knew we were in for a treat: huge flumes.
Kyle went in next, and I got to take the coveted T-Rice honors.
I kept my line to the right, up on the fin, the entire way down. The snow was largely unsettled there, and I was in a near continuous powder cloud.
The intense entry and incredible snow that followed had my adrenaline on high the whole way; through most the run I had a steady flowing stream of dry slough tumbling alongside.
I could not have been happier with the way the line skied when I got back down.
We finished out the run through the rest of the bowl, and stoked on the snow quality, went back up and skied from the couloir’s mouth back out to Archangel.
Cruising back down the road in shorts and t-shirts on afternoon corn wasn’t bad at all.

The NE Pinnacle Couloir as seen on Google Earth

Nathan checks the outhouse at the end of Archangel for wolverines.

Target in sight.

A chimney wiggled between these two granite summits and made for a nice ski the next day.

Mouth of the couloir.

Poke poke.

There was just enough space for the three of us on the small ledge at the top, and I was standing on a slight rock shelf.

Looking westward toward Goldcord Peak.

Oh ya, and then there was this guy...a nice Buick-sized conice perched on a hot rock. Nice.


Ya...I was a little stoked at the bottom!


I headed back into Fairangel solo on Sunday. With the weather forecasted to be a carbon copy of Saturday, and confident in the area’s stability, I was comfortable with being alone.
I’ve hardly done any solo days this season, and though they’re not a great habit to get into, when conditions line up, I find they offer their own set of rewards.
I wanted to first check out the cross-cut couloir before it had too much time to cook, and then spend the rest of the day playing in the dark and cold shadow of the ridge that separates Fairangel and Webfoot.
I knew going in that the cross-cut line probably wouldn’t be a full-go, but I wanted to poke at it. Surprisingly, the first 500 feet of the line was in good condition: about 2-6 inches of slough that was the consistency of cream cheese on a rock solid, but carvable base. I ended up climbing a titch less than half the line, broiling in the sun the whole way. Just a little shy of midway, the snow changed suddenly, and consisted of a little over a foot of un-sloughed, wet, slabby, mank, with a crunchy untransformed layer immediately below that, and more layering deeper down.
Aside from concerns about how stable this top layer was, I knew ski quality was going to get worse, so I parked on a big exposed rock in the middle of the run away from the walls, and transitioned.
Skiing the full line will remain somewhere on a mental list, and would make a good spring objective in another 2 weeks, but is otherwise probably better reserved for mid-winter.
The lower portion of the line skied really well anyway, but I was happy to scoot over into the cold and dark side of the valley and get out of the infernal sun.
I had my eyes on a short, but very steep chimney that split two granite peaks. As I began the boot in earnest, I was impressed by how much snow the chimney held as I wallowed thigh deep, even with verts; and was further impressed by its steepness.
I don’t need to say it skied really great right?
I dropped all the way back down to the base of the valley for a nice long powder bowl run, and then headed back up, and broke a new skinner on a slope between the chimney and the east buttress of the Pinnacle to have a recon look down into the Upper Webfoot-Fairangel Crossover Couloir for a future tour.
By the time I reached the ridge, the efforts of the past two days had finally caught up with my legs.
The snow was really nice on the climb though, and I savored the moment, knowing this would very likely be my last powder run of the season.
Though the day before we had heard the echoes of voices from a number of skiers and even a couple of snowmachiners down in Archangel, been passed overhead by a parade of small planes; today had been markedly quieter. Except for two planes earlier in the morning, I hadn’t heard another human-generated noise all day. Sometimes, the sound of a distant tumbling rock would echo, and some ravens had made a brief ruckus later. That was it. I could list all the sounds I’d heard in the past 6 hours on one hand.
With that, I pushed the nose of the board over the lip, took one more look around, and dropped in:

Halfway on the cross cut looking up. While rollerballs littered the surface of the snow, above this, it hadn't sloughed out or fully transformed yet.

Looking down. The line was probably stable, but the shade and powder across the way beckoned.

Another view of the Pinnacle.

Reverse view of the cross-cut from the chimney. I turned around just above the rock about midway.

Looking over Webfoot and Syndey.

Looking down the snowy chimney.

Third run, taking a peak down the Upper Webfoot-Fairangel Crossover Couloir.

Taking it in.

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