Thursday, April 16, 2015

Three Lines; Alaska Range 2015

Last fall when Aaron asked me if I was interested in doing another ski trip to the Alaska Range in April, I had about a .00001 second delay before I said, “yes.”
I regretted not doing a ski trip last winter, and Aaron does a phenomenal job herding cats (skiers) and taking care of the planning and logistics required to spend a comfortable week in the state’s most defining range.
Photo: A.H.

We headed into the upper Buckskin glacier, an area not heavily frequented.
Assembled on the tarmac in front of a Talkeetna Air Taxi turbine otter, pilot Paul came over and took one look at our gargantuan pile of gear, and started laughing – it’s no wonder hardcore climbers make fun of skiers.
Paul mentioned that, “we might get a little bit of precip,” in the coming week, but the wistful way he said it reminded me of how we at fish camp used to tell clients, “we might get a bite,” when the fishing was horribly slow.
We knew a storm was lined up in the North Pacific, but we were uncertain as to how it would impact us, if at all.
Fresh from a day of skiing deep, north-facing pow in Turngain just 12 hours prior, Paul’s comment seemed to confirm my pessimistic fear that we’d find wind-hammered conditions and limited soft snow. I assumed he was just trying to plant a seed of hope for us.
Despite the pile of junk we shoved into the Otter, along with the 6 dudes and Paul, that badass bird launched off the runway like it was empty.
I love those planes.
Paul gave us the royal treatment, and said he’d give us a fly-over of the zone to point out various lines he’d skied, and then let us decide where we wanted to plant ourselves. We were super grateful for this.
We chose to get dumped higher up the glacier, closer to the base of Mooses Tooth, and a suite of bigger and steeper AK Range-style lines.
Lower down, we would have had the option to do a good deal of proud skiing, but would have also found some more gradual “pillow” terrain in between.
As we entered the foothills, I pressed my face against the plexiglass bubble window, studying the mountains for clues, cracks, fractures, wind striations.
Honestly, snow conditions looked fairly benign.
As Paul banked hard against the steep mountain walls and brought us down, I had my face smooshed so hard to the window it’s sort of a wonder one or the other didn’t break.
I watched as the plane’s skis finally hit the glacier snow: powder flumed and the struts sunk lower as the engine throttled back.
“Huh, this is a big plane with a big engine and fat skis…they can probably power through anything,” the pessimist in me thought.
Paul killed the engine and jumped out of the cockpit.
As he walked by the plane, he waded through knee-deep, soft snow.
“Holy f#^k!!!”
We strung out along the wing and unloaded the plane.
Paul continued to point out various lines we should check out, and doled out ample info on persistent wind direction, and the best configuration for camp, and perhaps more importantly, where he wanted his runway.
He mentioned the storm again, noting that it would probably, “come from over there,” he said, pointing to the massive Tooth.
He mentioned he’d be flying back over us today with a group of sightseers, and after taking another long look around, pointing again to a particular summit he said we needed to ski, he climbed back aboard the Otter.
“You guys are gonna get some serious snow,” he said, before slamming the door and throttling up the engine.
You can imagine, at this point, I was kind of confused. Were we going to get a few inches, or should we be thanking our lucky stars Aaron found that grain shovel on the side of the highway?
Time would tell.
With 6 people, camp set up was a breeze. Prior to construction, I’d probed the area out, and needed nearly the entire probe to hit the ice below.
Camp, by the way, is a bit of a misnomer; compound might be a better descriptor.
By 2:30, we were done.
Time to ski.
We roped up and headed toward the Tooth, aiming for some north-facing terrain.
We eventually picked a really nice fin that had a NW aspect to it, and low (by AK Range standards) over head or downslope hazards. We headed a short ways up the and dropped a pit.
The results were the best thing a skier can hope for: About 6-8” of dry, fresh recycled pow was relatively poorly bonded to another 12-18” of recent snow, which was well-bonded to a solid and deep base.
The surface 6-8” was too dry or light to cause a concern, and although it was faceted both above and below, it proved to be of little concern.
We topped out the fin and enjoyed a fantastic evening run back down.
With a track in place, heading back to camp was an easy cruise in split ski mode.
Paul flew back overhead while we headed home and had a look at our tracks.
It felt like we’d arrived in paradise.

Yeah, we had a lot of stuff.

Paul told us to ski off this.

Which looks like this. The big inset couloir is massively tempting too.

Paul gave us a lot of beta. Photo M.G.
Mike makes the pee spot.

Camp set up went quickly with many hands.

Let's go ski! Photo A.H.
In a haste to take off we forgot to secure camp from the ravens. I turned tail and sped back to their dismay, but got this shot of the crew about a mile off

From the top of the fin looking back toward camp. Paul pointed to the hanging snow field past that as another good ski, though its approach aspect would have been crusty.

Kicked in at the top of the fin. Photo M.P.
Kellen drops in.

Paul takes a look at our tracks.

Sunday dawned with high, broken clouds.
A cluster of more easterly facing couloirs north of camp caught our eye, and we headed back up the valley.
The chosen line of the day again posed little overhead hazard, though part of the “apron” was a nearly 100-foot cliff with a large hole below. It was easy to avoid, but this is the way the AK Range is: even your most straight-forward, low-light, low hazard conditions, would still love to kill you if you biff.
The snow in the line looked good from a distance, and indeed, the apron was creamy and soft, but within the white granite chambers, we found that sloughing caused by falling debris from above had transformed the snow to punchy. The upshot was that the slough gave the snow a great visibility component, and the overhead hazards had long since fallen.
Matt, Aaron, and I punched up it while the rest of the crew did a hot lap on a neighboring apron. The snow conditions hardly warranted the maximum effort, and we turned tail a few hundred feet above the apron as we realized conditions would not improve farther up. We dropped to rejoin the group.
While it was survival skiing at best, I didn’t mind it, and when Kellen, Mike, and Kenny said they’d like a stab, I was glad to take advantage of the kicked-in booter and hit it again.
I actually felt a little better on the second run, but there wasn’t much question, while most of us survived, Kenny slayed the line.

A side view of the target couloir. Photo A.H.

Photo M.G.

The choke consisted of a rock-hard slough bed.

Kicked in.
Monday, the clouds had sunken low around the glacier. Vertical was pretty well out of the question, but with our eyes set on one of the peaks Paul had pointed out a few miles away down glacier, we figured we’d set ourselves up and punch the 3-4 miles lateral track into its base so we could glide down and hit it once the skies popped.
It was actually a pretty good use of the day. We got as close as we dared to the and increasingly jagged edge of the glacier in the flat light, and stopped for lunch, admiring an obvious and deep couloir that spurred from the summit line.
We knew we’d have to do a bit more route finding to get into the apron of the line, but also knew we’d be better served to wait for better viz.

Photo A.H.


Tuesday morning broke much like Monday with low clouds.
Kenny optimistically proclaimed “it’s gonna go blue.”
As we ate breakfast, the sound of falling snow ricocheted off the tent walls. We looked outside: snow-poccalypse had started, and basically didn’t give up for another 60 hours.
Winds through the snowfall were mostly light, though a brief interlude did create a noticeable layer about mid-way down.
For the most part, the snow fell the way one would hope, on the heavier side.
The camp held up great, the deep trenches and high walls did their job in capturing and blocking the snow, and dig outs were fairly easy, aided by the grain shovel.
Late on Wednesday, a break in the storm gave us a hopeful glimmer of the surrounding mountains. The pillow lines on the south-facing slopes north of camp promised to deliver some fun skiing once the skies began to clear off for real.
In the meantime, reading, writing, sleeping, eating, and Monoploy Deal filled the hours, along with listening to the thunderous avalanches that poured off the north-facing cliffs on the south side of the glacier.

It's gonna go blu...shit.

Wednesday morning.

Six sweaty dudes stuck in a tent for days. No but really, this is how I spend my off time.
By Thursday, the storm had finally begun to retreat, and we were all eager to ski, despite the lingering clouds and snow showers.
Depending on aspect, slopes had picked up 2-3 feet.
We headed first for the south-facing stuff near camp. I headed up the middle of a fin we planned to ski, feeling the remnant, choloupa-taco sun-crust layer closer than preferred. About 30-feet up the slope, I triggered a deep collapse 3 feet down that resonated strongly downslope. More than likely, the slope only held thanks to the stout crusts and the many giant boulders acting as anchors. With ample glacial traps beneath us, it didn’t add up. I’d planned to get a little more upslope to drop a pit, but here was as good as any. The slope had probably collapsed on a buried sun crust, a foot down from the previous surface crust, now 3 feet down from the surface of the new snow.
We cruised a few miles back, stopping for lunch close enough to the Tooth it hurt to look up at it, before continuing further back to a face loaded with giant, tempting couloirs.
Nearing the gateway of one of the couloirs, Kenny, Kellen, and I spread across the apron and dropped a pits, not wanting to go farther up and crap our pants again.
The results were a little variable, but showed that beneath the new snow, the surface layer we had skied on day one was problematic. The new snow was failing at an ECPT of 15-20 with a Q2-3 shear…not bad. The problem came on the next hit. In almost every pit, one more hit after the storm snow went, the former surface layer, now compressed to 4-6 inches of brittle syrafoam, popped clean with a Q1 shear.
Below this, we were finding more complicated layering on east and south aspects than we found on the north/west, indicating potential to step down further. With the clouds thickening and snow flurries intensifying, we headed back home, stopping at the fin we’d skied the first day to see what the story was there.
Basically the same thing, sans the more complicated sun crust issues, though the storm snow was 3 feet or deeper on this aspect.
Another day and some cooler temps seemed to be needed to boost bonding and confidence. For now, we had a textbook picture of a stressed out snowpack.

Headed toward the Tooth.

The lower half of a highly-desired couloir. Above the clouds the line split into a massive bowl with 5 fingers above that reaching some 3,000' to the ridgeline. For perspective, we're at least 20 minutes just from the very base of the apron.

Another pit.
We faced a new dilemma though. Mike’s wife had sat-texted us the forecast for the coming days, and it appeared a weak storm was on the horizon.
Even with another day to bond, it seemed like a bad idea to go for one of the big lines we’d eyed (not to mention the track we’d busted down glacier was long gone). At best, we could hope for skiing some isolated fins or low-danger aprons on Friday…terrain that while fun, is hardly iconic. In doing so, we would risk getting stranded in the tents for our planned pick up date on Saturday if another storm moved in.
We decided to check in with TAT Friday morning and get their prognosis.
Overnight, a light, cool wind blew, and temps dropped, helping to consolidate the fresh snow. Overhead, we were dazzled by an amazing aurora display.
When we awoke, the clear skies had been replaced by a low cloud and snow flurries with viz less than 100 feet.
TAT told us they could get us either day, though the pick up would require a viz window. No sooner did we get off the phone did the clouds began to peel off.
Exercising restraint, and noticing the giant bank of clouds down glacier, we opted to go pack the runway. If the clouds were still at bay when we finished, we’d head for the slopes, if they moved back in, we’d probably have to cross our fingers and hope for another window, or plan for another day of hanging out at camp.
We probably only got ¼ of the runway in before the cloud bank rolled in as thick as it ever had. Viz was back down to 100 feet or less.
We packed out a big strip, and went back to camp. For another hour and a half we sat around.
The trip was obviously over.
Around 2, the cloud lifted again. The bank of clouds down glacier looked a little less threatening, and we called TAT again and asked for the pick up.
Camp tear down was about as efficient as set up, and we had time to spare before Paul cruised in.
It was depressing, for me at least, to stare at all the lines and all the slopes, to know that they were there, but that they would have to wait for another day, and fill my dreams until then.
We were treated to a cold but brilliant display Thursday night. Photo A.H.
My camera can't match Aaron's.


Bummed. Photo M.G.

Camp tear down. Photo M.G.

Back to civilization. Photo M.G.
 It’s easy to get lulled into the rhythm of weekend adventures in the country and terrain 1-2 hours from Los Anchorage.
It’s easy to forget that the glacier-clad peaks on the north and west horizons of the city aren’t that much more of a drive, plus a short plane hop away, and yet, they exist an entire world away.
While I think we all had our hopes for the trip dashed by the powerful North Pacific low that set up shop in Southcentral Alaska, we were still lucky to spend time in a place that serves as a compelling reminder of why some of the best skiing in the world is found here…and how insignificant a scratch on the surface most of our adventures really are.

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