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 10:30.

Photo C.G.

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

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