Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Kickstep in the Clouds

With a big front barreling north and heralding the return of the incessant storm cycle, Cody, Nathan, and I went for Kickstep Mountain on Friday. We got the line, not the summit.
The initial plan was to go for the so-called Snake Couloir on the mountain’s eastern shoulder. The idea was to skip the long west ridge accent and associated cornice tramping, and boot the line head on.
While Kickstep is an iconic mountain, and a coveted Turngain descent, it’s not actually that big. Top to bottom, its maybe 1,200 feet of vertical. If you ski the mountain’s west fin, which seems to be the run-du-jour for many, you lose a lot of vertical traversing the summit ridge, scoring around 800 feet of very steep wall. The main run goes right from the steep summit cone and threads down through a narrow couloir, but once out of the choke, its wide open apron skiing. The Snake goes from fairly close to the eastern summit, and sustains its pitch as it winds between 1-2 sizable cliff bands (depending on the snow pack, there was only 1 this year) almost the entire way to the valley floor.
When we squared up below the Snake though, we were greeted by the sight of epic wind loading on the eastern side of the line. The glacial bulge of snow that would over hang us for the remainder of the day if we headed upward was hardly confidence inspiring. Topping out seemed unlikely as well: big broken cornices were peeling away from the eastern summit nub, and a pair of twin grooves ran down the entire Snake from where a pair of car-sized chunks had tumbled down the face…so, huh.
On the bright side, the main Kickstep line (Is there a name?) that goes from the summit and sneaks through the massive cliff band was in, and fat. We decided to stick with the plan of booting this line head on as well. In retrospect, I’m glad we did.
The line begins its descent off the steep, west summit cone, and sends skiers into a pair of adjoining v-shaped basins that drain down through a narrow couloir, spitting skiers back out on a big apron.
If one has ever wondered what it’s like to get flushed down a toilet, this is a good place to find out.
As we entered the couloir, we found it had been crusted up. I’m going to blame sloughing as the main culprit, but even though the chasm isn’t even ADA-certified width, the west side was bullet proof, while the east was punchy, so definite sun-effect as well. I’m sure the wind got in on the action too.
At the top of the couloir there was this awesome, wall-to-wall, bullet proof section of snow, with what we will call, an “ice bollard,” a 6 inch rock hard pylon, right there at the top of the choke. It was probably an old piece of chunder that arrested, got buried, and now promised to pop someone off their ass right before things got real.
At times, the Verts were as much a liability as a help, struggling to dig in more than a meager toe hold.
Above the couloir conditions improved a bit to breakable and then to soft snow.
We hit the ridge with the wind swirling snow flakes down on us. The final 200 vertical feet to the now cloud-encased summit were to be conquered another time, conditions hardly warranted our current presence.
We transitioned and began the descent, which went pretty much exactly how one would expect given the surface conditions encountered on the climb.
Nathan set the line off the ridge and got us above the choke. No surprise – the guy who seems to ride the fastest when the going gets rough and narrow – he pretty much blasted through the chasm, que up the Delia Banana Couloir (LINK).
Cody and I came through next, skiing far more conservatively. The ice bollard was the biggest pucker factor in my mind, the last thing I wanted to do was slide across it and get tossed into the narrow casm below. I crept down into the last meters above the choke until I was finally able to ID the bollard’s location amidst the flat light: it was easy, the cascade of broken chunks of slough that were tumbling around me were catching it and jettisoning off into the atmosphere.
Re-grouped on the wide apron, we party skied back down to the valley floor and made our way through the increasingly milky conditions.
Kickstep is a coveted ski in Turnagain Pass. It’s iconic, and looks like it could host a line or two for a ski movie. That being said, it’s also way more common to see tracks on Kickstep these days then it was 5 years ago. It seems like within 24 hours of the end of a storm cycle, someone will have nabbed a line on it. It’s a worthy ski for sure, and I would like to go back some other year. In fact, maybe if we’d been skiing with a foot of slough-tastic dry snow that wanted to sweep us away and flush us down that chute, I would have felt differently, but other than being annoyed by the marginal surface conditions, I wasn’t intimidated. I can’t qualify exactly why either, but I was way more gripped dropping into Grand Daddy Couloir in similar conditions earlier this year than I was dropping into Kickstep. I guess that’s fodder for another post though.

Kickstep, early March 2013.

Upper portion of Kickstep, seen from Pastoral in February 2013. Green line was route skied 2016, red is so-called snake couloir.

Great views.

The last couple 100 feet to the top. Not worthy.

Into the flush.

Posted up above the crux. Photo C.G.
Down the tube. Photo C.G.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Get Out When You Can

The story of the season for the El Nino winter of 15-16 in Southcentral Alaska is a diverse one. Told from Anchorage, it’s depressing and brown. Told from anywhere north of Anchorage, its been on the dry side. Told from south of Anchorage below 800 FSL its rainy; but told from above 800 FSL…its glacial?

The storm cycle that dawned December 26 has gone on with very few real interruptions. Some years, we enter long-term wet cycles where it storms for anywhere from 12-36 hours, with as many hours a reprieve between systems. This season, entire weeks have passed by where the Eastern Kenai and the Northern Gulf of Alaska has been under the continual blast of one cyclone after another. The result: a Kenai Mountain snowpack that is tracking toward the record books.

Snow Depth and Snow Water Equivalent at Center Ridge (1,800’) in Turnagain Pass

Feb 15*
Snow Depth

*Snow depth is approximated by comparing the previous and following day readings to eliminate anomalous recordings

Basically, '15-16 has no peer in the SWE department at this site. Snow depth, if compared only a week prior, would have held a lead over all other years in the table as well. Of late, the cycle has resumed and a massive front that moved in February 20th and reinvigorated the cycle by dumping two feet of snow at the highway elevation overnight is likely shoving '15-16 right back up to, or closely trailing, the epic winter of 2012. At other sites around the region, the numbers tend to sit closer to average, except that the USGS reported earlier this month that a measurement site of theirs situated above 4,000 feet on Wolverine Glacier outside Moose Pass is in the record-setting territory as well. In other big snow years, February through mid-March are traditionally very stormy and snowy months, and the long range forecast looks to support that this year as well.

From a skiing perspective, relentless storm cycles are a mixed blessing. The positives are obvious, but for the working stiff, getting out into the mountains has been a real challenge this year. If we’re lucky, there seems to be one day a week where the fortunes will favor anything more than storm skiing conditions. Identifying what day that will be, and then trying to make it line up with a work schedule and your partner’s schedules feels something like landing a space craft on the moon of a far-orbiting planet.

That being said, the storm skiing hasn’t exactly sucked, and Presidents Day revealed blue skies in Turnagain and some fantastic and deep snow on Corn Biscuit and upper Bertha Creek.

Clean slate for the morning.
Photo C.G.

Grand Daddy looking mystical.

Excited for another.

Last run, fading light.
A couple breaks on storm days too:

Photo M.N.

A deep day in a quiet zone.

Keeping tabs on a persistent layer.

Efficient skin tracks

Efficient runs.
It's a good life.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016


Are you a skier/snowboarder?
Have you skied in British Columbia?
If Yes: cool, good for you.
If no: stop reading this post and go arrange travel, now.
Yep, I definitely wasted the first 30 years of my life not ever skiing there. Lesson learned.
The AK crew (and the Lower 48 contingent) descended upon Canada for a week of skiing trees, bumps, and soft snow.
It seems this trip is cursed to find the January thaw wherever it goes. Last year we arrived in Jackson to find conditions fitting of late March rather than late January. This year was similar in Revelstoke: a warm up pushed into the region and shoved the freeze lines up, but it also brought with it precip.

Our itinerary had us fly into Calgary rather than Kelowna – the closest airport – as it was so much cheaper. We rented a truck and drove to Revvy the next day, stopping at Kicking Horse Mountain to ski a half day there as it dumped.
DT Calgary.
Kicking Horse was awesome, but it could also be called kicking rocks. The ridges you have to traverse to get into the goods are shale, and guaranteed to nick the bases. Just deal with it.
We couldn’t ski any of KH’s alpine lines with such limited viz and heavy snow, but were happy to spend our day there doing top-to-bottom tree runs that stacked up 3,000 vertical feet per lap. All but the last 500+/- feet were great, where the snow transformed and got too heavy. I’ve been told the slack country off KH is really awesome too. Maybe I’ll get to confirm on a future trip.
We spent the rest of the trip based out of Revelstoke.

Photo: C.G.

Photo: C.G.

Photo: C.G.

Cody gets all the credit for logistics, and got us a suite at The Sutton Place, the on-mountain hotel in Revvy’s little resort village.
Dan and Colin got their hats

So here’s what I can say on Revelstoke the mountain.
It’s really fun. Top to bottom, it sports 5,500 feet of vertical, or something like that, and it’s pretty well continuous, not some gimmicky “if you traverse from here to there BS.”
Unfortunately, due to the warm up, the best snow was found in the upper half of the mountain.
Anyway, if you look at a map of Revelstoke Resort, there aren’t that many trails…that’s because basically the whole mountain is the playground. A short hike above the Stoke Chair gets skiers into some more fun, alpine terrain, and the slack country opportunities are even better. Cliffs abound, and skiers have ample opportunity to throw themselves into the abys, but signage was plentiful enough for those who prefer to stay (mostly) on the ground.
Revelstoke the region sits a long way from anywhere. It’s just not super easy to get to. I think that’s good for a fairly obvious reason: it hasn’t totally blown up.
With Rogers Pass just a ways down to road, and a number of heli-operators nearby, it’s not that this area isn’t a well-known ski zone, it’s just that it isn’t super well known for its lift serve, yet.
In some ways, it’s kind of ideal. You have this ski area that can put you into fun skiing, even if weather or avalanche conditions aren’t great, but more importantly, you have some great backcountry skiing options right there as well, with a full suite of access options.
For my purposes, this trip is all about taking a mid-winter break from AK to do all the other kinds of skiing we just don’t get here (specifically, trees and lifts), and still have the option to go out and do a couple tours, it’s perfect.
Oh right, then there’s the economy. Canada was 30% off on this trip thanks to a strong American dollar. I bought a 3-day vertical pass in advance of the trip and paid about $55 US a day!
My biggest complaints about the area: dang it’s a small town. By the end of the trip, it was almost getting creepy when wait staff we didn’t recognize knew who we were, or we’d see people we had just met in town. I think if we stayed another week, we could have been considered locals. Because the area is pretty far removed though, alternative lift serve options are not great. Rogers Pass is a rugged drive if there’s weather and it’s regularly shut down for avalanche control, so busting over to Golden to ski KH isn’t a sure bet.
It’s also clear enough that eventually the owners of RMR want to see it blow up, turn into Whistler or some such crud. The 2008 financial crisis put the brakes on those plans, but I suspect that eventually they will resume development.

Real deal, check out the set up.


Along with 5 days of lift serve, we also did an awesome tour in Rogers Pass, took a heli ride into another zone to go tour, and did a day of low-angle heli skiing in the trees.

By far, the absolute highlight of the trip for me was the heli-assisted tour. Colin graciously footed the bill for the entire crew. We flew with Selkirk Tangiers, and our guides, Simon and Larry, were awesome!
Heli skiing has the aura of being hardcore and BA. Most the time, for the day-tripper, it’s not. It’s nice to get a lift to the top of a run, but expecting to ski agro terrain is bound to yield disappointment. Cat skiing, likewise, and indeed any guided skiing, can be frustrating to the competent and experienced backcountry skier: you’re lucky to ski more than a couple 100 feet at a time, and are basically out of control in terms of run and terrain selection the entire time.
My wiser friends have said that if you want to have more synergetic heli-ski experience, you really need to commit to the trip, and that means buying a package and paying for several days. Repeat business build relationships. In the scheme of things, it’s logical. Just as with touring partners, you probably want to get to know them, their ability’s, and their snow sense, before you charge off and ski the meanest line in the zone. If nothing else, it’s another good parallel between the guided fishing industry and the guided ski industry.
The heli-tour combo though, there’s something to it. Obviously, it’s cheaper than a full day of heli-skiing, there’s only one ride in and one ride back out. You get a free run at the beginning of the day, which is a bonus, but from there on out, it’s back to self-propelled. Simon and Larry delayed our start to let all the other groups (we were the only group touring) get out and find a zone, and then took us into their West Twin zone, where we never saw another bird until pick up time.
The big advantage to the heli-tour for the experienced BC skier is that while we were obviously operating in a new mountain range on an unfamiliar snowpack, we were otherwise very much in our comfort zone, and had ample opportunity to demonstrate this.
It took no time at all for our guides to see that we knew what we were doing, from the pre-requisite avalanche scenario, to putting in an uptrack, and skiing strong. Very quickly, the experience felt collaborative.
We could ask Simon for his thoughts on various runs, and he gave us feed back on what the stability issues for the region were and what his comfort level was. In turn, he did his best to get us on some fun lines, including talking us off a sizable cliff band…just saying, most guiding outfits will steer you way clear of such features, or try and keep you from hucking them to say the least.
Basically, my final take away, if you’re traveling somewhere new and want to go explore a little beyond, but want some professional help with snowpack and terrain assessment, this is seemed like a huge win.


Larry and Simon were happy to give us a beta dump on Rogers Pass and where we should head for tour later in the week. As it worked out, Simon had an off day on Wednesday when we planned to tour, and he ended up joining us, which, was really flattering, I think, as I’m sure he has plenty of other folks he could spend time with. We ended up doing a longer tour up the Asulkan Valley that included a loop along the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier, and skiing a couple fun runs in a zone called The Ravens. It was great to get to see a little bit more country, and we really benefited having Simon along, not just for his good company, but also to keep us on route. I think on our own we might have squirreled around a bit too much and ended up missing out on a run due to daylight. Larry wasn’t along for the tour, but he caught up with all of us later on in town for a brew.

Great trip!