Thursday, June 8, 2017

Running Uphill

This spring I decided to give competitive mountain running a try.

These high on vertical, low on lateral foot races are a big deal in Alaska, with several events so popular they are lottery entry only, and easily fill to capacity.

I’ve always admired the racers, and been a follower of some of the more popular events, keeping tabs on who is doing well, who is poised to strike a big win, sets a record, etc. That being said, I’ve never had a strong interest in competing.

Running is something I actually really enjoy. Aside from being a highly practical and economic work out, it’s one of the few workouts I do where I find my mind can just wander. I come back from runs feeling refreshed in a way I just don’t get on most bike rides.

The last few autumns I’ve been doing more overland “mountain” running in the Chugach, and, aside from the fact that I really enjoy it as an off-season activity, I noticed that when it came to going uphill, I was pretty descent.

This last point shouldn’t come as a surprise. I’m fairly small, which gives me an advantage in just about any uphill-oriented activity; but it also doesn’t hurt that the muscle mechanics of backcountry skiing and pedaling a bike lend themselves well to steep foot travel.

After this winter’s Tour of Anchorage and Kachemak Nordic Marathon, I decided I should give competitive mountain running a try this spring, before the mountain bike race season began in earnest.

Aside from suspecting that I would do OK, I also expected that mountain running would provide a flavor of competition I embrace.

I like events where I’m going head to head with others, pushing myself to keep up or keep ahead. If the race ends just a wheel length, ski length, or maybe a foot fall, in front or behind someone, I got my money’s worth.

The bell curve for results in these races, particularly the shorter uphill-only ones, is tightly packed.

As excited as I was to give this all a try this spring, I did not directly train for these events in any way. In fact, I ran less this spring than I have in the last 10 years or so due to some scheduling stuff; though I was road biking a normal amount, and had good carry-over fitness from Nordic.

 

The first event I signed up for was Kals Knoya Ridge. The race starts a short walk from a secluded subdivision at the corner of Muldoon and Tudor, and is pretty informal. The short of it: I placed 9th of 59 in the “Original Dome” course, running the 3.5 miles and 2,900 vertical feet in 50:25.

Not surprisingly, I loved it. I was quite happy with my time too. Without much for reference, I was hoping for about an hour.

I was also quite happy with my choice to run the “Original” course, as opposed to the “Full Monty,” which follows the original course, and then continues upward along the ridgeline toward Knoya Peak, for a total of 5.3 miles and 4,300 feet of vertical. Veterans tell me the longer event rolls along seemingly endlessly. I think if I wanted a better idea of how I stacked up against my age bracket peers, I would have found a better answer in the longer distance, but, common, this was my first time, and, as I’m coming to learn, having a good race doesn’t just mean signing up for the biggest and the baddest option. Maybe I’ll try the Full Monty in the future. TBD.

 

The highlight of the event was undoubtedly having some great comradery with Nathan and Rob, who were both trying out this mountain run thing too. It was good to have friends to share anxieties with at the start line, and war stories with on the walk/jog back down.

Also, we all faced a brief but raging snow and hail squall on the final push to the top. It sure made those last punishing minutes very real.

Don’t start in the back

Rob, Nathan, and I all kind of agreed: we didn’t want to be “that guy” who starts too close to the front, and causes a traffic jam, so we all started in the back. All three of us learned pretty quick into the run, we should have given ourselves more credit. All of us spent a good portion of the event having to barge through the emerging devils club to pass long conga lines of runners. On the upside, we all agreed it kept our pacing pretty chill down low along the rolling and flat sections. It was rare that I felt like I could push the pace much faster along most the flat sections, certainly not fast enough to make aggressive passes. I reserved my passing mostly to the short up hills lower down, and occasionally on flats or rolling terrain if someone started to let a gap open up in front of them. I was only passed once the entire time in Knoya, and I had just passed the guy. It’s a nice morale booster to do all the passing, but, not good strategy.  Higher up in the race I began to catch up with more runners going a pace closer to mine, but, I still did a lot of passing every time the course pointed upward.

At the finish, there was basically no question, I had a blast! I wished it was a bit more of a “race,” but I felt really good with my effort overall.

 

The next event was Government Peak. Starting at the Government Peak Rec Area, the course climbs about 3,700 vertical feet in 2.5 miles according to my Garmin. I finished 1:00:28; 38th/105 overall; 8th in age class.

Compared to Kals, this event felt brutal! The weather was practically the opposite from Kals: mid 60s, sunny, and a light breeze. Quite nice really. Government also started in three, self-seeded waves. I placed myself in wave 1, for racers who thought they could finish in under an hour. This seemed reasonable to me based on the previous week’s run, though I knew it would take work. I did not want to get stuck in the back again.

The race went out pretty fast considering what we had on our plate. I just held my own on the short approach. There were a few quick broken climbs early on and I made a few moves. There was a lot of jostling going on. People who went too hard on the lower flats were suddenly dropping back, and people who had better uphill legs were scooting up.

Then the course hits an endless Alaskan mountain wall. A bulk load of the vertical route is really steep scrambling, hand over hand, grab an alder, grab a root, grab a rock.

It’s endless, and it’s steep.

I was sitting in with two dudes who were probably going just a tad slower than I could, but not enough to justify a risky pass. One or two speedy climbers were able to scramble through, but positioning was pretty static.

There were very few short flats through the steeps, footing was unsure, and my lower back was complaining loudly. Also, my right foot was growing increasingly numb. I tried to pick up a jog any time there was a flat, but between my foot and back, it was uncomfortable, and the pitch would go so steep again that I could not carry an momentum.

Eventually the course hits the more rolling alpine ridge.

This is where the true climbers separated themselves, and despite my hopes, I was not amongst them. I know the exact point where my biking and skiing muscles had given me what they could. I remember realizing, in almost horror, that the fitness freeride was over.

I power-paced the endless ridgeline, trying to focus on form, and recruiting strength by channeling skinning and biking technique wherever possible.

Efficiency allowed me to pick off a couple others, but overall, I watched the nose of the race pull farther and farther ahead. I could not summon the power to jog, even though the gradient was generally low enough I probably could have we it not for the effort dumped out on the wall below.

Right near the finish, two guys behind me punched it, and though I didn’t have much left to contest, I took the bait and punch it too, getting pipped two spots. I felt physically destroyed.

 

More?

A friend asked if my bikes were going to get jealous of my sneakers?

I think for now the answer is safely: no.

I really had fun in Kals, but, I also think I learned in Government, that the former was a fitness free ride. Government kicked my bike-pedaling butt.

In both events, one thing I noticed, was that while those around me were very often sucking air, I rarely found myself breathing hard, comparatively. My legs were giving it their all, but they weren’t asking for more than my heart and lungs were ready to provide. It’s typically quite the opposite for me in full-on bike races, where my legs will outstrip cardio.

Another lightbulb I had go off in Government was: “why am I paying money to run up this mountain, when I can run up any mountain in Alaska for free?”

The answer of course, is obvious: it’s a race. But I guess, when I had that thought, it no longer felt like one to me. I was slammed. I was just surviving. If I beat someone, it wasn’t really because I had more skill or cunning, was actually faster; they just hurt more than I did.

It was pretty clear that running uphill is a more of a 1:1 activity in terms of fitness returns. You get what you put in.

You can get strong on a bike by training a lot, and turn pedals like a machine; but if you can’t handle the bike, at least in mountain biking, you’ll just be a machine that crashes into trees.

I think Kals will stay on my calendar going forward, and I’am hoping to revist competitive uphill running in fall if it avails itself, but whether I do Government again, or sign on for mid-summer races – this season or next – remains somewhere between “we’ll see” and “probably not.”

As for competitive trail running…that was never really an interest from the beginning, and certainly, this did not spark any interest. I just hung on through flats in these two courses.

 

Not surprisingly, I had some broader takeaways and learnings.

 

Don’t start in the back

OK, so, I didn’t know how Knoya was going to go, being my first running race ever, but I won’t make that mistake again. I would not start on the front row either, but, I think it’s fair to say that, I should at least be close enough to the front to see the leaders. At government, there could be some logic to starting in wave 2, in that, and if you’re on the tail end of the wave 1 seeding like me, you might be able to get a little more freedom to maneuver through the steeps and run your own pace.

Passing seemed tricky.

It felt difficult to ludicrous to pass in both races. I got the sense in Knoya that passing just doesn’t happen a lot in general. People settle out and dig in. Since I was clearly too far back in that race, I had to make endless passes.

Sometimes something like this happens in bike racing due to a mechanical or because a faster group will lap a slower group. Other riders are often all too eager to get out of the way, and at times, I’ve had to tell a rider I’ve caught to just chill out, and let me around at safe spot for both of us: they don’t need to throw themselves into the devils club!

In this case, it felt rather the opposite, particularly at Government.

It felt like passing involved mandatory devils club bashing, saying “on your left” was an inconvenience,” and in some cases, a little elbowing and shoulder bumping was required. Early on in Knoya, passing was swift, and mostly relegated to the short hills, where I would pass up to 5 people in as little as 20 feet. I wasn’t too concerned since they were usually going really slow as soon as they hit a hill.

Later on in Knoya, and for most of Government, I found that I really had to say something if I wanted the pass to go smoothly, or provide a gentle tap on an elbow. If all else failed, it was time to get pushy. It struck me that, given the sometimes sketchy footing, it was safer for both of us to facilitate a smooth pass, than fight for a narrow trail, but several times it came down to the later.

Conversely, at Government, I had a handful runners come charging up behind me. I could quite literally hear them approaching – their heavy and increasingly loud breathing, their shoes drumming out a speedier tempo than those around me. Essentially, the second I had a chance, I would take a step to the side and wave them through. In a few instances, I got the sense they were almost confused, before huffing out a thanks and carrying on. It just struck me as obvious: it’s a 3,500 foot climb, if they’re going this hard halfway in, what business do I have folding them back?

Anyway, like I said, it didn’t feel malevolent, it was just clear passing etiquette is different here.

 

The silence is deafening.

I think one of the oddest things, was how absurdly quiet these races were. The start of a bike race is a notoriously loud and predictable chorus. First there is the clicking in as cleats are locked into pedals; then the ratcheting and clunking of shifting gears and clinking of winding chains; a brief interlude of hissing freewheels, abruptly broken by the the wailing of brake rotors as the paceline slows and files in as it hits the first single track or downhill corner and everyone speed checks.

Throughout the race there is pretty continuous mechanical clatter, along with friendly jeering and cheering, whoops and hollers, directional “lefts” “rights,” and the occasional crunching and vegetation thrashing of a crash or pile up.

In this case, people jogged through the woods in an endless pace line, and the only noise was the collective sound of heavy breathing, and of sneakers plodding over the damp spring earth.

The silence created a bit of an insanity in my head!

When I did say anything to anyone, it was always in a whisper, like we were in a theater or something. So odd.

 

Stand up

I noticed a lot of people hunched and bunched on the steeps. It’s tempting to drop down and get low, but I found that the more upright I could stay, the more power I could draw out of my lower back and glutes, relieving stress and transferring load off my quads onto my core. Literally, the more I tried to replicate a steep skin track, the more people I passed. Not surprisingly, when the grade got so steep I had to tuck, I got myself into a bike-like position to maintain glute and lower back engagement.

 

Mall walker

I tried to run as much as possible, but when a group or a grade knocked me out of my jog and I had to walk, I swung my arms gently. It felt dumb, but as carryover from skinning technique, it also engaged my lower back, and I passed people.

 

Go for the ankles

Something I noticed in Kals later in the race as I cleared the endless conga lines and caught up with more racers going my pace, was that I was hitting the bases of the climbs harder than those around me. Just like I would on a bike or skis, I tried to carry momentum, whether it was actual, or just physio-mechanical, into the base of every climb, and then allow my pace to drift back down to a sustainable level as the climb continued. The result was that I would make a lot of passes near the bottom of a climb, putting distance into those behind me, and often closing gaps on those in front of me. At some point, it occurred to me that I was attacking at the ankles of all these climbs, something I can’t do on a bike since that’s where all my cohorts attack too. On a bike, if I can attack, it’s usually near the top, or, in this analogy, at the forehead, or even cresting the scalp.

 

Shoes

I ran in a pair of $65 sneakers. These are same pair of cheap “trail running” shoes I’ve been buying once a year and running in until they blow up for at least a decade. They have enough tread for trails, and do quite well on rock. When the squall hit during Knoya, the lower portion of the course turned into a greasy mess. I was lucky I was above it and running through the rocky alpine. There were a few places higher up on Government I was envious of those with treadier shoes, but overall, they were fine. I’ve only owned one pair of true trail running shoes in my life, and they disappointed me on all fronts. If it had been muddy I would have needed something better, so I won’t say never, but, I’m glad I didn’t rush out and buy an expensive pair of kicks.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

The Slushy Slog of Spring

The smooth outer fabric of my puffy jacket embraces my fingers as I lift it into the closet. It’s a familiar feeling and a routine, repeated countless Sunday evenings from late fall to mid-Spring – if I’m lucky. I unpack the contents of my ski bag, send wet layers for a whirl through the dryer, damp and dry ones back into the closet, where they’ll hang, on standby, ready for next weekend.
Instead, I’m probably hanging them up for the season.

I hate this time of year.

As my fingers release the jacket to a waiting hanger, I know, that with each passing spring weekend, this could be the last time I repeat this routine.
The seasons are changing, the mountains are melting, summer is coming.
Eventually, maybe tonight, this will be the last time, for many months. My shell, snow pants, and puffy, might hang here for months before again, I’ll find myself filling up my pack.
Already, I can see that future trip, to chase this first snows, high above Crow Pass, Hatcher, or maybe even that dream-fulfilled of an epic early season dump that puts us on slope right from the cars.
Already, I long for that anticipation and anxiety that comes with an early season snowpack, wondering, what the future holds.
Already, I can seem the November sky, skinning through snow-covered trees, disappearing under pillowy mushroom like formations, watching the surrounding mountains fill in, and underlying vegetation disappear.

I don’t know why this shoulder season, winter to summer, hurts so much. It doesn’t make sense, really. The days are getting longer and warmer, the plants are coming back out from the rich-smelling earth, and the birds are singing.
The transition to winter is harsh. The darkness, the cold, the stormy weather, they all conspire. Heck, there’s no guarantee winter will even happen after all that torture. It could still feel like October in January; the snowpack could harbor weak layers all season and fail to build; but summer, it always shows up. Sure, it could be a wet and cool one, there might be more or less rain, a fire, but one way or another, it’s coming.
Shouldn’t I find solace in that?
The blame rests squarely on the shoulders of the last season. A few years ago, after a completely lackluster winter and overly hot spring, I literally could not wait for summer to get in gear.
After a great, cold, snowy winter like the one we just had though, uninterrupted by intrusions from the warm season, it’s just hard to look forward, without just wishing I could instead, fast-forward, to next winter.

Winter hides in the high, cold, shadows. Photo N.W.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Neacolas: Redeeming the ‘16-17 Season in 4 Days

The short:
We won the glacier lottery. Four days of crystal clear skies, spectacular terrain, a great group, and good snow and stability. The only thing that could have been better: more time, but you gotta take the wins when they come!

 
ZOOM! Our pilot circled back and buzzed us before leaving us. Photo: M.N.

The long:
Phil asked earlier this winter if Meredith and I would be interested in joining him and Natalie on ski trip in the Western Chugach.

There wasn’t much hesitation on my part: exploring a new zone, and a first glacier camping experience for both Natalie and Meredith.

Anyway, the set up for this trip had some definite bumps. One was the lack of snow, and excessive wind the mountains of Southcentral experienced this year. What was already a cool and dry winter took a shot at the record books for drought when the region failed to see a single measurable flake of precip from Feb 27 to March 27. It looked like we might spend our trip looking for warmed sunward slopes or hoping to find some sheltered chalk in the chasms.

Then, on cue, the biggest, wettest storm of the season rolled in and dumped for a little over a week. At mid-alpine elevations (2,000’ upward) the snow pack increased from 60” to 90” in Turnagain Pass in a matter of days.

The snow that fell in that time likely packed more water volume then all the previous storms this winter combined.

The avalanche cycle was massive, with sheets of snow ripping out multiple layers, sometimes to ground.

In general, big spring storms are not a good thing, but, on the flip side, the alpine snowpack this season lacked a single, stout bed surface layer anywhere: it was just cold, wind effected, complicated, and dry.

Amazingly, this storm saved our skiing bacon.

Next bump: the logistics of getting into the Western Chugach became an issue.

As the title of this post indicates, that’s not actually where we skied.

Long story short, Phil made a last-minute call to Doug Brewer of Alaska West Air in Nikiski to see if he could take us to the Neacolas, and we were in luck, he was available.

Phil had been to the Neacolas a couple times before and already had some ideas for spots. The range has been high on my list for a while, and while it has been a dry year, I was more optimistic the snow pack would be stable closer to the coast. The idea of pot-shoting in a completely new zone with a potentially weird snow pack didn’t sit well.

As one final, though minor set of bumps, despite generally clear skies everywhere else, high clouds parked themselves over the west side of Cook Inlet on our scheduled departure date. Oh, and my sinuses decided they wanted to party with the latest cold virus.

Doug called off the flight early Sunday afternoon as the clouds continued to cling thickly to the glaciers, so we moved the trip back a day. Fortunately, the weather looked good for the rest of the week, and I instead got to spend the day hanging out in Soldotna and reconnecting with the Peninsula Posse, a real bonus treat, having not seen many of them in a really long time.

I hoped the extra day would also let me fight off the impending cold, but that night, it decided to stop sniveling about, and go full throttle.

Monday morning, the clouds were still lingering, and all the pseudophed in the world didn’t seem like it could clear my sinuses or the high stratus. We hung around Doug’s Lodge, discussed some possible landing spots with him, and waited. My Nyquil hangover was thick, and all I really wanted to do was curl back up in bed and sleep. Then at 2, Doug jumped, as the remote webcams in Lake Clark Pass showed clearing blue skies. We headed to the back of the hangar to load the waiting Beaver.

Despite some idea Phil had, Doug had two spots of his own in mind, and offered to fly us over both and let us decide.

I’d heard that not only was Doug a heck of a pilot, but that he had a great eye for ski zones.

It doesn’t hurt to be familiar with your zones, but when we explained to Doug the group’s abilities and motivations, you could practically see the light bulb go off as he identified where we’d be happiest.

I want to underscore this next part:

He absolutely nailed it.

The first zone was at a glacial pass at the headwaters of Blacksand Creek, the second was a bit further west. The westerly zone, though offering bit more steep terrain, was notably drier, and the decision was unanimous to set up at the head of Blacksand.

A few hours later we had a comfy camp set up, including an incredible kitchen/dining area dug out expertly by Phil, and a luxurious bathroom excavated by Natalie.

A few hundred yards south of camp was a nice, mellow, 750+/- slope that formed part of a 5,000 foot peak I called camp peak, since it overlooked our camp site, and beckoned us to ski.

We headed up and enjoyed two leisurely evening laps overlooking our new home!

 
As Doug reved the engine of the piston Beaver, his skis had iced to the snow. He signaled me to grab the rope and start yarding on the wing... I didn't actually think that's what he wanted me to do, but sure enough, between the revving and leverage, the plane jumped free and off it went. Really made me wonder though, who was going to do this if the skis froze when he came to pick us up... cue visions of Dante hanging onto rope while flying across Cook Inlet


video
Doug is known for buzzing his clients after he drops them off.

Phil designs the kitchen, complete with bench seating and white marble counter tops.

Walk-in closet

OK, let's go check this place out. Our first view of Blockade Lake.

Meredith takes the first run. Out camp is below, in the center of the plane's ski tracks.
 
Back at camp. We had a nice, mellow slope right next door. This is a nice amenity on trips like this to start feeling out snow conditions, and to have an easy access source of skiing if the weather looks questionable. Photo: PH
 
Meredith and Natalie were quite the colorful combo in their puffy camp wear.

Sunset, 9:40


Believe it or not, this is the moon on a 15-second exposure! This is a little camera trickery, it wasn't really this bright, but certainly we could have gone for a moonlight ski with ease (well, except that sleep sounded a lot better!)

Moonlight on camp, and the shoulder of the ridge to the north.



The next morning, the high clouds had returned, but the sun was already burning through them, and by the time we were breakfasted (dang, did you know that’s a real word?), coffeed (that’s not a real word), and geared up, they had rolled off.

We headed down glacier toward Blacksand, and then cut right to climb the 2000 foot easterly face of camp peak. The slope was largely glaciated. We circed some chutes that would be fun on the descent up some glacial ramps, navigating around an ice hole, to a bench about 1/3 up. The next 2/3 was steep and broad, but we eked out the protection of a large rock ridge that blocked the sun on the steeper face and kept the snow cool and dry, top to bottom. The run was excellent, and the exit chutes were a great way to end the run.

Next up, we skied a bit further down glacier to a much lower, Stegosaurus-looking, northerly-facing ridge, that sported 750 feet of steep, super playful terrain, complete with pillows, drops, and 50-degree entrances.

We debated re-climbing our first skin track up camp peak and wrapping around the summit cone to ski back to camp, but instead opted for another lap on the Stegosaur ridge, before making the incline back up to camp to finish off a perfect day.



Heading up the easterly face of camp peak. Our camp is in the glacial saddle. Photo: PH

At the top, looking westward.


So many mountains.
 
Photo: MN
 
Re-grouped on a ridge, Blacksand Creek below us.
 
A view of the upper 2/3 of the easterly face taken on the flight out.
 
 
Stopped for lunch, next stop: the Stegosaur ridge in front of us. Photo: MN
 
Dropping in. While the stego runs were a bit shorter, they were steep and playful. Photo: MN
 

 
Aerial of the Stego on the flight out.
 
 
Natalie brought coloring activities  for the evening. Photo: MN

Throwing gang signs, repping the blockage side of the Neacolas...
 



Day 3 dawned clear and a little nippy thanks to clear skies overnight.

We headed to the gradual ridge north of the camp, and climbed for about an hour or so on firm crust until we were set up atop a 2,000 foot glacial gully leading north. There was some hesitation, as the gully rolled over mid-way, and it wasn’t clear if it went, or if it was an ice cliff mid-way, but we were stoked to find it went clean to Blockade Lake.

We rode out toward this glacial/geologic absurdity until we reached the mouth a second valley.

Skins back on, we climbed a moraine into new territory.

The siren call of steep, north facing lines, cut out from the stout granite above, beckoned.

I found myself pleading between breaths that we would find a majestic line carved free and clear through the stone.

Two options immediately met the eye: One slanted into the rock with a deep inset, and appeared to got so steep at the top it looked more like a waterfall at the top out (it probably went just fine); a second more straightforward line dumped out right next to an ice cliff, but looked manageable otherwise.

We were worried there might be a people eater crevice at the base of the apron, but as we lifted a bit above the deteriorating glacier, it became apparent we were in luck.

The apron was a chore, sun-effected, and still crunchy. Phil and I conferred as we pushed the skinner toward the entrance: If conditions didn’t improve once we got into the hallway, this would be a no-go.

We staged up under the line and began the boot.

Meredith took the first crack, and churned like a rototiller up to her waist in settled piles of slough as we left the apron and entered the hallway.

A little poking around on the old slough deposits revealed a buried density change underfoot that provided perfect support for boots.

We tapped this sometimes meandering buried vein of firm snow like miners chasing the paystreak for several hundred vertical feet upward until we hit the source, a trough about a foot deep and maybe 18 inches wide where the slough had been running a light but continuous train from above.

The channel was firm, just perfect for toeing in. Just outside the channel, the snow was soft and unaffected, with only a very faint crust over it that became ever the more faint as we climbed.

We’d left the Verts at camp, a gamble that rarely pays off, but this time, we were in luck: this line had a narrow, naturally preset booter the entire way with tons of good snow on either side.

As Phil said: “If couloir skiing was always this easy, everyone would do it.”

We all went through several rotations, and 1,500 feet later, we were topped out.

To our surprise, we didn’t have to cram onto the knife edge ridge we all expected to find, but instead found an expansive glacier.

Yup, we could have gone for a couple mile skin from camp and cruised right into the top of this line!

Oh well, in country like this, I’d rather know what’s below before diving in. There are plenty of lines that don’t go out here, especially in a year like the one we’ve had.

As for the descent.

Common, it was awesome.

I got to go first, and ran it out to the apron. The line kicked out a ton of slough, but was so wide I rode high above for the majority, other than a quick crossing near the bottom as the slope changed aspect, to tap into a lower pocket of soft snow. Meredith, Natalie, and Phil followed suit.

Down on the apron, the afternoon sun had warmed the previously breakable crust back into 2-inches of corn, and we were rewarded with a few more warm wiggles back out to the upper glacier, and then a long pillow-studded moraine cruise back to the lake.

The long skin home took a while, and we had to ski a short, 400 foot sun-soaked southerly slope that expectantly wet slabbed beneath about midway, providing an unnerving few seconds of straight lining to the safety of the flats below. After that, it was smooth skinning back to camp.

It was hard to think about having to fly back home already!

Heading up the ridge line, camp in the foreground.
 
One of my favorite pics of the trip. Is there anything better than climbing a mountain in the morning, working up the ridgeline, constantly getting new views and glimpses of possible runs, and distant mountain vistas? Photo: M.N.

 
Another fave. Meredith drops into the second half of the 2,000 foot glacial gully that lead us down to Blockade Lake. Photo: PH

Excellent run. Photo: MN
Regrouped on "the beach" near the shore of Blockade.

Climbing the moraine into the next valley over. Huge avalanches tumbled down the massive cliffs over Blockade. Their roar was loud enough even from so far away it sounded like a jet taking off.

After only being able to see the tops of these lines for the previous 10 minutes, it felt like Christmas morning to finally see what lay ahead. Still, there was concern, even from here, that a field of crevasses might guard the entry ways. No such problems though. We chose to ski the first line left of the triangle peak in the center. The inset line to the far right might have been a great objective with another day, and the lines to the far left could have been OK, but also had evidence of more sun effect and resultant sloughing and bombing. 

A sizable ice-cliff stood guard to the side of our chosen line, but was no issue. Photo: M.N.

Time to head up. From afar, I guessed the line to be around 750 vertical feet. I was off by half, the line stretched a good 1500 feet.
 
Photo MN
 
 
At the top, looking back down.

Natalie, Phil, and Meredith are still on the apron for scale.
 

Ariel of the lines on the fly out. We skied the first line left of the peak.


 
Photo: PH

Meredith: head Meercat, keeps watch over camp for eagles and snakes while nibbling bacon. Photo PH
 

Group sunset photo, masks of course.


 

We enjoyed our last evening at camp though, and counted our blessings. Only a few years ago some mutual friends had been camped in this exact spot and been nuked on with 10 feet of snow, spending much of their trip digging round the clock. These trips can go sideways a lot of different ways, and the last few days were just a gift.

I can’t wait to go back.

A big thanks to Phil for doing the pre-leg work of making this trip happen. Trip planning is a tough gig, doing so from 1500 miles away even more so!

 
Leaving home.

Nice view of Blockade

Plenty more skiing in the neighborhood.

These 3,000 foot southerly-facing lines tower over the upper basin of the MacArthur Glacier. There are plenty of better options for spring trips, but it's hard not to see lines like this and dream up an escapade of flying in through a window of clear skies during some future snowy February.





Some things about this trip I really liked, wanted to write down for the future.

A smaller group: 4 people was perfect.

Having a wide diversity of terrain to chose from: I’d rather spend a couple days in a place with multiple options (at least one nearby mellow run, and a few different aspects and pitches), to account for weather, ski abilities, motivation, and most importantly, stability. I'd rather ski, even if the lines aren't the biggest in the zone, or even in the top 10, then spend the trip looking at lines that aren't in, pose too much objective hazard, or are out of pay grade.

WAG bags: You win Phil, they make for a tidy, less odoriferous camp.

Light is right: big group tents are nice, and had we been stormed on, light weight personal tents and the Mega Mid cook tent might have been uncomfortable and un-usable, but I’ll take that trade off, especially given some points below.

Mountain House: Pick your brand, but fast food equals faster nutrition and less wasted time and water. Pre-made, hearty meals are a luxury, but they take up more time and fuel. Get everyone fed, get to sleep, get fed again, and get back on the skin track.

Flexibility. First, is time. Take the whole week off, or better yet, just schedule 2 weeks with no critical meetings or deadlines; let your colleagues know you will be gone for 4-7 days in that time frame, and deal with Momma nature and her mood swings. Forecasting here is difficult, but I would probably err on the side of caution before flying into a coastal mountain range if I saw a sizable low pressure system careening toward AK. Better to be stuck in the office then stuck in a collapsing tent, in my opinion. Try again next week.
Second: range and zone. Barring a specific mission or objective, be flexible on your range. Feel out availability with air charters mid-winter, watch the snowpacks, use your sources and your own knowledge to figure out how winter is stacking up, or not. In the weeks in advance, start to dial, and be ready to move to a plan B, or C. The quality of this trip was dictated by a storm that had hardly wrapped up a few days prior. Most times, this won’t be the case, or if it is, it will work the other way around, like, last year, where an absurdly warm storm nuked the snowpack to 6,000 feet. We got lucky this time, otherwise we could have been dealing with an aged and wind hammered snowpack, or worse yet, super touchy avalanche conditions. I’d say in general, you can get a feel for most the ranges by late February, and should have alternative plans lined out with the group ahead of time if a last minute weather event changes the game.

Trust the pilot: I can’t stress enough, Brewer matched us to the terrain perfectly, and I’ve heard plenty of similar stories. Unless you have a friend with a plane willing to take you on re-con flights, the reality is, your Google Earth and Topo map perusing probably won’t mean a thing compared to their experience, unless, again, you have a specific objective or goal. What I can say, is that, at least for the Neacolas, there are a lot of places to go, and I think that overall, it would be harder to pick a bad spot from a terrain perspective, so, local av conditions, prevailing winds. objective hazard levels, and even camp options, figure more highly.