Thursday, July 20, 2017

Race Report: Northwest Epic Series Sun Top 60

The short:
Creative credit for finding this race and making the logistics come together goes to Chuck and the Parker clan.

Chuck and I went down to Washington mid-week last week, borrowing his in-laws camper, and then camping with them, to race Northwest Epic Series’ Sun Top 60 miler: two 30 mile laps that featured two long grinding fire road climbs and bombing down sweet singletrack each lap, for a total of 11,000’ of climbing! The field was shallow, but I took 6th in the mens open, and 9th overall, out of 25 starters.
 
One of the only pics from race day
 

The long
I’ve been wanting to do an endurance mountain bike race Outside Alaska for the last few seasons.
Racing in Alaska, everything is familiar, from the competitors to the trails. This would also provide an outlet so all my endurance racing eggs weren’t in one race (the Soggy).
The set of criteria to guide what made sense to race was pretty narrow.
I don’t want to race before mid-June, I don’t see the point in paying to race at altitude, and any race needs to have a minimum of a two week buffer on either side of the Soggy (always the first Saturday in August).
Despite the limits, that still leaves quite a few options fortunately.
Chuck sent me a link to the Sun Top race. With a very low ($60) entry fee, plus the ability to do it all on the cheap and in relative comfort thanks to help from the Parkers, it was a no-brainer.  

We got to the venue Thursday morning. The race was based out of the Buck Creek Campground, which, quoting Trenton, Chuck’s brother-in-law, is a dusty $4!7hole. It was ideal for the staging the race though, and cost $5 a night. Sadly it was completely trashed and abused. Broken glass, garbage, piles of empty beer cans, swaddles of toilet paper, and random fire pits everywhere, and I’m not exaggerating. Chuck and I filled 1/3 of a contractor bag with garbage from our site alone. Super lame.

On the other hand, we were right at the doorstep to some great riding, and set off to pre-ride the entire course.

The course:
The course consisted of an “internal” and external loop. From the start/finish at the campground, the race set off on the shorter internal loop, climbing a 5-mile fire road that gained about 1,300 feet, before teeing into the apx midway point of the Sun Top Trail. The course dumps down the lower half of Sun Top trail back to the campground, losing all that vert in a hurry by blasting down straight line traverses broken up by hard switchbacks, and peppered with numerous series of mini drops.
Riders passed back through the campground, closing the “internal loop”, exited the campground again, but then split right at the base of the fire road, and headed into the woods on the Skookum Flats Trail to begin the “external loop.”
Skookum was by far my favorite section of the course: a 5-mile stretch of old-school single track that passed through ancient river-bottom forests, and oscillated rapidly between fast flowy sections and slow technical rock and root features. A and B line options abounded.
Skookum spit us out at the base of the main climb up to Sun Top summit, accessed via a 6-mile fire road climb that gained nearly 3,100 feet of vertical. The road climbed at a steady grade of between 8-12% from bottom to top, and never flattened or rolled to provide a single section of coasting. It was basically like sitting on a trainer with the resistance cranked all the way up for an hour+. Stop pedaling, stop moving.
From the 5,280’ summit and active fire tower, the course hit the beginning of the Sun Top Trail.
A rather short 500’ rowdy descent ensued. Up here, the trail consisted of loose, fist-sized rocks, more mini drops, and switchbacks, with some no-fall sections.
The Sun Top trail loops around from the summit and actually crosses the road we just climbed
The course description warned that after this road crossing, the Sun Top Trail had a nasty climb in store.
They weren’t kidding. The trail climbs from the road crossing through open pine forest for 600 vertical feet over about a mile. With a 3,000 foot climb hardly in the bag, this section was absolutely miserable on the mind and the legs. Worse yet, it keeps getting steeper as you climb.
The trail finally hits the high point of the day though, and begins to run downward along the ridge line. Two more short punchy climbs stood between us and the beginning of the true descent, but once it begins, it dive bombs in one awesome and fast uninterrupted contour back to the top of the first climb of the day. From here, you are back on familiar ground in the lower half of Sun Top trail, and tip down the twisty switchbacks back to the campground to complete the “external loop.”
The whole course was 30 miles long with 5,500 feet of climbing.
Now just repeat, and you have the 60 mile race…Gulp.

Photo: C.D.




Chuck and I realized we had not given the race enough credit. Fire road climbs and single track descents sounded like hammer fest to the top and sesh the downhills. The second half was fairly accurate, but the climbing was long and laboring. Dieseling was a better descriptor.
We don’t have fire road climbs up here. Even our road climbing tends to be broken up with rolls and flats between pitches allowing for short mid-climb recovery.
I was targeting a time of 7:30.

On Friday we re-rode the external loop. Riding Skookum Flats again, I dialed in all the features. I also changed up my climb strategy middle ring in a low cadence, to keeping it cool in the little ring with a high cadence. It felt way more sustainable.
Friday afternoon, Doug, Shelly, Trenton, Brandy and their little crew all showed up, along with all the weekend campers, and mountain bikers. The campground came alive.

Through the twisted timbers on Skookum

There were some massive old trees


The active fire lookout at the summit of Sun Top

Sven, or Vern... he likes to talk, a lot.



Photo: C.D.

Photo: C.D.

 

The Race

The 60 milers went out an hour before the 30 milers. The field was shallow, only about 25 riders, compared to 90 or so in the 30.
We lined up, and they sent us off.
What ensued left me laughing, and gasping.
People sprinted!
My warm up had consisted of riding about 500 feet from the camper to the start line!
There was basically no choke for 5 miles and 1,300 feet of climbing. I could see no value to hammering, and was having none of it.
What I say next could come off the wrong way, but, I’ve been riding a bit, and have a pretty good sense of both my limits, and sometimes, those around me. What I’ll say, is looking at some of the other riders, I got a sense that some of the people around me didn’t know what they were getting into.
This point was going to get proven to me.
Fifteen minutes into the climb, and slowly getting into what would actually be my ride speed, I began to catch up with a few riders. As I would catch up, htye’d start shooting glances back, and in several cases, as my front wheel would come up alongside, a few of these guys would suddenly speed up.
I watched, almost in disbelief as they were “counter attacking,” and my clock only read 15 minutes in.
Are you serious?
We dropped into the first descent, and as expected, there was no passing, though there were a few riders pulled over with mechanicals.
I actually did catch one of the riders who was “counterattacking” me earlier, near the base of the descent, but, as we hit the flats through the campground, guess what, he took off through the flats and “attacked” again.
I decided about then that I’d probably start making passes near the top of the second climb as these guys wore themselves out
I also got the sense my day was going to be a scavenger hunt, and would basically be on, picking off people riding stupid.
I was only partially right.
I rolled into Skookum Flats, and as the trail began to duck, dodge, and weave, I found myself on the guy’s wheel pretty quick. I passed him, and fairly quickly caught another rider.
In the next 5 miles on Skookum, I’d take a total of 4 placements!
I did not see that coming.

I nailed every feature on Skookum both laps on race day, a definite help in closing positions. Photo: C.D.

We spat out from Skookum, and I was riding alongside Matt from BC. He was a really good technical rider, so I was actually looking forward to having someone to pace with on the climb, but as we hit the base, he dropped back.
I rode up to the summit through the long grind, with another rider just up the road from me. This rider would occasionally look back, but I had no interest in burning it up.
After completing the initial descent from the top of Sun top, we went into the awful singe track climb. Not even a ¼ the way up, I found the rider I’d been tailing the past hour walking, unable to climb the steep pitch.
I muttered something about how much this pitch sucked, and he asked me if I knew how much longer it went on…
I paused for a second, before I prefaced my response with: “I’m seriously not trying to get in your head.”
Continuing, “but it’s not going to be over soon, and it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I’m sorry.”
It seemed like a hard thing to say, but, wtf, it was the truth. I had to learn that on Thursday.
The second punchy ascent along the ridge had a gradual lead in, and though I should have known better, it still caught me off guard in a really tall gear. I had to strain to keep moving, and cursed at the pain of the stupid move. Once the descent began though, it was fantastic. The cool morning air leant a bit of dampness and tack to the trail. It felt like the best descent I’d had yet.
Crossing the internal loop’s road and beginning the switchback descents, I was pleased by the lack of dust (every descent but this one down this section was dusty due to other riders nearby.)
The one caveat, was that the 30 milers had come though, and this descent would also shift in shape each passing. Some corners were notably more blown out, but the worst was a steep double drop though an S-turn that went off camber over super loose dry soil.
I rolled in with too much speed, slamming the double drops, and realized I was going into the steep off-camber duff next.
The bike immediately began to suck downward.
Oh fuck.
An axel-height rock followed immediately by a switch back was all I could see. I could either try and roll the big rock and hope the suspension ate it, or let the bike sink deeper off the duff and into the brush, hoping I didn’t snag, and fail, and assuredly sending my into the switchback at way too sharp on an inside angle.
I aimed for the rock and pulled back. The yeti didn’t like the rock, but it pulled over it.
I could literally see skid marks through the forest litter leading out of the switchback from where at least a few human bodies had slid.
Rushed with relief to have avoided what would have been a nasty wreck, and pissed at the chaos that had clearly caused the change in the trail, I swore out loud.
Oh, there’s an elderly volunteer medic staged at this obviously dangerous spot…Ya, the look on her face said it all. It was a nice to have a little comic relief.

Rolling back through the campground, I swing off at our cooler and snapped in the new bladder. I ran with 2 liters of water per lap, and drank around 1.75L each lap. I might have drank more the second were it not for the water being ice cold from being in the cooler. It really helped.
My second internal loop of the day felt really good. I was all alone, the climb was staying shaded, and I never saw anyone on the way, but my legs were feeling better than expected.
Into the internal loop descent, a 30-mile rider closing out his external loop shot by. I heard another 30 miler coming as I opened the suspension, and assumed that these front runners would likely catch me on the descent. No such issue, the guy I heard coming seemed to fade further and further behind.
Back through the campground for the last time, and on to Skookum to start the second external.
I was still alone, and began to think that was it for the race.
Due to crash on Skookum the night before the race, the organizers had instituted a mandatory dismount section with a volunteer on site to ensure everyone walked.
As I passed, I asked when he’d last seen another 60-miler.
“Right there” he said, point down the trail.
No kidding, a white helmet bobbed just around the corner.
A few minutes later I caught the rider at the base of a 10-foot ledge we all had to hike-a-bike. He waved me past and I shouldered the bike for the quick scramble, but when we remounted, he was able to hang on the next mile or so to the road.
As we popped out of the woods, I saw another racer, stopped, draped over his bike and clutching his quads. 
I swung by the cooler Doug and Trenton had dropped off and grabbed my Coke. The guy I had caught on Skookum was still on my wheel, and asked if maybe I had a cold beer in the cooler too, ha!
Not yet I told him.
As we started to climb, I offered him some of my drink, but he declined, and then dropped back, disappearing.
“Two more placements thanks to Skookum!” I congratulated myself.
The caffeine and sugar did it’s job and the bottom 2/3 of the climb seemed to go by a little easier, but around mile 4, the guy I thought I’d just dropped reappeared. In the next 2 miles, he would go from being out of sight, to within 10 seconds of my wheel as we hit the summit.
I was deflated. So much for not getting passed.
I knew I could put a little time into the guy down the nasty descent, but I still had a pretty narrow lead with the hardest climb ahead.
“Ride smart through the initial descent. You cannot crash. Don’t look back.”
I popped back out to cross the road, and went into the steep single track climb.
I knew if I was still getting tailed, he would be able to see me ahead, and I knew if turned around, it would only defeat me further.
I dug in, hoped I didn’t hear breathing, passed a couple exhausted 30 milers, and hoped for the best.
As I neared the top, I finally shot a glance back.
Just a quiet and empty forest.
The last descent was one of the hardest descents on my life. Getting sloppy or lazy at these speeds would mean a really bad crash. I had to ride smart, but my legs were starting to seize. Climbing was actually easier on them then descending.
Despite all the use, some sections of trail felt like they were riding better, and I ended up passing a couple more 30 milers.
I didn’t really think there was anyone close, but I drilled the stretch through the campground with what little I had left.

 
Feeds: The race offered 3 aid stations. The first was just past the start-finish and had food and water, the second was water only and was about halfway up the big Sun Top Climb, and the third was another full aid station with food etc. at the top of Sun Top.
I never used the aid stations other than to toss out an empty can of Coke. Thanks to Doug and Trenton, we had a cooler in the campground near the start where I had a second bladder to swap in mid-race, and another cooler at the base of the big Sun Top climb where I had a small can of Coke for the last climb of the day. Swapping bladders took 30 seconds, and I drank my Coke on the wheel.
I had all my food onboard in a gas tank bag: Cliff shot bloks and Honey Stinger Waffles. I ate 2.5 packs of bloks (no caffeine), 2 waffles (one chocolate), and the Coke, feeding every 45 minutes starting after 90 minutes.
Not stopping at aid stations gave me a definite edge over all the racers I passed. The rider who nearly caught me at the top of the second lap stopped at the aid station. I have no idea why. He should have pushed through, he might have taken me down.  

Takeaways:
This event really lived up to all that I personally hoped it would. I got to race somewhere else, on new trails, against some new faces, and enjoy some summer weather that has kind of been lacking in AK.
The race organizers were really cool, friendly, and full of stoke for their participants – no egos.
The bang for your buck value was incredible: $60 got you the following:

  • A really well marked course .
  • Medics stationed all over the course as well as onsite.
  • A well-thought out evac plan for numerous locations on course.
  • Hard time limits.
  • Two staffed and stocked aid stations and one unstaffed water station.
  • Live results.
  • A post-race BBQ with burgers, dogs, drinks, and snacks.
  • Cold beer.
Ya, you read that last one right.
Would I do this particular event again? No. On the upshot, talking with the race directs after, it sounds like next year they will make the 60 just a 50 and get rid of the second internal loop. That will be a good change with basically no impact on the feel. They also plan to market it a little differently and emphasize that this is really challenging.

I would certainly recommend the event to someone, but, since I have to fly a long ways, it was a good experience, but there are definitely other races to check out. I’m really intrigued by NWE’s Capitol forest race, which I take is kind of their premier event anyway. Based on this race, I would def give the race org’s kudos, and recommend any of their bike or running races.

Chilling out Saturday night.

The compound.

Personal takeaways
In the big picture, I can’t say I had any major takeaways from this race, which is OK. Obviously, the trails were new, and the riding style, particularly they extended fire road climbs, were new, and challenging.
This was a climber’s race, and my Yeti is an obvious handicap in a marathon race with endless smooth climbs (it’s kind of a handicap in any race, but it’s also a great all-around bike). A typical 4x4 XC full suspension rig was clearly the choice for the 60 mile event, and I think a strong technical rider with climbing legs on a hardtail with a 120 fork could mop up the 30 mile.
Otherwise, my only real takeaway was that I generally played my cards right. I basically made all my passes on the most technical section of the course on Skookum. That is a real ego booster, as that was some true-to-the-roots of the sport techy riding. I thought I would pick off some riders on the climbs, but not so much. I put a little of that on the bike. The Yeti does really well for its size and build on trail climbs, but is definitely not an attack bike on smooth dirt roads. The descents were too short and rowdy too do much damage there. All I noticed on descents was that I extended my leads.
Really, my next biggest advantage came from endurance experience. I didn’t stop at aid stations, amp my pace in response to those around me, and my feeds and hydration were on point.
The one conversation Chuck and I had was whether I would have benefited from going with the initial sprint.
Having had the chance to look at the re-play on Strava, the answer was no, in this case. My next closest competitor was out-climbing me on every ascent. If I’d gone with the sprint, the guy still would have driven a harder pace then I was on the ensuing three climbs. Basically, assuming that going with the sprint did not have a negative impact on my performance later (who knows), my delta would have been 2 minutes on the next position, instead of 8. In a broader picture, had there been a thicker field, or had the guy in front of me not driven his climbs with as consistent gains, then yes, it could have. Food for thought.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Gear Review: 2016 Scott Solace 20 Disc

2016 Scott Solace 20 Disc
Purchase Date: Spring 2016
Use: Training/Exercise

Short
4/5 stars as a training/mileage road bike with wide breadth. This bike is ideal for the cyclist who puts in a lot of training mileage on pavement, and/or variable mixes of rough pavement and gravel, but puts in their strongest efforts in some other activity besides pavement-based bike racing (mountain biking, running, skiing, etc). This bike is also ideal for the weekend warrior just wants to do long rides peppered with big climbs, potentially on less-traveled roads, but doesn’t care about winning the town-line sprint.
Cyclist seeking a more casual form of adventure riding, touring, or all-gravel adventures may want to look for something a little more touring or off-road specific, and a little less flashy; while cyclist planning to do more than a handful of competitive road racing events where they are striving to get their best results and upgrade points, should stay with a more traditional road bike.
 
Photo: L.M.
The long
The Solace replaced my 5-season old Scott CR1. One of Anchorage’s best kept secrets is its road biking. No, the road biking in Alaska’s biggest metro can’t compete with the rural Northeast, but considering where we live, it’s phenomenal for what it is, and will make any rider stronger.
The CR1 had a more relaxed geometry and gear range compared to a traditional road bike, but it was still far closer to the former than to an exercise or adventure bike.
In the years since I bought the CR1, manufactures have sought expanded their narrow-tire bike lineups to take on more varying surfaces and riding types. In that time, road bikes have also started to adopt some mountain bike technology, including disc brakes, thru axels, and wider tires.
The truth is, for many cyclists both in Alaska and outside, unless you are a dedicated road racer, there is no reason to buy a traditional road bike anymore; there are so many better options.
Five years ago I knew this, and I thought my next road bike would actually be a nice cyclocross bike, set up with a road-worthy drive train and at least two sets of tires, so I would have a bike for many purposes and rides.
On that front, I’d say, if you do only a moderate amount of pavement riding or less, but you do race cyclocross, then you should still just get a CX bike, and buy it a pair of slicks. Even if with a 1x crank, you could still seasonally gear a CX bike for road riding through spring and early summer, and gear it back down for CX in the fall.
If you ride a lot of road though, I’d get a bike for each.
Cross bikes are still designed for racing, and retain more of a drawn out and power-focused geometry, potentially making them less ideal for long hard miles on pavement. Additionally, a good cross bike will have a drive train designed for the rigors of a cyclocross course. As noted, you could switch out chain rings and/or cassettes between seasons if needed, but if you don’t, a CX gear ratio may prove to be too low-range for pavement, unless all you do is hill repeats.
For me, it’s an easy choice: I ride a lot of pavement, I don’t race CX, and only do a occasional entirely gravel rides – which my hard tail mountain bike is just fine for.
For everything else I do, the Solace delivers.

Ride
The Solace features a very similar geometry to the CR1, so “out of the box,” it felt pretty good, though it was actually a tad more relaxed. That only made it easier to ride.
For a rider used to a traditional road bike, however, the bike will probably feel more upright. On the CR1, the upright positioning left me wanting on fast descents. For the Solace, a slacker head tube angle and wider tires alleviates that issue, and the Solace descends much better than the CR1 did in my opinion.

New meets old.

Thru axels
The benefits of thru axels for mountain bikes are just as apparent on the road. Gone are the days of wheels flexing from one side of the bike to the other on hard climbs and corners. It’s almost comical to grab a wheel on a non-thru axel bike and push it from side to side. How is it possible such a weakness was/is just accepted?

Disc brakes
This was perhaps the second biggest reason I was thrilled to pick up a new bike that otherwise plays such a utilitarian role in the stable. Rim brakes are terrible. Mountain bikers have been running disc brakes since the early 2000s.
Arguably, there were some engineering hurdles that needed to be overcome to adapt discs to slender road frames, and I was happy to not be an early adopter on this front. Now, disc brakes are becoming ever more common on road bikes.
For me, I think the most telling factor about having disc brakes on this bike is how little I notice them at all, compared to how much time I spent thinking about braking with rim brakes.
Two downfalls I’ve noticed though: heavy handlebars and chattering levers. The hydraulic levers are a good bit heftier than their mechanical counterparts, putting a lot of swing-weight on the hoods. I don’t notice this too much on the ride, but I certainly notice it wheeling the bike about. What I do notice on the ride: the brake levers chatter on bumpy roads. This is common for Shimano 105 hydraulic levers.

Wide tire clearance
If you live in road bike paradise, a land without traffic, potholes, pavement cracks, loose gravel, or rain, you should totally run 23c road tires at 120PSI.
I had always used 25c tires, which fit rather snugly in both my previous road frames. The Solace comes with 28c tires. I think the fair question to ask is: why did Scott feel the need to limit the tire size on this frame to just 28? Why not give the frame the clearance to run up to 35 and let the user decide? I will be happy to stick with 28c tires for 95% of the riding this bike will do, but it’d be great to have the option to toss on something meatier and take this bike on an all-out nasty gravel ramble. I suspect that bike makers don’t want to undercut their wallet-draining gravel-specific builds.
I would not be surprised to see future evolutions of the Solace or its like expand tire clearance in response to being undercut by other bike makers who respond to consumer demand for a more all-purpose rig.
As far as performance, the wider tires add drag on climbs, and I do feel it. That being said, when I ride this bike, it’s for the workout, so bluntly, I don’t care. Meanwhile, the 28s bite into fast switchback descents and chewed up pavement with amazing confidence. Don’t even get me started on loose gravel over pavement. These tires make it so you don’t even know it’s there.
I was really comfy on 25c tires. Now, very little fazes me. I’ve blasted this bike along single track trails more than once just because I can.
Again, if I was really into racing, these big tires could be a problem, but I can’t see any reason to slim back down. On the other end of the spectrum, if all I was doing was gravel, or I had some epic gravel trip planned, I would probably just ride my hard tail, as endless miles of loose gravel would eventually be pretty harsh.
 
Early season riding in Anchorage can be a mix of sloppy snow and loose gravel.
Drive train
The bike came stock with a Shimano 105 34-50 crank and an 11-32 cassette. I ride a lot of hills, so one would think the 32T ring in the back would be nice, but I switched to a 11-28T cassette. Overall, the gear range was too easy for my goals/preferences (it’s supposed to be hard), and further, I found the jumps between the cogs made for an unsteady cadence.

Weight
By carbon frame road bike standards, this bike will feel hefty. If you are buying this bike though, weight shouldn’t really be in your top deciding criteria. Nonetheless, it is still a carbon frame and rides like one, absorbing chatter and reacting quickly.

My biggest fear
My biggest fear about this bike, is that the industry has really diversified the road bike compared to just 5 years ago, and this has essentially resulted in my ability to purchase a near perfect bike for my needs at a standard cost, right off the shelf.
The bike industry works in mysterious ways though, contracting and expanding line ups and offerings. Only a couple years ago, a bike similar to this was still fetching a premium price due to limited options.

Given how very little separates the Solace from a more traditional road bike, and the limited additional R&D that Scott probably had to put into it, it’s probably unlikely that in another 5 years, the industry will fully contract and only offer traditional bikes, but, again, it’s the bike industry, things are often two steps forward, one step back.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Two Favorite Kenai Epics

Russian-Res-Devils Loop
Distance: 76 miles
Climbing: 7,000 feet
Season: June, or late September
The gist:
Start at Devils Creek Trail Head, take the Seward Highway 2 miles to Tern Lake Picnic Area, and head down the Old Seward Highway to where it meets up with Crescent Creek Road/Quartz Creek Road. For a 90 miler and an additional 1500’ or so of climbing, add an out-and-back on Crescent Lake Trail. Otherwise, follow Crescent Creek Road to Quartz Creek Road to the Sterling Highway. Cross the highway, heading left toward Cooper, and take the first jeep road immediately on the right. The jeep road climbs steeply. Stay left past the junction with a cell tower. After passing a high point with a great overlook, the road spits you back down on the highway briefly. Ride the shoulder carefully for about 100 feet until you spot the ATV trail heading into the woods on the right. The ATV trail is actually rather techy in places, even though it parallels the roadway. It will briefly spit you back out on the shoulder twice on the way to Cooper: first very briefly onto a gravel shoulder before heading back into the woods; and again to cross a driveway (take the driveway for 20 feet and the ATV trail will dive left off the driveway), before eventually joining a utility corridor. The corridor can get a little mucky, and trail will exit to the left to follow a wide and safe gravel shoulder the rest of the way to Cooper.
This ATV segment sounds more complicated than it actually is, and is a million times safer to ride than riding the shoulder of the highway! The short section of highway between Cooper Landing and Quartz Creek Road is not safe to ride!
Head through Cooper, cross the Kenai River (pedestrian bridge is located on downstream side of bridge), and cross the highway onto Snug Harbor Road. Take Snug up to Russian Lakes trailhead. After riding the 20-some miles of Russian Lakes trail, it may be worth taking a quick side trip toward the campground to refill on water. This is close to the mid-point of the ride. When you hit the trail head/parking lot, go left, up the campground road toward the campgrounds. Water is available at the RV dump station on your left, maybe ¾ of a mile.
From Russian, head down to the Sterling Highway, go left on the highway to the Resurrection Pass Trail Head.
Take Res Pass Trail to Devils Junction, and drop down Devils Creek Trail back to the TH and your car.

Hints:
This is a really smooth link up, with a lot of gravel to tie the trails together, with very limited pavement. The trails themselves are pretty easy: Russian is about as advanced as things get, but it’s a “descent” on this route. As noted, the ATV connection between Quartz Creek Road and Cooper Landing sounds complicated, but it’s literally an ATV trail next to the road, just keep following it. Also as noted, it has a few short techy sections to keep it interesting, and is a major asset to have as an alternative a connection to avoid a very dangerous segment of roadway.
Water is available at the Tern Lake Picnic Area (two people to use this pump), Quartz Creek Boat Launch (spigot), and the Russian River Campground (spigot).
The season on this ride is pretty much June onward, and is limited by snow in Res and Devils Pass early in the month, and vegetation on Russian later in the month. It’s pretty likely that this ride will include some snow drift cyclocross action through Devils Pass.
This loop could open up in September-Early October in cold and dry autumns.

I hit this loop for the first time on 2016 with Carey G, and again this year with Chuck D. Both years, the early to mid-June timeframe seemed to be the money spot for low veg and few snow crossings.
Both years, I opted for the simpler 76-mile option, and both years, the total ride time was around 7:45 at a reasonable pace, though could easily be driven down by quite a bit with more motivation.

In a head-to-head between this loop or the Resurrection-Devils-Johnson Loop (90 miles), I pick this one as my favorite.

Res-Devils-Johnson 2017
90 miles
8,000 Feet climbing
Time: Mid-June through July 4

I’d completed RDJ in various formats and rig choices in 2013, 14, and 15, but I just wasn’t super pleased with this route, and I took a break from the RDJ last season. The forecasts and fast-growing veg on Johnson last year didn’t inspire me to get after it.
This year, I had a choice for the weekend of June 24-25: do Arctic MTB’s Double-Down Race on a course designed by Ryan G, and well suited for someone who does well on climb-heavy and rooty courses (ya, that’s me), or head to the Kenai. It was a tough call, but the forecast was spectacular, and with July Fourth the following weekend – a holiday I try not to spend on the Peninsula – and a summer so far lacking in sunny weekends, it seemed like a Kenai Epic was a worthy pursuit.
Meredith was interested in riding the trail portion of the RDJ this year, and after mulling some different options, we came up with a new twist.
For starters, we’d ride the route clockwise, which is the opposite direction of how I’ve always ridden it. We’d also start the ride at the North Johnson Pass Trail Head, and this time, I’d employ a road bike for the long road segment.
The key element to this plan was just that: we’d be leaving my road bike at a colleague of Meredith, Doug’s, cabin, outside Hope. 
The bane of this loop is it’s 28 miles of road (24 paved) between North JP TH, and the North Resurrection Pass Trail Head. This long stretch of pavement has long steered the counter-clockwise routing of the ride, as at least that put the bulk of the hateful road riding pointed toward sea level.
I tried to ease the pain of this long road connection in previous renditions by riding a hard tail for the whole loop, or having a hard tail staged at the North JP TH for just the road portion.
I wasn’t sure that riding a road bike after 67 miles would really make me think better of this loop, but it was obvious almost immediately: the 24-miles between Doug’s and the car went way smoother and faster with drop bars and 28c tires. Lest I say it, I really enjoyed the road connection!
The other two benefits however, were less apparent beforehand, but definitely afterward. First, riding Johnson Pass north to south right off the bat gets the most technical part of the ride out of the way immediately, and second, climbing Devils and up to Res is downright pleasant compared to the opposite. Climbing the north side of Res is the most tedious, dull, and hateful section of trail on the Kenai…not that I have strong opinions on it or anything...
Early on in the day, we bumped into Kenai 250 riders Aaron, Dusty, Anson, and Kevin. I had a feeling we might see a few of the boys later on.
The clouds lifted as rode through swarms of hatching bugs on Johnson, but temps stayed reasonable. In the south Johnson TH I popped my helmet off my head, and a mass of dead midges fell from my head!
We stopped at the “rust pipe” at Tern Lake Day Use Area on the 7-mile road connection between south JP and Devils for a water refill. Up Devils we caught back up with Kevin, and could see Anson a little ways off as we neared the high point.
For time management (Meredith’s ride would end around 67 miles at Doug’s cabin, while mine would continue another 24 miles to the car) we decided this would be a good time to split off.
I bombed through the descent to Hope, and onward to the cabin. Having learned from before, I left the clock running through my turnaround for feed-management purposes. I dumped my pack, changed to road shoes, snapped in some dark lenses, and made sure to grab my car key.
I felt really good, and as I steered the road bike out onto the Hope Highway, my legs told me to give it all I had.
I had an absolute blast powering up Hope Highway and onward on the bike path to Johnson.
About a mile or two before I made it to the car, my legs started to fizzle, so I tapped a little deeper, casting aside the thought of a cool down, and spinning the Solace’s slick tires over loose stones right up the short gravel road to the car.
I rolled in an awesome and complete physical and mental wreck.
Great ride.








Ready for a Kenai July epic?
Here’s my favorite:

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.