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

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.

No comments: