Thursday, April 26, 2018

Tercero/Beluga Peak North Couloir

Tony D dropped a line. He and a crew were headed up Mills Creek for some ski camping and exploring, and wanted to know if I wanted join.


One Phatty and phour phree-heal phreaks (Nathan was on teles) rallied to the middle of nowhere.

The Kenais have had a lean winter, Summit area is exceptionally thin, and has sported lousy stability most the season. Other than one outing there to poke around, I’ve avoided it like the plague. Not worth it.

With the spring cycle in full swing, the troubled and thin pack was quickly peeling away from most aspects, and grass and shrubs were popping back out on wind-blown slopes. It looked more like May, but stability had come back for the higher elevation north faces.

Skiing the north couloir on El Tercero/Beluga Peak (see LINK for info on Mills Creek peak names) has been on the agenda for a couple years.

Tony and Craig – Chunk made the probable first descent of Beluga’s north side some 12 years ago. In March 2016, Tony, Trent, Nathan, and I skied right under Beluga’s north couloir, and were tempted, but opted instead to focus our energy on the un-skied neighboring Stormy Peak and its ragged north face instead.

This spring, I didn’t expect Beluga or any of its ridgeline couloirs to be in great shape, but with a nice mid-week refresh, sunny weather in the forecast, and Beluga’s summit elevation above 5,000 feet, I knew it would still be soft, despite ambient temps getting above freezing as high as 3,500 feet.

Tony, Paul, and Jay got an early start, and were a couple hours ahead of Nathan and I. Nathan and I left the road around 10, and made good time, getting to Stormy Creek a bit before 1.

Tony and crew had checked out part of the route on Friday afternoon to confirm all the snow bridges were still in, so route finding was easy. The only challenge were the deep and now re-frozen tracks left by Tony and Jay. The short slick descents on the mining roads proved to be some of the scariest skiing of the weekend! The refrozen ski trenches threatened to grab and catch a ski at any moment. Add in heavier overnight packs, and it was downright, slide-slip, terrifying!

Anyway, the small upshot to a very lean winter was that alders were left standing upright along most the Mills Creek aqueduct. It was actually easier travel on this section then it was deep winters the past, where some nefarious alders were left bowed over.

That being said, we found ourselves searching for traction on thick, dry grass climbing up and down wind-blown bluffs. Crossing the numerous melted out ditches on the mining road and aqueduct, we skinned through damp moss, and stomped through slimey muck.

We got to camp, and the crew had just finished setting up and having lunch.

Nathan and I found a new use for our Verts: stomping out a tent platform. On the warm sunny bench, if you tried to walk without skis, you would immediately fall hip-deep in mank.

Tony, Paul, and Jay set off for the unnamed Beluga drainage, while Nathan and I finished setting up camp.

We caught up a little bit later under Stormy’s melting southwest face, a place I’d love to return to in mid-winter.

On the trek in, seeing how deep Tony and Jay had been trenching in on their tour the previous afternoon, Nathan and I discussed the idea of just going for Beluga today, and using the firm morning crust Sunday for a drama-free exit.

As we skied up Beluga’s valley, we didn’t find soft snow until about 3,500 feet, and we noted that most the northerly lines on Beluga’s ridge had either sloughed out and were full of chunder, or were very boney and unappealing.

Even the big north couloir was shockingly thin. Fortunately, it lacked any massive chunder piles.

Decision made: up we went.

Beluga is a pretty easy peak to get. You can literally take the ridge right up out of Mills Creek valley for a 2 mile sky-walk if you want. There appears to be some ridge crux action about midway as the ridge spikes upward – and may either require skinning out over a the southwest facing gully, or a short boot, it probably depends on the snow year. Another option is to go up the unnamed Beluga drainage and climb the west-facing headwall separating Beluga and Stormy peaks, then take Beluga’s wrap-around ridge south. This year, the wrap-around ridge was in good shape and lacking big cornices, however, the headwall was showing signs of deterioration and rotting out. In 2016, we climbed the headwall to get to Stormy. It made sense for Stormy, and was a month easrlier, but I can’t say it was great, and in hindsight, I would have preferred to have had Verts for that climb and narrowed exposure on the wall.

Lastly, you can boot a few of Beluga’s northerly couloirs to attain its summit ridge, including the main summit couloir.

We chose the latter.

The boys set up in the sun down in the cirque to watch while Nathan and I pushed the skinner to the base of the couloir and switched to booting.

Beluga’s north couloir is, like many Kenai mountain couloirs, not a clearly defined feature.

In the big picture, it’s actually more of an hourglass with twin necks. The bottom bulb of the hour glass is the apron, and splits out with a few fins that will be variously protruding in differing snow years. The top bulb connects to the curved summit ridge. The further eastward you go down Beluga’s ridge from its summit, the more overhang there is from cornices.

The twin necks of the hour glass each feature their own varying level of character, including chokes and blades of rock that may or may not be exposed depending on the snow year.

There is also an easterly facing “blowhole” couloir that peels away from Beluga’s iconic suspended summit field and feeds into the north couloir. I don’t know if the blowhole goes every year. On this trip, we looked up the blowhole and observed it was totally wind jacked with 2-3 foot, rock-hard wind drifts. It’s got to be an amazing run when it goes.

The initial boot above the apron was good, soft, and promised to ski well.

As we climbed into the twin necks of the hour glass, we stayed in the climber’s right neck, and mid-way, conditions deteriorated to hardpack, and became somewhat wind jacked.

A near constant stream of dry snow and quarter to dime-sized flakes of rock were skittering their way down from above.

Being so thin this year, there was a shocking amount of exposed rock in the mid-section: all of it sharp, flakey shale. We followed the “best” snow leftward through a set of short twin chokes that were each about two ski lengths wide, and then pulled out of the chokes onto a fat rib that is the pinch point for the upper bulb of the hour glass.

The push to the top sucked. Hanging summit fields like this are a nightmare, especially when they sit over thin, boney lines. The snow was Styrofoam-like, and increasing in depth with every step. There was nowhere to hide up here, it was Nathan’s lead, it had been a long day, and there was no safe way do a switch out until Nathan topped out – neither of us trusted the snow pack up here enough to pile up.

Finally up top, a cool wind and a nice, wide, rounded ridge greeted us.

Other than “stopping” to stomp in a camp, this was the first time we’d stopped moving all day. We were both exhausted, and anxious about the descent.

The boys, having lost their sun, followed our skin track, and part of our booter, to the base of the twin necks, and then scooted left under the eastern neck, to get out of our way.

I dropped first.

I was pretty nervous about the upper section. The snow was suspect. Unlike a more classic couloir, there was no safety up here, no safe place to cut and run. My options if things went wrong would be to either point it down the fat rib toward the “safety” of a massive serrated fin of rock and hope the snow parted ways, or to cut hard skiers left across the boney choke that we avoided on the climb to the apparent safety of the summit’s massive rock face.

Neither inspired safety.

I dropped in, stayed high, progressively increased the force of each turn until I was centered above the top of the rib, and then made a few hard cuts, blowing what had felt like stiff-feeling snow into blinding clouds of crystalized powder.

Emerging from the powder clouds, and seeing only minor slough running on either side of the rib, I rode out the delightful feature and pulled up next to the serrated blade of rock. A now thick stream of slough trained its way down either side of me through the twin chokes below, but the snow felt great – much better than expected.

Next, I dropped into the choke we climbed. Conditions were hard pack, but highly edge-able. I easily made 4 very fast jump turns through the choke, and skied into the top of the main neck.

Immediately, the wind jacked snow began to reject my heel-side edge, but in sliding, I released slough.

I stopped on the far side of the neck for a minute and watched the thin, dirty, slough hiss over the bumpy hardpack snow.

For a second, I wondered what the F I was doing here.

Then an idea occurred.

I fired back across the bumpy snow, jump turned hard and kicked as much of the hardpack loose as I could, and then pointed it for my newly made 6’x6’ slough pile.

As I hit the slough, the board lifted up and surfed over the bumps.

That thought I just had, it was gone.

I was fully engaged.

Firing back and forth, I high sided in and out of the neck, jump turning, dropping back down to surf a few turns on slough, before high siding back out, over and over, until the wind jacked snow finally faded beneath softer snow lower down the line.

Once my edges stopped needing to bite firmly, and the snow softened, I was able to point the nose and ride out some sweet turns to where the boys were piled in.

I radioed up to Nathan and reported conditions, cautioning him to take his time through the wind jacked section.

A few minutes later we were all grouped back up.

Being the only boarder in the group, I asked if it would be OK if I tore down the rest of the apron so I could carry speed across the rolling drainage. Along the way, I hit 45mph.

The mostly supportable snow made it easy to board and double pole the entire 3-4 miles back to camp.

The sun dipped behind the valley walls, but lit up Stormy Peak’s north face, providing a great backdrop to an evening of laughs and lost ski stories.

Despite the lingering spring light, we turned in early. All night, dozens of ptarmigan ptartied (see what I did there) around our camp. Males competed for the attention of potential mates, or fought off rivals, raising a complete ruckus. I slept well, but occasionally woke and wished Mr. Wolverine or Mr. Lynx would come by and break it all up!

The next morning Nathan downed breakfast and I stuck with the plan to exit. There wasn’t anything really beckoning us to ski, and I was surprised to notice my legs were more sore than I would have expected. We enjoyed the firm snow for a cruise out. As it was, even in the past day, a few of the snow bridges had started to sag and crack, and the one over Juneau Creek actually groaned as Nathan sprinted over it.

Even if it wasn’t deep and wintry, it was a great weekend with a great crew in one of my favorite locales. I love ski camping.

Beluga as seen on the approach. The North Couloir nestles it's way out of sight in the back.

Super boney this year. The v-shaped twin chokes at the top are likely non existent most year. This year, they made it a little spicey.

Soft conditions on the way up

Out on the upper bulb, it skied great, but the broad slope over a narrow chasm with stiff snow wasn't much fun.

Up top.

Back out over Mills

The Upper Mills

Still looks like winter up here.

Stormy's glowing north face provided a nice backdrop and good memories.

Tony deconstructing camp.

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