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A Nice Dose

Winter in AK continued its reluctant trickle over the holiday. The weather is decidedly unsettled with very little local precipitation and slightly better returns in the Turnagain area. Lower elevations remain bare but the high mountains are getting fatter. A scary buried hoar layer seems to be stabilizing so the hazard is diminishing for now. But more weird weather approaches so who knows what we'll get after this incoming blast.

The Front Range has been my go-to ski zone when I don't have all day for adventure. There are surprisingly fun options for steep, technical skiing and even good powder shots when weather allows. But the wind tends to blow up there regularly creating a firmer snowpack more often than not. The local snow snobs prefer the more consistently softer snow at Turnagain Pass to the south or Hatcher Pass to the north. I get that. But I have had so many good days skiing steep chalk in the FR that I can't help but go back for more.

Mat and I got up for our first session together in the Peak 3/Peak 4 zone on Friday. It was cloudy and windy but these factors are often required to get this zone to fill in enough to ski in lean years like we have now. The ample rock outcroppings help with visability during these times and the skiing is often fun. Mat runs the Achorage Avalanche Center so he also had professional reasons to be up in his work zone making observations. 

We hiked the first bit through the bush line although the truly stubborn could do it skis on. Once in the gut of Peak 3, there was plenty of coverage. The intermittant wind board made ski crampons a god send and I paid quiet homage to B&D Ski Gear for mine. Why struggle? Ski crampons are the bomb!Most people only break their's out in spring when the corn is frozen and others feel it a sign of weakness to use them at all. But, for me, efficient travel trumps all concerns and these little gems make mid winter firmness a non concern. Up we went.

We decided to make one run down Peak 3 to enjoy the decent viz and mostly soft snow blowing into the center. The steep section at the top was super fun with a minimally reactive soft slab that was easy to manage. The gut was typical P3 fun. Back up we went to the ridge traverse over to Peak 4. The wind was starting to pick up and, in spite of fingers getting chilly suggesting it was pretty damn cold, there was a curious freezing mist sticking to everything. It was becoming full Scottish conditions. 

Trying to keep skis on and staying on the windward side of the ridge, I started getting onto some very suspicious looking wind slab. The wind was coming from the south now but the recent snow obviously was loaded from the north. Just as that thought crossed my mind, the little section I was standing on cracked and settled all around. I knew better. But here I was, standing on this sucker wondering what my next move should be. The slope flattened out just in front of me so I scurried forward trying to be as light as possible. As I moved off the little slab and started to relax, I turned to Mat on the rocks above suggesting he might want a picture or two of the cracks behind me for his observation post. I took one more step and the rest of the slab pulled out around me from some rocks a few feet above. I was in the thinner part of the starting zone so I only slid a few feet but the rest broke up below me and continued downslope several hundred feet. That was exciting. Mat definitely took pictures of that.

I tempted fate no further and we moved to the lee of the ridge and scrambled with crampons up the steeper, class 4 rock on the north side of Peak 4. It was engaging and super fun. We donned skis and ripped skins in the gale at the top and picked our way through the summit rocks and onto the slopes below. There was a lot less wind loading and we enjoyed a skiff of powder over chalk for 500 meters. Surprisingly good. We busted the track up and repeated the run again. Not wanting to thrash through the bushes below, we opted for another climb to the ridge and then traversed back to Peak 3 for our final descent, both of us encased in rime from the building moisture of the little system blowing through.

With my upcoming trip to Jackson and the Selkirks at the end of January, training days like this are welcomed. We were out for 6 hours and climbed 7,700 verts.

Turnagain Pass

The weather cleared enough yesterday to have a look at the Pass. They'd gotten a little bit more snow but it came with some wind so we weren't sure what was in store. Winds were calm in the morning so we figured the touring would be good either way. The buried surface hoar that had created a problem or two seemed to be settling down, as well.

We settled for a look at Magnum and followed some tracks heading that way. We wanted to take the ridge but those in front of us opted for a high traverse to the south. We decided to poke our nose onto the scoured ridgeline and found one pocket of snow that had Mat digging several hasty pits as he ascended. I spotted from below to the side of the run out. Aside from a few inches of reactive new snow, the deep layers seemed to be bonded. We continued up. The snow eventually petered out over the tundra and we joined a curious boot pack that came straight out of Taylor Creek. I could make out what looked to be a sled track on top of the booter indicating this climber was dragging something, I assumed a snow board. Oh, how wrong I was.

Mat and I continued to the summit of Magnum to eye the tasty lines from the top. Recent avy concerns had us doubting a descent on this day. Still, we brought out the Backcountry Bomb in hopes of dropping a cornice to see what we had. We flailed a bit getting the cable stuck on a buried rock and then got a smaller section to drop without any excitement. We burned an hour messing around. CNFAIC crew came up behind us sussing out things, as well. While they dug, we opted for a quick hit near their up track and found super fun powder all the way down to the creek. 

One thing that made the skiing even better was my choice of powder tools, my DPS Wailer 112 Pures mounted with Plum Race 165 binders. As I've said before, skiing on these is a completely different sport from doing so with skinny mountaineering boards. It's so easy, even a cave man (or me) can do it. And doing so on this day confirmed my belief that fat rockered skis are an avalanche management tool, allowing for speed, stability and control just when you need it. This lessens one's exposure to objective hazard, as is apparent in any ski porn produced today. All this said, I've only skied these playful boards a half dozen times in three years. But with the light bindings on them, they're sure to come out every powder day on the exposed slopes of Turnagain Pass. Stupid fun.

AK glow getting ready to showWe busted out a few laps in worsening light, meeting up with a couple of friends along the way. We caught back up to them on our last time to the top just as the crazy Alaskan alpenglow was going off to the west. Once again, the tasty lines from the top beckoned. It was a combination of sensing decent stability all day, some confirmatory digging and the willingness of our friends to drop in that made Mat and I pull the trigger. We were not disappointed. We took full advantage of our large skis to carry the speed we felt was required. The four of us stood at the bottom grinning, admitting it was the run of the day.


Full commitment

No place for wiggle turns here

One more lap up to the ridge had us regaining our ascent line and some enjoyable turns back down to Taylor Creek and the usual bush dancing before walking the last bit down. Another great day out with five hours and 6,500 feet in hand. I'm tired.

Oh, and that mystery boot packer? He appeared on the ridge our last time up and pushed off for another run to the bottom on a ... wait for it.... kiddie sled. I shit you not. Rode the thing through the powder on his knees like a BOSS!

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