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Thin White Line - Avalanche Peak

After residing in Anchorage for three years now, I've observed a few subsets of backcountry skiers. The largest group gravitates South to Turnagain Pass for all the huge line powder goodness that zone provides. When the weather is clear and the snow fresh it is unrivalled. A slightly smaller group will head North to Hatcher Pass where slightly smaller scaled and often rockier chute skiing can be found. These two groups often blend as weather systems in South Central AK tend to favor one area or the other. 

The smallest group, likely the most dedicated, least picky, die hard, can't-get-enough-of-winter sort of animals troll the Anchorage Front Range for the many hidden gems lurking in the cirques not far from town. Now, for the snow snobs, the FR snow pack is a wild beast. The wind blows often and the snow is typically hard and, for many, not very fun. I get that. Some of these folks will come out on the rare powder day but, in typical conditions, would rather drive an hour North or South and take their chances.

But for those of us that regularly brave the tooth rattling runs down slide-for-life wind board and sastrugi, we've learned to court the vagaries of this fickle mistress and are often rewarded for our persistance. Saturday was one such day for me. As is often the case for Front Range Rando Jihadis, I was solo. Sometimes it's hard to find a fellow masochist. Truth be told, I wanted to be alone on this one as I simply wasn't sure it was goinig to be worth it. I also hadn't done a solo mission on a serious objective in quite some time and, on this day, I wanted to be alone with that nervous seed of doubt that often accompanies these adventures.

The Thin White Line - Avalanche Peak, Chugach Mountains, AKThere're several choice lines that every Anchorage ski alpinist needs to tick off his Front Range list. The Thin White Line on Avalanche Peak high above Ship Lake is one such gem and it eluded me until a few days ago. The weather was fine but the week prior was fraught with high winds and a bit of new snow. Word had it that there were some touchy wind slabs out there that caught at least one seasoned veteran off guard. My motto for the day was, "you don't know unless you go" and I headed out with my radar up.

My borrowed steed for the day. Handy this year.With the thin snow pack, Powerline trail was going to be grim but I borrowed a fat bike to make the first few miles manageable. After stashing the bike, I skinned another hour to the pass that overlooked the couloir. The way there was marked with bullet proof sastrugi and wind board. What a surprise. The slope up to the pass had pulled out earlier in the week and I donned crampons for the firm climb to the crest. I figured I'd be pulling the plug there but I wanted to at least have a look. 

Looking back down Powerline. A little bonyAt the top, the stunning line came into view and I knew, at the very least, I had to ski to the base, hard snow be damned. The East side of the pass was dirt and rocks and low angle snow at the bottom so I wasn't worried about avy danger. But I also knew that skiing the couloir on wind board was likely out of the question for this ski mountaineer. It's about 45 degrees up high and a fall would be unstoppable. Not good. But maybe I'd get lucky. I had a feeling...

So, down I went into the shadow of the North face. I got off the rocks and made the quick ski to the lake and onto the apron. It was freaking HARD. Crampons back on and up I went. As I got into the gut of the bottom section the snow started changing quality and by the time I was at the mid point where the slope eases before the final pitch, I was booting on perfect styrofoam. A few hasty pits and pole probes indicated a fairly thick, consolidated mass. I suspect there was some evil down deep but it felt capped to me and these steep chutes seem to constantly shed their loads anyway.

Halfway. Getting psychedThe higher I climbed, the better it got and after an hour from the base, I was standing in the still afternoon sun giddy with excitement. I haven't skied a lot of committing steep lines this year. It really is my favorite kind of skiing. So dangerous and so fun and satisfying at the same time. There's no warm up turn here. Just a slight push off onto the 45 degree entry. But the smooth, predictable surface made the skiing almost easy. I took my time and stopped a few times to let the tension in my quads ebb. I relaxed a bit on the midway apron and then focused for the final wind board toward the bottom. Even on 30 degrees, a fall on a hard surface like that could get messy. As the pitch eased again I let the skis run a bit and my eyes were watering to near blindness as I shot across the frozen lake. Nothing but smiles.

The view northwest from the top

Turnagain Arm off the other side

What I came for...The climb out was uneventful and the hard snow along Powerline made getting back to my bike nearly painless. I dodged tourists and dog walkers on the ride back to the car. It might not have been blower pow but it was way better than I thought and completely unexpected for this season. Total time was 4:54.

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Reader Comments (2)

Nice work! Glad you got it!
Styrofoam, wind board, groomed-by-God... its fun stuff if you don't fall.
I'm starting to think wearing wool pants and fleece in this kind of terrain makes a lot of sense.

March 25, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterdbass

Yep. Those conditions raise the commitment level for sure. It scares and excites me at the same time. Sort of my crack cocaine, I guess.

Interesting point about the clothing choice. We could design a "self arrest suit". Hmmmm.

March 25, 2015 | Registered CommenterBrian

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