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Spring Powder and New Zones

Skiing in the Front Range of South Central Alaska's Chugach mountains is an acquired taste. In the middle of summer when the mountains are mostly snow free they look like hills and inspire little hope for skiing adventure. But throw some snow on them and suddenly their intricate features and deceptively large scale start to show.

The North Face of Ptarmigan Peak is the obvious prize in the Front RangeEven with their proximity to Anchorage, the number of local skiers venturing very far into the range is pretty small. Truth be told, these mountains are often raked by frequent winds making the quality of skiing a mixed bag. But with numerous steep skiing objectives, I'll trade cool terrain and easy access for perfect snow on most days. While the hoards commute to Turnagain and Hatcher Pass to get what they want, I'll often choose to stay close and search out some hidden gems in my backyard.

The thin snow pack is fading fast right now but deeper in the range, adequate coverage and powder stashes are still to be found for the enterprising ski mountaineer. This past weekend I got out with two different partners to explore a popular haunt and some unknown terrain. With the grim year we've had here, the approaches, while relatively short, involved a mix of foot, bicycle and ski travel. The weather was fine, the winds pretty mellow and the snow was delicious. A new zone I've been wondering about delivered in spades. 


First up was an outing with sometime partner, Marc. He's been in Anchorage at least a decade but a busy job and family keeps him from straying too far from home to ski. His time is tight so when I suggested some exploratory steep skiing in his backyard range he was game. We used bikes to traverse the ice covered road for about 2 miles to start the day and then switched to skis and skins after that. I suspected we'd find wintery conditions farther out and that's exactly what we found. I only gave him a brief description of where we were headed so he was curious to see what I had in mind. The zone can't be seen from town so it was with much anticipation that we both turned the corner and headed up into the cirque.

The new zone after we had our wayNeither of us were disappointed with the offerings and we got busy setting the skinner and then the booter up the first couloir. The snow was mostly good with some variable here and there. Hasty pits and pole plunges revealed typical consolidated conditions common in these steep gullies.

The booting was easy and we made quick work of the ascent. After exiting the couloir we hiked another 10 minutes to top out on the nearest high point. 

We didn't waste much time changing over and heading down to the steep entrance. I was filming video this outing and Marc skied right by me and dropped in. The upper third was perfect consolidated powder but then got a little punchy in the middle, necessitating one turn at a time tactics. The apron was smooth and inviting and we were ready for more.

A quick change and we headed further into the cirque for a second line we spied on the way in. This time the snow was mostly good until the final 200 feet where we found wind blown neve just before the top out. Downward bound, we made a half dozen careful turns before getting onto the more forgiving surface lower down. I traversed far right to film Marc in what I suspected would be perfect spring powder. With my camera out I motioned for Marc to let it rip and he was soon out of site taking it all the way to the bottom. I quickly joined him enjoying about 1,500 feet of great turns.

The out turned out to be relatively painless as the wind hammered flats proved to be perfectly skateable. My only glitch was getting onto my skinny tired mountain bike on the sun softened snow. It was hike-a-bike for a bit before reaching more consolidated and packed snow closer to the car. Turned out to be another surprise powder day for a couple of die hard Front Rangers.

I decided to try my hand at some video again as my new camera is pretty user friendly and allows for still photos while filming video. Here's my first go with some ski action. Don't laugh. I'll get better. Click on the title icon in the top left corner for a full image.


Marc was out and Dave was in, this time for his first descent (on skis) of Ptarmigan Peak. Dave's been in Anchorage for a good part of his life and has skied a ton of terrain around here. But, for various reasons, bad vibes mostly surrounding a couple of tragedies on the North Face, he's avoided skiing this iconic line. But Sunday, he was ready to put all that behind him with my encouragement and support. 

Still lots of skiable snow on the massive snowfield below Ptarmigan PassI was happy to leave the bike at home and take Dave up on his idea to approach from the Rabbit Creek side of the peak. It's a bit of a slog up the trail but it's still ice and snow covered for most of the way so it was an easy skin. After 45 minutes we started up under the west face on frozen corn. Ski crampons were key, once again, like on any Front Range adventure. A fore shortened view of Ptarmigan's West FaceDave was up here the day before sussing things out and pointed me to the booter that was already in. We cruised up it and were on top at exactly two hours. We were surprised to find a party of three just topping out as well one gully to the south of our route. We traded greetings and confirmed plans and Dave and I readied ourselves for the descent.

Having skied similar aspects the day before I knew this was going to be excellent and did my best to belay some of Dave's apprehension. With so many years of anticipation behind him, I could appreciate his case of nerves. From the starting point at the saddle, the first 100 feet looked a little sharky. Dave suggested booting down but I was having none of that. I felt like I could sneek through with my bases intact. The other party was watching with interest, taking advantage of the avalanche poodle launching onto the face. Just as I suspected, the snow was perfect and the bony bits went smoothly. I encouraged Dave to do the same and he was soon making turns down to me.

Dave shedding some old demonsThe traverse to the south on the exposed hanging snowfield always grabs my attention. This would be no place to be making turns in more avy prone conditions. But Sunday, it was just powdered joy on 40+ degrees of perfection. The first 1,000 feet were some of the best turns Dave's ever had in a wild setting like the North Face. Worth the wait?I could almost sense years of anxiety wash away as he descended the 2,000 foot run. The lower half of the S Couloir was funky and variable but we struggled through without incident.

Next up was a trip over to yesterday's crime scene. I was excited to show Dave what we'd found. The temps were warm but I figured it would last one more day. We made use of the skinner I put in to quickly reach the ridgeline and then traverse over to the longer of the two couloirs and have another go. The snow was a bit funkier and Dave was pushing the limits of his softer Dynafit TLT 6 Mountain boots, getting them to fold completely in the middle of a couple of turns. Tongues in next time, for sure. But it was still fun skiing such an asthetic line. 

Back up the skinner to the ridge had us vying for the sweet corn down to Rabbit Lake and the trail back to the car. Feels like springIt was corn o'clock and we ripped the smooth surface and tucked the bottom before skating over to the outlet and onto the trail. From the final skis-on transition, it was 45 minutes back to the car. Silly fun. 

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Reader Comments (4)

Thanks for the day, that was one of the best. Nice to have someone to motivate me to raise the bar another notch.

April 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterDavid Miller

Excellent. You have a future in filming extreme sports. I love the front range favoritism.

April 29, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterA-train.


There's a future, alright, but I'm not sure how bright it is. But shooting video is a new challenge that's fun for now. It's not until you edit do you understand how to make it better. I think each effort will hopefully be better than the last. Stay tuned.

Thanks for reading.

April 29, 2015 | Registered CommenterBrian

The first of many fun days out there, Dave.

April 29, 2015 | Registered CommenterBrian

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