Unlike other places I’ve lived in my life, Alaska is not known for consistently fine weather. The windows tend to be short and, if you’re a skier, you need to pounce on opportunities when they present themselves. For the traditionally employed, this can prove to be a problem when good weather materializes during the week and the shit comes back in on the weekend.
Generally, I’ve been pretty lucky the last four ski seasons. I’ve had some great days with acceptable weather and good conditions that coincided with my schedule. But this spring I’ve missed out on some seriously fine outings with friends blessed with either, what I like to call, underemployment or flexible work schedules. As a result, when the weekend comes, I’m left to head up when the weather suggests otherwise.
To make these outings work, I head to lines that have enough rocks and gullies to give the necessary contrast so that skiing is actually possible…and fun. It mostly works out although as you’ll read below, it can sometimes lead to unexpected adventure.
The majority of Anchorage skiers seem to enjoy the relatively easy access of good skiing at Hatcher and Turnagain Pass. You don’t have to travel far and the lines are high quality. The tradeoff is that you’re usually sharing the zones with like-minded individuals and large groups. After four seasons here, I’ve noticed a lack of crowds further back. Coming from the Tetons where the best skiing is often 1.5 to 2 hours from the car, I don’t mind long approaches. Certainly, my affection for light gear makes the distances more palatable. Luckily, I have a small crew of fit, similarly inclined partners. And when they aren’t available, I’m off solo, conditions permitting.
While the masses head to the above mentioned zones, smaller numbers are content with the local prizes in the Anchorage Front Range. It’s an acquired taste with a variable and thinner snow pack. But it makes up for it in interesting terrain and often hidden gems that are experienced only by those willing to do the work to find them.
A couple of weeks ago, I toured over 35 miles in 3 days accessing some of this terrain. Sure, I ended up with sore ankles from scooting along the flats and side hills but was rewarded by some fantastic and compelling lines. My partners, on days I missed, did the same, employing various tactics like ice climbing to get to the goods.
Here are a few samplings of what we/they found.
Type II Fun and First Descents
My girlfriend, Karol, is a fit, well-traveled skier with no climbing experience. In fact, she tends to avoid exposure whenever possible. Although she loves running around in the mountains, steep drops and narrow ridge lines make her nervous. I get that. As a result and because of my proclivity toward exposed skiing, we don’t ski together as much as I would like. However, I’ve noticed that once she has skis on her feet, her exposure tolerance changes and she’s much more comfortable.
With this in mind, I invited her to explore a line I spied earlier in the week on a solo mission. I wasn’t sure but I suspected that a short rappel, or in her case, a lower would be required to access the couloir. She was slightly dubious but game to at least have a look. For some silly reason, she trusted me. First mistake…
The weather was sort of shitty with fog and poor viz. The snow was good and there was no wind so poking around up high seemed reasonable. I climbed a known line and my tracks from earlier in the week were covered by a fresh crop of powdered joy. My idea was then to traverse the ridge toward the entrance of the objective.
We brought two 60 meter ropes, some tat, pitons and a few nuts. I was ready for anything…except poor visibility. Although the clouds were in and out on the approach, they moved in like a wall once we gained the ridge. I walked along, straining my eyes downward trying to estimate my position on the ridge in relation to the couloir we were looking for. Type 2 fun and epic potential was brewing.
Once above what I thought was the entrance, I rigged the rappel and, for some reason, Karol agreed to letting me lower her about 70 feet into the snowy abyss. We could see the top 200 feet of the couloir and it seemed about right. Although having never done this sort of madness, she eased over the edge uncomplaining. Gotta love her spirit, right? Given her previous protestations to this sort of position, I was surprised but clearly the rope was helping.
She touched down with out issue and I followed. Although I couldn’t see too far down, I fully committed and pulled the rope. There’d be no climbing back up. Gulp.
Below was a small choke that Karol easily negotiated. The snow was deep and warm and the air still. The fog hung like a blanket teasing my anxiety about what lay below. The pitch approached 50 degrees but the powder made it less imposing. Once through the choke I made a few more turns before pulling up short above another rollover. I got nauseous as the seeds of doubt rushed over me. Wrong line? Perhaps. What I was seeing below me did not match what I remembered from the base.
I quickly removed my skis and down climbed the steep snow to have a look. It definitely did not “go”. Shit. I scanned the rock walls around me. Nothing but what the Kiwis call “Wheatbix”…shit rock with no protection. Awesome. Karol watched from above as I scanned for solutions.
The snow was packable and the base dense. I realized that a snow bollard was my only solution. Can’t remember the last time I rapped off one of those although it might have been in New Zealand in 1995. So, I got out my shovel and dug a ledge. Karol took off her skis, donned crampons and carefully climbed down to me. I explained what we were going to do.
I decided that 30 meter lowers were best so I could stay in voice contact with her. The fog was still thick so I’d have to rely on her assessment of what was below her. Lowering her on less than vertical terrain was easy from a standing belay. The vertical rock steps were only about 10 meters. After she was down, I stepped off my little ledge and trenched around it to create the bollard. The funny thing about bollards is that you never really know how big to make them in soft snow. I tried not to weight each one unless I absolutely had to. Luckily, the line cut through the slope before each steep step which created drag and translated to less force at the anchor.
We did a total of three raps from the top, two off snow anchors before skiing some lovely steep powder to the apron. Once down, I saw how far off I was in my assessment. In exchange, Karol got some full-on proper skimo fun and likely more invites on steeper outings. She’ll probably regret being so calm through all this. Luckily for me, it went smoothly. I really didn’t want to end up as a news story in the ADN (Alaska Daily News). Hard to say if this is a first descent. I can’t really believe anyone would do this on purpose, though.
Even more to her credit, she hardly hesitated when I suggested that we go back up our boot pack and ski the original ascent line just so we could actually get some fun skiing in. Needless to say, she slept well after the 8 hour adventure.
The western Chugach encroaches on Eagle River with a lifetime of skiing just out of sight above the city. Access is not easy and sometimes involves sticky land ownership issues to get to state land. Other access points are available and great skiing is there for those willing to do the work.With continued unsettled weather, Mat and I headed out during a short window to ski a line we’ve been eyeing for a couple of seasons. After about 90 minutes of skiing, the couloir loomed and looked promising. We weren’t disappointed and the skiing and position was as good as anything I’ve skied in Alaska. There's a second couloir right next to it but a fast moving storm descended upon us forcing a retreat and leaving the gem for Mat and another partner a few days later.