The Rites of AK Spring - 1
Sunday, May 15, 2016 at 04:02PM
Brian in Alaska Winter, Chugach skiing, steep skiing

Few would argue that it was a strange winter nearly everywhere in North America. The strangeness was mostly of the warm variety. It was certainly no drought but it looked like it in places like Alaska in the lower elevations. Truth be told, my home town of Anchorage saw very little snow. The Nordic skiers were depressed. But above 2,000 feet, the winter was full-on throughout South Central AK. 

When spring arrives up here it does so dramatically. The days get longer FAST. The lengthening of each day is noticeable from week to week and accelerates as June approaches. People get manic with all the light. I’m no exception. But my mania is focused toward bigger ski lines in more remote corners of the Chugach. The long days allow motivated ski mountaineers the opportunity to chase their dreams as long as they have the stomach for it. It takes commitment, fitness and light gear to make it possible.  On these outings, it’s definitely NOT all about the down, regardless of what our friends at Black Diamond may have us believe.

My working stiff luck seemed to hold out for a couple of recent weekends. It was cold enough up high and the skies were settled enough to pluck some gems. Mat had been able to sample the snow pack during the week so we knew stability was going to be good. He always has something on his tick list so I let him pick. For a ski alpinist, the zone he suggested on this day happens to be my favorite in the Anchorage area. 

Because of the lack of snow down low, we approached in running shoes. The zone is a bit hidden and the brown hillsides belied the skiing to come. The approach is such a building tease. I love it. Around each corner the view just kept getting better. Even though I’d been there before, I couldn’t help but drink in the anticipation. 

We took note of the low hanging fruit on the way in but Mat had other things in mind. Once at the top of the approach couloir it became apparent that the recent afternoon showers had landed favorably in this area. The north facing lines were wintery in spite of the warm temps elsewhere. The snow was the sticky spring powder that makes everything right in the skiing world this time of year. We were not disappointed.

With little mountaineering skis and the awareness that if something went sideways we were a long way from help, we skied cautiously and savored each turn for the full 2,500 feet. We leap-frogged our way down, shooting some photos and taking in the ambiance of this amazing line. It feels really big but not so steep that you have a pit in your gut thinking about each turn. But you certainly wouldn’t want to take a ride down it. 

The valley heat was noticeable as we neared the apron. It felt hot down there. And in spite of the shade on the face, the new snow on the rocks was starting to loosen. As we skied over to the base of our next objective, the mountain seemed to be waking up like a sled dog shaking off the night’s spin drift. We stood watching as each little gully started running. It was obvious that the next line on our list would have to wait for another day.

So much potential but too warm to seriously consider heading into the gun barrelMat and I discussed our exit strategy. The walls above our descent line were loaded but much less so than the center of the face we just witnessed. There was also an alternate exit that was shorter and even less exposed. Up we went. About a third of the way up, some heavy snow started moving down the couloir we were skinning up. Because of the warmth, it was moving slowly like lava and we stood off to the side for about 10 minutes as the load moved by. It was surreal. Certainly nothing you wanted to be in front of but slow moving enough to not feel overly threatening. 

Once above the starting zone and into cooler temps, we relaxed and finished the climb up the shorter exit. The booting was easy. At the top, we faced a fun 1,500 foot corn run to the valley floor. But before we launched we eyed a consolation prize directly across from us. Although wary of the possibility of more heavy snow slides, the temps seemed to drop and nothing was moving on the adjacent face. We started up.

The second prize of the day. Right from the summit. We booted the lower half of a couloir we’d both skied before. Then we continued up a narrow, steeper line that headed directly to the summit. If it turned out to be continuous, it would prove to be an elegant and worthy prize for the day. And indeed it was. From the summit we took in the usual heady views of the Chugach that one gets from these lofty vantage points and then headed down. The snow was about as good as it could be for steep, spring skiing. Softer than chalk. More stable than powder. And a sluff that wasn’t pushy.

Once back into the main line we enjoyed another 1,000 feet of variable snow before hitting the stickiness for the traverse to our running shoes. We laid on the dry tundra eating some food before taking on the task of the walk out. I was rewarded by scoring a moose paddle that strapped nicely to my already overstuffed pack. It seems like most Alaskan homes have a backcountry souvenir like it so it made it home with me. 

With the warm weather, the snow is transitioning fast to skiable summer snow. With the decent volume up high, we’re anticipating at least a few more days of fun skiing before fully giving into summer activities. 

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