As I’ve stated previously, everything in Alaska seems to work in extended cycles, which seem to begin and end at anytime without notice. We’ve come a long way from the cold vodka clear weather that has kept us all dreaming of January. Since then we’ve gone the massive snowfall and avalanche cycle , which was followed by an even longer period of low elevation rain accompanied by avalanches, and finally our present cycle of complete unpredictability and further avalanching. The only constant over the last few weeks being the steady increase in daylight, and now that the sun has decided to wait around till 8:30ish before setting waiting out a morning of cloud cover and hangovers for some sunny afternoon snow has become a standard practice.

As last weekend approached, after 5 days of sitting in the office looking out on sunny skies with the occasional tease of some post work laps in the front range I was desperate to get out. Tales of relative stability throughout the week only increased the itch. I realized Friday though, while studying the weather (a massive storm was forecast), that my dreams of skiing something steep weren’t going to be coming true. That however did nothing to soften the blow of waking up Saturday morning to thick mayonnaise clouds and stormy weather.

I proceeded to get drunk before noon and pass out from one till a bit after seven; only to wake up and sip Jim Beam and coffees while watching the Australian Grand Prix. Jenny and Kelly were throwing a party at my house that night so the drunkenness continued straight through to Sunday morning, when I woke up too concerned with a horrible headache to even bother looking out the window. I was soon joined by Graham (who apparently hadn’t made it home) in sipping coffee and feeling worthless. At least an hour passed before either of us realized it was sunny, but from that instant a scant 4 minutes passed before we’d gathered my gear and set off in search of Graham’s stuff and roommate, Jeff.

 

Big League

Eventually we emerged from alder hell came around the corner and were rewarded with a perfect view of the face glittering in the afternoon sun. We snapped some pictures, to help figure out where to go on the summit, and started skinning up the large open aspect to the lookers right of the face, which provided a great test slope to gauge the snow conditions on the way up. Remembering how slid out the face had looked a few weeks earlier I was expecting and hoping that earlier large slides had periodically relieved the face of many of the deeply buried weak layers that had haunted my season thus far; therefore leaving us with our recently acquired and (on current evidence) temporarily more stable snowpack.

Main Ridge, in the back

On top of the ridge the three of us rested for a while, drinking a duce of Arrogant Bastard while watching the ant sized tourists scurry along the top of Alyeska and Chugach Powder Guides helicopter drops 2000 feet bellow in the other direction provided great entertainment and comic relief. It was quite humorous to think of the multitudes of New Yorkers and Texans being sold skiing in the “Alaskan Wilderness” only to be dropped somewhere you could skin in 2 hours. The views of the Peterson Creek headwaters and that Shoulder of Death line reinforced that wasteful use of Helicopters and the over hyping of a locations remoteness aren’t exclusive to fat tourists but is also constantly perpetuated by endless ski films hyping “exploratory heli-skiing” that takes place within eyesight of a major highway.

 

notice the heli drop off in the lower left corner

Anyway, as usual I became extremely confused on the summit. The pictures we’d taken earlier had me confused on the exact location of some very large cliffs (I’d also been a good 2 hours since I’d actually gotten to see the thing) and after Graham and I ski cut the face and the exact magnitude of sluff we’d be dealing with became apparent I decided to ski the chute, which I knew would prove straight forward enough.

Graham getting in deep

I snapped some pictures as Graham sliced down the upper ridge, but he quickly disappeared behind the ridge, and we were left to simply watch for additional waves of sluff pouring out the bottom as signs of his continued progress. The whole thing left me cursing our lack of radios, a rather simple thing I can’t really make a habit of. Eventually, to our relief, we saw Graham come bombing out the bottom. Resolved not to lose site of each other again, we decided Jeff would descend to a safe spot along the ridge where he would be able to watch as I skied the first half of the chute until I’d be visible to Graham waiting bellow. Everything went pretty much to plan. The snow on the upper ridge was deep and very light. As I entered the chute the snow on the southern aspect was more sun affected and heavier then I’d expected, causing the sluff to me much more consolidated and threatening so I mostly skied the more westerly left hand wall where the snow was still light and fluffy. The whole run sluffed hard but with everything running down the gut of the chute outside of the occasional pause to let some snow race pass it was all pretty straight forward, the only downside being the poor quality of the apron after all the sluffing lead me to follow Grahams example and point it from the crux down to the safe spot.

Sitting at the bottom watching Jeff descend the large cliff ridden face to the lookers left the two earlier routes with the moon above was a beautiful moment, the size of the face and quality of the day we’d just had slowly sinking in as I watched Jeff navigate from spine to spine as waves of sluff crashed bellow. Afterwards we considered skinning up the back of Max’s and poaching something off the Headwall into Alyeska which would allow us to avoid the creek and ski directly to the car, but tired legs and a fear for the law lead us into the open running creek, which wasn’t able to annoy us in the least after what the day had already given. Especially myself, as the run off Big League couldn’t have been prescribed better, after the season’s earlier mayhem and resulting paranoia it was nice to get back to the mindset where fear and nerves are constant but tough decisions prove super rewarding.

A couple of days of late after work skiing in the Front Range followed before the weather turned back to snow. Promises I’d skip work if it was sunny never came to be as each day turned cloudier and stormier. I managed to fill the activity and mental stimulation gap by overly aggressive car shopping on Craigslist, which resulted in my buying of a $500 pickup to replace my aging but beloved Buick Skylark which is no longer able to make much further then my job.

With the keys in hand I resolved Friday night to ski Saturday, regardless of the weather, for no other reason then an excuse to drive the new car. It was a relief Sean was also down for what we expected to be a day of storm skiing in the trees. I rolled into the Silvertip parking lot shortly afternoon Saturday, aglow due to my car’s success along the voyage (that single trip to Turnagain alone proving it’s value), where I found the entire Sunshine crew. We set about skinning up a long mellow open area from which we gained the upper ridge which we followed to the upper sparsely treed meadows we’d hoped to ski. A couple of pits we dug turned up large layers of surface hoar about a foot and a half and 3 feet bellow the surface so we decided to avoid the extremely tempting steeper face and corresponding gulley and ski a mellower but very pillowed shot through the trees. The snow, about a foot and a half of typical wet Alaskan powder on top of feet of wet cement that had paved over yet retained the shape of all the stumps, rocks and buried trees, creating a rolling bouncy slope that with its coating of fresh snow was impossible to punch through. Absolutely glorious skiing.

Sam finds the dreaded surface hoar

The next morning, I woke up feeling refreshed after a good day of skiing in the pass and a night of beer and the Malaysian Grand Prix in the company of Kim and Mikey. Lying in bed, noticing the sunlight pouring in through my window I called Graham instantly, hoping not to repeat the absurdly late start of the previous Sunday. I was told however to take my time, that although Graham and Jeff were both up for skiing, but only after they’d attended Easter brunch. Now, for a long time Easter had been a forgettable holiday I hardly noticed outside of grocery store candy displays. But this is now two years running that the Easter holiday has proved to be a real thorn in my side. Last year I found myself leaving France (always an extremely displeasing event), having not slept or sobered up for 2 days and confronted by the airport being entirely stocked with clueless bumbling degenerate losers; the only type of people stupid enough to get caught working on a French holiday. Lost reservations lead to being bumped on and off 3 separate airplanes before being stranded on the runway for 2 hours due to a “lost passenger.” I finally arrived in Chicago 3 hours late to wait in a customs line behind hoards of the morbidly obese whose infuriating glee at returning to America (I actually heard someone say they “couldn’t wait to get some Wendy’s”) couldn’t have contrasted greater with the absolute dread and despair I felt about the prospect of returning to live in the US. This year I didn’t notice the holiday; until it’s tradition of pork heavy meals kept putting back the skiing, which I’d counted on for my day’s personal feast. Eventually, Graham, Jeff and I set out for a couloir in the valley that Graham and Jeff had scoped the day prior and I vaguely remember drooling over from the front seat of our motor home coming back from Valdez last April. A thin, little, north facing white crack coming straight from the summit of the middle of 3 craggy peaks (whose name or names I don’t know) just west of Pioneer Peak. Pictures seemed to suggest we wouldn’t be able to access the chute from the peak without a rappel so we decided boot up the chute directly. As we set off towards the valley, something I hadn’t done in search of skiing since back when I still had a gall bladder, I thought we planned on climbing straight up from the valley floor. But Graham soon relived the fear of that routes mandatory multi-hour bushwhack by informing we’d approach the peak from behind, where the Eklutna Lake Road would save us hours and vertical.

We soon found what we thought to be the proper peak from the road and got after it. The snow down to the road was sparse at best, so we started booting directly up through the icy bushes. After a long steep bushwhack that involved extended sections of post holing we gained an upper snow filled bowl where we followed the open areas up to a saddle we believed would drop us off just to the left of our desired chute. We came over the ridge to find great views of the valley, but no sign of our chute or the peak’s we’d expected to find. A lengthy review of Graham’s photo from the previous day revealed we’d skinned up in the wrong area and were now a mile or so to the west of where we’d intended. Despite the weather moving in we decided to embark on the long exposed traverse across the open bowl hoping to at least catch site of the chute and at least salvage the day as an act of reconnaissance, if not ultimately ski the thing. After an extremely lengthy traverse/skin we finally gained a ridge that provided a decent view of the peak, but lacked a view of the actual chute itself.

 

From there we decided to turn around, as it began to rain any lasting hope of salvaging the adventure with some steep turns quickly vanished as our thoughts turned to negotiating our way through the alders and brush as painlessly as possible, at which we succeeded, managing to ski all the way back to the car.

So, regardless of what the weather throws at us we’ll say that concludes the early spring cycle up here, as with Mania and Wilson arriving on Thursday and my twin cousins a week later I’m guessing were going to transition into some sort of “guest period,” so stay tuned for regular updates on all the mayhem that brings with it.

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