Wooooo!  I really loved vacationing in the British Virgin Islands, but from here on my couch after 3 days of blowing snow, minimal visibility, and a couple of cold weather adventures, I have to say it’s nice for winter to be back.   Strangely there is just something about the absurdity of long hours in the cold, and moving slowly, while shielding my face from a bitter wind, that brings a massive smile to my face.  So it’s been nice to find Alaska in a snowy cycle  since returning from the islands.  In fact, since I arrived last monday thick fat flakes have been falling all they way down to sea level just about every day.  We’ve received something like 9 feet in the last 2 weeks.  As expected, with our snow pack looking like a buffet of weak layers, stability is lacking.  

Friday Graham and went to investigate the pass, but were turned around by a slide burying the road just past Girdwood.  We improvised and skinned up CPG’s cat skiing terrain in Winner Creek.  The approach was quick, as skinning along a groomed trail is a breeze.   We drank a couple beers along the way, and although we saw groups of cat skiers (we made 2 runs and drank 3 beers in the same time they made 2 runs) we found some nice untracked shots, with fresh but super dense snow covering everything.  One of those days where despite numerous variables everything works out, and you find yourself driving home surprised to have a huge smile on your face, but realize that after a day of stellar turns everything is as it should be.

Speaking of variables, I guess I should never have complained back during normal times, as now that were dealing with a temperamental volcano, capable of ruining the snowpack in an afternoon, which has erupted 19 times over the last 6 days, the previous winter’s weather seems straight forward and easy to predict.  Before Saturday most of the prime skiing had avoided ash fall, but it’s reeked havoc with the flight schedule  in and out of here.  I almost never arrived, both Mania and Wilson are stuck in SLC having now missed the first week of their trips, and Mikey’s friend Tim spent 48 hours stranded in Seattle before he decided to fly to Fairbanks with a couple people he met in the terminal, wither they borrowed a rental car (they aren’t renting due to the ash) to drive to Anchorage.  His trip has gotten off to a bang too, arriving only hours after Mikey made our lives extremely interesting Saturday afternoon.

With the new snow the 20 Mile valley has opened to snowmachine use for the first time this season, and Saturday, after a typically late start Max, Mikey and I set off for a little exploring, hoping the valley would provide some safe tree skiing.  Neither of us had ever been back in that valley before, and being about a week past the solstice the river was littered with sections of open water, so as expected we had a couple problems. At first the usual stuff, getting lost in alders, my tendency to get stuck, and my starter cord snapping, but we’d brought plenty of beer, so we had a great time.  Then things got interesting, Mikey had a little run in with a creek (as pictured above).  I think, and you must realize I am a snowmachine novice, that he would have made it  across had  the river had been open water, but it was pretty firm ice, initially, so when he hopped off the bank he went into a 180 slide, then as the ice suddenly broke he hit the bank, rolled over and got his sled stuck, upside down in the river.  It was actually pretty simple pulling the sled out of the water, all it took was the three of us to drag it up onto the ice. Once Mikey gave the sled a pull start we began to discover the extent of our problems.  Mikey’s engine was seized hard, something about being plunged into an icy river had killed his motor.

We decided to abandon Mikey’s sled, figuring if the weather cooperated we could retrieve it the following day, if not he could claim it as stolen and collect on his insurance.  So we headed back to Anchorage down a sled, and with ash beginning to fall everything looke pretty gloomy.  However, that night, motivated by an amazing Formula One race, and Tim’s shocking arrival, we hatched a plan to load Mikey’s snowmachine onto a trailer  and pull it with Graham’s sled (700 Mountain Max) hoping it’d have enough to power to pull the stricken sled across the many stretches of open water.  After a few more drinks we decided Mikey (who would be pulling the sled) should wear chest waiters in case the weight of two sleds crashed him through the ice.  With Tim (who is a snowmachining guide in Colorado) we set off Sunday after noon, and after our customary stops at Tesoro for beer and corn dogs, we were on the trail shortly after two.

Although we’d received an additional 6″, the previous day’s ash fall was apparent as we got deeper into the valley.  Big grey patches could bee seen on the surface, but it didn’t seem to have much effect on the sleds.  The water crossings were about the same, and although we go lost, it wasn’t long before we’d found our way and arrived to find Mikey’s snowmachine just where we’d left it, on the side of the small river he’d crashed through.  Mikey’s snowmachine is incredibly light, and it was actually quite easy to load onto the sled.  After tying some insane knots (see top picture) Mikey blasted off  down the trail, before Max, Tim or I had even finished our beers.  He was across two water sections before we caught him.  But I shouldn’t be surprised, as his sled towing skills were impressive, he skipped across water without hesitation, and never lost the tow sled through the bumps.  The neoprene chest waiters he’d wore were redundant.  After briefly considering his sled to be a lost cause, it was pretty amazing to see it stacked on the trailer.   Finally, too top off a very quality day, we arrived home to find Max’s girlfriend finishing cooking dinner.  After a night of enchiladas you can feel free to imagine us happy.  I should have some more skiing to report on soon.  I have no idea what a hefty layer of ash will do to our snowpack, but am sure we’ll find out real soon.

It’s been awhile, so I might as well add a few items of local interest, hopefully this will keep you occupied until I get some video up.

  • Sadly an avalanche killed a snowmachiner in Placer Saturday.
  • I found this interview with Alta’s Turn Farmer hysterical.  My friend used to share a locker with Dave and the random equipment we’d see always brought a smile.