Monday, April 11, 2011
After a ski trip to Haines fell apart due to remarks like 'worst snow in 30 years' and ' you mean we have to hire a guide?.' I attempted to salvage the time off with a trip to the Chugach in southern Alaska. Thankfully, a good friend of mine had coincidentally just moved to Anchorage. In the old days (a decade ago) we used to do all kinds of crazy adventures together, but never had we skied, or been on a glacier together... so why not try it now? This particular friend who we will dub Oklahoma, also had been working a lot in the lat 10 years and I wasn't sure what he was up for.
After Oklahoma and his wife generously picked me up at the airport at 200am in the morning we got right to planning adventure number 1, Mt. Ptarmigan North Couloir, a mountaineering route that had some good technical sections. So we headed off with ski's, rope, picket, axe, wipit, hero camera, and a bit of food. Its somewhere in the neighborhood of 4 miles ski in to the base of the route which we started at like 2:00pm or some slacker hour, then followed an off camber ski trail all the way to the base, a good long slog for those of use who are used to going up, not across. We then started the long, long boot up the couloir. Being in AK, 2:00pm wasn't the worst of our decisions for the trip, in fact it worked out rather well, since it stayed light until like 9:30pm. After much fussing with the Hero HD, I finally got it to take some photo's, but no video.
Now, Oklahoma, although he had spent some time in Colorado, Utah, Wisconsin, and California, had not been in the big mountains it seems for some time. And after a few hours of booting up the steep 45 degree couloir, finally looked down. Something we don't even think about in the mountains it seems these days and got a little sketched that he could look down 2000ft almost straight down to the run out zone. Thankfully he is almost as hard headed as me and was able to turn his head and keep trudging. As we ascended we talked about the importance and application of useful skills like the self-arrest. I always thought it was best to learn by doing, not so much any of those other options. Thankfully we did, because Oklahoma slipped in the first 500ft of his decent and had to try out his new skills or be whisked to the bottom at break neck speeds, likely over a good 300ft rock band. At about 500ft shy of the saddle the weather decided it was time for us to descend by bringing the vis down very low. It had been snowing the entire time, with clouds coming in and out--as would be the weather for the rest of the trip. On the way up I spied a cool looking steep line either ice or snow (not sure which) that I dubbed the Hypodermic Needle AK, but actually I think is named the hooker. It looked like an excellent line to ski, but with my partners inability to rescue me, and my lack of knowledge of the line I decided to ski the main chute.
Oklahoma left his ski's at the bottom based on his lack of skiing experience and the high consequences of a fall on this route, so I sent him on his way. It had been recommended that we rope up for this route earlier but I didn't see any time when I though a rope would be necessary. Within the first 500ft Oklahoma took a tumble and, like a seasoned veteran, self arrested. A short and tense moment followed by relief. Now confident that he could reasonably take care of himself I start my ski decent (after dynafit-tling for a while with my bindings). The snow was variable but nice, and as I would soon find out, the best snow of the whole week. After finally getting some video I finished the lower section, retrieved Oklahoma's ski's and sat down for a nice hot tea break to wait for the slow, mountaineering decent.
A moment of soap-boxing. I'm not sure which background played a bigger role in my development, but as the years pass it seems to me that ski's are almost always the option of choice for winter, mountain transportation. Almost as efficient on the way up, 10 times as efficient on the way down. I enjoyed the decent, went quickly, safely, and used a fraction of the energy. In the Wasatch, it seems to be the norm; in AK, we where the weird ones with ski's on our backs.
After my feet where cold, just like my tea became; Oklahoma finally caught up and we where off for our 4 mile ski back to the car. Interestingly enough the whole route could have been down sans-skins. Something new to me. But actually, in every case in AK I didn't need my skin's at all. We arrived back at the car just in time for dusk.
After a nice night of sleep we went to the five fingers on the Turnagain Arm to warm up on the ice, which was an excellent idea since I've been on ice only once this year. Not to mention it was a downpour. with serious winds. Since I hate wasting a day, we went for it. Full hardshells and neoprene ice gloves seem to do the trick very well. After 200ft of ice and 6K gallons of rain we where ready to be done. On the decent I had the opportunity to do my first V-thread, and after all my complaining it was no big deal. Held strong, looked good, and was easy. Unfortunately, I did not take any photo's due to the crazy weather.
The next item to be checked off the list was hopefully the Eklutna traverse. We looked at going about it both directions and due to the weather chose the North to South route. Unfortunately it starts with about a 12 mile ski across a lake, up a drainage to the glacier moraine. After fearing this ridiculous distance on ski's over flat ground with a pack it turned out to be rather fun and enjoyable. It was great for developing my classic and skate technique.... except I was on Dynafits. Oh well, one thing it made me realize is that their really is a reason for pole straps! After stopping prior to our anticipated finish at the pitcher's hut, it turned out the first hut was full of rescue rats training to save us. So we ended up building a shelter under a pine tree. We where prepared for hut life, and only emergency outdoor life so we ended up spending our nights with one 0 degree down bag, one super light western mountaineering 40 degree bag, 1 bivy, 1 sleeping pad, 1 down coat, 1 3/4 foam backpack insert, a rope, 2 hard shell coats, and a few other miscellaneous items to make it through the rain and snow of night. With a little suffering we turned out just fine.
The next day we started up to the glacier for a little fun and ran into a party who had just spend 4 days in driving snow and no visibility out on the white-out glacier. They where smiling and telling stories of how the almost died. I don't think it was the best for Oklahoma to hear, since he had never been on a glacier before. We then continued up to the ice fall at the toe of the glacier, in all its beauty. Truly a sight to behold, every time. Our objective was small but you could spend weeks just at the toe, sending huge ice routes, mixed lines, technical ski descents, you name it. It really is a wonderland of ice, rock, and snow. To get up on the glacier we had a small, low angle serac that proved to be rather enjoyable. I had brought along 3 screws and a wippet, thankfully Oaklahoma lent me his real mountain axe and I was able to climb with one axe, and one glove on deep blue glacier ice. Thankfully it wasn't too steep and the pro was bomber. After belaying Oklahoma to the top we continued up the ice fall along a fake morain (ice covered in rock) to our high point just below Pitcher's Post. After crossing what seem to be a 10 foot snow bridge we got out into the center and untied for some skiing. Before sending Oklahoma down the trail put in by our death defying friends, I gave him a stern warning to be careful as we are still on a glacier. As seems to always be the trend, within 5 minutes Oklahoma locates a crevasse and steps in, with both feet because he is charging down the glacier without probing or much thought. Luckily it was packed full of snow (at least at the top) and he only sank up to his waste. The bonus is, Oklahoma tends to learn much better through experience, and so he took his travel much more seriously after that. So we tied back in again as to keep up all on top and I skied on the rope as he trotted. Turned out to be pretty fun, at least for me. After reaching the ice fall again and hacking out a Bollard we rapped the last remaining steep section of glacier where again we unroped and skied out the toe. Oklahoma tried out his skiing skills on this low angle section and realized that skiing on death cookies is actually harder than it looks. A quick skate the mile or so back to the shelter and we where out, safe and sound.
The next day was the first day where it wasn't low overcast AND snowing. We woke early and packed up for the 12ish miles out. The sun came up between jagged peaks with beautiful shoe string lines of snow glistening in the morning light. It was cold, the snow was fast and we made excellent time as we headed back. It felt like time to do the traverse, since finally the visibility had come up to a reasonable level. Well, I guess that's how it goes in Alaska. The ski out seemed fun and short on the way out, I ended up blister free on both my feet and my hands. That was it, I had the red-eye flight out that night to SLC where I wouldn't sleep a wink due to my tiny seat that didn't recline next to the toilet.
Special thanks goes to Oklahoma and his always adventurous spirit. I don't know many people that can sit on the couch for 5 years and go straight out to 30+ miles a week on ski's plus mountaineering. In the future, after some good scouting, I plan on trying this traverse in a day. See you there.