Skiing

Alaska steep skiing trip – part 1

Tuesday 27th April

We set off already running late. We just made our flight to Denver, our bags didn’t and we went on to Anchorage without them.

Friday 30th April

We have a few days in Anchorage to make plans, since we came without any, buy any bits of gear that we haven’t got, and wait for our baggage to arrive. We are loaned a place to stay and within no time it looks like stocktaking at an outdoor shop.

Packing our gear at Rachel’s in Anchorage

There is an espresso joint at the end of the street and we become regulars there to try and fight the jet lag and because it is staffed by the prettiest girls we have seen in Anchorage. We get a lot of advice from staff at REI and at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking and slowly build up a plan for the N Chugach, flying in with Mike Meekins.

Saturday 1st May

After a false start, returning to pick up all the frozen food and the fuel we are finally on the way. A local friend, Dave, was giving us a lift out of Anchorage and asked if we wanted to grab an espresso on the way. We mentioned our espresso joint and Dave told us all about the AK espresso system where the competition is to employ the most attractive girls to draw in the custom. He showed us how you can tell by the number of pickups queued up for coffee how beautiful the girls are.

Dave dropped us off at the pickup we were going to borrow for the rest of our stay.

This is the pickup that we got lent for our stay in AK

It had been under snow all winter and needed a bit of attention to get it going. Eventually the throaty big red Chevy burst into life.

The engine needed some tweaking

Two of us climbed into the back and made comfy with all the bags and we set off for Sheephill Lodge and Mike Meekins’ airstrip.

Catching some zzz’s in the back

The Glenn Highway passes along the north edge of the Chugach range from which the huge Matanuska glacier forges its way out into the heart of the forested valley alongside the highway.

We got to the airstrip late and missed our chance to fly in so we went to Eureka Lodge for dinner checking out the mountains on the way. Up at Eureka we tucked into meatloaf and burgers and drank a few local Alaskan beers.

Sunday 2nd May

We went to sleep last night to a slight amount of rain on the corrugated roof of the hangar and woke up to the same.

Overnighting with the plane

Mike turned up at about eight and we trucked back up to Eureka for an American breakfast. We hung round the hangar all day waiting for it to clear and in a brief clear spell Mike and I flew in but we couldn’t get high enough because of the clouds so had to call it a day. Mike is tied up tomorrow so no flight in then either.

Monday 3rd May

We went to ski Flat Top Mountain but spotted a nice couloir on Ptarmigan peak. The line was a good s-shaped couloir with the whole top section (47° at the steepest part) being exposed above cliffs before swinging back down underneath the same cliffs.

Dave climbing up Ptarmigan peak

The couloir finished in a col and we headed to the peak which was about five infuriating false summits away adding about an hour to the climb.

Dave on the summit ridge of Ptarmigan peak

In fifteen minutes we had descended the 2500′ couloir with snow ranging from transformed in the sun at the top, to hard in the shady middle section and then soft spring snow at the bottom end. Because my ski socks were packed for the trip into the Chugach I just threw on a normal pair for the day. Big mistake, by the time we got back to the pickup my feet were covered in blisters and bleeding.

Packing the truck in Anchorage again

When we got back to Rachel’s we packed all our gear again and headed back to the hangar.

Tuesday 4th May

We were brewing up when Mike flew in from Palmer in his other Piper Super Cub. Wolfie had drawn the short straw this time and headed off with Mike for the recce and to make the decision on where to make camp. After a swing round by Mount Valhalla, Wolfi decided on heading back up to our planned area in the upper Powell glacier.

Setting up camp on the Upper Powell Glacier

Mike made four trips to get us all up there, while we dug in our tents and made our water maker:- three bin bags duct taped together and placed in a flat south facing amphitheatre (left side of this picture).

Looking up the glacier, the water collector on the left

Snow placed on the bags melted in the sun and ran down into bucket underneath. It turned out about 15 litres of water on that first afternoon.

4:00 PM. we are sat on benches around our dining table, both carved out of the glacier snow, having soup and sandwiches.

The campsite on the Upper Powell Glacier

Wolfi and I were facing peak 9138 and Dave and Wilfred were facing peak 9845. The peaks around here don’t have names they just have their height as a reference. After looking at these faces over lunch we respectively headed off to ski them.

As we climbed the conditions seemed good, a 10cm layer of fresh new snow well bonded to a soft crust underneath, slope 46° and 2000′ high.

Wolfie on the way up

It looked smaller from a distance but on it you realise its size.

Phil on the way up

7:30 PM we summit a subsidiary peak of about 9100′. Peak 9138 can be seen in the background.

Wolfie and Phil on the summit of p9100

The Alaskan days are long at this time of year and we had time to sit on our summit and watch Wilfred rip down the bottom third of peak 9845. We could see a small black dot working his way up the ridge from where Wili set off. Dave must be carrying on for the summit.

Wolfi and I both dropped in and the whole slope beneath us sloughed off down to the ‘well bonded’ layer. Mistakenly we thought at this late hour the sun wouldn’t be strong enough to weaken the bonding. The surface underneath was so hard that you couldn’t see the marks your edges were making.

The top layer sluff’s off

Wolfi decided to down climb it. I decided it would be daunting either way so carried on down after grabbing one ice axe. Grabbing the axe was the scariest part of the descent as I had to take my eyes off the slope. Although the snow felt bullet-proof I could just hold an edge and made my way gingerly down. I knew that every turn mattered, there was no room for error here. As I set off I could feel my senses blocking any information that was not relevant. My sight homed in on the area of snow up to 30m in front of me, the spectacular scenery fading into a black haze around my focus. My ears picking up the rasping of my edges on the hard surface straining to hear any changes in tone that would signify a change in composition of the snow. The nerves in my legs precisely relaying the feel of my edges and reacting simultaneously. A state not unlike meditation in which I stay till I reach the rimay and safety.

Battling with hard ice on the way down

From the bottom I could see Dave set off down the north face

Dave on first descent of p9845

He got to what looked like an icy patch and then traversed out onto the north east ridge and continued down that.

Dave on the North Face of p9845

As he headed down the slough that poured off in his wake looked impressive as it thundered over the rimay at the bottom of the face.

Dave and his sluff

Dave reaches Wilfred’s tracks

Skiing out of the sun into the shade at about 9:30 PM

Dave finishes his run at dusk

Wednesday 5th May

10 AM late breakfast, and a morning rest to let my blisters heal as the rest of the team head up to peak 9570 at the head of the glacier.

3 PM I head up the shoulder of peak 9845 in time to see the others tearing down the spring snow on the south face of their objective. There was a nice 15cm of fresh snow on my line with an easy hop to clear the rimay at the bottom.

Phil on the shoulder of peak 9845

Nearing the bergschrund

Sluff avoidance

I had taken a couple of Ozone Frenzy kites with me and as the wind picked up that evening I took the kite out for a play.

Kite skiing

Thursday 6th May

We headed up peak 8710 and looked at a way through the upper icefall on the Powell glacier on the way, in case we ever need to escape from here without the plane.

The south ridge of peak 8710 looked easy enough but we needed to keep swapping from skis to crampons and back again. Dave and Wili decided that the snow on our chosen descent, the SW face, was rotten and turned back. I kept going and found an amazing line off the east side of the ridge down to the Sylvester glacier. Wolfi came along to have a go at it too. It was only about 400m but had perfect spring snow and was an excellent ski.

Me on the first descent of this slope

Wolfie on the first descent

At the bottom we needed to head round to the col between the Sylvester and the Powell glaciers. The slope that we needed to ski across to get to the col was too loaded to be safe so we had to climb high enough to be able to ski diagonally down it, an unwelcome extra few hundred meters.

Back at camp the cold draws in as the sun sets

Back at camp the cold draws in as the sun sets

Back at camp the cold draws in as the sun sets

Friday 7th May

The morning broke with a few big but stable clouds in the sky. They quickly burned off during breakfast revealing another perfect blue sky.

Wili and Wolfi headed up the valley to a peak on the north side with a height of around 9400′.

Wili on the summit

Wolfie on the summit

Wolfie skiing down

Dave and I headed up the couloir in front of the camp site to a peak of around 9200′. To get to this couloir you have to skirt some crevasses that push you into the danger zone of serac fall from the north face of peak 10640. We got through here as quickly as our legs could carry us. Out of the danger zone we crossed the rimay easily and headed up the couloir.

Dave climbing

At the top of the couloir there are three branches. Dave headed up the left one and I headed up the right one.

Phil climbing

This turned into about 3cm of fresh snow on top of diamond hard blue glacier ice. I was totally gripped for this part of the climb and aware that it would not be possible to descend back down here on skis. The summit ridge was a knife edge with 60° slopes on either side, thin snow cover and loose shale rocks. I was pretty shaken by the time I got to Dave.

Phil summit

We did a few turns down the couloir and then stopped to let it soften up a bit more.

Dave sets off

The snow was perfect spring and big sweeping turns were in abundance. At the bottom the serac/crevasse danger zone was passed with much relief at high speed.

Wili and Wolfi were back at camp having had an excellent ski down the couloir on the SW face of their objective.

Looking west from camp was this awesome line with the last of the days sun on it.

Campsite and p10610

South west over the camp is the peak that Dave skied on the first day.

Campsite and p9845

South east over the camp is the couloir that Dave and I skied yesterday

Campsite and p9200

and to the east is the line that Wolfi and I did on day one.

Campsite and p9138

Saturday 8th May

Wili and Wolfi headed up the same couloir Dave and I had skied the previous day, Dave headed up the couloir to its left and I headed up the face directly under peak 9138.

Wolfie climbing

I wasn’t sure if the line would go as there were a couple of sections where the snow looked very thin and the blue of the ice beneath could be seen from camp. Once I got underneath it started to look really steep. The rimay was easy enough to cross with a small sideways step over a half meter wide gap. It really steepened up in the lower section by the rocks to 58°or 59°. After that it slackened off for a bit before heading back up to 55° for the diagonal traverse over the first of the thin ice sections. I dug a few holes here and the snow was in general about 15cm thick but was really well bonded to the ice beneath. The snow patch above was between 45° and 50° and then it headed back up to 55° for the second diagonal traverse. At this point I became a bit lost with no reference points visible. The slope below dropped off into oblivion, above me it ramped up before rolling over and out to either side was just acres of white each direction. I spoke to Dave over the radio and he was about to ski his couloir and said he would radio my position once back at camp so I dug in for about 25 minutes and drank some tea and had a bite to eat. Once Dave got back to camp he radioed me directions and I carried on. After that second steep section I headed more or less straight up to the summit on 45° to 50° slopes all the way.

I hung about at the top for a while waiting for the snow to soften up and took a couple of pictures of my lonely summit.

Lonely summit of p9138

Dave had lost sight of Wili and Wolfi so I had a look along the other side of the ridge to see if I could make them out anywhere but they were no where to be seen.

It was quite cold and windy so I decided to head down a bit thinking I would wait a bit once I was out of the wind. While I was looking for somewhere to stop I just about broke through the crust a couple of times so I decided to head down before it became too soft. It was all a pretty similar surface from there on. Granules on a hard crust giving firm but good edging. It didn’t feel too steep on the way down and the two 55° sections were easily crossed in a drifting traverse. Then there was the easy section where I could have a bit of a rest and grab a drink before heading into the 60° section at the bottom. Once again the tunnel vision and the heightened sense of awareness comes over me. I am aware of an acrid taste in the back of my mouth. I reach the rimay and the hard bit is over, time to breathe again.

Wili and Wolfi were still out of site when I got back to camp and Dave was starting to worry. We had no method of communicating with anyone other than ourselves. If we needed any rescue services we were going to have to wait until Mike returned in the plane in two days time. We were just considering what to do about the missing Austrians when they emerged from behind the ridge and started to make their way down the couloir.

Some clouds swept up the valley that evening.

Campsite and cloud

causing a spectacular sun set.

Campsite and sunset

Campsite at sunset

Sunday 9th May

Today we headed up the valley, to peak 9570. The sky was cloudy, but it cleared up as we skinned up the valley. Looking back down I took a shot of the lines to the south east of camp that we had skied over the previous few days.

Some of the lines skied

A couple of lines on the west face of peak 9570 stood out, a couloir running from the NE ridge down to the right hand side of the face and another line right down the centre of the face itself. We climbed up the couloir to the ridge. Dave, Wilfred and Wolfi stopped here to ski the couloir. I carried on up the ridge to ski the central line of the face. I wanted to make the summit, because we believe it remains unclimbed, but the last 20m was a loose rocky tower which I was not willing to solo.

p9570 summit rocks

The descent was exciting with most of it being above cliffs in a definite ‘no fall zone’. It was continuously steep and there were a number of spines to cross while looking for an exit through the band of cliffs below. Looking back up, from the bottom, it looked like the whole face could have been used in an extreme extreme skiing competition.

Wili on the descent

Wili on the descent

Skiing further up the valley from camp meant that we could cruise all the way back. No uphill. I took some pics of the lines on peaks 10610 and 9845. Both looked in similar condition to the great line I skied the previous day. Can’t help wishing I had attacked one of them today. Still it leaves something to come back for.

Aberlour

Flying out tomorrow for a few days rest before heading for the Wrangell’s.

Monday 10th May

Mike woke us with his engines at 8 on the dot. We had hardly packed. We bundled up enough gear to send out a very sleepy Wili with Mike. For the next three hours we waited for Mike pick us up and take us out, one at a time.

Mike picks us up

As we packed up camp, the cloud built up. For a while it was touch and go if he would be able to pick up Wolfi and myself from camp. We started to get ready to ski down to a lower collection point but Mike made it and we were all safely back at the airstrip before dark.

On the flight home, Mike told me that the guys from the Points North Heli operation had taken a flight around the area. They were looking to expand their business to the north side of the Chugach. He flew them over the area that we were in, but they decided it was un-skiable

continued in part 2