Monday, May 11, 2009

Portage, AK: May 10th

Exploring a mountain range is like a jigsaw puzzle.   At first it is a jumbled mess that doesn't appear to make any sense, but as you study the pieces you can see the big picture.  The first drive up Little Cottonwood leaves an impression.  You see chutes but you don't understand what is going on.  You think: boot it, ski it.  Time in the canyon, guide books, tours give you perspective and understanding.  You don't boot the Coalpit.  You approach Superior from the ridge.  You look off the back of Tanner's.  Where does that go?   One day you realize that you can see Superior from Big Cottonwood.  You link the canyons; you end up in Mill Creek, American Fork.  More pieces.  You find the piece for Neff's, Snake Creek, Bear Trap.  You see the mountains as a system, not a unconnected mess of nameless peaks.  Olympus and Raymond are on the same ridge.  I can take a shot at Box Elder from White Pine.  Alpine to Sandy.  I can link this to that.  Nebo, Timp, Cascade: all the pieces come together and you see the big picture.  And with this knowledge comes new lines, new connections, new possibilities.

The Chugach is huge and after two years of immersion, I am just beginning to see the outline of the big picture.  To bring it into clearer focus, I try new places and attempt to relate them to places I have already been.  Last weekend I was able to see Whittier, Prince William Sound, the Harvard Arm, and Marcus Baker from one vantage point.  A hike on Saturday helped me understand the Eklutna - Knik relationship.  Before these places were unconnected points on a map, now the Chugach is starting to resemble a coherent system.   Understanding where these points are in relation to one another is a modest but necessary start.  Unknown puzzle pieces still outnumber the known ones, but  I understand enough to know which pieces I need to look for. 

Portage is situated between Whittier and Turnagain Pass at the far end of the Turnagain Arm.  I drove South on the Seward Highway and made the turn towards Whittier.  The 2nd right (about 3 miles) is a small gravel road that ends at a RV Park.  There is an obvious North facing chute just behind the park.  When I skied this shot 4 years ago, there was a creek crossing just deep enough to make it extremely uncomfortable for a male.  Fortunately, the RV Park has installed a small bridge.  The chute was filled with avi debris, but the 2 weeks of warm had softened it considerably.  

Eventually the chute rolls over into a snow field with sweeping views of the Turnagain Arm and the backside of what we typically ski at Turnagain Pass which drains into the Placer River Valley.  The tracks of the AK Railroad go up the Placer on the their way to Seward.  I looked towards Whittier, but there is a small piece still missing for this link-up.  I tried to summit a peak above the snowfield, but it was too late in the day.  The sun had cooked the steep ascent route, and being solo, I baled.  Damn.  I wanted it.  

The skiing was good, albeit, deep corn.  The sun was shining directly on the chute and the debris was soft.  Good skiing, good sun, and a better understanding of the geography of the Chugach.  And as with all good outings, I left with a weeks worth of touring that I did not know existed the day before.

Portage Valley Chute #1

Looking down Turnagain Arm (Pyramid Peak on the Left)

The Placer River Valley and the backside of Kickstep and Pastoral

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