Sunday, May 2, 2010

Neacola: Choosing the Spot

The Neacola Mountains have been an obsession since I moved to Alaska 3 years ago. They are highly visible on the drive into Anchorage from the South. Cold and clear sunsets throughout the dead of winter make for spectacular visuals. Often seen, always overlooked. Most folks in Anchorage couldn't find these hills on a map even though they can see them from their porch.

Neacola trip reports are few and far between, but they all have similarities. The mountains are not small. The range is skiable. The snow is plentiful. The scenery is surreal.

When choosing a location I had 3 criteria:
  1. Close to Alaska West Air's home base in Nikiski to minimize flight cost. Time is money especially when your talking $650/hour.

  2. Big vertical: no yoyo-ing 1200' shots all day.

  3. Unexplored: a blank spot on the map.

I found my spot on a tee shaped glacier at about 3,500' surrounded by peaks climbing to 7,500'. There were no trip reports, no aerials, and the satellite photos were too grainy to make out features. Perfect.

Despite having found the spot, it was still just an educated guess. The pilot had never been to this glacier before so he insisted we fly a Super-Cub to the proposed landing zone. Just me and Doug. Stefan, Emilie, and Tom would be a few minutes behind in a Beaver. Insert juvenile (yet hilarious) joke here. The plan was to maintain radio contact between the planes so I could relay what I saw back to the Beaver, thus having some discussion with the final go or no-go. The back-up plan was a nearby glacier that Fred Beckey was quite fond of.

As luck would have it, the alternator was out on the Super-Cub, so there would be no contact with the rest of the team. Actually no contact with the pilot either because of the noise of the engine. Forty-five minutes of introverted thinking. Normally I enjoy being left alone, but I was making the decision for 5 other people that all had put their trust in me.

No Alternator Means Your Starting It by Hand

It took about 20 minutes to get to the mountains. Then the eye candy can into view. Google-earth, USGS images, aerials photos all became real. The peaks towered above the Cub as we slipped between narrow passes with sheer wall. It got real.

Blockade Glacier and Blockade Lake

"Nunatak" Couloir

The SW Ridge of Chakachamna (Backside of Peak A to Peak C)

Over a year of planning had led up to this moment. I picked out Mt. Chakachamna on the horizon. We were close. Over the pass, and there it was: the "T" glacier.

Damn, it looks steep. Damn, my proposed LZ is an icefall. Damn, this is intimidating terrain. Doug turns around yells back to me: "You guys are going to have a lot of fun back here." Maybe he's right. Lots of snow: check. Big relief, skiable terrain, safe landing zone: check, check, check. "This'll work."

Looking Up the SW Lobe of the "T" to "Superior in the Sky"

NE Lobe of the "T"

We circled the drainage a couple of times and he put it down into some deep powder. "I claim this glacier in the name of Skier Boyz!" Doug went to work setting up some flagging for the landing strip for the Beaver. Did I make the right decision? What will they think? The drone of the 2nd plane began to echo around the vertical walls. The mountains dwarfed the plane. After a few circles, they were down. "Beattie like." "This is sick."

Big Peak, Little Plane (Superior in the Sky)

Everyone was psyched on the terrain. What a relief. Over the course of our stay, it became apparent, that there should be additional considerations when choosing a location. Add these to the selection criteria:

  • Variety of aspects and slope angles: we had a golf course butted up to slopes that started at 40°. Slopes in the high 20s/low 30s would have been nice after multiple feet of snow. Fortunately we had 360° of aspects to work with.

  • Escape route: never count on the weather in Alaska. Be prepared to walk out or at least move camp. Weather forced us to move our camp in order to facilitate a pick up; it would have been much easier had we planned for this contingency

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