Friday, February 25, 2011

Heney Range, Cordova, February 20

Day 2 started sunny but the plumes on the ridges let me know that the winds were ripping. The Heney Range raises dramatically just South of downtown Cordova. And like the surly sea captain, I had a bone to pick with Mountain Eccles.

"Yar, damn ya ta Hell, Eccles!"

Eccles and shy sister Shiels aren't especially high (about 2,500') but they are intense. Access to the Heney Range is via a small gated road leading to a reservoir in Heney Canyon off of Whitshed Road about 1/2 mile South of town. The Heney Range lives a small peninsula jutting into Prince William Sound and is is bounded by Eyak Lake to the North and Eyak River to the East.

The approach from the trailhead was quite flat, but it gave me time to study the route. She steepens towards the top and my hope was that the wind stripped away any new snow. The lower flanks held some excellent tree skiing, but I wanted the summit. The West Ridge started gentle and the trees provided a nice security blanket. But above the trees, it got steep and a cliff forced me off the ridge into an obvious slide path. Man balls are in short supply when you have a range to yourself.

The Problem with Eccles

Defeat wasn't so bad. The powder was knee deep and low density down to the creek between Eccles and Heney. Skins on, and Eccles in the rear-view, I set my eyes on Shiels. After trasending about a mile, the climb began in earnest. I was able to stay in some sparse trees and had to alternate between skinning and booting. The pass between the Shiels and Eccles had the biggest cornices I have ever seen at 1,700'. I followed an ancient moraine into an upper bowl just under Mountain Shiels Proper. There was a break in the cornice at 2,300' and it would be an easy walk to the top, but the route went through rapidly steepening wind loaded bowl. A quick probe with my pole handle revealed a 4' slab less than 24 hours old. Solo and lacking man balls, I pealed 'em and had to settle for 2,200' of sun soaked blower with views of the Pacific. Damn! I made a couple more runs in the trees and eventually retraced my track back to the road finally clicking out spitting distance from the Sound.

Eccles in Front and Shiels in the Back

Monday I decided to check out the Crater Lake Trail on the Western shores of Eyak Lake. The trailhead is a 2 mile walk from town, but I was in no rush. The forest forms a thick canopy over the trail which prevents the snow from reaching the ground. I walked up the trail until the trees thinned around 1,200' and was skinning merrily along. Summer trails typically do not take avalanche paths into consideration, and Crater Lake was no different. It crosses major slide paths that start high on Eyak Peak. I back-tracked and ascended some old moraines until I could link up with my skinner from Saturday. The wind had really done a number on the exposed slopes, but protected shots were still excellent. After a few hours of poking around, it was time to call it. Beautiful shin deep accompanied me to the top of the ski lift and back into town.

Eyak from the Heney

Another Gorgeous Day

Congrats to FWT Boyz

Nice work in CO, good luck in CA.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Cordova: February 19-21

The Chugach is big. It is unlike any mountain range in the lower 48. I can't even tell if it trends North-South or East-West. It spills into the Cook Inlet and PWS. It spans from Anchorage to Canada. Valdez, Whittier, Girdwood, Palmer, Wasilla, Glenallen, and Cordova all lie within its shadow.

From my house, the Chugach starts off innocent enough. Rolling foothills with hardly a hint a what lies beyond. From the foothills, the Chugach begins to reveal her majesty. Jagged snow covered peaks dot the horizon. From the jagged peaks, glaciers appear. Big glaciers, and this is still within the Anchorage city limits. From a plane, bigger peaks come into view, 12,000' ridges, deep fjords, glaciers meeting the ocean. It seems endless and from a mountaineering point of view it is.

The recent long weekend provided the time and work trips provided a frequent flier ticket. Cordova sits on the Pacific nestled into Prince William Sound. There are no roads to this town: fly, boat, or glacier trek. AK has a class of commercial aviation that has no security. It seems limited to propeller driven planes. No questions, no pat downs, no metal detectors; guns and white gas are fine, I guess.

"I'd rather have a scary flight than have to deal with TSA" was overheard as we boarded the 16 passenger Havelin.

The Friday night flight was bumpy and runway in Cordova had 3" of fresh. Snow was coming in sideways. PWS is notorious for lousy weather and I wondered if there would be much of a view over the weekend. Saturday dawned grey and snowy, a good day to check out Eyak and their 1939 single chair imported from Sun Valley. I arrived at Eyak to realize first chair is at noon, but if I wanted to hang out for 15 minutes they were going to fire up the lift for a few pre-public laps. Nice suss! There are no marked trails, no groomers, and not much bamboo despite hazards aplenty. Eyak has an open boundary policy and the runs above the resort off of "The Ridge" are stunning. From the top of the lift start skinning with Eyak Lake on the right, Orca Sound on your left, PWS behind you, and Eyak Peak towering above you.

The storm had run its course and the snow was A+. The shots off of "The Ridge" were skiing fabulous. Snow ghosts, pillow lines, drops, compressions, rollers all set against a glimmering Pacific. Above tree-line was a different story: the wind was ripping. The day had gone full blue and the sun dared me to venture higher. Mountain Eyak beckoned.

I headed up the ridge above the trees and into the wind. Howling and cold, but brilliantly lit. There were definite wind slabs forming, but the ridge is gentle until about 300' from the summit. I wanted it, but common sense dictated that I use some common sense. Damn you to hell, common sense! I was able to ski through a steep pitch on a wind scoured ridge punctuated by stunted pines hiding under rime. After 5 nice laps above the ski hill, it was time to head back. The lift had closed by this point and the sun was setting over the sound. The slopes under the lift were still skiing nicely which allowed me to enjoy the view. It was time to fuel and rest for tomorrow.

- James "Jim" Lahey

Mountain Eyak from High on "The Ridge"

Sunset over the Harbor

Mountains Eccles and Shiels from Downtown

Eyak's Single Chair and Orca Inlet

PWS from "The Ridge"