Thursday, June 7, 2012

The X Couloir: June 4, 2012

Looking at the weather forecast on Sunday, it appeared that Tuesday would have the best weather.  I had a few ideas of what to attempt, but half-heartedly decided on the X-Couloir. 

A cloudy Tuesday morning transitioned into a brilliant afternoon. Today would be my best opportunity to go for this bigger objective. I blew out of work at 2:30, biked home, and loaded up the Taco, and was hiking by 3:30. 

The X Couloir is on the North side of Mountain Peeking which is about 10 miles up Peter's Creek. Typically this is accessed via the Ram Valley trail and then taking a left on the Falling Waters trail.  Legal access to Ram Valley definitely falls into a grey area because of private property issues.  It definitely helps if you know someone who has land adjacent to the CSP. 

The start of the hike was super nice amongst the Alaskan Lupine and budding trees. The trail was dry and  snow-free high into the Falling Waters drainage.  At about 3,500', I swapped out the approach shoes for boots and started skinning.  Falling Water is a serpentine drainage that zigs and zags. 

Route Up the Winding Drainage
Finally I was in the high cirque with Mountian Raina on my right. and Mountain Peeking straight ahead.    

Raina from the Top of the X
Going against generations of conventional Mormon wisdom, I opted to "Choose the Left."  The ridge off the summit of Peeking (East to West) makes a distinctive "W" shape against the horizon.  The low points of the "W" mark the entrance points to the top couloirs of the "X."  The left couloir starts lower and is wider, so again I chose the left.

From the col (6,100'), I got my first look at my descent route.  It is wide, but long and steep (~ 40°, 2,200').  The shot is 100% North facing and was still completely in the shade at 7:30 PM.  At some point in the prior week, the snow in the couloir got well above freezing and then froze solid.  Dropping in, the snow was bullet-pack.  If the surface was smooth, only my edges would be preventing a slide for life. Fortunately, someone had skied the shot when it was manky which roughed up the surface considerably.  Jump turns down, down, down, aiming for the trenches and high spots left frozen in place by an unknown benefactor.  The angle refused to ease.  At the nexus, I had a choice of which leg to descend.  The narrow left was about 10' wide, but the snow was still very firm.  This time I decided to "Choose the Right."  In the lower half, the snow began to soften, but it was a mix of runnels and avalanche debris.  I aimed for the smoother sections and got some decent turns as the angle finally began to ease.

The X: Skied Top Right to Bottom Left
(Note "W" shape on the ridgeline)
It was 8 PM and now I was the Peter's Creek drainage.  The options were boot back up, or work my way back to Falling Waters with 2 short 1,000' climbs on South facing tundra.  The tundra seemed inviting, so I loaded up my gear and started walking. 

At the top of the 1st 1,000' climb, I sussed out my descent into the next basin.  I had expected to ski this section, but it was 90% melted out.  It wasn't ideal, but it didn't look too bad.  I planned to down-climb to a narrow band of snow and then sideslip all the way to the floor of the next cirque.  See #1 in the photo below. 

At Point 1, the snow looked super sketchy.  I was hoping for consolidated neve, but what I got was fully saturated slush somehow clinging in place.  This was beginning to look like a bad idea.  I took my skis off my pack and hacked at the snow pack with my tips.  This released the slush / snow to the ground and it accelerated down the slope moving with the consistency and the roar of rushing water.  As the slide ripped down the gully it was gathering debris and more snow.  The snow only ripped out only as far as I was able to slash with my tip (about 10% of the snow width).  What did rip, ripped to a frozen wet tundra bed surface. 

The downclimb had already been steep, but with the promise of 4 edges I was confident getting down to Point 1.  Now that skiing was out of the question, the down climb became much more serious.  My skis were already off the pack.  I decided that the increased freedom of movement was more valuable than my 3-year old spring rock skis. So I hucked them down slope in the hope that they would find their way to the valley floor.  They stopped at Point 2.  Buh-bye. 

I followed the Red Line (line added with iPhoto - not actually present in real life) down to the next snow patch.  At this point I realized I was above a massive cliff.  Fuck!  But I was able to spy a goat path traversing above the cliff band.  Goats are typically smarter than me, so I put my trust in these intellectual superiors and aimed for their route. 

Crossing the wet frozen slide gully at Point 3 was nerve-wracking especially since I was now aware of the large cliff below.  There was only 1 crucial step so I got some momentum to carry me across in the event of a slip.  The foot held and I was across. I worked my way down to the goat path at Point 4.  This was no guarantee that this path would lead anywhere, but it was my best option. 

Goats have massive balls; balls that clank, that's for sure.  This 6" wide path skirted less than 6" from the edge of the cliff.  The path would be easy if it were in a nice grassy meadow, but exposure has a way with fucking with you.  I moved with purpose and tried to block out the void that the ski pole in my right hand was suspended over.  And after the longest 20 seconds in recent memory, I was on an island of safety. 

The route to the valley floor was now obvious and after a quick glisade I had made it.  Thank God!  Thank you Adam, Sroga, Roberta, Memere, Jane, and all of my other guardian angels. There was still another 1,000' of climbing, but could see the entire route and had already sussed out the descent into Falling Waters.  The worst was now behind me.

My Route: Far Right
Preferred Route: Far Left
The next climb would be an easy skin.  That is had I not abandoned my skis. It would be a booter, a deep booter, a miserable booter, up to my crotch and many places.  I tried to link as many tundra patches as possible.  It was exhausting but there was progress.  The pass finally yielded and descent was exactly as I remembered: consolidated snow with perfect scree.  I was down in a matter of minutes.

Expert Route Finders Enjoying the Sunset: 10:30 PM
I followed my skinner back to my transition station and threw my ski boots in the pack. Without skis on my back the hike out was super nice.  It was a glorious Alaskan night. The high peaks were ablaze in the fading light. Due to the high latitude, the Alaskan summer sun moves almost parallel to the horizon this time of night.  This makes for a magic hour that actually lasts for an hour before the suns dips slightly out of sight for a few hours of dusk/dawn.

Polar Bear Peak: 11:00 PM

Sleeping Lady and the Knik Arm: 11:30 PM
It took 8 hours. The snow was poor. I lost gear. I scared the shit out of myself. I was completely exhausted. I questioned my decision making skills, my sanity, my intelligence, but I had made it. I wouldn't want to put myself in that type of situation again, but I was happy. 

 - U.K.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Summit 2 Sound: Valdez

The second annual Summit 2 Sound went down in Valdez, AK on Memorial Day Eve Day.  Last year, due to a timing error, we were awarded last place. In Alaska this is known as the Red Lantern.  So we were back determined to regain / defend our honor.  

Expresso / Soup / Ice Cream Truck
3/4 of our team returned from last year.  Team "Valdez Nuts" had high hopes. As with last year, the weather was shit at the pass. The first leg involved a quick skinner up Mountain Little Odyssey right at Thompson Pass. Groups of 4 were sent every 5 minutes. Gear varied: split boards, snow-shoes, AT, new, old, light, heavy.

Snowing on Thompson Pass
It was snowing hard at the Pass which was no big deal for the skier, but the snow was mounting in the transition area.  The road biker would be in for a miserable ride. Snow and slush eventually gave way to a cold rain and road construction.

Through the Canyon
The stubborn rain continued, but Celene hammered on making good time and 26 miles later she was at the kayak beach.  The transition was awkward at best and left Celene sprawled out on the ground. Fortunately she was fine and Dean made his way to the water.

Starting the Kayaking Leg
The kayak leg starts on the far side of the Valdez Arm and heads towards town.  Skies were grey, but seas were flat making for good conditions.  Laura was pumped for the 4.5 mile through town and beat her pre-race estimate.
Ringing the Bell at the Finish
We were done and there still were teams left on the course, but this does not guarantee a red-latern free race because there are 4 divisions and each has its own last place award.

Like last year, skies cleared up after the race making for a beautiful afternoon.  The award ceremony wasn't until 6 PM so we had a few hours to kill.  So over to the Fat Mermaid to crush a few pitchers of Ghost Town Brown.  The award party was at Kelsey Dock known locally as "The Pringle" due to a pringle shaped canopy that covers the stage and some picnic tables.

From Valdez looking across the Port
We knew we didn't win, but we were nervous about the Red Lantern, and we breathed a sigh of relief when our name was not called.  Now we could get down to some partying!

The next day was Memorial Day and to celebrate our impressive finish, the entire team including our professional cheer leader, Emily, went out for a day of sea kayaking with Pangaea. We rode the water taxi for 2 hours to a terminal moraine about ten miles from where the Columbia Glacier calves into the sea.

The moraine traps all the ice in this 10 mile section of the fjord. Water drains in and out through several shallow channels with the changing tides, but the ice stays trapped.

On the Moraine
You easily paddle through the shallow channels to enter into the icy labyrinth. The sound of ice cracking and splashing into the water is constant. Glacial ice bergs are blue-est below water line, but because of the low tide, many larger chucks were grounded in the shallows exposing the blue ice to the daylight.

After 4 hours of paddling, it was time to get back on the boat.  We had good luck with wildlife on the way to the glacier, and our luck continued on the ride back. All told, we saw orcas, humpbacks, otters, porpoise, sea lions, and many birds that nobody cared about.

We were worked, but I needed to be back at work first thing Tuesday morning, so Laura and I hit the road.  The wildlife parade continued on the drive back: eagles, caribou, Dall sheep, a brown bear, porcupines, and moose aplenty.

Mother and Child
Work sucked. All I could think about was napping and as quitting time approached visions of my bed were dominating my semi-conscious thoughts.  The time had come, but just before flipping the switch, I checked my email. The Official Race were in and there had been a mistake on race day. Due to a timing error on race day the Red Lantern was improperly awarded to the wrong team.  It was ours.


I'm already thinking 3-peat.