Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Late November Update: Alaska

South Central Alaska had the wettest Fall on record and everyone expected this moisture pattern to continue into the winter, which starts up here in the middle of October. Unfortunately for the skiers, Mama Natura had other plans. A huge high pressure has been sitting over AK for the better part of 2 months.  There have been a few some drive-by storms, but 6"/pop separated by 7+ days does not build the base. 

Between storms it has been cold and clear: great for our Northern version of the Aurora Australis, but bad news for the snowpack.  There was a glimmer of hope when a warm front pushed through with some rain and warm temps and for a brief window facets were going to rounds.  But since this, it has been a steady march to square powder that will not consolidate. 

Thus, I was left with two options: bitch about the snow or find something else to do.  Now don't get me wrong - I love me some good bitch sessions, but I'd rather get out and do something.

Thin Snowpack at Turnagain Pass
The skiing has been good, but it is still early season conditions which has a higher potential for injury. It's not the rock you hit; it's the rock you land on. I've been going out every so often to check on the snow: see what it's been up to and find out how it's feeling. It's been cranky.

Self Improvement
My medical training has always been an area that has been severely deficient, severely. I was fortunate to take a heavily subsidized WFR class this month. It was an awesome class and now with my card, I shake my head in disdain at the outdoors men and women that have neglected this personal responsibility. 

Getting Out of Town
Road tripping in AK does not get you to a big city or a warm desert or even to a different weather pattern.  Generally, it's more of the same.  So many Alaskans take their PFD kickback and hand it over to the airlines for a brief respite in Hawai'i. 

The Dragon's Nostrils: Blowholes near Makapu'u Point

Kiliouou Ridge Trail and East Shore
It pains me to say it, but the Nordic skiing has been pretty good. The trails in Anchorage are still in poor shape, but the cold temps have frozen the lakes solid. Going around a flat lake can get pretty boring unless there is a glacier that calves into that lake. So we head South to Portage which is situated in the valley that divides the mainland from the Kenia Peninsula: Chugach on the left and the Kenia Mountains (Turnagain Pass, etc.) on the right.

There is about a foot of snow in the Portage Valley and signs of Nordic activity are everywhere. Tracks lead in and out of the woods and up the 20-Mile Drainage. There's not enough snow for the snow-machines, so enjoy the tranquility while it lasts. Today's destination is the Portage Glacier

Sheep Kicking Rocks onto the Highway

Portage Valley
The state built a visitor's center in 1986 with excellent views of the face of the glacier; however, the glacier promptly receded around the corner and out of site. The visitor center is closed in the winter, but the car park is still plowed. We followed the established track on Portage Lake towards the glacier.

Once the ice is thick enough, the biggest issue is overflow. Water expands 6% when changing to ice. As the ice thickens and expands, it puts pressure on the water below.  Eventually, this water will force it's way to the surface though cracks in the ice. This creates a slushy spot in the snow until it freezes on the surface.  Often this slush zone is hidden under the snow and you don't realize it exists until this slush rapidly freezes on your skis. At this point, your skis will slide as efficiently as snowshoes. Bring a scraper. 

The Face
The glacier is in constant motion although it moves at a glacial pace. It creaks and groans and pops and snaps - all evidence of the massive weight above forcing the ice to carve up the landscape. The glacier can and will calve off the 40' face without warning. A large calving event has the potential to punch through to the water and send a wave that can buckle the ice. And even scarier, the glacier can calve under water, sending a berg up though the ice. Evidence of smaller calving events litter the ice near the face along and the glacier is quite talkative today. Creaks, cracks, and groans originated from within echo through the valley.  Something collapses inside, more creaks, shots, and snaps. We stay well back from the face. 

Daylight is short, so we don't linger. The temperature is dropping so the pace back to the car is brisk. Ice fog is hanging low over the Turnagain arm, but clear skies greet our return to Anchorage. The silhouette of the Tordrillo and Neacola Mountains are in sharp relief over Cook Inlet. Alpenglow in the sky reflects in the water between ice flows, making for a picture perfect end to another days among the mountains.

Chakachamna and Spurr
Next up: the ice is in fat

 - U.K.