Tuesday, April 2, 2013

AK Update: March 23-27, 2013

I had a long weekend starting early Friday afternoon. Plans had been made and schemes had been hatched. Per usually, Mama Natura pulled a fast one, fooling even the most seasoned of weather guessers. Right up until the morning of departure, the weather guessers were confident. But our "ground truth" campaign at Hatcher Pass reveled the horrible truth. The sneak-attack blizzard rendered the road impassable. Visibility ranged from end-of-hood to 50 yards. The wind was gusting and 4' drifts occupied the road right next to bare black top.

The forecast was wrong, the now-cast was wrong, but at 2 PM the updated hind-cast was right on! The storm continued through the weekend into Monday. 2'+ at Hatcher and it was the biggest dump of the year for Anchorage.

By Monday it was winding down, so I made my way South to check out the relative safety of Dog Shit Ridge (aka Tincan). The deep pillowly tree lines are excellent for storm skiing. The trees of Tincan are one of the easier places to manage terrain at Turnagain Pass.  The top 6" of storm snow was reactive on steep rollovers, but the skiing was fantastic: steep and deep with the trees trumping the flat light.

Tuesday was the blue after the storm. Below zero temps greeted the morning commuters. The mountains above Anchorage were the whitest they have been all year. In the Front Range wind is much more important than snowfall when building base. Protected bowls will be 10' deep while faces will only hold snow until the next wind event. The weekend storm brought little wind thus tempting skiers onto the poorly covered faces.

Our ski posse generally gets off work at 3PM thus giving us a huge advantage over the 9-5 crowd. I've come to expect empty trail heads and untracked mountains. Tuesday was no different. The Noodler and J put in the skinner. S was 3rd, and I struggled to keep up. The sirens were calling us to the faces hoping to dash our skis against the rocks, but we resisted. We opted for a great bowl just west of the summit Mountain Harp. Ridge temps were still in the low single digits late into the afternoon, but the powder was sublime and the early evening sun was magical.

Mountain Harp - West Harp Bowl on the left
(April 2011)
By Wednesday, the siren call was too much to resist: Mountain Harp from the top was the objective. The summit gullies have a narrow "good coverage" zone. Rocks would be lurking just below the surface hoping to dash our skis, but the call could not be ignored. That is, unless, you inadvertently left your skins at home. The sirens were quickly drowned out by a string of curse words. 

Team 3PM set the skinner, while I decided to put in a booter rather than mope around. The booting was less painful than expected.  I was well behind, but my goal was "90% Gully."  This shot typically has much better coverage than the summit shots. 

Mountain Harp is best approach via the long curving ridge that starts out heading SE and finishes with a NE push. The ridge is typically wind blasted and booting isn't really all that worse the skinning.  Even if you do remember your skins, expect to boot about 1/3 of the wind swept ridge.

About halfway up the ridge, the winds became quite noticeable. The skinner set by Team 3PM just 20 minutes prior was erased in a few spots. It had obtained the "etch-a-sketch" reset that Romney so desperately needed.  At the 90% Gully, the wind was really ripping and I knew Team 3PM would be dropping in soon. I kept peeking towards the summit while I prepared to ski.

Then it ripped.  It started slowly but quickly accelerated.  The powder cloud was billowing.  It started from a single point but completely entrained all the new snow from both summit gullies. Shit.

I watched closely for signs of skiers as the slide grew, roared, and subsided. I didn't see anyone. I quickly finished my transition so I'd be ready to boot to the summit or traverse into the debris. I was constantly scanning the path and the summit, but I still didn't see anyone. Scenarios raced through my mind.  Are they OK?  Is someone hurt in the rocks near the summit?  Did I miss someone in the slide?

I knew the top of 90% Gully would be as sensitive as the summit gullies. I was still on the wind blasted ridge ready to boot or ski, but I needed a better idea of what was going on in the 90% in case I had to drop in. I approached a dumpster-sized boulder on the ridge that separated the wind scoured from the wind loaded.  While still safely behind the boulder, the wind lip sympathetically let loose and quickly propagated higher up the wind loaded side of the ridge. I half expected that to happen and was glad with the conservative approach. 

The slope below me was now much safer than it was 5 minutes prior, but I still wasn't psyched to ski it.  Finally a skier emerged off the of the summit casually skiing the debris. There was no rush and he was linking good turns and occasionally stopping to examine the snow.  When he got out onto the untouched snow and started wiggling, I knew they were alright. 

I busied myself knocking cornice chunks down the 90% and was gaining more confidence in the gully. I got the attention on Skier #1 who was in the "safer" zone below and I dropped in. The debris was soft and made for good turns, but it is always scary when the tongue of debris ends and you're plowing the virgin snow. I kept my speed up and was ready for a high speed traverse into the shark soup if necessary.  The angled eased and the turns got quite good.

Summit Gullies - Middle
90% Gully - Right
MB was skier 1 and he filled me in on what happen on top. Team 3PM was concerned about the wind and contemplated walking down the ridge. But there were small cornices and slope cuts that could be tested safely. Check out the write-up from one of the Summiters. Click here.

Everyone descended safely to the rendezvous.  There were a lot of sharks lurking off the summit gullies.  MB and B opted for a 2nd lap, but the Noodler, J, and I had to head back to A-Rage.  We enjoyed the low-angle, stress-free turns on the exit. At the car, we dug the 22-ounce beer out of the snowbank, blasted it back, and made plans for tomorrow. 

Incident write-up is from the observations section of the new Anchorage Avalanche Center (AAC)

 - U.K.


  1. Harp always has struck me for having a pretty touchy snow pack. A dog we had with us actually started a good size slide up there as well. http://dongshow-productions.com/2011/04/09/harp-dog-avalanche/

  2. echo that dong-show. I know many a person who has had stability issues with that peak. what is the bowl to lookers' right of harp/90%? ski-able?

  3. I skied that bowl last year by summiting Harp and following the ridge SE (up canyon) for about 300 yards. I wouldn't ski off of the ridge before summiting - that side gets wind hammered. The google earth for that area (and most of the CSP) is from April 2011. It gives you a real good idea what areas typically get good coverage. I not sure of the name of the bowl, but it drops you into Hanging Valley which sees a fair amount of ski traffic in the spring - some real nice chutes from what i've heard.