Friday, April 5, 2013

The Out of Service Couloir: April 2, 2012

The Out of Service Couloir goes by many different names mostly to keep people confused as to its true location. It's not really a secret, but invites to the uninitiated are rare. Fortunately, my friends are not very good at keeping secrets. This after work special is close to town and is the perfect option during breakup.

Breakup is the time between winter and tourist season.  Most people write it off, but breakup can deliver the best corn skiing of the year. Daytime highs climb into the 40s and nights drop into the 20s. It is generally the first consistent above freezing temperatures of the year, so the snow that has been piling up around town pools in the day and freezes at night. A slushy, dirty, splash fest in the afternoon, and gnarled frozen mess in the morning. The banks shrink and the standing water drains. First the highways dry out, then the main roads, the side streets, and last the alleys. The process takes about 2 weeks.

But back to the skiing...

This year the snowfall around Anchorage has been above average, but along the Seward Highway between Anchorage and Girdwood snow is well below average. There was never more than a 6" base on this stretch all winter. Every time I drove by the Out of Service, my neck craned trying to determine if there was enough snow to ski it. The top top half would be well filled in, but the bottom half kept me wondering.

It must have kept most of the skiing community wondering because info on the Out of Service was non-existent in our circle. So with a great deal of skepticism, the Noodler and I decided to give it a go.

The bottom 200 vert was mostly frozen creek ice with 2" of rapidly melting slush on top. Footing was tenuous at best and downright scary at worst. We scrambled through open water, ice, slush, rocks, and overgrowth until it began to open up.  At about 400' we were free from the encroaching vegetation and began to boot in earnest. 

The first section of the couloir is in the low 30s and the route is obvious, but that changes at the half way point. At about 1,750' it appears that you are almost at the top.  The shot gets wider and the angle eases.  This is where you take the improbable left. It doesn't look very promising, but if you climb a narrow steep spit of snow you are quickly rewarded with a skier's dream. 

You are suddenly in the high alpine with no vegetation and the Turnagain Arm is in your lap.  The angle increases into the high 30s with steep, jagged, grey-orange walls devoid of vegetation. No more shadows, no more gully, no more wondering why you brought a helmet and whippet.  Or in my case: wondering why you left your helmet and whippet at home.

Booting Above the Crux
The upper couloir has a few false forks, but with some good guessing and some experience, ski time comes at 3,400'. 

Getting Ready to Drop In
On the way up it was obvious that snow conditions were prime. The upper section is in fat and the breakup freeze thaw cycle had worked its magic. We had timed it perfectly!  There was 1-2" of cooked down powder on its way to corn on top of supportable. The turning was sublime. No one skied the upper half since the last snow over a week age, so it was super smooth and bright white. The ideal snow conditions allowed me to take in the incredible view of the cold grey Pacific that was rapidly rushing towards me.

The Noodler in the Upper Half

Every other time that I've skied the Out of Service Couloir, there has a lump in my throat above the crux. It is often too narrow to side slip. Other times it is 18" of rotten snow on straight rock. Sometimes both. But today there was no lump in the throat - we knew it was wide so we opted to ski it "family style."  

The bottom half has much less snow than 2011 and 2012. There were a few narrow spots, but the low angle allowed the stress-free descent to continue. Eventually the snow gave way to creek ice, water, rocks, and brush. Today the real crux was the last 300'. Our styles are firmly routed in East coast stubbornness which dictate you ski if there is white, no matter how ridiculous. We work our way lower and lower hanging onto to alders and side stepping over rocks and through the open creek. Eventually common sense trumped our heritage and the skis came off.  It wasn't over yet; there were still some harrowing steps, moments of self doubt, slips and saves, and the ever popular alder face whip.  But not even the stinging lashes could not wipe the smirks off our faces as we stumbled out of the brush and onto the rumble strip.

We were psyched to catch the Out of Service in first-rate conditions. Exhaustion and other commitments have prevented a return as of yet. Maybe we'll get it again, maybe not, but knowing that we nailed it will make that bitter pill called Summer easier to swallow.

 - U.K.

1 comment:

  1. Love how you can park right at Portage Lake and go straight up. Thanks for the boot pack!
    As for the helmet thing... I have a friend who almost died from rockfall on Rainbow and know a woman who did die when the rock she was standing on gave way on the Falls Creek Ridge. Thus I tend to be pretty religious about a helmet in Chugach crud.