Saturday, May 8, 2010

Raina: May 8, 2010

The Chugach never gets tired of putting you in your place.  When you end up throwing rocks at your skis, something probably went wrong.

I got a wild hair up my ass, and finally decided to check out Falling Water Valley above Eagle River.  Despite some last minute calls, this was to be a solo mission.  New member, DBass, had spent some time up there last year and had the inside line.  Raina Peak, 6,795', has 2 NE couloirs to chose from.  DBass said the 2nd couloir was the route to the summit.

The trailhead is at 1,500' in a rapidly greening neighborhood.  One hour later, I was able to start skinning.  I followed the creek to the toe of the "glacier."  Five miles from the vehicle, I reached the bottom of the chute at the head of the valley.  The booter was straight-forward: 1,500', 37-40 degrees. I wish I had a Beattie.  Near the ridge, the cornice looked intimidating.  Skirting it to the right through a tiny finger of snow seemed like the route.  I'll just get up the finger then traverse to the ridge and on to the summit. Easy.

Near the Top (The Finger is Hidden)

It got steep.  It got rocky.  It got thin.  My route became 3" of fresh on blue ice.  I backed down and got into another finger that looked like it'd go.  It didn't.  The rocks were loose and the ice was hard.  I started to chip out my Tuckerman's style ledge to click in.  With the flexibility of a pole dancer, the skins were off, the boots were tight, and it was time to move.  But wait!  I think I see a way up.  Yeah, I got this.  Tough but doable.  I put my skis and poles above me and made some moves through a rocky section and was through the crux.  The gear was now below me and would required that flexibility that was so useful earlier.  While reaching down, I let loose a rock that caught a ski that sent down and around the corner.  Nice!  Getting the other equipment was well beyond my ability since my fluster factor was pegged at 11.  

I reassessed and came up with a plan that was just as bad as the one the got me into this situation: leave the gear, gain the ridge, find a rock that I could use to glissade, and jump off the cornice, and climb back up to my gear.  Before ascending, I began to throw loose rocks at the remaining ski and poles in the hopes of sending them down the finger to make recovery easier.  Whiff, airball, not even close, bulls-eye!  Watch the top-sheet!  The climb to the ridge was no gimme, but without skis and poles it went quick.  The summit was only 200' above.  Go for it or get going with the shit-show?  The incoming fog made the decision easy.  Two days in a row, the only cloud in the state found me.  On the descent down the ridge, I found a perfect glissading rock and quickly exchanged it for a better one.  This was no Hemingway.  This was the real deal. 

At the the launching point, I zipped up, sat down on my fanny, worked on my glissading form, and realized it wasn't as steep as it looked.  I think I can just boot down.  Thank God, I have no idea how to glissade.  I put my chest to the snow and simply walked down.  This would make a great ascent route! 

The Down-Climb and Back to the Finger

 I intersected the original booter and saw the first ski to go "free-range" was right above me. Got it!  Back into the finger.  I must have been quite frightened the 1st time because the booter was sweet.  I grabbed the gear, booted down, and clicked in.  Finally!  The snow was nice but the light was unforgiving.  I didn't ski it like the Boyz, but I did ski like a scared little boy.  Does that count?
Looking Back Up the Couloir

The five miles out was nice.  This time of year, I don't like to take off my skis.  I don't want to accept that the winter is over.  My string of questionable decision continued throughout the descent.  Tundra. Check. Mud. Check. Gravel, rocks, willows, creeks.  Check and check.  I finally gave up on a dusty gravel road.  Summer is here.  Only 4 more months to powder.  

(This applies to Ram Valley as well)
Head towards the Eagle River Nature Center.  Just before the Nature Center:
- Left on Prudhoe Bay
- Left on Delores
- Right on Mariah
- Just before a switchback there is a parking area for 2 vehicles (at Dead End sign)
- Park and walk up the road to the telephone pole
- Head up the small path at next to the pole
- The path turns right onto another pole line - follow these poles to the end
- The power line ends at a gravel road - go right on the road
- After 5 minutes you come to the Ram Valley trailhead, the sign is facing the wrong way
- Head up the trail, Falling Water is straight ahead, bear right for Ram Valley

Parking Area 
Note Telephone Pole and Dead End Sign

Monday, May 3, 2010

Big Map

Click on the map to see more detail

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Neacola: Choosing the Spot

The Neacola Mountains have been an obsession since I moved to Alaska 3 years ago. They are highly visible on the drive into Anchorage from the South. Cold and clear sunsets throughout the dead of winter make for spectacular visuals. Often seen, always overlooked. Most folks in Anchorage couldn't find these hills on a map even though they can see them from their porch.

Neacola trip reports are few and far between, but they all have similarities. The mountains are not small. The range is skiable. The snow is plentiful. The scenery is surreal.

When choosing a location I had 3 criteria:
  1. Close to Alaska West Air's home base in Nikiski to minimize flight cost. Time is money especially when your talking $650/hour.

  2. Big vertical: no yoyo-ing 1200' shots all day.

  3. Unexplored: a blank spot on the map.

I found my spot on a tee shaped glacier at about 3,500' surrounded by peaks climbing to 7,500'. There were no trip reports, no aerials, and the satellite photos were too grainy to make out features. Perfect.

Despite having found the spot, it was still just an educated guess. The pilot had never been to this glacier before so he insisted we fly a Super-Cub to the proposed landing zone. Just me and Doug. Stefan, Emilie, and Tom would be a few minutes behind in a Beaver. Insert juvenile (yet hilarious) joke here. The plan was to maintain radio contact between the planes so I could relay what I saw back to the Beaver, thus having some discussion with the final go or no-go. The back-up plan was a nearby glacier that Fred Beckey was quite fond of.

As luck would have it, the alternator was out on the Super-Cub, so there would be no contact with the rest of the team. Actually no contact with the pilot either because of the noise of the engine. Forty-five minutes of introverted thinking. Normally I enjoy being left alone, but I was making the decision for 5 other people that all had put their trust in me.

No Alternator Means Your Starting It by Hand

It took about 20 minutes to get to the mountains. Then the eye candy can into view. Google-earth, USGS images, aerials photos all became real. The peaks towered above the Cub as we slipped between narrow passes with sheer wall. It got real.

Blockade Glacier and Blockade Lake

"Nunatak" Couloir

The SW Ridge of Chakachamna (Backside of Peak A to Peak C)

Over a year of planning had led up to this moment. I picked out Mt. Chakachamna on the horizon. We were close. Over the pass, and there it was: the "T" glacier.

Damn, it looks steep. Damn, my proposed LZ is an icefall. Damn, this is intimidating terrain. Doug turns around yells back to me: "You guys are going to have a lot of fun back here." Maybe he's right. Lots of snow: check. Big relief, skiable terrain, safe landing zone: check, check, check. "This'll work."

Looking Up the SW Lobe of the "T" to "Superior in the Sky"

NE Lobe of the "T"

We circled the drainage a couple of times and he put it down into some deep powder. "I claim this glacier in the name of Skier Boyz!" Doug went to work setting up some flagging for the landing strip for the Beaver. Did I make the right decision? What will they think? The drone of the 2nd plane began to echo around the vertical walls. The mountains dwarfed the plane. After a few circles, they were down. "Beattie like." "This is sick."

Big Peak, Little Plane (Superior in the Sky)

Everyone was psyched on the terrain. What a relief. Over the course of our stay, it became apparent, that there should be additional considerations when choosing a location. Add these to the selection criteria:

  • Variety of aspects and slope angles: we had a golf course butted up to slopes that started at 40°. Slopes in the high 20s/low 30s would have been nice after multiple feet of snow. Fortunately we had 360° of aspects to work with.

  • Escape route: never count on the weather in Alaska. Be prepared to walk out or at least move camp. Weather forced us to move our camp in order to facilitate a pick up; it would have been much easier had we planned for this contingency