Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Penguin Peak: March 19

The calender said it was the last day of winter but Mama Natura was not even close to releasing her icy grip. Yes, the sun is higher and the days are longer, but the cold air remains decidedly wintry. This week pre-dawn temps have been in the low single digits due to the high pressure sitting over Anchorage. The longer days and big blue skies have worked wonders in people's attitudes and moods. Our hibernation has ended, but it will still be a long time until the flowers bloom and the trees bud.

Until then, we ski. 

The Noodler wanted to ski Penguin Peak - a 4,000' mountain starting at sea level with incredible views of the Turnagain Arm.  To get to the trailhead, drive South out of Anchorage on the Seward Highway and turn left on Konikson Road in Indian.  Follow Konikson about a ½ mile until you reach the Chugach State Park Trailhead

Skin up the snowmachine / ATV trail for 0.7 miles and turn right on the Penguin Peak Trail. 4,000' later and you will be surveying the entire Turnagain Arm. There's some Class IV skinning with stubborn willows constantly goading you into a fight, but the harassment is short-lived.  After about 400 vert, you break out of the willows and into a nice gully.  The approach is not too steep, hardly requiring any switchbacks, but you are definitely climbing up a huge slide path.  The danger comes from high above on the climber's left. 

Eventually, we got above tree line and the views began to dramatically improve.

The Noodler Breaking Trail on Penguin
But as the views improved, the wind increased. There wasn't much snow available for transport, but it was getting cold. The weather station recorded a temperature of 3° F with sustained 20 mph winds which translates to a -20°F wind chill - hardly spring conditions.  The Noodler busted out his down skirt and for the first time ever, I was jealous of his odd choice of apparel.   

The climb tops out at a false summit about ¼ mile from the true summit.  We were getting sand blasted by cold snow.  The true summit was not in the cards today.

The Noodler Getting Blasted Near the False Summit
We transitioned quickly and began the descent.

The Turnagain Arm from Our High Point
The snow wasn't awful.  There was a mini-crust that was easy to blast through. There was some sastrugi, but its wind sculpted features were easy to pick out and avoid.  We were still getting pounded by the frigid wind 1,000' into the descent, but as was dropped over the rollover the wind dissipated and the snow quality improved dramatically.

Undisturbed recycled powder made for A+ turns for the next 2,000'.  Angles in the low 30s and awesome snow allowed for smooth, flowing, boot-deep turns.  Big turns, little turns, fast slow - all effortless. Control for smilers can't be bought, but we did have to rein it in for the bottom 1,000'. 

We opted to stay skiers right to avoid the narrow-ish gully that we ascended through the willows. The idea was to pick our way from open spot to open spot and enjoy excellent skiing back to the ATV trail. This strategy worked excellent - last year with record snow. This year it is a bad idea

We worked our way down, but quickly realized our error. The willows were getting thicker and the Devil's Club reared its ugly head. Fortunately, we were able to traverse back into the ascent gully. It is just wide enough to make ridiculous hop turns or slide slip - if you are feeling rational. 

When ridiculous hop turns are an option, rational thoughts are hard to find. From the ATV road it was about 5 minutes of skating, double poling, and coasting back to the car park.

The Bottom Third - The gully is in the Sun Shadow Line
There are plenty of options from Penguin Peak and given the weather we stuck with the mellowest.  Hopefully we get a chance to return soon to attempt some of the steeper lines in the this area.

 - U.K