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.

Mission Mts.- Mt St.Mary and Grey Wolf Peak

I have been planning a trip to ski in the Mission Mts. since I first laid my eyes on them three years ago while on a climbing trip throughout the Big Sky state. At that time I had never even heard of the Mission Mts., but when I got home I started researching their back country skiing potential. 

Missions Mts- looking North from East St.Mary
The Mission Mts. begin roughly 50 miles north of Missoula and run about 40 miles north towards the southern-most part of Flathead Lake. They rise at an average of 5,000 feet from the valley floor. Mt. McDonald is the highest peak in the range, at 9820 ft.

When I moved to Whitefish, MT at the beginning of this year I had a feeling that I would be putting in an effort to ski in this range. Coming back from Idaho three weeks ago we passed St. Ignatius- the gateway to the Missions- and thoughts began to pile up for when I could make this trip happen. Texts were sent to many Boyz with temptation to ski in the wild arena. The dilemma I am having now living so far north is having all of these epic mountains to climb, but no Boyz to ski with.

My dependable partner from the North, Dan Koestler, was down and we planned on being in the the Missions for Easter weekend. When he called just three days before we were supposed to go, telling me how he was put on the schedule unexpectedly, I texted again, to no avail. I began to make new plans for my weekend off work.

Then a miracle happened. My closest in proximity and most experienced Skier Boy Friend called and said he would go. YES! Thank You Jay Welz! It was a roller coaster of emotions leading up to getting to the trailhead and even after, but while we were in the mountains it felt like we were supposed to be there. The Missions approved of our dedication to exploration.
Happy Easter! Boyz on summit cone of East St. Mary
To enter the Missions from the west side you need a Tribal Boundaries Pass. A three day pass can be obtained in St. Ignatius at the Cenex Gas station for nine bucks. From there we drove up to St. Mary Lake.  On the western edge there is a pull out with a campfire ring and a cairn marking a trail. The road was mostly melted out, but I was happy to have Truckee.

The trail head
Our main objective in the Missions was to ski the West Couloir of Grey Wolf Peak. I had read many blogs from skiing this line and each one sounded like getting there would be a challenge greatly rewarded. After finding the trail we were surprised that it continued up to the snow line and a skinner was already in. We transferred to skis and followed the skinner to where the mountains revealed themselves. Gorgeous mountains shining bright in the sun and bluebird skies.
That approach wasn't so bad. I could have packed a few more brews

Welz below point 8700 ridge

Grey Wolf Peak and it coolers
At 4 pm, we reached the ridge at 8700 ft.  5 hours and 4800 feet of climbing later, we had a look at Grey Wolf Peak and the couloir we wanted to ski the next day. We ripped skins and skied a beautiful large bowl down 1700 feet to the base of the Grey Wolf where we would set up camp. The bowl is north facing so we carved some creamy archs and wiggles, pleased with the conditions and blown away with our position! After setting up camp we climbed back to the ridge for another descent of the bowl before the sun went down for the night. We cheers'd with a few brews and gulped some chai rum then slept under a Big sky of brilliant lights.
Amazing bivy spot
 The next morning we woke to another sunny day and after a quick hot meal we began skinning towards East St. Mary Peak. Because the snowpack was in a transitional stage and we had a good freeze over night we planned to ski the South face off East St. Mary then back to the Grey Wolf coolie which faces west.

Self portrait with the SOuth East Face of East St. Mary
After two and a half hours of following the Easter bunnies tracks we were standing on top of East St. Mary (9,400) and looking North to jaw dropping peaks and faces. The line has big exposure and its above a hundred foot cliff.  We dropped in before noon, a little bit on the cautious side because of the exposure involved. The corn was perfect off the top and getting towards the cliff it changes exposure a bit and was a bit firm. I did not care, what a line! So fun to be hopping down a big face like that feeling so small and vulnerable.
DAmn thats some creamy corn

Welz dropping off the summit cone of East St. Mary

From the bottom of the bowl we booted 1000 feet back up the ridge on the hard crusted west face. In an hours time we were back up to 8700 and looking over at our next objective, which seemed like we would be timing perfectly because the coolie was still in the shade. Shit! Someone was booting up our line. They sussed us while we were climbing or skiing East St. Mary. We were in awe and didn't know what to do.

We skied down back to camp and decided that the group was either going to wait for the apron to soften up, which would give us time to high five them at the top or they were just going to ski in in hard, scary conditions. So we went up and hoped they were Canadians so we could offer them a Kokanee if we got in their way.

Changing over from skinning to cramponing we waited below some rocks at the bottom of the chute. We began to see some snow pebbles come down through the chute and then some more and felt that the group ahead was descending. Alright, exactly what we were hoping for. We high-fived the gang from Missoula and began booting up the empty coolie above.

Do you think the Easter bunny hid any eggs up here?

Towards the top of the coolie. The terrain in the back ground is point 8700, where we made 3 laps in creamy powder conditions.
After a hour of stepping in and out of the old booter we were on top of the coolie. We enjoyed our position, ate some peeps and looked down the other side of our line to see another beautiful shaded cooler below. Maybe next time? We transitioned and started down this wonderful line. On the left side of the chute there was still dry powder so we hopped down that way and in the middle we got some corn.  By the time we hit the apron it had corned up also, perfect timing for the Boyz! Another amazing line.

Thanks for the Peeps. Now lets ski this line!

Welz dropping into the West Couloir of Grey Wolf PEak

Finding some soft snow in the shade

BAck out into the sun for corn.
PAcking up camp we knew that the hardest wasn't over. To get out we needed to climb back up to point 8700, then ski down the manky southwest ridge and try to find our trail back to the truck. This all was not too bad, mostly because we had spent the past 34 hours in place most skiers don't visit. Many people look up at the Mission mountains and stress how hard it would be to get on top of those peaks, let alone ski fantastic lines. As SKier Boyz, it is our nature to act on the urges of the the unknown terrain that stands above us.

SKiing out of the Missions to finish the mission

Sore feet. This is What we DO!

Getting back to the truck are feet were sore but our minds were at ease. Popping a victory brew we cheers'd to an excellent adventure, 13,000 feet of climbing, 2 memorable lines and a bivy worthy of the effort.


Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Falling Waters: March 30, 2013

I knew that I'd be chasing snow buffalo all day - Na$ty, P9, and the Noodler are all super fast. I wanted to go as light as possible, but the location dictated that I bring some prudent supplies: an extra puffy, a pint of water, a pack of Shot Bloks, and some pop rocks.  Lately, most ski outings have been dictated by the Noodler's schedule. His pick-up and drop-off times are firm to the minute. Today we had 7 hours door to door - not a whole lot of time, but I enjoy the limiting hours. I can hang for a half day, but I loathe to think what would happen if I got on the Noodler 14-hour express.

We were heading to Falling Waters, a drainage above the Eagle River Nature Center. Access typically falls into a grey area because of private property issues, but fortunately a mutual friend has land that abuts the park boundary.

Na$ty and P9 had put the skinner in the day before and had a zone in mind: the 6 North facing chutes on the ridge separating Falling Waters and Ram Valley. The plan was to get 2 laps. I've had 4 or 5 days total skiing in Falling Waters, so I had a pretty good idea what they were talking about.

With the skinner already in, travel was fast and I struggled in 4th place. It was mostly sunny and the powder was still fluffy. Sweat stung my eyes. Fatigue stung my legs. And the gassy nature of the pop-rocks stung my intestines. It was a good thing that I was in 4th because that pop-rock gas had me sounding like a flock of geese.

Predictably, we made awesome time and were soon looking up the 1st of the 6 chutes. Na$ty and P9 led the charge up what they considered to be the mellowest gully. The skinner went in as high as possible before swapping to a booter. The 3 buffalo swapped lead position while I managed to stay somewhat close.

Up the Yellow; Down the Blue
The plan was to use the same uptrack for both laps, so at the ridge we took a left and climbed higher to another chute.

Nearing the Ridge
Getting Ready to Drop
For at least 2 years now, the Noodler has carried an insulated skirt in his pack. After borrowing his wife's for some time, Santa finally got him his own: the Montbell Thermawrap.  Just about everyone has questioned his odd choice of gear, but I am slowly being won over based on the advantages. On the climb you sweat like crazy, but quickly freeze on a windy ridge. Long johns are too hot on the up; no base layer is too cold when just standing around. An insulted skirt solves this problem. Most insulated skirts have full-length zippers making it a pain in the ass to get on and off - especially with skis on. The Thermawrap only has one snap at the waist - super easy to get on and gain almost instantaneous relief from the wind where you need it most. Also one snap does not restrict movement like a full length zipper - important in tight couloirs. The Thermawrap also functions as a lightweight compressible emergency blanket.  Strange as it may seem, this could catch on.

P9 in the Crux
The Noodler and the Thermawrap
The low density powder was shin to knee deep on stiff wind board. The steep walls of the couloir improved visibility and the skiing was excellent. Once on the apron, this shot pulls the skier to the left and out of sight from those waiting on top. So we waited and waited until we were sure we weren't dropping in on someone.  Radios next time!

We quickly retraced the uptrack but opted to drop off the south side of the ridge directly into Ram Valley. The idea was to get better light and take a more direct route to the vehicle. By the time we were ready to drop-in, the light had gone to shit. P9 graciously volunteered to Guinea Pig the route and put some features into the featureless void of white below us. Coverage was much better than expected and the run seemed to go on forever.  Even with P9's tracks, I took it slow and finally made it to the safe zone which was only about 100' from the skinner. 

The route back to road was straight forward with boredom alternating with unexpected excitement. Down gullies, over tundra, around boulders with the occasional alder face whip for good measure. Back at the vehicle, we pulled the beer from a snow bank. Typically the Noodler is so pressed for time that he militantly forces us to chug our post-tour beverage, but our south side short cut had saved precious minutes allowing for some down time. It was a nice change of pace, but I knew the Noodler was thinking we could've gotten another half lap somewhere.

Photos from: Noodler, P9, Na$ty, goggle-earth, and maybe me.

 - U.K.

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.