Five Days in February - AlpenScapes Photography

After several hard-hitting storms battered the mountains around southcentral Alaska in January an arctic high pressure (cold and clear) nestled its way in. Big inversions set up with temperatures in the single digits down low, mid-20s up high, and the winds abated. It was the weather window we had been waiting for, and we did our best to take full advantage of it.

Day 1: Wolverine Peak - Turnagain Pass

We had heard stories of miserable approaches, characterized by legendary bushwhacks and epic gorges. Our approach, however, was about as straightforward as you could ask for, with only a short section of icy side-hilling through steep alder ribs to negotiate.  Not sure where our karma came from; maybe it's all the hitchhikers GW picks up.

Seattle Ridge beamed in the morning sun behind us as we slogged up the valley. Nearing the apron of our intended line, the mountain seemed much less intimidating. Seen from Eddie's, Wolverine looks to be a hulking mass of spines and cliffs, skiable only by McConkey-wannabes. Up we went and, as frozen chunder gave way to chalky powder, the stoke climbed rapidly.

Nearing the top of our couloir, the climb steepened and the snow deepened. Perfect, bottomless Chugach powder surrounded us and several shallow crowns reassured us that any lingering instabilities from the recent storms had likely already flushed themselves.

We topped out on the upper ridge, the mountain dropping off steeply on either side. The mid-day sun was a welcome warmth after 4 hours in the frigid shade. In every direction the Chugach Mountains rose from invisible valleys, cloaked in a thick layer of maritime fog. Looking out along the summit ridge, we realized we had obtained the true summit of Wolverine Peak.

Energy replenished, it was time to begin the long descent through the dreamy powder. GW led the charge, making fast turns as we cheered him on from the top.

Mike skiing a choice spine

Down the second pitch we go

Top to bottom, a great line.  Party-skiing the apron in the sunshiney powder was the icing on the cake. As we skied out the valley, we stopped to look back at our tracks, laughing at how fortuitous the day had been.  Apparently someone else appreciated our line; a photo similar to this one later showed up in the local Girdwood newspaper, taken from Eddie's.

We exited via Wolverine Creek until we reached a broad opening, donned our skins, and made our way back to the iditarod trail. Back at the cars we clinked half-frozen IPAs and chased the sun as it slowly danced across the parking lot.

Day 2: Cornbiscuit and Granddaddy - Turnagain Pass

Another perfect day on tap, our large group convened at the pullout and discussed ideas. We agreed on heading up Bertha Creek and picking something fun, though admittedly a few of us were already pushing for Granddaddy. As we crested the knolls overlooking the valley, Cornbiscuit's south face looked too good to pass up. So we opted for a sunny warm-up run.

The glorious south face of Cornbiscuit. Granddaddy is the Peak to the right in the photo, just below the sun

Jillian enjoying her two favorite things: sun and powder

Back in the shadows, we transitioned to skins and walked up the broad valley, necks craning each time a new line came into view. We admired the rowdy lines in Gold Pan, scouted the north couloirs off Lipps, all the while keeping an eye on a group of 2 just ahead of us in the valley.  Which way would they go? 

When they turned left to head up a sweet couloir, there was unspoken agreement among our group that we'd head for Granddaddy.  GW led the push to the saddle at the head of Bertha Creek, where we took a leisurely break in the sun, looking out over the seldom-touched peaks of the southern Chugach. From here a rimey 400 vertical feet lay between us and the summit of Granddaddy. 

Will and Scott top out on Granddaddy. Photo: Andrew Waldo

GW taking it all in before dropping

Having done the most work, GW earned first tracks down the line. A beautiful double fall-line wall led off the summit, down into a fat couloir. One-by-one, we skied the line, each with our own version. Looking down the line, our friends were so tiny at the bottom, and the scale of the wall kicked in.

Jillian sizing up the line

Will drops in like a boss

The beautiful Granddaddy wall

As I made my way onto the wall, I heard Andrew on the radio: "More RIGHT!" and he led me onto a beautiful, steep, open wall that hadn't yet seen tracks. Radios are awesome.

Day 3: Mt. Eva - Seward

Two great days behind us, we decided to check out a new area. It was the weekend, and Turnagain Pass was certain to be a zoo, so we headed south to Seward to investigate rumors of boatloads of snow.

Snowbanks at the trailhead were 8 feet tall. Rumors confirmed. We followed the steep skin track up, up, up, wondering if we'd ever reach the alpine. We at last popped out onto a broad rolling ridge blanketed with absolutely perfect powder glistening in the warm sun. Pushing on past the established skinner, we gained the upper ridge and continued climbing with ever greater views of Resurrection Bay and the Harding Icefield behind us.

Resurrection Bay and beyond, from Eva

Exit Glacier and the Harding Icefield

We topped out where the ridge meets the upper Eva glacier.  A thousand feet below, the mellow tongue of the Bear Lake Glacier snaked through jagged peaks. We watched small wet avalanches careen down the near vertical southern slopes of Tiehacker. And then we transitioned and party-skied over 3,000 vertical feet of the most wonderful snow!

Party skiing with GW

Many turns were spent in the white room

Day 4: Whittier Glacier > Shakespeare Glacier > Portage Pass - Whittier/Portage Area

Last spring we took a trip up the Burns Glacier to the upper Blackstone and had scouted some fun terrain above the Whittier Glacier. So, with yet another ideal day dawning, we headed to Whittier.

Apparently Whittier had seen some rain this winter, as all 6 roads in town were thick sheets of ice. Fortunately, the approach to the headwall above town is short, and we were soon climbing windboard with excellent views of the sunrise over the bay.

Icy approach in Whittier. The Whittier Glacier lies just over the ridge at center. Photo: Andrew Waldo

After a quick 1,500' vert, we were roping up at the toe of the Whittier Glacier. Another 20 minutes and we were at the base of the broad east-facing wall below the Shakespeare col. Hoping to summit Bard Peak via the northeast ridge, we cautiously made our way to the col. Nearing the top of the big wall the snow began to show active signs of recent wind effect, spooking us into quickening our pace to get off the slope.

At the col we were treated to views of Prince William Sound and the high Chugach to the east and Portage Lake and Turnagain Arm to the west. The imposing north face of Bard Peak towered above the Shakespeare Glacier, which spilled down towards Portage Pass below us. The northeast ridge of Bard looked a bit cruxy from our vantage point and, coupled with the strong winds and difficulty of identifying skiable lines from the summit, we decided to change the plan.

Looking down the Shakespeare Glacier, Portage Lake below and Turnagain Arm in the distance

Looking east to the high Chugach and Prince William Sound

We dropped down onto the upper Shakespeare Glacier and skied to a sunny knoll for a snack. Out of the wind, we could appreciate the magnificence of Bard's north face and the big, spiney south face of the Shakespeare Shoulder. It was decided that today was to serve as an excellent recon day, learning the ease of access to both the Whittier and Shakespeare Glaciers. In hindsight, had we headed for the terrain on the east side of the Whittier Glacier, we probably could have skied a respectable line and come out the Burns Glacier. But we were distracted by our desire to bag a bigger peak, especially after a few failed attempts in the past.

Photo: Andrew Waldo

The snow on the Shakespeare was absolutely fantastic; top notch powder skiing! Blind rollovers, massive gaping crevasses, it was adventure skiing at its finest. We made our way down to the flats below Portage Pass and had a blast party skiing back down to the road.

Day 5: Avalanche Acres and John Mountain - Moose Pass

We awoke feeling a bit tired and wanting to stick closer to our Summit Lake/Moose Pass hub for the 5th day of high pressure. Unfortunately, the stability in this area has been reliably awful so far this year. Fortunately, there was a big natural avalanche cycle recently, and we knew what had slid.

So we drove 10 miles down the road, parked at a friend's house, and headed for a huge couloir that climbs 3,800 vertical feet above the neighborhood.

About 1/4 of the way up, we began to encounter basketball-sized balls of frozen snow that had tumbled down from the cliffs above. Had the couloir merely avalanched, the debris would have been swept from the gut, leaving slick bed surface that we had hoped would soften with the heat of the day. What we didn't anticipate was all the chunder that fell from the cliffs and just sat in the gut, plugging it up like peas going through a funnel. 

The decision was quickly made to climb a bit further, above the pinch, and reassess. We were enjoying the climb so much that none of us wanted to stop, and we just kept going. No one wanted to ski back down this mess (a significant portion of it was actually unskiable), and we figured we could find an alternate descent. And thus a ski tour was born.

I have a decent knowledge of the alpine here from other mountains I've toured, so I proposed we head west to a high col, gain our bearings, and ski down to the highway a mile or so from where we started. It was all straightforward until it wasn't.

Wrapping around the ridge after our first pitch of descent, we saw that the mountain was actually divided by a massive fissure. Trying to avoid too much exposure with such poor stability, we wrapped around the upper reaches of the gorge and gained a treed ridge. We were now just one nice pitch of skiing away from mellow terrain. Blind rollovers helped to keep things interesting.

Looking west from the top of John Mt. We knew we had to wrap around the end of the shaded ridge, but we didn't expect the gorge

Panorama of the mountains around Moose Pass, from John Mt.

One at a time, we picked our way down the slope, linking safe zones, until finally we could see the lower meadow. It was a real shame that the stability is so poor here because the snow quality was superb! We made it to the meadow and had just 300 vertical feet to go to get to the highway. Just when we thought we were about to get completely stuck in alders, we found a gully that was open all the way to the road. Excellent light powder, no alder, our good fortune had persisted throughout the high pressure stint.

We got back to our trucks just as dusk enveloped the day and told our slightly concerned friends about our adventure. It was a super fun day, highlighted by a beautiful climb in the sun and great practice blindly navigating avalanche terrain. And we still got 4,000 vertical feet of powder skiing!

Can't wait for the next window!

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