Thursday, April 17, 2014

Gray Daze - 4.13.2014

Adventure season is in full force here, its light out later and later, and with the extended curfew comes more and more adventures. Despite the perception otherwise, there are still only 24 hours in each day. I'm sleeping less and getting behind blogging; it will be something to do come October when its rainy and gray, hahaha.

Speaking of gray, last Saturday brought another classic AK issue: good snow and horrible visibility. We needed rocks or trees. Tree skiing here is nothing to write home about, and this year you'd be writing about forests of man eating alders. So, we went hunting for couloirs at Hatcher.

We headed up Gold Cord Road.  Looking back at Ray Wallace, which was apparently awesome. We were able to confirm this on Monday night.

Before long we found a nice north facing line that I believe is called the Lost Couloir. Seemed like an appropriate name given the weather...

I, for one, was glad to get out of the wind and nauseating flat light vertigo.

10 meters before the top the snow quickly became windloaded and slabby; given the weather, my eggplant ankle, and recent events we were happy to call it and avoid setting off a slab in the rocky and steep terrain.



Into the featureless white soup of the apron:

From there we headed towards some chutes we'd seen. The descent through the featureless valley was interesting: at one point I was sure I was wildly accelerating out of control only to discover I was stopped. Following the others and watching their trepidation was equally entertaining.

As suspected, we found another zone of lines. But, the April sun is getting high in the sky and had turned the east aspect into an ACL nightmare of a sun crust.

After turning around and seeing this we decided to call it a day.

Looks like this weekend is supposed to be glorious, hoping the snow holds!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Raina and the X Couloir - 4.5.2014

The last week has been absolutely incredible with adventures including Carpathian, Korohusk, and Ptarmigan. The week before that I spent outside working 12 hour days in the Arctic in windy subzero temperatures. Its been great, but its starting to catch up with me.

But, Tarah has been on a tear of big, adventurous lines lately. So, when she mentioned a Falling Water Valley double feature I couldn't turn it down.

An uncharacteristically early departure from Anchorage meant we were quickly into the familiar and spectacular territory:

After a gentle approach up the valley we turned north and started the climb up the mellow flanks of Raina, which are not all mellow.

Robert, and a cool, bulbous rock glacier. There's also a rad couloir tucked back in there.

Tarah, the remains of the Ram Glacier, and last weekend's spectacular line on Korohusk.

The ridge separating Peters Creek brought more incredible and new views. I think that's Mt. Rumble back there; I'm sure Billy Finley knows.

And, just as planned, we popped out at the top of Tarah's first line. Owen was considerate enough to sacrifice himself and drop first.

Robert: "Does it look so deep cause he's on a snowboard?"
Me: "I should have brought my goggles."

Tarah dropped next,

picking an exposed and sunlight fin.

Her line looked too good to not to try out myself.

Robert brought up the rear, still plenty of snow left in there!


Tarah and Owen looking back at our line from the huge north amphitheater of Raina, a truly incredible place!

After a few high fives, and some much needed sunscreen, we headed north towards where we thought the X Couloir waited. For future reference, the skiers right arm of the X Couloir is clearly marked by the prominent arete below:

Also, it does not require a long and rather trying bootpack through loose scree... O well, it sure was good exercise.

Arriving at the ridgeline we quickly realized that we were not at the top of the X, but instead standing above a very very large cliff. So, I called our friend and mapping genius Malcolm. In a strange twist of fate, Malcolm had intended on catching up with us, but shortly after a run in with a murderous landowner had decided to call it a day. Thanks Malcolm. The other north couloir of Raina:

With Malcolm's excellent directions Robert was soon on top of a much more promising and survivable line:

Light snow, produced by the low anchored off the Alaska Peninsula, had fallen all day, and continued as Owen dropped into the X.


Exceptional backcountry telemarkers and snowboarders are few and far between, they are truly a pleasure to watch. Owen is also in a league of his own:

Robert dwarfed by the north face of Pecking. The skier's right arm of the X enters above him.

Working our way lower through the couloir, the perfect settled powder developed an unruly crust. Robert making the not-easy look easy.

At the bottom of the X, the day got interesting. We had expected a short climb back through a small pass back into Falling Water. Only Tarah had bothered to look at a map. Given that the group was out of water, the climb ahead of us was not categorized as small. Four letter words were uttered. But, at least the views were still great, the other half of the X:

Arriving at the ridgeline, another disappointing discovery, we need to be over there. More four letter words.

Well...lets just follow those goat tracks through the cliffs. We are not goats, more four letter words.

This chute probably goes. Lets ski down it and see. It ends in a hundred foot cliff? I guess we'll hike back up, but only after we take our skis off on an exposed 50 degree face. More four letter words.

Eventually, the decision, that less dehydrated minds would have made have made two hours before, was made: to ski around the cliffs. Getting ready for one last climb.

I spent the last climb debating what I wanted most, an olive bar, a beach, perhaps a gallon of gatorade? I settled on 1.5 liters of mango juice, which I now have strong reason to believe is a laxative.

Its fair to say I was relieved upon reaching the ridgeline and seeing Falling Water Valley below us; the other's might just have felt the same way. I was tired enough I opted to slide slip down rather than bothering with anything as exhausting as turning.

Hey Mike, its only 9 PM, we are gonna make it out before it gets dark!

What's next? Billy Finley is suggesting a Raina -> X -> Rumble Couloir super tour. Maybe next weekend.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Kanuti Picture Project

Updated 3.26.2014 - As part of my job I conduct stream gauging at the Kanuti National Wildlife Preserve. At 1.64 million acres Kanuti is roughly the size of the state of Delaware; it provides crucial habitat for bird, mammal, and fish species. Kanuti has no designated trails, campsites, or public use cabins within its boundaries. Its huge and untouched; places like this are why we live here.

If there is enough light to work and enough water to measure, we come to Kanuti nearly every month. Like last summer's Prince William Sound Picture Project, I'll update this post occasionally with unique and memorable moments that stand out.

To catch the bush plane to Bettles, we flew north from Anchorage to Fairbanks, passing immediately to the east of high peaks of the Alaska Range. Mount Hunter (4,442 m) and Denali (6,194 m) high above the Ruth Glacier:

As rivers meander, they erode and undercut the outside of bends while depositing sediment on the inside of the bends. On the bush plane from Fairbanks to Bettles, we passed this river that had meandered away from its old channel.

Stan's bush plane company started out as a one man operation that grew to encompass 60 pilots serving 120 villages. After selling that business he started ranching in Oregon. He decided that a helicopter would be a good tool to have around the ranch, so he traded his plane for a helicopter and learned to fly it.

Prepping equipment at our first site of the day on a tributary of the Kanuti River. March is a great time to be outside, lows are around -20 C with highs climbing towards freezing.

With average January temperatures of -24 Celsius, ice builds quickly on the rivers of the refuge. We hit liquid water after boring 6 feet into the ice. The water continued to flow up out of the hole for the two hours we worked at the site.

This sled team cross the Koyukuk River as we worked. Under two feet of snow and another two feet of ice we found a flowing river 280 feet wide.

Less than 15 inches of precipitation falls on the refuge during an average year. But, the permafrost seals off the ground and prevents surface water from draining. This forms a landscape of water, filled with bogs, ponds, and lakes.

Despite straddling the Arctic Circle, Kanuti experiences hot, albeit short summers characteristic of interior Alaska. These summers result in thunderstorms, lightning, and wildfires - leading to a continuous cycle of burn and recovery. The fires create diverse habitats that support a variety of wildlife.

The Brooks Range, stretching 1,100 miles from Alaska into the Yukon, lies immediately north of Kanuti. These mountains form their own continental divide - dividing streams that flow to the Pacific and Arctic Oceans.

To be continued...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Cold Smoke - Three Days in the Talkeetnas

On March 5th a jet of moisture pushed north into Southcentral Alaska. Snowfall would be the heaviest at the end of the jet, but, the devil would be in the details. As I sat at my desk avoiding work and checking the SNOTEL, it looked like many zones had ended up high and dry.

Except for Hatcher. Hatcher was reporting 15 inches of new snow, but only 0.6 inches of SWE. Had the Talkeetnas really received almost a foot and a half of cold smoke? Or was it wrong? As the day went on reports started trickling in...

At midnight on Friday morning I picked Lindsay up at the airport; it wasn't hard to convince her to drive north for dawn patrol. As we skinned into Eldorado, the sun greeted us with soft pink light.

Looks like a good place to start.

Foraker, Hunter, and Denali waking in the morning light:

As we climbed higher the skin-track got deeper, it was going to be good. Robert on his way to trench town on the first turn of the day:

15 inches of blower alpine powder and not even a slough. Incredible.

Milking the apron:

Robert and I might be ski bums at heart, but it was quickly approaching time for us to get back to our desks. But, not of course, without squeezing in one more lap.

Just room for one more:

Time for work, Robert looking for the car.

On Saturday morning we couldn't wait to get back. This time the day started in the aptly named Bear Valley, where we found different, but equally beautiful evidence of life.

A bird without wings - floating through her run...

...and flying through the apron.

From Bear Valley we skinned towards the tempting and complex face of Government Peak. Lindsay and Toni finishing off the ascent.

First to the top is first to the bottom. Ian:



With the shadows getting longer, we decided to call it a day. Again, already itching for the next day.

Sunday found us at Hatcher Pass. This time we headed north from the parking lot, planning on working our way towards towards less traveled zones. Three days after the storm and still blower - Robert warming up on Ray Wallace.

Skiing through the big kid playground.

After Ray Wallace we climbed north into Archangel Valley...

...and found ourselves alone in an untouched zone.

Photo: Robert McKnown

Rachel dropping in:

Robert working his way through the zone:

Lindsay dropped from a windloaded saddle, finding the deepest turns of the run:

After such a good lap, we headed around the corner to an area we knew harbored another set of protected chutes.

Team energizer pounding out the bootpack to the top of the line.

When you put in the bootpack you get to go first.

The day was all too quickly coming to an end - Orion not wanting it to end:

Window shopping on the way back to the road. Can't wait for next time!