Monday, October 5, 2015

Little Switzerland - April 2015

It was a Friday afternoon in April, I was sitting at my desk, twiddling with a database, and contemplating how my life needed more adventure. A text came in from Amy: we’re bailing on the Whale’s Tail Traverse, want to go to Little Switzerland on Sunday?
The Colony Glacier.

I met Amy once while skiing Turnagain Pass the previous week. I’d never met Susan or Mary. Was this crazy? I had not been paying attention to the Alaska Range weather and needed to ask around. A text came back from Joe: "The snowpack should be fat and stable. Go”
Looking down from the Munchkin.

By Saturday morning I’d decided. After a call to my boss for clearance, I started to pack. Malcolm ran me thru a glacier travel refresher. I stopped by Alex and Robert’s to borrow a few pieces of gear.

Home sweet home.

Saturday evening we meet at my place to make sure we had everything. This iss going to be awesome. Sunday morning and we’re driving north to Talkeetna.
Next up, the tarmac at Talkeetna Air Taxi weighing our gear. 

Minutes later, faces glued to windows, we’re flying over the Peters Hills. Spines, faces, and ridges – I'm coming back here with my sled.

Suddenly, the plane is dwarfed by giant granite towers and it’s into the heart of the Alaska Range.

We do a lap before gently touching down. There's one quick discussion with the pilot about a pickup in about a week.

Then the plane is gone. 

Silence.

Any sense of scale is lost: 1,000 vertical foot rock walls,

overhanging cornices the size of houses, blue seracs,


gaping crevasses, ice falls, and a killer view of Foraker.

The afternoon is spent setting up camp and making sure no one falls into a crevasse while going to the bathroom in a snowstorm. How unnecessary, it’s bluebird perfection.

Day Two: six inches of new snow overnight and clearing.


Time to get a lay of the land. And to learn to communicate on a rope team with 3 people I don't know.


We skin under ravens playing in the wind along the cliffs.


What a place to live. What a place to play. Mary wants a hammock up there.  


Leighan joins us for a lap.

           
For dessert there’s powder under the Crown Jewel. The hanging ice is so blue and overwhelming large. We wonder how much it weighs. Maybe as much as 100 Walmarts?


Day Three: the group heads for the Thrown.

That plan is nixed by a war zone of cornice debris sitting under an impossibly huge amphitheater of granite.


No one wants anything to do with the ruler of this throne. We call an audible; two laps of jumping bergschrunds later, we decide to explore towards the Kahiltna Glacier.
Another lifetime of lines.


Then we return to camp under milky skies.

Day Four: more bluebird and time for a bigger tour.


A shady, windy, and bone-cold skin past the Crown Jewel leads to a warm up run down to the Colony Glacier.


A couloir for run two:


Then a big ramp for lap 3:


Susan:


Looking south, moisture is flowing up the Cook Inlet, we head towards camp.


Amy and I ski one last sunset lap down the Munchkin.


We return to camp tired and satisfied.

Day Five: a foot of new snow overnight and it’s snowing hard. The megamid doesn’t like it. We dig out, read, eat, and repeat. If shoveling isn’t enough exercise there’s stomping out a runway. Then we exercise giving up control.

Day Six. 18 inches of snow overnight. Snowing hard. The megamid really doesn’t like it. Dig, eat, read, stomp, and discuss who to eat first. Probably not me. Repeat. While on the runway there’s a flash followed instantly by thunder. In Alaska. In winter. Lightning in winter needs a lot of energy - like a big storm.

Day Seven: 18 inches of snow overnight, still snowing hard, no more Megamid. Dig, eat, read, stomp, and come up with spirit animals for each other. A raven, a fox, a wolverine, maybe a snow leopard. Mary wants to know what my favorite tree is. A palm tree? There’s lots of graupel falling. It takes a lot of energy to produce graupel. This must be a big storm.
Megamid V2.

The new "Megamid" slowly becomes a bunker.


Day Eight: 12 inches overnight and it seems to be letting up. Avalanches are rumbling down everywhere. A couple ravens fly over, call surreally and move on. What in the world are they doing out in this storm? How can they find their way home? Fuel is getting noticeably low. We're going noticeably crazy.

 



Day Nine: 6 inches overnight. It’s not snowing. When the clouds lift we can see avalanches pouring off the cliffs around us. Exploding into clouds of snow as they tumble down the rock walls.  A call to Talkeetna Air Taxi: “maybe tomorrow”. Maybe I can telework on the sat phone.

Day Ten: Bluebird.


Huge crowns everywhere. Little Switzerland is caked in snow. It’s breathtakingly gorgeous here.


Are we really leaving? That would be crazy.


Better go ski one last run down from Cellphone Pass. The skiing is deep, Japan deep.

All too soon the plane is here.


We load up and try to take off. Turns out it’s hard for an Otter to take off in 10 feet of new snow. We try again. And again. An hour later with the clouds closing in the plane lifts off the glacier. However, it looks like this:


And, we have another group's gear on-board. Their plane doesn't have IFR. So, we try to find a way through for them.


There's one wall of snow...


...after the next.


This is a bit more of an emotional roller coaster than I had expected for our flight home. But, it comes with a complimentary flight seeing tour of the Ruth Glacier.


The calls comes over the radio: "We're running out of gas, and spending the night in the Ruth Gorge."  So, with their gear onboard, we turn on the IFR and fly home.