Saturday, February 11, 2023

Hanging Valley Skiing - 2.7.2016

Note: updated below the original post to include a new line for us on 2.12.2022 and again with a fun Eagle Lake loop on 2.7.2023.

Eagle River is a land of huge peaks, deep couloirs, and a temperamental snowpack.

Brady and Sarah entering the upper basin.

Approaches are often long, access is tenuous, and snowpack information is limited.
The views are one of many reasons to go.

Recently I've heard report after report of good conditions in Hanging Valley. Brunton, Zack and Khalial, and Erin and Abe have all been back there lately. Plus, the approach and access are uncharacteristically easy for ER.

Sarah taking it all in from the top of the first run. Harp in front of Foraker and Denali.

On Sunday, with yet another storm flowing towards Turnagain, and wind affected snow at Hatcher, we went searching for contrast in the steep rock walls of Hanging Valley.

The first ascent was deeper than any of us expected. After much discussion, we decided that it was at least belly-button deep. Brady reaping the rewards of wallowing:

At the bottom we regrouped and started another punishingly deep snow climb up the next coolie. The reward at the top, Eagle Peak, I can't wait to ski this one!

Flute and Cantata to the southeast. Lots of adventure potential back there.

I dropped into the diagonal couloir first:

Photo: Brady Deal

The snow was even better than the previous line. Brady:

A bit steep:


Not down yet!

I was definitely feeling it after two memorably deep snow climbs, but as Brady put it, he's "always up for more skiing". I guess I am too. Fortunately, we'd saved Erin and Abe's skin track for the last ascent. I needed it.

From the top, so totally worth it:

Looking south thru the headwaters of Ship Creek and all the way to the Kenai Peninsula. If you look carefully you can see the power line cut above Indian.

We watched Denali and Hunter turn gold, orange, and pink as the sun set on the Alaska Range.

Then, in the last of the early February light, it was time to head back to the car. Brady dropping in to our third couloir of the day:

2.12.2022 Update:
Its been almost six years to the day since the last time I skinned into Hanging Valley, and conditions this time were much the same as last: a cycle of big storms had filled the valley with an uncharacteristically fat snowpack and we'd be using the contrast of the rocks to provide contrast on a dark and gray midwinter day.

As we left the trees behind, turned the corner, and began to climb the moraines of the lower valley, the clouds lifted just enough to highlight the skyline of the cirque.

As we usually do when working into a zone, we started with the most incised couloir with the smallest apron: here this one cuts diagonally across the headwall.

You may have noticed someone way ahead in the last picture - unsurprisingly it was Tom. We are all used to the turbocharged engines that are Tom's legs, so didn't find it particularly odd that he was suddenly several hundred vertical feet above us. However, catching up to him lounging halfway up the line was odd.

Even odder was that his boots were off. Poor Tom's new liners were crushing his feet. We've all been there and know how painful (and disappointing) it is to smash your feet inside of too small and way too expensive of carbon vice grips when you really just want to be out enjoying the mountains and not thinking about reality (or whatever version of that we live in).

Knowing Tom would easily catch us and that he needed every moment out of his boots, we continued to swim upwards through the ever deepening snow while Tom continued to lounge. Approaching the top, I had to zip up to my neck to prevent the deep snow from over topping and pouring into my sweatbox of a jacket.

Gaining the ridge was an exercise in tunneling through the overhung cornice as I endeavored to pour less snow down my drenched jacket than I was pouring onto the rest of the crew showering in the spindrift below.

Crawling onto the top, there was Dane with a huge smile on his face.

Looking past Dane to Hurdy Gurdy, I reminisced about a great after-work run that Dave, Charlie, Dmitry, and I did up there on perfect summer evening a few summers ago.

Dane told us about an awesome vision-quest of a run he'd done past Flute and out to Bird (I think), then we clambered back into the overhung cave at the top of the line and transitioned for the descent.

One by one everyone disappeared into the storm below.

Its a steep line, and we were dealing with a good amount of storm snow, but found only a manageable amount of slough as we worked our way down. Professor Larson:

Dane the skier:

At the bottom of the upper line and back in the floor of the upper basin, we bid adieu to Tom and Erin who were headed home to spend the afternoon massaging life back into Tom's throbbing feet likely with the assistance of their chihuahua Cyrus. 

Then with Nyssa leading the charge we started to break trail up the Y-chute. 

The chute is much wider and not quite as steep as the diagonal couloir, so we were actually able to efficiently skin almost all the way before a brief crawl to the top. Despite being only a few hundred yards from our last top-out, and is so often the case in the mountains, our new perch brought a whole different set of views. Somewhere back there is Calliope, a most horizontal tour with an intimidating hanging snowfield that Scott and I skied a few years ago. Hidden in the clouds were several other lines that we keep dreaming about.

In the foreground, the steep pencil and snake-like couloirs of Eagle Lake drew our attention. Just more I'm waiting to ski. The list is endless.

Shivering on the exposed ridge in the cold southwest winds that have been pummeling the Cook Inlet with storm after storm, we piled layers on top of our drenched clothes and skied into the creamy snow. I still haven't skied the other steeper and tighter fork of the Y - if I didn't have already have enough, here's another reason to come back to this magical valley.

Nyssa with Harp highlighted by the wild in-and-out light of the afternoon:


Years ago, while avoiding work and wandering through the metaverse that is Google Earth I'd noticed a continuous line of snow snaking northwest from the summit just west of Hanging Valley to the tarns below. Since then I've wondered and tried to figure out if this was simply a sketchy and unsupported hanging snowfield, or actually a relatively safe chute. With the days finally getting longer, now was our chance to find out, so we put our skins on yet again and headed up the track set on the last lap.

The moody light had been absolutely dramatic all day and continued to fire by lighting up the south side of Raina in gold, behind Raina is Peeking - another gem. Conditions are obviously fat right now, but the face holds some cool lines, which I'd love to continue to check out.

With the trail already broken, we made quick work of the uptrack and were soon back on top of the ridgeline and following sheep trails across the windward scree.

Having only seen our objective from satellite imagery strangely warped and shaded by the steep northerly terrain of the cirque I did not have particularly high hopes for a skiable line, and was relieved to peer over the edge and find continuous snow.

Unfortunately continuous the line certainly wasn't incised as I had hoped, instead leaning out towards more of hanging snowfield than chute. Hanging snowfields in the dry western Chugach always produce a tickle somewhere below my belly, and looking down the line I wasn't sure I was into it. But, we hadn't seen any signs of instability as we'd worked into bigger terrain throughout the day and generally felt pretty good about the snowpack in the zone, so decided to give it a go. Dane the monoskier:

I went first skiing lightly in an effort to not put a big load on the snowpack until I was off the face and into the chute then pulled off at a safe spot. 

Getting into the chute was a relief, and we ripped joyful soft turns to the bottom in the fading evening light. Dane the snowboarder:

Glad to have finally linked up a new line that has been on my mind for years, we switched our boots to walk mode, put on our headlamps, and started the long shuffle back to the car in the gathering darkness of the monochrome night.

2.7.2023 Update:
The snow just keeps trickling in around Anchorage turning our town into a snow-globe of a winter wonderland, and maintaining the excellent surface conditions in our Front Range mountains. This steady trickle has been great, but its also meant very few clear days. So, with a few hours of dry weather forecast for Tuesday, we knew we had to get out and take advantage of it. The four inches of new snow in the parking lot doubled as we broke trail up the approach.

Even with blue sky overhead, the weak light of the early morning was contrastless as we fumbled up the rolling terrain of the dark valley. Sliding forward into an unseen depression, my feet punched thru a snowbridge and into a beaver pond. I fell forward onto my stomach to spread the weight and crawled dripping onto terra firma. Laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation, we knocked, scraped, and shoveled piles of dripping mud-slush off my gear then continued.

Reaching the upper basin, we zig-zagged up the deep snow of the Y-chute. The snow was impressively deep and the trailbreaking slow. Over two hours after starting the climb, we crawled around the cornice and onto the ridgetop.

The short-lived break in the weather was already gone and replaced by falling snow as we scratched across the windswept backside of HV to the entrance to the skinny side of the Y. Peering down into the hallway of snow below, I was stoked - after years of dreaming about this line I was finally going to get to ski it.

The narrow bifurcation was better than it looked: steep and pretty long. Plus, hard to complain about the snow quality. Nyssa:

We jump-turned down the incised cleft until it joined the main line. Here, the cold smoke was even deeper.

Soon we were porpoising in and out of the untouched powder of the apron to the bottom of the run. Taking stock of the obscene snow quantity, and given our slow start to the day, we knew we didn't have time to excavate our way up the inevitably deep snow of the much-loved diagonal couloir. Instead we opted to save our energy and jump back on our existing skin track for a lap on the wide side of the Y.

With the trail now in place, the climb took less than half as long as the first trenching. As big puffy flakes drifted past the rock walls of the chute, we dropped into another deep lap. Temporarily blinded by faceshots, I yelled up at Nyssa to put on some eye-pro.

Sliding into the flats below the snow-plastered walls of the silent rock amphitheater, I turned to watch Nyssa spooning our trenches from the warmup.

With the efficient up-track now installed, we started another climb towards the heavens. A brief break in the snow brought the touch of fingers of soft afternoon light to highlight the vertical walls across the basin.

Done skinning and back on the rocky ridgeline, we searched for one of the long gullies falling towards the lake that we'd spied while skiing the Eagle Lake Chutes last April.

Scratching over loose scree, we looked into the heart of upper South Fork where the giant peaks of rock and ice lurked in the storm.

In the raw terrain below, we startled a group of rams who easily aired over the cliffs of the face to leave us in the dust.

Satisfied that the huge brown funnel of Chugach choss would continue for the nearly 3,000 vertical feet below, we tenderly stepped over rocks hidden under thin windslabs and into the mouth of the beast.

The snow on this south face wasn't the sublime perfection of the north side, reminding us just how local weather and snowpacks are in these mountains where the terrain controls the winds.

But, for a giant south-facing monster in the middle of nowhere in early February, the conditions were nothing to complain about.

Finally skiing onto the lake in the last light of the day, we strapped on our headlamps and shoveled fuel down our gullets for the 4.5 miles back to the parking lot.

Striding into the night, we wondered how long the egress would take. I thought an hour fifteen, Nyssa said one and half - turns out we both underestimated a bit.

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