Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Rae Wallace Skiing - 3.18.2016

Updated below on 3.17.2020 and again on 12.22.2021 to include more memorable days on this Hatcher classic.

Friday was Ethan's last day in town, so we wanted to take him somewhere fun. We'd done a lot of great adventuring, and as such were leaning towards a higher ski to bushwhack ratio. Maybe even something without dirt on the approach!

Cody watches Alex wrap up his warm up run.

Though we often ski Rae Wallace on our way thru to Archangel, I've never just spent a day lapping its steep and rocky chutes and spines, but I've always wanted to.

Alex and I spent Thursday chewing on weather forecasts and avalanche data as we decided between another Eagle River adventure and Hatcher. As soon as I dropped into the sheltered north facing terrain I was happy with our decision. Alex was too:

Mary also seemed happy with the decision.

Lap number 2.

Several other groups were out there enjoying the wonderful weather and soft snow. Always nice to run into friends!

There was quite a bit of moving snow, both from sloughing and smaller slabs. Ethan practicing slough management for when he comes back to ski Polar Bear and Rumble next year.

Alex finding snow that was more interested in staying put. I tried to ski the spine to Alex's left, which immediately slid, quickly ending that plan as I fled to safety.

Mary happily discussing the virtues of weight vests as related to spine skiing technique and other related and unrelated activities. In case you can't tell, I think she wearing one here:

For our last run we continued higher along the ridge to more untouched snow. As had been the trend thru the whole day, another storm slab immediately peeled away below Alex. It was probably because of all that leg power from a winter spent running stairs with a 65 pound sand bag.

Looks like the sand bag stairs were just the ticket!

Ethan skied a nice flute for his last AK lap of the trip. Hurry back so we can do more bushwhacking!

Looking back up at the end of the day; blue skies, falling snow, and good peeps: lucky me!

3.17.2020 Update:
Thursday night above Delia Creek left me hungry for more Hatcher Pass, and Saturday morning found us driving north out of Anchorage again. Assuming that everyone had turned Rae Wallace into moguls on Friday, I'd been leaning towards an Arcose Ridge adventure.

But, Nathan pointed out that the road had been closed all day Friday, and there were only a few tracks on Marmot's northwest face. So, after collecting Tony and Mike from Fishhook Road we diverted for the Independence Mine parking lot. Arriving in the lot there were only a few cars, and the skinner in the uptrack chute wasn't in. Perfect. Gonna make it just how I like it...and shovel thru the cornice with my hands!

We popped into the calm sun of the deserted ridge and looked down on the inversion holding strong in the valley.

Knowing that it was only a matter of time before the rest of southcentral joined us, we started with the low hanging fruit. Not only did I get the privilege of breaking trail, the boys even letting me ski first. What gentlemen. The snow was right-side up, deep, and fun sloughy - it was going to be a good day. Nathan:

With the uptrack in, getting to the top for our second lap was fast, and we still had the place to ourselves. Tony and I went a bit farther north and looked south at the Nathans and Mike as they scoped out another large line.

Its hard to imagine the snow could get deeper, but the second lap seemed that way. Jensen and Mike skied a protected gully, Tony and I skied spines, and Nathan found a large drop. Mike:

On the third lap we were finally joined by another group. Of course it was Max. Max was one of my first ski buddies up here, and I don't get to see him that much any more, but we have so many fond memories together from Falls Creek to Ram Valley to Sheep Creek. This time we followed Max's lead and skied lines from south along the ridge. Tall Nathan:

Sendy Nathan:

Tomahawking Nathan (not to be confused with vomahawking Nathan):

As we headed up the skinner for lap numero cuatro people were starting to show up in mass. Stability was good, and there was lots of soft snow to be had, but space started to get tight. We often get these special places to ourselves, but every once in awhile everyone heads to the same place. and our growing crew could have done a better job of giving other folks space. Here's a sampling of what the top of the uptrack looked like. There were probably another 10 people on the skinner below, several had their shirts off, it was a scene!

Photo: Nathan Jensen

At this point the laps started to blend into a blur of spines, deep turns, laughter, camaraderie, hucking, and carnage.

Photo: Nathan Ord

Its hard to separate it all, but I do know this is the sendiest day of touring I've ever had and my back agrees with me.

I would have tried to keep going until my legs failed me and it was too dark to see, but at the top of the eighth lap I was outnumbered. It was either call it quits, or get pinned down and have my keys wrestled from me. So, we dropped into one last lap of perfection. Nathan:

Its hard to imagine another day this good on Rae Wallace, but I'm still dreaming of that ten-lap day; I'll be recruiting Nyssa for that one.

12.22.2201 Update:
On the winter solstice 2021, Nyssa, Charlie and I returned to the Marmot Ski Resort and Spa. So far this year Hatcher has had its typical continental snowpack: thin and weak. This setup can often be fine, but when it receives a new load it takes a while to adjust. With 18 inches of new snow and wind over the last few days, we skinned out of the Fishhook parking lot and through the whumpfing snow painted golden-pink by the light of the midwinter sunrise.

Knowing we'd be dealing with instability all day, we started small and skied a first mellow lap from the shoulder. Charlie:

With several groups now in front of us and pushing higher up the ridge, we chased after as Josh, Andy, and Kai ripped a beautiful rib next to us.

It looked fun so we mirrored their tracks on the next rib while making sure to stay out of the terrain trapped gully in between.

We always try hard to not ski entire faces top to bottom - it just separates the group too much if something goes wrong. But, there really wasn't a safe spot on the big open faces, so we skied em in one go. From the bottom we looked back up to see a significant slide that Andy had remote triggered from 100 feet away.

The avalanche was insightful for the stability issues we were dealing with. It hadn't propagated all the way up or across the slope. But it had remote triggered from a long ways away, and it had failed on nasty buried facets under all the storm snow. Additionally, we saw a long crack snaking up the gully next to all of our tracks.

With the confirmation that we were dealing with an active persistent slab problem we followed Andy, Kai, and Josh around for another go. This time we went higher to the next long ridge that Allie and Jed had just skied. By the time it was our turn to ski there were 7 other tracks on the line, and it felt comforting to not be the first guinea pigs, but today reminded us over and over again that many people can ski without hitting the sweet spot in these conditions. Josh:


Jed and Allie had dug a pit and were now breaking a new track up the rib we'd just skied, so trusting that they are more experienced, especially with the local snowpack, we followed their skinner. Interestingly, back at home and looking at their pit online they had found a propagating ECTP result. This tells me that this uptrack route is safe to use in most cases despite mediocre avalanche conditions - good to know as we'd never actually skied the southwest face of Marmot before!

We watched Jed stomping around on a starting zone higher up then drop into its convex catchers mitt. It looked so darn tantalizing that Charlie and I followed him to his dropping spot just below Lodge Run, while Nyssa prepped to drop back into our previous run. As I followed Jed's tracks over the edge and into the face I immediately could tell by the snow texture and rock outcroppings just how thin the snowpack was under me and knew it was a tender spot that could easily slide. Given that feeling, I barely turned through the thin spot to minimize my pressure bulb on the weak layer. I assume Jed did the same.

With a safe spot mid-slope on a large rock outcropping I pulled off to let Charlie leapfrog by.

At the bottom, we reconvened stoked on another lovely pow lap and ready to head up for one more. We jumped back on the same skinner as last along with several other groups ahead of us. About 2/3rds of the way up we watched as Russ, his dog, then Tony dropped into the line that Charlie and I had skied last. Russ made it down without incident and Woody was about halfway down when a slab broke lose at Tony's feet. He skied directly away from the slab as it accelerated towards us like a freight train crossed with a winter dragon. There was a large gully separating us from the exploding wall of snow, but its safe to say everyone's adrenaline spiked hoping the gully would turn the slide and we wouldn't have to dive under the wave. The terrain did indeed channel the avalanche past us, but the slide buried Woody for maybe 15 seconds as it washed over him. Its not my dog, and we weren't skiing with him, but it reinforced our personal preference to not ski with dogs in avalanche terrain. Watching the terrain turn the flowing snow away from us also highlighted that Jed and Allie's skintrack route was well-thought-out.

Tony skied over, slapped his skins on and joined us on the track for our last lap. At the top, given all the first hand info about our stability problem, Charlie and Nyssa wisely decided to ski another lap on the same safe rib while Tony and I peered into the Lodge Run. Looking over the edge I could see that the start zone was filled with sharky thin spots certain to be great starting locations for a slide. In my head I knew that edging into the upper bowl would be a recipe for triggering a slide, but don't think I did a very good job of verbalizing this. So, as I eased over the cornice and into the vertical snow of the drop in I did not turn until I was past the thin spots, then made big, mellow and light turns in the upper bowl before pulling out of the terrain trap into a safe spot to watch Tony.

As Tony cut into the face it shattered around him. His momentum carried him well onto the slab before it started to accelerate and break. The slide was the deepest one yet of the day - probably three feet - and had broken right on a thin spot on a rock. I watched as Tony fought to stay on his feet and ski diagonally off the tumbling ovens of snow. The powder cloud from this one was 40 feet tall and shrouded me in a cloud of snow right as I was trying to get confirmation that Tony had escaped the jaws. I was pretty sure Tony was out, but it was a huge relief when the dust settled and I saw him skiing towards me.

Photo: Hatcher Pass Avalanche Information Center

After that everyone had lost their appetite for any more skiing and we headed for the car. I had mixed feelings about how the day went - no one was caught and a lot of people skied a lot of pow, but Tony's two avalanches could have caused damage if someone had been caught. Its especially tricky because everyone out there that day had such a wide range of skiing abilities and experience. There are not a lot of people like Jed who can feel the snow and the slope under their feet and know when to turn, when to turn lightly, and when to float straight over a spot in the snowpack where a slide will likely initiate.

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