Friday, December 23, 2022

Falls Creek Skiing - 4.29.2018

Updated below on 4.20.201912.22.20212.2.2022and again for 12.17.2022 to include more great days skiing new-to-us lines in Falls Creek. 

Around 2 PM on Saturday the texts starting coming in from Jeff: they were storm skiing untracked pow in Falls Creek. I was sitting in gloomy, windy, and rainy Anchorage mourning getting shut down on the Alaska Range by storm after storm. The forecast was calling for more of the same Saturday night into Sunday, and I wasn't going to miss out on more stormy couloirs. The next day, hiking out of the rainy parking lot in our running shoes, it was hard to imagine winter was up there somewhere.

But, by the time Andrew, Alex, and I had climbed past a sleepy black bear, traded our running shoes for ski boots, and skinned into the alpine, winter was back in full force.

Making a right turn, throwing our skis on our packs, and starting the booter up the first coolie of the day, we began to realize just how good it was going to be. From the top I looked back down at Andrew as the falling snow swirled out of sight below.

Alex ski cut the slope before dropping first. After a foot of rapid loading overnight, we weren't sure how the new snow had bonded, but nothing moved.

As he disappeared into the abyss we listened to his hoots confirming the snow creamy spring pow.

Waiting for the hooting to stop, he had pulled of to the side and we leapfrogged past him.

After such a ridiculous first run we were all itching for more, and headed for the East Indianhouse Chute.

Given the visibility, finding it was a shot in the dark, but eventually it appeared above us.

The last two hours had brought more snow and wind, and the balance was beginning to tip towards unstable snow. Working our way up through the deep snow, we tucked against the rock walls as slough dragons came roaring past us.

At the top the boys happily tunneled through the vertical wall of drifted snow, and into the hurricane of the Turnagain Arm winds.

Below us the Arm was a black and white world of wind, snow, and water.

Inspired by a quick lesson on hip checks, cornice bombs, and ski cuts, Andrew took the lead on avalanche mitigation:

Then, as he cut the slope a pocket of unstable snow ripped out below him. A few turns later another pocket ripped out at our feet.

With these small, predictable slides a new strategy began: ski cut, watch slide, ski deep pile of slough, repeat.

At the bottom we discussed where to go next. There was the west Indianhouse pinner, but with 100 foot visibility it was easy to imagine climbing up, down, and sideways thru the steep and discontinuous snow and rock of the west face. The Falls Creek knob was a more straightforward option. As we waded thru the snow to the top, there was no sign of Jeff and Jeebs' tracks from the day before.

Topping out and peering into the tight rock walls below, a steady waterfall of new snow and spindrift poured off the cliffs and loaded the couloir. Alex ski cut the slope and watched as it fractured wall to wall, and shattered blocks of snow the size of microwaves tumbled away from him.

Skiing down the tight hallway of rock, we saw that the slide hadn't been a small pocket like earlier in the day, but had run full extent past the apron and across the lake at the bottom.

Given the volume of teetering dense new snow that had been released, we were happy to rip soft bed surface and not worry about managing moving snow in the confined space of the couloir.

The firm and stable bed surface of our previous line was an efficient and safe route back up. So, with spindrift tumbling down around us we retraced our steps to the top of the knob. Then dropped south into our fourth and final run of the day. Andrew:

Happily soaked by the endless snowfall, it was time to head down to the car and towards a warm shower.

4.20.2019 Update:
Like last year, late April brought a series of strong storms to Southcentral. Feet of new snow stacked up in the Chugach Mountains and Hatcher Pass. With the new snow falling on a variety of weak layers and continued stormy weather, we went back to our storm-skiing standby.

As we reached the alpine, the weather rolled in and out. From the top of the first line the weather cleared for a snowy view of Turnagain Arm and Penguin. Then we dropped into the creamy snow, tucking out of the way as storm slab after storm slab ripped down the line.

Moving over to the east Indianhouse coolie the snow got even deeper. Before dropping in, Alex and Dmitry cut the cornice, and we watched as the snow-bomb triggered another slide that ripped out of sight into the swirling snow.

We'd never skied the west Indianhouse couloir and decided this caked day was as fat as it would get. The snow within the tight walls was preposterously deep. I couldn't help but wonder why we'd again failed to bring our Verts for the exact conditions they're designed for. Swimming up to our necks in snow, the only way to proceed was tunneling upward with an avy shovel.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin

One hundred feet from the top, the walls choked down even further, becoming too tight to ski. Totally soaked from the swim, we dropped our packs and wallowed to the top. Stemming between the vertical rock and the mushroomed cornice, I was able to climb the vertical finish to the ridge.

Skiing the ridiculously tight corridor was actually more doable than I'd expected. Connor in one of the tighter spots:

For dessert we finished our day on the Falls Lake couloir. There was hero snow in the protected line; and we hooted and hollered as Connor ripped the entire thing in about 6 turns complete with a large slough dragon in hot pursuit.

As we transitioned back to booting in the valley below, the bore tide came rushing up Turnagain Arm. Maybe there were some surfers tucked somewhere into that wave.

12.22.2021 Update:
A gray and stormy day in December 2021 found us back in our usual whiteout haunts of the rocks walls of Falls Creek. Everywhere in Southcentral has been dealing with persistent weak layer problems lately, and especially on today where we could hardly see anything, we needed some certainty in our avalanche forecast.

This day our certainty would come from the hope that we would find recent debris at the bottoms of our lines pointing to flushing of natural avalanches cleaning out any weak layers. Climbing out of the birch forest and through the alders, we found large chunks of debris from the Falls Peak west couloir all the way at the creek - good. So, we skinned on towards our normal warm up on the Falls Peak shoulder couloir. Again, there was relatively recent debris at the bottom of the apron. We shouldered our skis and started the boot into the rock-walled corridor.

Erik has been working 80 hour weeks as a medical resident here in Anchorage, but still somehow manages to stay strong for his trailbreaking duties. I think he mentioned that its all that time lifting the stethoscope that keeps him strong. I suspect he's been squeezing some wall sits in there too.

Skirting the large wind pillow that is usually sitting in the top of the line, we clambered out onto the shoulder of Falls Peak knowing that Turnagain Arm was hidden in the storm somewhere below us. It was cold, the wind was crushing us, and we couldn't see anything, so we quickly nixed the idea of scrambling up the steep ridge to the summit and instead rushed to drop back into the protected walls of the couloir. Nyssa:


Working from safe spot to safe spot, we bounced past each other until we met smiling at each other on the floor of the basin. The next question was...what next! We discussed the east Indianhouse couloir, but the apron on that bad jackson is big and is not normally cleaned by flushing cycles. Then there was the Falls Lake couloir, but access up the back side involves climbing a large chute that is perfect for lurking weak layers. The obvious solution was the huge west coolie dropping from the summit of Falls Peak all the way to the creek - the big bonus there was that we'd already seen all the avy debris at its base on our approach.

To get there we skied down-valley wrapping around the peak until we were staring straight up into the heart of the line. The bottom of the huge gully wasn't actually that steep, so we started the climb by skinning. I kept thinking it was going to get too steep, slippery, or tight to skin, but even a frozen waterfall didn't stop Nyssa which she somehow herringboned up. We were soon one thousand vertical feet up the line.

As the couloir ramped steeper under the peak's summit even Nyssa's magical skinning couldn't keep us going and we switched to booting. Behind us the storm clouds parted to highlight the valley covered in fresh snow.

The snow in our first line of the day hadn't been that deep - a perfect compromise between trailbreaking up and powder skiing down. But, this one just got deeper and deeper as we went higher.

In the midst of the line the snow was deep enough that I tunneled and crawled ahead with my hands, barely leaving any sign of a trail for Nyssa and Eric.

This is without a doubt the longest coolie in Falls Creek, and as we popped out of the line and onto the summit ridge we climbed out of the mist and through clouds afire with orange light. Hiding somewhere in those clouds is Alpenglow.

All that was left was a quick walk up the windboard of the ridge to 360 degree views from the summit. We looked through the fluffy clouds blanketing Turnagain Arm towards so many fond memories. Like Bird Peak on the far left and Penguin Peak above Erik's head.

To the north we could almost reach out and touch Indianhouse's nearly vertical west face. Lots of good skiing hiding in there!

Our appetites for views of mountain memories and future dreams satisfied, we knocked the ice out of our tech fittings and prepared to descend. Erik:

The snow was every bit as deep on the way down as it had been on the up, and we gleefully leapfrogged our way down from safe spot to safe spot. One thing I really appreciated about this badass line was how many good safe spots there were - places that we could tuck out knowing we were protected from any hazard above.

We skied through the fog of the clouds to pop out below the pea soup and look back up at Nyssa ripping down to us.


Almost all of our southcentral Alaska couloirs are above treeline, so its a fun outlier when they drop into the bushes of the lower elevations. Skiing into the alder tube of the lower gully reminded me of Birchwood classic "the Bearcrack".

By the time we came zooming out end of the tube at the creek the weather had begun to change: the winds were picking up and snow was starting to shed off the mountainsides and into the drains that are the couloirs. This same shedding quality that makes these lines flush the weak layers is what makes them so dangerous - it was time to head home as the coolie cleaning began all over again.

2.2.2022 Update:
For years I have lusted over the long couloir dropping south from Falls Peak towards Turnagain Arm. But, like all good things in backcountry skiing, it takes specific conditions that we must wait for. Its solar aspect means that you have to get it in the middle of the winter before the spring sun starts to unleash deadly bombs from its rocky walls. Unfortunately, midwinter usually means a thin snowpack that doesn't cover the rock sharks lurking in the scoured entrance to the line.

First light on South Suicide

On Saturday morning we stood on top of the line with a fat midwinter snowpack in the western Chugach and knew it was time. With the gray water of Turnagain Arm swirling 3,500 feet below us we dropped in. Erin:

The line was everything I'd hoped for with a tight upper pitch framed by rimed rock walls that then opened up in the middle. It reminded me of the Windy Corner Couloir just down the road. Nyssa:

Then as the coolie snaked around the corner, the rock walls closed around us again. Erin:

We jump turned down the curving line until alders grew up between our feet, then threw our skis on our packs and started the boot back up for our next line.

2,000 feet of climbing later and we were back on top of the Falls Peak shoulder couloir. We've skied this line so many times over the years and its such a good go-to; of course it didn't disappoint. Erin: 

Back in the Falls Creek basin, we decided where to go for round three. There was a group in the east Indianhouse couloir, so we headed up the chute on the backside of the Falls Lake Couloir. Not incised enough to flush and with a large apron, this chute is often off-limits during during typical winter stability. But, as evidenced by the huge debris piles everywhere, we'd just been thru a huge avy cycle that had cleaned out the weak layers across the basin - we were clear to ascend.

Standing at the col between the chute and the lake couloir we jammed out to Britney, then singing along, skied creamy turns back through our skin track. Nyssa:

Three laps down we had time for one more - we slapped our skins on and jumped back on the skin track for dessert in the lake couloir. At the top I watched Nyssa, Charlie, Tony, and Erin drop before me, listened to the big snowflakes hitting my hood as they fell around me, reminisced about so many dear memories here with so many dear friends, then chased everyone towards Erin's scrumdiddlyumptious pineapple upside-down cake at the car.

12.17.2022 Update:
December 2022 brought storm after storm after storm to the mountains above Anchorage. We started to wonder about lines around town that aren't normally filled in (or stable) until spring. After the first big December storm buried us in a couple feet of snow and lots of shoveling, Nyssa, Levi, and I went to check out Falls Creek.

Finding a surprisingly stable snowpack and plenty of snow to ski, we knew we'd be back soon. A week and two more storms later, and with the Indian Pass SNOTEL almost 50% above median, we returned for more.

The heavy early season snowpack had bent the alders into a tube to crawl through as the long night of midwinter eroded into first light.

Leaving the cave of shrubs behind, we climbed above the calm clouds of Turnagain Arm and into Falls Creek. The storm cycle had brought down new avalanches everywhere along the approach. Some had filled the creek with 20 feet of debris and others left pulverized piles of shattered alder Lincoln Logs.

We'd thought that maybe the big chute dropping west from the summit of Falls Peak would be in play, but its impossible to predict everything. The long snaking line was one of the few things that hadn't flushed. Without big rock walls to routinely spindrift-clean any potentially lurking weak layers, there was no way we'd be climbing into that monster.

Instead we headed towards where most days here have started: the north chute of Falls Peak. Wading upwards through the deep snow, we watched the rising sun bathe South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex in pink then gold morning light.

Dmitry was feeling motivated and raced ahead to break trail til we popped into the refreshing sunlight of the top. Towards Turnagain Arm, the south chute of Falls Peak dropped away below us. It looked delicious, fat, and tempting, but didn't seem to fit with any plans for the rest of the day.

Hoping to instead work our way towards South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex, we skied north into our dark ascent route. We'd skied this line a week before, and it was cool to see it grow 10 feet wider over that time as the storms packed into it. Nyssa:

The snow quality on our first lap was great, and we were stoked. Ready for the relative warmth of the winter sun, we reapplied our skins and set course to climb the south chute of the Falls Creek Knob. We'd had stable results in our snow pit in the zone the week before, but the avalanche cycle had us on edge, so we stopped in the apron to dig a pit before continuing. Our layer of concern was the distinct facets over a thick melt-freeze crust almost a meter down. Without failures within CT or ECT parameters, but with an imperfect snowpack structure, we climbed the chute one-by-one.

At the top we were in the sun and above the inversion - the 15 °F felt almost warm as we transitioned to again drop north into the next dark cleft in the rock. Across the valley we looked at the fun south face of North Yuyanq’ Ch’ex that we surfed on a great day with Charlie last spring.

Refueling on PB&Js, we watched as Nyssa dropped first into the namesake Falls Creek Couloir.

At the crux the coolie was still pretty darn tight and concave. I'd never skied it this early in the year, and was reminded just how much snow the wind drops into these lines over the course of the winter.

Down to the rock hallway and standing exhilarated on the lake, we looked up at the sunny face of South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex bathed in the golden afternoon light of midwinter. There was one obvious option - we'd have to do a lap on it. Thinking back on the big mid-week avalanches that had tumbled off of Sheep Thrills Ridge, we knew that the big face would be the most suspect place we'd go today, especially hitting a thin spot. To avoid the possibly lurking risk as much as we could, we followed the 25 degree ramp to the pass.

The face had a sneaky amount of vertical, and the light had turned pink from the sun refracting closer and closer to the horizon as we reached the top of Tatooine.

Turnagain Arm's lazy river of clouds flowed slowly past below us as shoved our snowy skins into our icy packs. We looked around in awe at our magical mountains that hold so many dear memories and more yet to be made.

Then, with the sun dipping below the western horizon of the Neacola and Aleutian mountain ranges, we carved into the 4,500 foot descent towards the car. Nick:

Off the face and into the alders, we chased each other past the tracks of wandering ptarmigan flocks and towards the creek. Dmitry demoing perfect split-ski form:

Careening down the luge track of the alder tube brought us to the lower elevation birch forests above the cars. Nick said it was like east coast tree skiing - based on this skullduggery, it seems like I'd enjoy that.

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