Monday, October 29, 2018

Montana Peak Ski - 4.7.2018

Saturday morning on Buffalo Mine Road started memorably with a standoff against an angry moose. We wanted access to Moose Creek, the gatekeeper wanted to resume sleeping in the middle of the road; and a charge and trampling seemed imminent. Could we reverse faster than it could charge? Was jettisoning the sled over the bank into alder hell worth it? Who was more stubborn?  Eventually the moose relented, curled up to sleep on the shoulder, and...

Photo: Seth Kiester

...we were rewarded with more trail finding through the alders.

Photo: Seth Kiester

Eventually the brush cleared, the snowpack deepened, and we chased wolverine tracks up the valley as ptarmigan exploded out of the bushes around us. The cirques, bowls, and couloirs of the Moose Creek were filled with the tracks of heli skiers hiding from the winds that had crushed the Chugach for weeks. At the head of the valley we parked the sleds and skinned towards the southeast face of Montana Peak.

Photo: Seth Kiester

At the base of the face, we turned into the walls of a rocky couloir. The spring sun was already cooking the solar collector of steep terrain above us, and we needed to keep moving. The snow climb got steeper as we alternated breaking trail. The top was actually surprisingly steep with one last fun rock step before the col.

Photo: Seth Kiester

In the shaded col we went from bathing in hot tubs of our sweat, to shivering in ice baths of soaked clothing as Alan lead the next pitch. I think it was at this point that Seth mentioned that he'd slept an hour and a half the night before. He may have also mentioned something about not packing any food. Alan did a great job quickly leading the manky rock chimney and snow face above and was soon hauling us up.

Photo: Seth Kiester

With a series of strange porpoise moves I managed to crawl past Alan's anchor on the summit ridge and follow a rock shelf and short chimney to the summit. Far below Alex is the location of the new Holden Hut:

The 360 degree views from the summit were stellar. First, I looked all the way down the Mint Valley where we had so many incredible days this spring. The Mint Hut is tucked into the rocks on the right side of this photo.

Below us to the south, and dwarfed by Mount Spurr, was the Snowbird Glacier. The Snowbird Hut is the small dot in the lower left of the picture. This might be the only place that you can see the Snowbird, Mint, Dnigi, and Holden Huts at the same time.

Turning a little further brought the Central Alaska Range into view. The bumps at the base of the Range are the Tokosha Mountains. They didn't seem so little when we sledded into them last spring. The snow was also wind hammered and scary.

Turning a little further and it was back to the High Talkeetnas. So much terrain; so much relief; so much shallow unstable snowpack. The Sheep Glacier is back there somewhere; after triggering a terrifying avalanche there, and getting shut down there on our summer traverse its become a bit of a sore spot for me.

This giant west couloir might be enough to draw me back to the High Talkeetnas. Maybe I should work on convincing Jeff to go ski it.

And then there was the Chugach. They are so darn big, endless, rugged, and beautiful. On the far right is Skybuster. Marcus Baker is on the far left; its hard to tell in the picture, but, as usual it was shining with a coat of blue ice.

I dug around for the summit register for a bit, but was more interested in not falling thousands of feet into a crevasse than scribbling my name on a soggy sheet of paper. I gave up pretty quickly and started down.

Alex cleaned the anchor and rappelled back down to the col on the pin that Alan had placed. I think its probably possible to ski the summit snowfield on a fat year, but it would require skiing thin unsupported snow over large cliffs, and a high risk tolerance.

From the col we dropped over nearly vertical snow into the headwaters of the Kashwitna. Seth was stoked:

The snow was good, bad, and everything in between. Perfect for inspiring zero confidence, and typical of a big peak.

We met up on the glacier before dropping over the next headwall. The summit pitch of Montana Peak is visible above. Looks like manky skiing.

The rollover proved to be complicated, and started with climbing back up a chute that ended in thin air. Robert had better luck finding continuous snow:

Popping out below the headwall, we found a blue jewel of relic ice clinging to life in the cold darkness of the huge north face.

But, it wasn't cold in the sun and there were already cascades of loose snow starting to peel off the baking rocks. We needed to rally to get up and out of the Kashwitna drainage before the mountains came down around us. Aiming for a gap in the ridge 1,000 feet above, we started the sprint out of there. As more and more snow rolled, slid, and cascaded around us, we crested the ridge, and were overjoyed to find that the other side wasn't just a cliff, but continuous snow!

Chattering down the refrozen snow of the exit coolie, we dropped back into the Moose Creek drainage and towards the sleds. Nothing like finishing with bulletproof snow to make a day memorable!

Robert treated us to details of the sex lives of snow buntings while Alan and Seth descended. Then, in the glow of the setting sun we stopped to dream over the huge peaks of the Eklutna zone burning in the alpenglow. Twin Peaks:

Bold, I'd go back for that one in a second:

And, of course, Pioneer, which Brady, Alex, and I skied the week before. Zero approach, three pitches of ice, and 6,000 vertical feet of skiing. Just about the best bang for the buck you can get.

Bad snow, new views, ticking time bomb wet slides, and grumpy wildlife - who could ask for more?

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