Friday, April 1, 2022

Pioneer Peak Ski - 3.30.2018

Note: updated below the original post to include an evening lap on the north face in March 2022.
Over the last two days Brian and Sam had both skied Pioneer, and it was about to get a refresh - it was time to go get it. Only two small problems: I didn't own ice tools, and Alex had a project due at work. Easily remedied. That night I went to REI, and Alex called in sick with a bad case of powder fever.

Pioneer's giant north face towering over Palmer.

The next morning found us driving back and forth on the Old Glenn looking for the north face trail-head. After a few laps we'd located the appropriate thicket and were skinning into the alders. Within 500 vertical feet we'd reached the avy debris and were soon climbing mellow ice.

I'd never used ice tools before, and was pleased to see how much better they performed than my finger nails and running shoes. Kind of like being a cyborg.

After the first pitch we put our skis on and started skinning up the lower face. Bryon's tracks were still visible through the new snow and were a nice reassurance that we were on track. Or at least on Brian's wrong track.

The new snow deepened and buried the old tracks as we approached the second ice pitch. The skiing was going to be fun.

Brady tried out the second pitch and after having his crampons pop off a couple of times decided that he'd rather climb rock than ice. So, we clambered up the steep snow chimney to the left. I remember one particularly fun mantle and high step that was Alex's favorite part.

A little more snow climbing and it time for the last ice of the day. The short vertical segment was fun and quick.

Then we moved to the upper bowl. From Palmer the upper bowl looks like a steep hanging face. But, from its heart it feels like a huge catchers mitt. Low angle and relatively safe near the bottom, then steeping continuously to the peak.

Filled with spindrift from the previous night's snowfall, the upper coolie was deep. We wallowed through it and crawled over the small rock steps.

Popping out of the cold north face onto the summit ridge brought the sudden warmth of the spring sun. In front of us, the Goat Creek drainage sparkled thru thin clouds. The Bold Ridge Hike from Eklutna to Pioneer is a fun a traverse above Goat Creek.

As the clouds cleared we looked up the Knik Glacier at Mount Goode and the High Chugach. Jeff says that Mount Goode is a "good girlfriend ski". Whatever that means.

The ridge held a foot of unsupportable snow sitting on pointy rocks. We wouldn't be skiing from the summit, so we left our skis at the entrance to the face and walked to the summit. Alex modeling how to make mellow snow climbing look more technical:

After lunching in the deliciously warm sun we scooted back down to click into our skis at the top of the entrance coolie.

Brady dropped first into the steep soft snow. On such a low tide year, the rock step at the choke wasn't covered and required a down climb or huck.

Dropping into the supportable fluff I couldn't believe the good luck of getting to ski such a big line is such great conditions. Pulling over every few turns to let my slough pour by, I leapfrogged past the boys as the chute opened up.

Photo: Brady Deal



The summit couloir spit us out in the upper bowl. From Palmer the bowl looks like a steep hanging face. But, when you're there it feels like a huge catchers mitt. Low angle and relatively safe near the bottom, then steeping continuously to the peak.

At the bottom of the hanging bowl it was time to take a hard left and traverse towards the rap anchor. Not completely sure where it was, and tenderly skiing towards the horizon line of what was obviously a large cliff was exciting. But, the colorful cordelette of the anchor stood out against the shaded rock, and we were soon inching along the edge towards it.

Off the hanging snow field it was time to relax a bit, open up, and enjoy skiing the untracked snow together. Brady:

Arcing down the lower bowl, the snow stayed soft, and we played tag all the way to the alders and the lower rappel.

Photo: Brady Deal

Dangling from and falling off of alders, we slid back down to the last rappel station. Done with that, it was a short walk down the concrete avy debris to the car. What a classic: moderate ice, 6k of vert, and a steep iconic line. I'd ski this every year!

4.1.2022 Update:
Its been a fat year for the mountains of the Upper Cook Inlet plus the north face of Pioneer flushed to the road, so Pio has been on my mind. But, per usual, my mind has also been fogged by other things like planes, boats, knocking down walls in the house, family, and maaaybe work. Dane and Charlie's recent ascent of the north face was the reminder I needed.

Earlier this week Tony and I left work early to meet in the parking lot where it was 47 degrees and hard to believe that it could be winter anywhere. We putzed around taking extra odds and ends of climbing gear out of our backpacks then waded up the 40 foot-deep cone of avy debris. The first ice pitch was sticky and quick, but I was definitely glad we would not be free-downclimbing it like Dane and Charlie recently did. 

Above the ice bulge we stopped to swap crampons for skins, look out over the dry Mat Valley, and then start to break trail up into the sticky hot pow.

Into the shade of the north face, the heat of spring sun disappeared, and we left the wet snow behind replacing it with cold winter pow.

When I first moved to AK I heard the lore of the legendary winter of 2012 when Pio was so filled in that no technical climbing or rappelling was necessary and the entire face could be skied continuously. I figured it wouldn't happen again, but over the years Ben, Matt, Neil, and Brady have all realized that its possible by some "technical scrambling" up and rock skiing down the ramp adjacent to the upper technical pitches. We decided to follow their lead.

Skipping the technical pitches was indeed easier and faster though perhaps more boring. Actually that last part isn't entirely true - one of my crampons popped off while I was kicking a rock slab - I found that more than exciting enough for me. 

The ramp was fun and definitely the way to go and we were soon off of it and into the upper amphitheater. Maybe cause its full-on meltdown in town, but I hadn't really anticipated how deep the wallowing to the ridge was going to be and pretty much maxed out swimming uphill in the race against nightfall. The chute just kept getting steeper and deeper as we climbed until reaching a point where a lot of snow was making its way onto Tony's head and neck:

By 8 PM we were on top of the north face and into the golden evening sunshine - just enough time to zip up to the summit. 

From the summit we took in the really incredible views in all directions including the pretty jaw-dropping 6,000 vertical feet straight down to the car, crammed something resembling a dinner appetizer down our throats (smores Pop-Tart for me) then started down in our continued race against the sun.

Its funny how the upper chute had felt borderline too steep and deep to climb without peeling backwards into space - with our skis on it suddenly became perfectly pitched steep pow skiing.

Steep faces with big walls like this one are always spindrifting which is good for stability, but often leaves rather firm snow conditions, so it was a total treat to get high quality pow all the way. Reaching the ramp, I wasn't exactly sure what to expect as it had felt exposed and steep on the climb, but just like the upper chute everything is easier with skis on. The ramp kind of reminded me of Crested Butte's Rambo, but in the middle of a complex 6,000 foot Alaskan backcountry face - good, clean fun.

It felt good to have the uncertainty of the ramp behind us (pictured center-right below) and we hustled on to get to the rap station while there was still enough twilight to find it. The astute reader may note that Tony is skiing with one pole; the other one evaporated a couple turns into the face to never be seen again.

By the time we clipped into the rappel at 1,500 feet it was too dark to make out the writing on our ATCs, and then we were walking back to the Subies in starlight talking about what an absolutely classic ski line the north face of Pioneer is - especially when you're lucky enough to have conditions where you can skip the upper rappel and ski the ramp continuously. I need to ski this one more often.

1 comment:

  1. Hey Mike,
    Any info on the narrow, splitter N facing pinner coming off of the lower, lookers left buttress of Pioneer’s N aspect? The one you basically drive straight toward just before crossing the Knik westbound on Old Glenn? Ski descents?