Sunday, July 16, 2023

Goats Head Soup Ski - 3.11.2020

Note: updated below the original post to include a great day of bad snow and good fun on 5.7.2023.

Backcountry skiing is the game of patience. We spend years staring at lines and waiting for them to come in. There are so many factors: stability, weather, work schedules, partners, motivation, and thin snowpacks to name a few.

For the couloir above Goats Head Soup, its takes something we haven't had in awhile along Turnagain Arm - consistent snow to sea level. But, every time we round the bend at Windy Corner, we crane our necks, try not to swerve into oncoming traffic, and hope for a fleeting glimpse of snow snaking down the 4,000 foot line to the ocean.

In early March, when Andy and Connor figured out that it was in, Tony and I weren't going to miss our chance.

We left work early with bad cases of powder fever, parked at the Windy Corner lot, skinned the Turnagain Arm Trail to the gully, then popped out of the alder tube into the lower chute.

Andy and Lance were ahead of us, and we followed their tracks as they took the subtle left-hand turn into the upper couloir.

Booting upwards, the brown and orange rock walls grew around us. 

The line forked then split again as we climbed, at each intersection we took the way that kept going. Turning into a thin, hanging chute, we looked down on Andy and Lance in a different variation of the line below us. Behind Tony the bore tide was ripping up the Turnagain Arm thousands of feet below. I wonder if anyone was surfing it. Maybe the angry bore tide surfer? 

The upper chute finally ended and we clawed with our slippery plastic boots over frozen tundra, ice lenses, and thin snow for the last couple hundred vertical feet to the ridge line.

Photo: Tony Naciuk

Below us the incoming bore tide had swirled the sea ice into a frozen galactic vortex.

We ate a snack and drooled over South Suicide's smooth and long run into Rainbow Valley. One of Robert's favorite corn snacks.

Clamping on our skis and starting down quickly reminded us of just how thin that top bit had been. Its hard to believe from this picture, but it actually skied alright. Frozen tundra edges so well.

Sliding and scratching into the tight upper chute we found actual snow.

Photo: Tony Naciuk

With chalky snow and about 10 feet wide, this section was jump turn heaven.

Photo: Tony Naciuk

At the first junction, I pulled off as Tony ripped out of sight thru the rocky choke before blasting back into view below. That dude can ski. 

I leapfrogged past Tony at the next chute junction. In the chunky pow I was all too aware of the bunny rabbit jump turn limitations of my 95 flex slippers and soft skis and jealous of Tony's real setup - maybe someday I'll get one of those.

Photo: Tony Naciuk

One of the several variations on the spidery couloir splits from the middle left in the pic below:

Photo: Tony Naciuk

Tony scoping his next road gap:

In the lower chute we ran into Dave Bass who was out for an after dinner lap. Dave has been the source of much fast-lap and jump-turn inspiration. In true form, Dave would do the coolie car to car in under two and a half hours. He's also skied it five times in a week. Did we want to join for a second lap?

Four hours after leaving, we were back at the car, rehydrating on beer, and drooling over Alpenglow, another line that's rarely in. I can't wait to see what obscure couloir, face, or slog is in next year; there are so many to drool over, dream about, and wait for.

5.7.2023 Update:

The Windy Corner/107/Goats Head Soup Couloir faces due south and is tucked into one of the warmest and least snowy spots in the Anchorage area. I've focused on hitting this Turnagain Arm classic in "good" conditions, but that's hard to get. And, what are good conditions really? Are they a state of mind? Perhaps in the eye of the beholder?

Sore and blistered from a Saturday of Eagle River slogs and Anchorage house shopping, Nyssa, Cam, Carolyn and I decided to investigate what makes for a good day at Milepost 107.

From the warm, dry, and windy Goat's Head Soup parking lot, we post-holed not into snow, but instead into primo devils club. Softshell pants might deflect light snowfall, but thorns go right thru them. Thin touring gloves are even more defenseless.

Tenderized, we crawled out of the bushes for the brief respite of the Turnagain Arm Trail. A couple hundred yards later we were back at it - this time scrabbling up the steep creek that becomes the couloir. I tightened my ski boot buckles to improve water resistance as we waded up the creek.

500 feet of splish-splashing later and we reached snow. By snow I mean a combination of a little snow, but mostly rocks, dirt clods, last years leaves, and waterfalls.

While stemming up one of these cascades we looked across the hillside at a brown bear emerging from its winter den. Past the waterfalls, it was time for wet slab climbing with alder belays in our gripless ski boots. Perfect.

Cam had mentioned the possibility of rock fall in this solar oven. Just when we thought we were done with the swimming, rock climbing, and shenanigans, a soccer ball of ice came whistling down and exploded on his shin. Cam is a superhuman, anyone else's shin, not the ice bomb would have exploded. Now bruised, he just didn't want to break any more trail.

The top of the couloir splits into a web of fingery options for the last few hundred vertical feet to the summit. Cooked by the rocks, the thinner snowpack up here became a questionable mess of manky, bottomless, and isothermal goo. Preferring to avoid being buried in the rock walls by a release of this dense flubber, we plopped down for a snack of Costco gummy frogs and the transition for our descent.

Photo: Carolyn Stwertka



Skiing the upper couloir was a fun mix of carving corn and dodging frozen chicken heads. My stoke meter really started to spike when we reached the slippery bouldering from the ascent. At the greased slab step, we watched Cam and Carolyn toss their skis, Tarzan-swing off an alder, then hop off in their ski boots. With the proper technique modeled, we crashed after them.

Dodging sticky piles of old leaves and greywhacke bombs, we jump-turned down the tight lower chute to the next challenge where Cam again modeled proper hucking style:

Bouncing off dripping moss, exposed soil, and flowing water, we skied until there was really, absolutely, definitely zero snow left.

Then, with skis strapped on our backs and safely out of harms way from the detritus-covered snow, we crashed down the thickets of the stream bed to the highway.

Clomping down the highway in muddy boots and wet pants, I was reminded that what I love about backcountry skiing isn't the really the good snow: its the glee of chasing these dear people as they awkwardly scramble up wet rocks in sloppy ski boots then abuse our poor little carbon skis as we rip down on them across any surface that is at least sort of slippery.

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