Monday, April 6, 2020

Isthmus Peak Ski - March 2020

Jutting like a giant tooth of ice into the sky above the the Spencer Glacier, Isthmus is seared into the mind of every Turnagain skier. And, like every Turnagain skier who likes a slog, I've been dreaming about Isthmus. The challenge of Isthmus is its allure: its 20 miles from the trailhead, a giant wind tunnel, and in the middle of a rainforest of snow.

Last week Nyssa saw the upcoming break in the winds, and realized it was time for Isthmus. Hard snow conditions would make the approach manageable and stability was good. Firm skiing conditions were simply the cost of entry.

After parking at the quiet visitor center we cruised across the firm crust of the frozen lake.

Once past Portage Glacier, we took a hard right south and followed the lateral gully onto the river of ice.

Free for the constraints of a rope, travel was fast on the windbuffed and smooth lower glacier. Just short of the icefall, we turned left up a tributary and for a pass to the Burns Glacier.

Skinning towards the pass was generally straightforward and efficient. Higher up, where the glacier rolled over and stretched out, we found thin snowbridges of crusty windboard. Working through these was a bit tedious; for what its worth, the pass immediately north of Carpathian looked simpler.

At the divide between the Bench and the Spencer, endless ice and snow stretched out before us. I remembered the last time here and racing to catch the last tunnel out of Whittier. Our feet were really swampy then.

It was past lunch time, so we refueled with a quick snack then pushed into the gradual descent towards Isthmus.

Coasting mile after mile down the gentle glacier struck us at just how incredibly efficient skis can be, and how glad we were to not be on snowshoes. At the confluence with the south fork, we reskinned, and shuffled another mile to the base of Isthmus where we dropped our camp gear. It was 3:30, so we ate lunch, melted water, then started up the long ramp towards the summit cone.

Perched on the incised ridge, the glaciated ramp seemed to hover above the Spencer. As the angle ramped up, we switched from skins and poles to crampons and axes.

The crampons made quick work of the rime, sastrugi, and windpack and we were soon on the isolated summit. By prominence, Isthmus is one of the 50 tallest peaks in Alaska, and has nearly 6,000 vertical feet of relief from the lowest encircling contour.

It was 7 PM, we were a tight on time, and had decisions to make. The south face looked like a delicious dinner, but skiing to the Trail Glacier, then skinning around the peak to the camp would probably put us there after dark - no fun for glacier travel. The solution was obvious: ski the south face, boot right back up, then ski the north side straight back to camp. So, we snapped a selfie and got ready to drop in.

Illuminated in evening light, the 55 degree face was all we could have asked for. The snow was even soft!

Amped on our incredible first run, we hurried to transition for the the west ridge booter. Using the Dave Bass 30 minute lap policy, were soon back on the summit.

To the east, Isthmus was throwing a huge mountain shadow towards the Prince William Sound.

Below us, wisps of gold floated over the Trail Glacier,

and above it all, Marcus Baker was painted pink in alpenglow. Weird to see that giant pile of ice in light that doesn't make it look like the skating rink that it is.

We took it all in, then cautiously dropped into the hard snow of the north face. I didn't get out my inclinometer, but think the pitch topped out at 60 degrees. Not bad for 8:30 on a Saturday night!

We were off the summit cone and onto the long north ramp as the sun set. The moment was incredible: the pink snow at our feet was highlighted by glittering crystals of surface hoar and golden flakes of ice floated through the air in front of the sun.

As night fell we were setting up camp, melting water, and shoveling cheese down our throats.

Waking up on the clear Sunday morning, it was 5 °C as we ate chocolate, cookies, and figs bars for breakfast in our sleeping bags.

Eventually Nyssa dragged me out of my cocoon for our seven mile amble up the north fork of the Spencer to Carpathian. I love how big the country is back here.

Once the sun had warmed us up a little it was time to stop to melt water and transfer that precious warmth into the icy fuel canister.

Photo: Nyssa Landres

Approaching Carpathian's east ridge we could see a group in front of us moving toward the summit. Alaska is a small town and we had a strong hunch that we might know these mountain monkeys, and guessed options of who they might be.

It had been six years to the day since I was there last, and I'd forgotten how scenic the east ridge is; the other huge bonus is that it doesn't have the same level of tedious and dangerous cornice hazard as so many other wind-hammered ridges.

When the east ridge terminated we transitioned to the north face for the last few moves to the summit. With a cool rime chimney, this section of the climb was especially fun.

 Behind Nyssa is Blackstone Bay, Port Wells, and the rest of the Prince William Sound.

Popping out on the top we found Charlie, Chris, and Jimmy! Charlie is a good friend of my cousin Anna's from Colorado and its been treat exploring Alaska with him over the years with our skis, feet, and paddles.

With only a light breeze on the summit, we soaked in the spring sun, chatted with the boys about carbon skis, and looked 6,000 feet down on the ocean and so many Prince William Sound memories like avoiding disaster on the Skookum, dissecting rotten salmon, really bad snow, and paddling through emerald water.

Nyssa on the summit with Isthmus to the south:

Refueled, we downclimbed the rime cliffs, exchanged our crampons for skis, then worked onto the face.

Like last time, the bergshrund was the crux; after a hanging traverse and some sidestepping we were in the clear.

We skied between a wall of ice and another of rock as we made our down the hanging snow towards the exit.

Photo: Nyssa Landres

After skiing impenetrable 60 degree funk on the north face of Isthmus the night before, the 50 degree duff was a walk in the park.

Skiing towards the 500 foot cliff, we found the entrance to the exit couloir that threads thru the face. I have a distinct memory of watching Malcolm's edges trying, trying, and trying to bite into blue ice here.

The hanging seracs had been shedding missiles onto the Portage Glacier, and as we skied the exit couloir we couldn't believe that such a clean line could exist right next to so much objective gnar hazard.

Route-finding thru the ice fall went quickly, though as you can see from the picture you could get yourself into trouble:

Then, out of steep terrain and crevasse hazard, we party skied towards Portage Lake and joined the masses for the crust ski back to the car where out dry socks and cotton hoodies waited.


  1. Nice write up. That's an area I always wanted to explore. Hopefully some time not far I can ski something like that.

    1. Thanks Kakiko. I'm sure you'll get something similar sooner than later!

  2. Those views are simply incredible.