Tuesday, March 1, 2022

Kern to Nagoon Skiing - 4.1.2021

Updated below on 3.1.2022 include another great day in Kern Creek. 

With a fat snowpack near sea level and longer days to explore, this spring often found us harvesting berries in Kern Creek. After picking Highbush, Lingon, and Kinnikinnik berries, Nyssa, Dane, Erik, and I went back for thirds.

We followed the familiar trail thru the dripping old growth forest, then chased Dane and Erik as they broke trail up Lowbush.

The top of Lowbush is well corniced and we tiptoed to peer over the edge and find the sneak onto the south face. Baked by the warmth of the spring sun, we scratched across the refrozen crust to wrap into the funnel of the west chute.

With 18" inches of new snow sitting in the steep entrance, we ski cut the line repeatedly before trusting it enough to drop. The snow stayed in place and we were rewarded with glorious slashing turns on the steep sidewalls.


Past the constriction of the hourglass, the descent opened up and became a hunt for snow untouched by the slides of the last storm cycle. Dane and I looked up to watch Nyssa mastering the game of debris avoidance.

In the basin framed by Lowbush, Highbush, and Berg peaks we transitioned for the climb to Berg.

Midwinter's mild sun spoils us, and lugging anchors of glopped snow quickly reminded our legs that not everything about spring is good.

Again, Erik selflessly took the lead, saving us from the worst of the glop while he dragged about 20 pounds of hot, wet snow under each foot. 

From the wide and rounded summit of Berg we took notes for future reference of the infinite descent options before pointing for the southwest bowl back into Kern.

The new snow had settled into a dense slab that wasn't bonded to the suncrust of the bed. Not much of it was still attached when we were down the bowl. Erik:

With a slightly lower pitch and more westerly aspect, the lower half of the lap was untouched by the sun and was still pow. Aspangulation is the greatest game. 

Next up was the creek. We tossed our skis across, filled up our water bottles in, tiptoed thru, then clinging to the mushrooms of snow on the far side, clawed our way out.

Rehydrated from the parching heat, we looked back at our first two lines before turning our attention to the glorious open trees above us.

Facing northwest, the trees were sheltered from the sun and holding sparkly winter pow. Dane, probably jealous that Erik had been hogging the trailbreaking, zipped off first, quickly bringing us to the top of another lap.

Tree skiing in Southcentral AK is, at best, mediocre. The 1,000 vertical feet of consistent steeper pitch was something we don't get every day. 

Stoked to have checked out a new peak, a new line on an old peak, and trees to be kept in the back pocket, we ricocheted, power wedged, and tumbled down the icy approach to the car where beers next to the ocean were waiting.

The next week brought a small refresh of snow, wind, then gray bird weather to our zone. Quality weekend ski options were limited, so Nyssa and I returned to the sheltered trees of Kern. With a short approach, lots of daylight, and low expectations we took time to trim and optimize the approach thru the trees. 

Content knowing that our spring trail cleaning would pay dividends for us on future low snow approaches, we enjoyed laps of low stress pow skiing through the trees. Each run we explored a new line, following gaps to windows of opening thru the trees, then laughing as we came to screeching stops as the forest closed in tightly around us. Promising each other that we'd remember the ideal routes down for our next gray bird day, we skied back to the car.

Backcountry skiing can be an all consuming mind space, especially when you find a new drainage, range, or face to explore. The Kern - Peterson - Winner Creek complex was just that for us, drawing us back yet again to start April.

This time we were hoping to cure an obsession that had been on my mind since drooling over it from Mystery and A1 in February: Nagoon. We'd spent countless time in the shower, on the ski track, and over dinner chewing, marinating, and ruminating on how to safely and efficiently get to the top of a peak guarded by man-eating terrain traps, teetering cornices, and long approaches. 

Settling on Berg to Nagoon via Kern then out Winner as the right ratio of slog to ski, we again found ourselves on the familiar approach from Turnagain Arm. Low clouds were hanging on the peaks and light snow was falling as we gained the upper basin and broke trail for the summit of Berg.

As we climbed, the peaks swam into view while the fog sloshed around in the valleys below. Highbush:

By the top we were just above the fog and wondering how to ski into the soup below.

We'd recently seen the north face of Berg from Mystery and wracked our brains to remember how the chute from the summit navigated through cliffs we knew lurked somewhere below. 

Dropping into the silent unknown of the dark chute brought the awesome ambience and awe of the big mountains. The tight, steep chute reminded me of the feeling of Falling Water's Raina couloirs.

Skiing above the choke while Nyssa tucked away in a safe spot below, a small soft slab broke above me. I wasn't expecting it, and in the tight constriction didn't leave anywhere to go. So, I did the go-to move that has proved so effective over the years: diving through the flowing snow and clawing into the bed surface while the slide flowed around and above. 

The slide and our slough had swept much of the powder out leaving bed surface in the heart of the chute, so we played the game - finding untouched snow tucked into the nooks and crannies.

Looking back up at the peak from the basin below, our line disappeared into the fog and cliffs of the face.

Together we skied the rolling terrain of old moraines to the floor of Winner Creek, then started the climb through the big old cottonwoods of the creek towards Berry Pass. Just short of the pass we diverged from the summer route to Twentymile, turning south into the hanging valley and pocket glacier below Nagoon's north face.

Photo Nyssa Landres

We switchbacked up the glacier and peered into the clouds hiding the summit of Nagoon above us. Reaching the top of the glacier and the transition to booting, it was late in the day, we were far from home, and there was 1,000 feet of steep unknown above us. We were both intimidated and discussed turning around before beginning the chore of swimming uphill through waist deep snow.

With the swirling clouds and steep pitch, the climb gave me vertigo as I tried not to look between my legs into the abyss below and instead focus on upward progress. Using brief breaks in the clouds and our memorized pictures of the face we navigated to where we hoped would be a break in the corniced summit ridge. Hacking thru the vertical drift of snow, we clawed and high-stepped to the top.

Just as we'd hoped, but not totally expected, the summit lay just feet from where we had gained the ridge. From our perch, we mind surfed the headwaters of Twentymile, talked about how great it is having each other, and prepared for the descent.


Like I mentioned above, I'd tried not to think about the pitch of the line on the way up, and leaning over the edge to drop in quickly reminded me how steep it was.

Nyssa followed me down our excavated snow chimney entrance to where we could refuge from the monstrous cornice behind a rock.

Then we began the cautious process of skiing the sublime run. In such extreme terrain with a cliff to the right and a choke below, we'd only ski a few turns at a time then let our slough go pouring past to disappear into the misty funnel below.


The face was the epitome of backcountry skiing in Alaska - untouched, unknown, steep, and stable - we breathed a sigh of happy relief once we were thru the choke and onto the glacier. Looking back, the peak was still shrouded and hidden.

We looked down at the beautiful terrain around Berry Pass highlighted by angular evening light as we skied down the glacier together.

Then, off the glacier, we turned towards Girdwood and skied into the head of Winner Creek.

Despite the strong spring sun, the snow stayed nice to almost the valley floor where we coasted for several miles while planning for future skiventures and sloggy linkups. 

Before long the valley became too flat to ski, and looking around us at so many great memories together, we put on our skins for a couple hours of tired and happy slogging back to the car.

3.1.2022 Update:
Driving south to Seward on Saturday morning we took the opportunity to inventory the condition of the ski lines along Turnagain Arm. With the recent nuclear weather many lines have turned into chaotic mixes of splintered trees, mud, and concrete snow. Others are scoured to various painful-looking surfaces. Then there are those that still have giant wind pillows teetering in their starting zones. However, the big west funnel dropping to the sea from the summit of Bramble had three large explosive craters in it, AND hadn't slid - it was immediately glued to our minds to check out the next day.

On Sunday morning, crunching across the loud rain crust of the Kern Creek valley floor teleported us straight to Ketchikan and made me wish I'd brought ear plugs. I also regretted not stapling my sunglasses to my forehead as an alder ungraciously ripped them from my head and slung them rapidly downhill and out of sight over the bulletproof rain crust.

After a couple hours of clinging and clawing up the steep zambonied ice of the trees with our fingernails, we were crawling into a beautiful spring day in the alpine. 

We'd all expected an uninspiring gray day, but the skies were opening up around us, sol everyone was easily inspired to zip up Bearberry for a lap before heading to Bramble. From the top of Bearberry the incredible lines crowning the headwaters of Kern and Peterson spread out around us.

Then I chased the Iron Ladies down the sunny south face. Nyssa:

Despite last week's 120 mph winds the snow surface was quite pleasant - kind of like a windbuffed backcountry groomer. 

Pretty darn pleased with what we'd found on the first run we skinned up the ridgeline towards Bramble. Behind us the classic south lines of Peterson were out in all their glory - leaving us to drool and pontificate about the best and most unrealistic ways to link them together during the short days of midwinter.

A quick boot up impenetrable and slippery rime ice brought us to the top of Bramble and views that stretched west all the way to the Tordillos.  

After a map check to make sure we were headed down the correct ginormous terrain trap we clicked into our Dynafiddles and skied over the edge of the bowling ball. 3,000 feet directly above Turnagain Arm the perspective was dramatic and I was very relieved to pass the large craters left behind by DOT's avy control work. 

At the same time it still seemed like there was a lot of cliff below us which kept me on my toes until we were able to leave the ridge and drop into the chalky chute. Adrienne:

The line was steep, incised, and awesome with a neato choke halfway down. As we skied towards the choke with one thousand feet of starting zone above us I considered how hard it would be to convince me to enter this committing line without some serious explosive stability testing first. Erin:

We jump-turned through the choke, wondered what in the hell the chunks of metal dangling from cables above us were for, and relaxed as we entered the apron. Of note, sometimes water ice is visible in this choke from the highway, but this day it was filled with snow and just wide enough for continuous skiing.

The apron was kind of what you would expect from a huge slide path - some corn, some ice, some alders, and some very large avalanche debris.

Skiing over the ice was incredibly loud, and for the second time that day I regretted not bringing proper PPE as with ringing ears we crossed the train tracks and headed for the road.

Fortunately the adventure was note over yet as Adrienne led us on a skate/water skiing lesson over questionably frozen ponds towards the car. I could feel the tails of my skis breaking thru the soft "ice" as the hungry swamp monsters attempted to pull us down thru the thawing ice.

Then a short walk down the highway brought us back to the car, dry cotton clothes, and seltzers enjoyed as the tide swept past us and we wondered over misadventures in the huge mountains above us and on the icebergs below us.

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