Wednesday, August 18, 2021

Virgin Creek - 1.25.2021

With a relatively stable snowpack and snow to sea level in the zone, winter 2021 was one we spent exploring new-to-us slogs, peaks, and vistas around the southern end of Turnagain, Girdwood, Kern Creek, and Berry Pass.

After a couple days of spines on Pete's and moonlight exits from Johnson Pass, we set a car shuttle at the Winner Creek trailhead, then slipped, slithered, and clawed our way up the drippy and icy rainforest of Virgin Creek. It was somewhere in this fairy forest that Jordan realized he'd left the shuttle keys behind. After a thousand vertical feet of treacherous booting we were above the rain line and skinning through powdery snow into the alpine. 

Across the Girdwood Valley we drooled over the iconic east face of Fishs Breath rising at the headwaters of California Creek. With 2,000 vertical of 37 degrees draining straight into the incised terrain trap of the creek bottom this face isn't one to take lightly. We'd end up having a memorable day there in March.


Once on top of Max's, the seemingly vertical Big League face - the crown jewel of Virgin Creek - towered in front of us. The face was covered in wind pillows, the choke was rocky, and we weren't dealing with perfect stability. Today would not be the day for Big League.



So, we set our sights for Little League, first dropping into the sublime sunny powder on the south face of Max's. Before moving to AK years ago I'd thought there was nothing good about the low angle sun and short days of midwinter. Boy was I wrong - there are few things better than skiing south-facing slopes of gold without the impact of a strong sun. Plus, you can still get a lot of skiing done with less than six hours of daylight.

We skied out of the sunny the face and into the shivery inversion of the valley floor where we transitioned for the skin up Little League while the morning's katabatic winds scraped our body heat away. With the help of a bit of wallowing, some creative switchbacking, and lots of cornice whacking, we popped onto the summit with our skins still on our feet.


One of the special things about a new summit is that each one comes complete with its own set of unique views - sometimes a different perspective on a familiar place, or maybe an entirely new sight. From here, Yudi, Pipit and Sparrow crowned the valley to the north and highlighted our view. Jeff and I had a cold, windy, and not particularly stable day of skiing on those peaks in 2020. I'd love to go back there in more pleasant and safer conditions.


Turning to the right and east we looked into Twentymile. What a stacked zone full of big animals, bigger mountains, and swamps - real Alaska. Draining from the foreground were the steep and untouched spines and faces of Nagoon. This mountain remained an infatuating puzzle of terrain traps, access, and snowpack that Nyssa and I finally cracked in April. Dmitry and I are still dreaming of some of the other king lines off this rarely touched gem.


Having finished the firmware update of our mental to-do lists for ten winters worth of skiing in the upper Girdwood Valley, we turned south to watch Jordan rip back into Virgin Creek:


Nyssa followed Jordan and they pulled out of avalanche terrain at the safe spot on the knob halfway down and let me get first tracks on the double fall line of the lower pitch. Thanks guys!

Photo: Nyssa Landres

The day was still relatively young, and we were hungry for more, so broke trail back up Max's for another lap.


Back on top we craned our necks to peer over the edge into Alyeska's Headwall and hypothesize about the best way to poach it.


Satisfied with our game plan for schralping the gnar, we dropped into another lap of hero pow. For those who aren't aware: schralping is done on closed ski terrain, versus shredding which is for open runs.

At bottom the long winter shadows were stretching longer and chasing after Nyssa as she broke trail towards yet another lap. This time we hoped to gain the summit of Mount Alyeska.


Unfortunately Mount Alyeska's summit was guarded by a knife-edge ridge and too much cornice hazard. With more time for tunneling and postholing up one of the steep chutes we could have done it, but it would have to wait for another day. 


The compromise was yet another lap of untracked pow back into Virgin Creek. Jordan:


Then it was a race against the sun up Little League to access our long egress lap to Winner Creek. The sun was setting as we crawled over the cornice and onto the top for the second time that day. Jordan called our fearless shuttle savior Sadie to beg for a ride from the Winner Creek parking lot in my estimated timeframe of 45 minutes. Ha was I wrong on that one.


In the blue light of dusk we looked into the heart of Winner Creek where we've had many fun days skiing good snow, bad snow and everything in between on Notch, A1, and Mystery.


Between Sparrow and Pipet we spied a recent medium-sized natural and knew we'd made the right choice to save Big League for another day.  


At this point we stuffed appetizers in our mouths (probably soggy partially frozen pizza) and in the rapidly disappearing light began the long descent towards the dark valley floor. The skiing was awesome faceted hero pow, but sloughy and in the complex terrain we took our time to pull off and manage the moving snow on the big and high consequence face.


At the alders we skied out of the pow, thru grabby breakable snow, and onto the rain crust from the recent wet pineapple express storms. Then we scratched our way to the valley floor and the Winner Creek trail. The descent had been long and cautious, and we'd already blown through my ETA for Sadie's pickup. It wouldn't be until two hours later in the dark of night that we finished the walk out the frozen moss of the trail and the skate ski along the nordic trails to the parking lot. 

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