Sunday, August 21, 2022

Monument Creek Ski - 4.16.2022

Last spring, when Scott sent me a picture of Adjutant Peak's northwest face covered in hanging snowfields and seracs spilling from its 8,350 foot summit towards the Spectrum Glacier gorge, my first thought was: absolutely not.

Adjutant's northwest face

Yet, somehow, an early morning one year later found us winding east in the Subaru thru the murky darkness of the Glen Highway towards Monument Creek and, if conditions lined up as we forecast, the giant peaks of Alabaster and maybe Adjutant.

We parked along the highway just before the Victory Bible Camp, added our packrafts to bulging packs, and in the first light of the day skied down the dirty mix of spring overflow and crusty old snow towards the Matanuska River. With the ever strengthening April sun we weren't sure if we'd need to packraft across an open river awakening from winter, and were lucky enough to find continuous snow and ice coverage to the far side of the waterway where we stashed our rafts for our evening return.

Here's Scott demonstrating proper form for skate skiing with an under-arm packraft. Maybe a new Olympic sport???

On the far side of the river we followed the old ATV trail as it wound thru the riparian bottomlands, then followed the wallowing trails of moose thru a black spruce forest carpeted in the classic bottomless faceted snow of the cold interior as we climbed out of the valley and towards Monument Creek. Soon we were on the bench above the Mat traversing up, down, and across ravines blocked by alders and Lincoln Logs of fallen birch as we worked to access our creek.

As we turned into Monument Creek, we could see Alabaster's distant summit lit up by the morning sun where it rose from the head of the basin.

Scott followed the lonely tracks of a wandering wolverine as he broke trail into Monument Creek.

This land was bigger than I expected, with even the smaller mountains, summits capped in the mysterious clouds, rising 4,000 feet above us. 

Stopping for a snack and to refill our water bottles from a small perennial stream draining from the productive alluvium, I found myself blown away by how big the terrain was. Kind of like Ram Valley, but way way bigger. 

To access the Spectrum Glacier we passed through a thin notch incised beneath a giant buttress of rock. Rising thousands of feet straight from the the incision, this huge scoured slab of rock looked to be straight out of the Alaska Range. I imagined losing myself in pitch after pitch of climbing high up on that face, all the while knowing I'd never have the head game for something like that.  

Emerging from this fantasyland of alpine climbing, we found ourselves on the Spectrum Glacier.

Just like the lower valley, I was taken aback by the scale of the Spectrum's trident-shaped gorge. This was not like the dirty little rock glaciers of the Talkeetnas or the Anchorage Front Range. 

Feeling the tingling exhilaration and breathlessness of a new-to-us adventure in the high Chugach, we chased after Scott as he effortlessly broke trail towards Alabaster.

As we approached the headwall of the peak we could see old heli-ski tracks on the face above us. Honestly I found the evidence of these gas gluttons reassuring as there is so little beta available here and avy forecasting for the thin snowpack of this zone is so hard. The pitch of the slope ramped up in front of us, and at the bergshrund we switched to booting for the final push to the summit. 

With Awesome Peak towering over the low clouds that were filling in the valley below us, we climbed onto the summit ridge of Alabaster.

From the summit we peered into the mountains at the heart of the Chugach Range.

Huge storms pour from the Gulf of Alaska into the western Prince William Sound where the warm moisture is lifted by these giants of ice and squeezed out of the air as layer after layer of the snow to cover these high peaks.

Hiding behind the mammoth peaks, the relatively "smaller" peaks receive a fraction of the snowfall, so aren't covered by glaciers and seracs flowing and falling down their steep faces. Ice Cream Cone Mountain:

Astonished by the shear size of the mammoth piles of snow, ice and rock around us, we turned our attention to the matter at hand: skiing Alabaster then hopefully climbing Adjutant. We took mental notes about the steep route up and likely hazards on Adjutant then started the descent.

Retracing the route of our booter, we skied over the edge of the bowling ball and onto the face. Nyssa:

Snow quality on objective descents like this is not guaranteed, with stability always the priority, but we were treated to quality faceted old powder that tinkled and swished around and past us as our skis released the weak bonds of the snow crystals to slough down the face.

By the bottom of the face we were back into the pea soup of the clouds stuck in the valley by the calm high pressure of the day.

Skiing by braille, we made our way to the base of the Adjutant and roped up for the climb. Nyssa was happy with Alabaster and decided to lap the Spectrum while we boys made questionable decisions on an unskied peak. In the featureless flat light of the fog, there was no contrast to see crevasses or thin snow bridges, so our progress was greatly slowed as we probed along and belayed each other past the lower ice fall.

Skinning higher we climbed towards the top of the fog and improved visibility. As we switched to booting, our view cleared and we felt we were past the hazards of the glacier, so removed our rope.


As we transitioned from the relative safety of the egress chute to the hanging face that would take us to the summit, we all immediately felt the emotional impact of the unsupported face. A bit like l'appel du vide. Thinking about the consequences of a mistake on the thin snowpack of this steep face with big exposure, we moved slowly analyzed the snowpack with our feet, hands, eyes, ears, and minds with each step upward. This section reminded me a lot of hanging summit spine of Eagle Peak, except with less beta and a thinner snowpack.  

In the middle of the dizzying face I think we were all seriously considering turning around, and probably wouldn't have pushed the issue if one of us wanted to call it quits. We were starting to encounter discontinuous windslabs, and knowing that even a small slide here could have a disastrous outcome, we stopped to dig a snowpit and collect ourselves. Our pit found a shallow snowpack with low strength, but also low energy. If there had been a strong-over-weak scenario of a cohesive slab on facets it would have been game over, but instead we were just facing weak-over-weak facets on facets.

Now, feeling better about the snowpack, we busted out the rest of the booter and were soon a few feet from the summit and looking across the valley at Awesome.

The day was getting late, we were about 15 miles from the car, many of those miles would be bushwhacking or uphill or both, and we still had the steep face below to negotiate, so we quickly transitioned, high fived, snapped a few pix, and started down.

I went first skiing slowly and cautiously and watching for the telltale changes in the snow surface texture that warned of the windslabs we'd found on the way up. We didn't want to pop a small windslab avalanche that would test the snowpack's ability to propagate across or down the face. At the transition from the face to the egress chute I pulled off in the relatively safety of a flute so Tony and Scott could descend to me.

They made the steep variable snow of the face look easy, and expertly worked to manage the small slabs they released as their skis cut lightly into the face.

I think we were all glad to be off the precarious face as we skied into the fog sticking to the glacier below. Scott:

Through breaks in the fog, we looked back at a huge serac of layered blue ice teetering high above us on the peak.

Then we tiptoed down the lower ice fall to rendezvous with Nyssa on the Spectrum.

She noted that it had taken us many hours to ascend and descend a few thousand vertical feet - turns out poking across snow bridges in flat light and a navigating complex alpine snowpack is slow work - then we skied down the glacier together.

Coasting down the glacial as the gorge slid past like a movie, I felt like a spectator inside of an episode of Planet Earth, with my breath again taken away by just how big this country is.

Soon we were done party skiing down the glacier and coasting out Monument Creek. We refilled our water bottles, snapped one last mental memory of Amulet Peak painted in the purplish-pink-gold of the evening alpenglow, then got to the business of bushwhacking.

In my memory I have an image of us crawling out of a gully filled with alders and sugar snow that I wish I'd taken a picture of. To get the idea just turn this picture sideways, take off our skis, and imagine we're swimming thru a blend of bushes and snow.

When we crossed ravines that were too steep to sidestep, we postholed, and when it was too deep to posthole...well obviously we crawled. 

Nightfall found us skating back across the frozen gravel bars of the sleeping Matanuska River for the final climb to the Subie.

With Nyssa and Scott skating ahead, Tony and I walked back up the last hill to the car talking about other great days together that ended just like this: tired legs, big smiles, and darkening night skies.

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