Thursday, October 27, 2022

Eagle Lake Chutes - 4.23.2022

The Eagle Lake chutes first came into my consciousness on a cold and deep day of wallowing in Hanging Valley with Brady and Sarah in 2016. Swimming upwards through neck deep snow to claw over a vertical cornice brought us to the small nest at the top of a slanting couloir. On that dark and monochromatic mid-winter day we looked across the South Fork at the impossibly skinny hallways cut into the knob above Eagle Lake:


In a donut hole of snow surrounded by larger peaks, the aprons were a scoured mix of thin windboard and scree. The chutes seemed sized for snowblades more than skis. Since then, those elevator shafts have continued to elude me while I'm occasionally reminded by a peek while packrafting South Fork, skiing Calliope, or after work runs on the likes of Cantata, Hurdy Gurdy, and Triangle.

This February, while shivering in the wind at the top of that same diagonal Hanging Valley couloir with Dane, Nyssa, Tom, and Erin, those lines resurfaced in my frontal lobe.


With a fat snowpack in the Eagle River and Anchorage zones, it was easier to imagine jump turning down the lean corridors.

This time I didn't let the goal plunge back into my gray matter for another six-year hibernation while we waited for the sun and warm temps of spring to attempt to stabilize those questionable aprons. In March, my larger-than-life friend Goldpan Owen and I skinned the 5.5 miles from the trailhead, through the windswept valley of bent willows and squawking ptarmigan, across the lake, and up the apron. Unfortunately, winds roaring down from the Flute Glacier had turned the area into frozen dunes of sastrugi. And someone had forgotten their helmet, crampons, and ice axe. It wasn't the day for it.

A month later, with hopes for a small refresh and the midwinter winds in retreat, Nyssa, Tony, Scott, Tom and I gave it another go. 


By the time we reached the lake, the storm had started to pull back towards the high mountains. Out of the clouds, the outlines of the silent giants of Hurdy Gurdy and Eagle Peak emerged behind our goals for the day.


We climbed the aprons under the couloirs, then turned south for a spiraling ascent behind the back of the knob.

Stopping for lunch on wind-scoured tundra browned by eight months of winter, we looked across at the jagged ridge guarding the Hanging Valley zone. I'd like to use the south-facing fingers of snow weeping from this ridgeline to connect to the Eagle Lake chutes or other objectives in the area. 


Finding plus entering lines like these from above is always a little puzzle. The biggest concern is tipping the balance on a slumbering cornice that's waiting to plummet away along with anyone unfortunate enough to wake it. Like usual, we used a number of angles to slowly tiptoe to the edge where we found a sneak around the overhanging mass of snow.


The line was tight, and the night's refill had deposited new snow ready to flush the unsuspecting weekend warrior off the vertical choke. I descended to the rappel, then plastered myself to the colorful green and brown lichen of the wall while Tom skied down to join me.


We found an anchor made of a fun pink titanium piton and a standard steel pin. Both were wiggly. With ringing ears, I pounded them deeper into the cracked rock reflecting on how I would never do this sort of thing at work without EarPro.


Tom and I were quickly down the short step, then tucked under the overhang as Tony sent at waterfall of snow down in front of him. I particularly like the sound effects of this video which unfortunately ends right as Tom begins to make unspeakable comments about WildSnow. He's probably referencing a recommendation along the lines of shaving down the heads of your mounting screws to save 1.3 milligrams per foot. 


Scott:


All done with the crux, I had assumed we'd down climb until the cleft spread wider than our skis. But Scott would have none of that climber plunge-stepping BS and insisted that we immediately put on our skis. Most of it was wider than our skis.

Photo: Scott Patterson


Photo: Scott Patterson

With some side-stepping, rock skiing, kick-turning, and other skullduggery, the incision widened to a more standard width for skiing. 


Overall, the run was pretty short and a lot of squeeze for the juice, but it was nice to do it after more than a half-decade of waiting. Plus, the rap made it more fun. Interestingly, the Gnarly Noodler told me of skiing this pencil on a season where the chockstone fully disappeared under a winter of snowfall. For us the rappel was about 15 vertical feet. I imagine wind and avalanching are also factors in drowning out this feature.


With the clouds above ebbing into blue skies, we chased Scott and Tom back up our skin track for the longer and wider chute just north of the first line.


Back on top of the knob, Cantata's massive summit pyramid seemed almost close enough to touch. Behind it, Calliope flitted in and out of the clouds. Nyssa, Scott, and I have our eyes on lines tucked out of sight back there - ski objectives with particularly lopsided horizontal to vertical ratios. I'm sure they're on other's minds too.


The entrance of the second chute replaced the cornice hazard of the first with a potentially wind-loaded catcher's mitt. This is another feature that has scared me off these in the past. We ski-cut the starting zone, and once the snow stayed attached, watched Nyssa ski over the curve of the bowling ball.


A little wider and without the concern of falling off of a cliff, this one skied a lot more fluidly.


I was particularly stoked on the hallway feature below the mitt. Tight enough to still experience the underworld, it was sufficiently wide to crank turns through.

Photo: Nyssa Landres


Photo: Nyssa Landres

Tom:


As the rest of the group followed the main shaft down as it doglegged right, I chased the weakness in the rock face over a small ledge and into a secret bonus. 


Reaching the apron, the snow was warm, sticky, and ready to start its annual migration back to the ocean. Small wetslides broke from our turns, and a larger one gained mass and momentum as it churned downhill.


After tumbling through some overcooked sticky mank, we rendezvoused at the lake to admire our descent. Longer, continuous, and of a more reasonable girth, we agreed it was our favorite. However, there were still a couple more options above us to explore, so our opinion was as yet incomplete.


We all wanted to boot back up for more, but the wet slide had me on edge. One concern was that a surface slide could step down into the wintery facets likely lurking under the transitioning wind slab. It was also easy to imagine a small point release from a sun-warmed rock piling up in the terrain trap of a chute and washing us back down our booter. Scott and I have felt the rumbling power of these spring dragons this time of year. Plus, Tom's stress fracture was bugging him a bit, not that he would ever complain.

Reluctantly, but knowing it was the right choice, we took one last look at the beauties rising above Eagle Lake, then ran after Scott as he skated circles around us on the way back to the South Fork Trailhead.

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