Monday, February 6, 2023

Yuyanq’ Ch’ex Peaks Skiing - 4.24.2022

Updated, below, to include the classic northeast couloir, Homicide, and Powerline Peak in January 2023.

Like every season, spring here has its own strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side, days are long, warm, and sunny. On the negative side, days are long, warm, and sunny. These conditions can make for the smooth and stable snow of melt-freeze cycles, or they can make for unpleasant snow and unstable skiing. We do what we can to forecast the different outcomes, but there's always a little uncertainty. This sunny unknown was the case when Nyssa, Charlie and I skinned away from Canyon Road on a beautiful late April day this year.

First, we headed towards North Yuyanq' Ch'ex figuring that we'd make our gameplan for the day based on what we found there. This corner of the Anchorage Front Range gets hammered by winds arcing through Turnagain Arm as they slosh back and forth between the Prince William Sound and Interior AK. Even late in the year, our ascent chute was scoured to the ground. Maybe someday we'll catch it in the right conditions for a descent.

Nyssa and I had never skied the north couloir that drops from near the summit of the peak, Charlie is a fan, and thinking that it could be the start of a fun day linking up north-facing pinners throughout Chugach State Park we decided to give it a go. It's easy for us Anchorage skiers to scheme up tasty connections on the likes of Homicide, Avalanche, the Ramp, etc. Charlie:

Snow textures are a funny thing: they can tell you so much about the quality, texture, type and even stability of the snow. On the other hand, sometimes...they don't. The snow looked like it might be nice, maybe not sun affected, or maybe we were just being optimistic.

The first turns were edgeable windboard, then dust on ice, then just pockmarked ice - the refrozen scars of solar warming falling from the easterly cliffs above. The farther we descended the worse it got. We'd found the bad side of the long, warm, and sunny spring days. As the line constricted into its hourglass of a choke, we called it quits and stopped. Yeah, sure, we could have made it down the line safely. But what was the point? Another similarly nasty coolie on Homicide? Then more ice axe skiing in the Thin White Line? 

Based on how the sun was battering the shaded snow with ice bombs, the decision was made to search the sunny side for the large, rounded snow crystals of corn snow. Precariously teetering on our toe points on the steep icy slope, we cautiously removed our skis, carefully strapped them to our backpacks, methodically attached our crampons, then started to climb.

Soon we were back on top of the peak staring into its sun-drenched south face where some of our go-to chutes in Falls Creek peeked at us over the ridge.

This time we had better luck finding the high-quality snow conditions that is such a treat. Although, don't get me wrong, I have nothing against the more challenging snow textures of the high peaks that what we often spin as "objective conditions"!

We watched Nyssa ski past PenguinBird Ridge, and peaks crowned with fluffs of clouds while the salt water of Turnagain Arm reflected the Kenai Mountains.

I think we were all satisfied with our change in harvesting plans.

One lap down and we knew slushy spring skiing was the order of the day. Next up was South Yuyanq' Ch'ex. We skinned over supportable and efficient snow transitioning to spring as we shuffled up the basin between the twin peaks. As the route transitioned to slow and slippery skinning across the rime from supercooled liquid water droplets smashing into the mountain, we transitioned to booting.

The view from the ridge stretching from Falls Creek to the summit was superb. Wisps of clouds added a magical feeling like a fantasy, while the gray waters of Turnagain Arm flowing to join the wider Cook Inlet spread away below us.

Maybe it's because at heart I'm a Colorado kid from a landlocked state but skiing over the ocean never gets old for me - and I hope it never will. We watched Nyssa drop first, navigating between crunchy rime and rock ribs towards Rainbow Valley and the ants driving back and forth on the Seward Highway.


It's hard to put into words what makes good corn turns so fun, and maybe that's part of why its special. Properly cooked corn is creamy, edgeable, supportable, consistent, and predictable in an easy way that maybe even perfect powder can't beat. Nyssa:

We skied until reaching the lower angle terrain and weakening snow of the alder line. Then, in the solar collector of the bowl, we stripped off extra layers and turned on the island tunes for the way back up. 

Cresting the divide between Rainbow and Rabbit Lakes we looked for a clean route through the steep rocks to the valley floor and the return to the car. What we found was a lot of questionable cliffs and suspicious-looking snow. I'm sure there was a way down, but from the top we just weren't confident in finding it. 

Instead, we decided to go for an adventure, rolled the dice on finding a ride back to Anchorage on the Seward Highway, and opted for another southerly Rainbow lap, this time to the sea. The sweet corn dessert was lovely - we could slice our edges so damn deep into it, leaving behind incised railroad tracks in the wet snow.

Reaching the alders, we began the exploit of finding a trail and then the road to salvation. We sidestepped up little gullies, waded through isothermal snow, and crawled down alder-choked moose "trails". Finally, we luged down snaking strips of dirty melting snow before reaching the signs of civilization that we were looking for.

30 minutes of easy walking down the Rainbow Valley Road and we were next to the bustling highway chatting with Josh and Nikki who'd pulled over to say hi. They were on their way back from a hard day spent tossing spread eagles at Alyeska and it was nice to catch up with them. Soon Zack came to our rescue and returned us to our cars in Rabbit Creek. Thanks Zack, we owe you! Maybe some of my favorite blueberry-bear blubber brownies as a token of appreciation?

January 2023 Update:
Since ice skating on skis part of the way down and then back up the northeast couloir of North Yuyanq' Ch'ex last April, I've wanted to go back. The gorgeous south face of Homicide that we drooled over that day has also stayed floating near the surface of the gray matter. As we've worked our way into bigger and bigger lines around the southwest corner of CSP, our confidence in stability on that pretty sunny face on Homicide has grown.

With a rare sunny day forecast for last Saturday we were hungry to go. Skinning out of the Canyon Road parking lot and towards Rabbit Lake we found an inhospitable mix of windslab, sastrugi, and scoured ice. Perfect for growing blisters across the miles of the sidehilling approach.

Photo: Ben Americus

The Anchorage Front is a windy place, but it was still hard to imagine that anywhere could be soft given the conditions in the barren wasteland. In the silent amphitheater under the twin peaks we turned north and chased after the powerhouse that is Ben as he broke trail up the southwest chute.

Climbing towards rime crackling in an unusually warm sun, the wind-tunnel of a chute was scoured to the ground by the impatient gusts short-cutting the corner to Turnagain Arm.

Cresting the divide out of the Anchorage Bowl, the snow immediately improved. We crossed our fingers hoping that the soft snow was here to stay, and climbed the last hundred yards to the entrance to the couloir.

Perched in the the nest overlooking the line, we soaked in the sun of the windless day and looked past the rimey snowghosts towards the mirrored image of Alpenglow in the calm waters of the arm.

To the north we looked at our second objective for the day: the warty south face of Homicide. I worried a bit about thin spots and their associated stability concerns, but figured we'd be OK sticking to the gut of the chute.

The Chugach spread out below us as we knocked ice out of our tech fittings, tightened our floppy boots, and clicked into even floppier skis for the decent. Lobbing snowballs into the funneling entrance, we watched them plop into powdery craters of what seemed like soft snow.

Ben had broken trail all the way up the peak, so of course he was up for the first drop too.

Just as we'd hoped, the snow was right-side up powder over an edgeable base. Perfect.

Photo: Andy Milauskas

As the couloir doglegged right towards the intimidating choke, we regrouped above the horizon line.

Remembering the multiple exposed ice bulges we'd found nearby on Bidarka just a couple weeks before, we cautiously descended to the edge. Slithering past the main bulge of rock and ice, we found a smaller rock sneak through the choke. Connor was psyched to use his splitboard alpinism downclimbing techniques that he's been honing into an artform on other steep and manky rock chokes over the years.

Meanwhile, we weakling skiers strapped our skis on our packs and started the tedious task of downclimbing the frail Chugach choss. I ducked out of the way as Andy did some remodeling, tossing down a few loose pieces of Frangewacke.

I've heard harrowing stories of hair-raising front-pointing on bulletproof surfaces here, and was relieved to find forgiving conditions. Below the downclimb, the couloir's character changed from big overhanging walls to a tight hallway.



Popping out of the couloir, we laughed together under the heart of the peak's north face. Ben mentioned that this line seemed just as good as Shuksan's classic Northwest Couloir. We are so spoiled here, you so quickly lose touch with a sense of normalcy in this Never-never land.

Ready for more, we followed the paired tracks of two wolverines as we started the climb Homicide's south face.

The January sun was abnormally hot, and racing to beat the sun, we dodged rollerballs and pinballs as they released from the baking rocks above us. As the gully tightened into the rock walls of a chute we switched to booting. Behind us, the northeast couloir's catchers mitt entrance constricted into a sinuous snake as it twisted down the north face.

Motivated to not overcook in the sun, we quickly completed the sprint to the top of the south gully and decided what next. Knowing it wasn't the day for it, we fantasized about dropping into the abyss and the crevice of snow etched into Homicide's vertical north wall.

We briefly debated the last short climb to the summit, but the upper face was covered in thin spots warming in the sun. Just the place to trigger an avalanche in an otherwise stable zone. Knowing we'd be back someday to ski from the summit, we dropped into our up-track. Nyssa:

Photo: Ben Americus

I'd been hustling too much on the climb to think about much more than wringing the sweat out of my eyes, and was impressed with the quality of the line: consistent pitch and quality turns framed by golden rocks.

Finished with the second run, it was time to start the climb back towards the Rabbit Creek. Again, we raced after Ben as he charged up the booter:

The snow climbing was supportable and fast. With the sunshine turning gold in the evening light, we clawed over the last slippery rocks to the top.

The wolverines from earlier in the day had been here too - I suppose they've been most everywhere - we traced their tracks east down the ridgeline and out of sight. As we soaked in the beautiful angular light, the wispy clouds ignited over the peaks.

Photo: Andy Milauskas

Every day in these mountains is a gift, and it sure felt that way as we slid into the alpenglow off Powerline Peak. Ben:

Photo: Andy Milauskas

Photo: Ben Americus

By the time we'd descended to the valley floor, we were back to the all too familiar bulletproof snice of the Frange. With hearts full of alpenglow, we skated across the ice of the lake, then bounced down a few miles of sastrugi to the parking lot.

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