Tuesday, November 22, 2022

Northstar Couloir Ski - 2.13.2022

Its been awhile since I've looked at the pictures from this day and doing so puts a smile on my face. 

Dana leading morning parking lot calisthenics.

Northstar has been on my list for what seems like forever. There's a variety of reasons and non-reasons its remained there for so long, but I think the jist of the delay getting there is the chute's south aspect and relatively long approach coupled with my possibly unreasonable preoccupation for tagging objectives in soft snow. The south aspect means seasonal timing for while its only kissed by the weak angular light of midwinter; but the relatively long approach to the heart of Winner Creek means this south-facing gem often gets deprioritized on these short days when daylight comes at a premium.

The weekend started on Saturday with a stormy day of wallowing in Hanging Valley. The austere grayscale of the snow falling into the rock walls of the couloirs filled our souls with the sense of adventure. We decided to stick with the couloirs-for-contrast program the following day in the Girdwood Valley. 

Large, lazy flakes drifted out of the sky as we left the parking lot at the end of Arlberg Avenue and skinned out the catrack into the temperate rain forest.

Passing the Notch Mountain trees that we have skied on uncountable storm days over the years, we were soon skinning under the dark trees on the north side of Sunnyside. In this forest bent by strong storms raging out of the Prince William Sound, we looked up at the steep trees that are rare for skiing in Southcentral Alaska.

Next, we were into the A1 drainage and continuing the climb towards Northstar. In our Southcentral AK zone that is so dominated by huge alpine faces, objective storm days are few and far between. As clumps of stellar dendrites descended in lopsided spirals onto our faces from the alpine above, I could feel the prickle of enhanced senses that come with these wild experiences.

Continuing our contour upward brought us to the top of the trees that would drop us into Northstar's Valley.

We ripped our skins and dropped into a pitch of steep trees that are a treat for us northerners. 

Piled in stacks in the middle of these trees we found huge pillows that were big for our soft little boots and legs tuned for the uphill. I wished our friend Nathan Ord was there - he would have ratcheted his four-buckle boots a little tighter, taken a few steps uphill, and easily sent these drops forty feet.

The sneaker pillow tree lap was a great bonus. As we reapplied our skins for the final approach to Northstar I filed this zone into the mental rolodex as a piece of a Winner Creek tree tour for a future low-vis day. 

Blue appeared above us as the skies cleared and we chased after Nyssa as she tirelessly broke trail up the basin and its derelict moraines from a colder time in our world's life story.

By the time we were at the base of the couloir and switching to booting, the clouds had closed in around us. We were back into the pea soup. 

Alternating leads, we paddled upwards through the deep maritime snow as the ocean of clouds floated in and out around us. 

Photo: Dana Drummond

Reaching the col at the top of the couloir, we shivered in the icy midwinter light and looked at the summit of Northstar above us.

Photo: Dana Drummond

The climb from the couloir entrance to the point looked to be highlighted by thin spots in the snow growing from the relative warmth of exposed rocks. All would have loved to have climbed that last 100 vertical feet, but knew it wasn't the day to mess with these faceted trigger points. Plus, its always nice to have something to go back for. 

So, we dropped back into the steep rock walls of the couloir. Dmitry:


Like we usually do in these situations, we leapfrogged down the couloir, pulling off in each safe zone as the rest of the group bounced past. 

Photo: Dana Drummond

Northstar is a line that is so visible from Girdwood - everyone has spent so much time staring at it over the years. I wondered if it would have grown in my mind in that time, but I was impressed - it was a quality steep run.

Past the couloir, we kept skiing, popping off pillows in the alders until we descended to just above Glacier Creek. Nyssa:

I thought it was pretty cool to get to ski a run this far from the parking lot that started with the rocky cleft of the couloir, transitioned to rolly-polly old moraines, then finished with a party ski down low angle trees. 

Near the quiet murmur of the creek, with crystalline silver dollars falling out of the sky, we transitioned to begin our yo-yo back towards the car. 

I'd like to optimize this approach and egress from Northstar so it has a little more vertical skiing and a little less traversing, but there's only so much time to work with on these short winter days. 

As we climbed towards Sunnyside we ran out of safe low angle slope to work with, and decided to ski an angled lap in the general direction of the car. With more light, more time, and better stability this lap could be skied all the way from the top of Sunnyside. 

We skied until the alders rose into an impenetrable wall above us then started the contouring climb towards Notch.

Climbing out of the alders, we transitioned into beautiful old growth forest filled the streaking fingers of afternoon light. 

Photo: Dana Drummond

For whatever reason, this light was really special to me, highlighting the beauty of these drippy forests that are so magical.

Photo: Dana Drummond

Soon we were up to the old road cut that would take us to Notch, and then onto the luge track to the parking lot.

Back at the parking lot we reflected on what a special place the Girdwood Valley is. With our only ski resort and plenty of moderate tree terrain its easy to forget the huge peaks and big lines waiting deep at the head of the valleys. In these ways it kind of reminds me of Eagle River, but with way more snow!

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