Monday, March 13, 2023

Goat Couloir Ski - 12.30.2022

Goat Couloir is one of so many Southcentral AK ski classics that has been on my radar forever, but seems to just keep getting pushed down the list by other objectives. It’s tricky given its solar aspect and the high winds that rip through the Crow Pass gap. Plus, there's the teetering schoolbus cornices that are always threatening to peel off and bounce down the line.

Goat as seen from TT43 in January 2019.

On a calm gray day in late December, Nyssa and I thought we had a window for good snow and acceptable stability to go goat hunting. Plus, the striking rock walls of the couloir would hopefully provide some much needed visual reference under the contrastless faint light of a dark midwinter day.

Skinning away from the Crow Creek winter parking, the alders stood tall and unencumbered by snow. We followed a tube through the thickets, then started the tedious skin up the creek. We tried not to slip off of the rickety ice bridges and plunge our skins into the open water as we high stepped up the boulders of the ravine.

Out of the ravine, the glacier gorge rose above us. Brady had told me how much ice is up here, and he was right. With seracs oozing off the cliffs above, it felt like the big mountains.

We passed stranded chunks of ice and old moraines before clambering onto the glacier. Scoured by down-valley winds, the toe was thin and we slowly probed our way past weakly bridged crevasses before the snow cover on the ice improved.

Climbing deeper into the gorge and entering the clouds, visibility morphed into the inside of a ping pong ball. Feeling slightly nauseated, we used the splintering choss cliffs for reference.

The pitch of the glacier ramped up as we approached the apron at the base of the couloir. Knowing that we would be crossing multiple bergshrunds in the flat light, and wanting to spread out our weight as much as possible, we kept skinning as long as we could.

When it was too steep to skin, we stopped and prepared to start booting. We knew we were above one of the bergshrunds, but couldn’t see where the other one was hiding in the underworld. As we stepped off our skis, the snow collapsed below us. Crap! Had we been wrong about stability? Under me, my toes seemed lighter than usual. Pulling back my legs, I looked into the abyss below.

Relieved the collapse was the bergschrund and not an impending avalanche, we spread our weight, carefully crawled over the thinly-buried crack, then started to boot.

Perfect snow conditions for booting versus perfect conditions for skiing can be such a catch-22. Bottomless skiing is damn fun, but it can make for nearly impossible climbing. Firm snow is efficient on the up, but soft snow really does make for better skiing. We got lucky with snow that was supportable enough for “efficient” booting, but was soft enough to ski great on the way down.

I did my best to not get dropped by Nyssa and before long were at the top.

Early winter of 2022-2023 wasn't a very windy one and we found a relatively small cornice that reflected that limited wind loading. Still, it was hard to trust what we could see while swimming in a pea soup of dark clouds with almost nothing for reference.

We knocked the snow out of our tech fittings, squinted into the void, and prepared to drop into the heart of the gorge.

The light may have been bad, but the consistent and buttery maritime powder made up for it.

As we usually do, and especially when visibility is IFR, we worked our way from safe spot to safe spot, pulling off to let our slough race past us towards the hungry bergshrund below.

All too soon the chute was over and we were back on the glacier.

Staying upright, let alone skiing, on the socked-in white uniformity of the glacier was a hell of a challenge for our spinning inner ears and scrambled eyes. Our skin track provided a small hint of the horizon. Plus, the uptrack had been cleared of crevasses, so we stuck close to it as we worked to drop below the clouds.

Goat is an interesting objective. As viewed from the Girdwood Valley or Seattle Ridge, the viewer's eyes are drawn towards the couloir itself. The time in the chute is a small part of the day; the incised chasm of the glacial gorge decorated with blue blobs of ice was the most magical to me.

The scramble up the rocks, ice, and water of the creek to reach the upper basin had been a hassle on the way in. Now that we'd broken all the snow bridges over the open water, we suspected bouncing down the creek would just be worse. Instead, we opted to sidehill over the terrain trap to the meadows above the road. This sidehill would be an absolute no-go in many avalanche conditions, but this day it was locked down by a bomber rain crust. Which, of course, still skied like crap.

Done with the death sidehill, we chased an alder chute towards the meadows above the car.

Out of the brushy underpass, we crashed through the crunchy remains of last summer's cow parsnip until we came flying out onto the road below.

There are so many other lines we would have loved to ski and link up with the Goat Couloir. But, with persistent weak layers lurking all over this thin zone, we were relying heavily on the stability characteristics of the couloir as opposed to the surrounding faces. Can't wait to go back for more!

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