Friday, March 10, 2023

Nest Peak Ski - 2.19.2023

This past December, we began to notice unusual stability and snow quality in the south end of the Anchorage Front Range. Since then, we've been focused on taking advantage of these rare midwinter conditions. As this Eye of Sauron has focused, we've ventured deeper into the mountains of Bird, Ship, and Indian.

On a rare sunny Saturday in February we skinned out of the Penguin parking lot hoping to check out the north couloir and west face of Nest Peak. 

Intense snowfall the day before had coated the birch trees in flakes the size of silver dollars, leaving behind a magical tube of winter as we followed the trail up Penguin Creek. The first few miles of the well-worn ATV trail were fast until the path ended and we waded into the downed windowmakers, devils club, and alders of the forest.

Reaching the top of the old growth, we began to traverse towards the hanging valley under the west face of Bird Peak that we hoped would take us to the final pitch up Nest. This contouring route behind Penguin Ridge was about what you would expect: inefficient, bushy, and tedious.

Slithering under alders, falling into trapdoors of facets, and tiptoeing across slabs sitting on facets, we emerged into the hanging valley. There we were surprised to see a group of moose who were equally surprised to see us. Honestly, they had a far better reason to be confused than we did.

Passing the swamp donkeys, we climbed into the featureless cloud layer. This pea soup was a small problem as we'd have to roll the dice on the right route thru the gullies of Nest's east face.

After a thousand steps up slippery tundra, loose choss, and treacherous ice crust, we eventually emerged out of the netherworld of fog and into spring. It seemed like we maybe had even selected a continuous route to the ridge.

Above the inversion, the sun was baking the southerly face, and we raced to get off of the warming snow and to the ridge.

I think we were all relieved when we crawled off of the steep, unstable, and greasy Frangewhacke and onto the moderate summit ridge. Below us we watched the sea of clouds sloshing in the tide of mist.

Just out of reach was the wild west face of Bird. Since first seeing it from Penguin Peak years ago, I've lusted over this as a ski line. I think this front row seat has finally cured me of that bad idea.

Around 3 PM we were finally closing on the summit of the peak, and wondering if that north couloir would actually go. Looking over the edge into the abyss, my first thought was: "ohhhh my".

Not only was there a very large cornice, there was a lot of rock, and not much continuous snow. With far fewer cliffs, much more snow, and limited cornicing, the west face looked much more like a ski line.

Dropping into settled pow on this large and obscure face deep in the Wasteland, we couldn't believe the quality of conditions that we'd found. Tom:

The line reminded me of a longer version of Alpenglow's west face: a thin, peppery wall fingered with deep gullies of snow draining to a basin carved by a glacier from colder times past.

We reached the shady flats at the bottom of the line and turned to drool over our tracks. Looking at the dwarfed profile of the group silhouetted by the sunny face above, I couldn't help but think that this was everything I ever wanted when I was dreaming about moving to Alaska a decade ago.

The sloughy turns down the faceted snow were so good, there was no doubt that we had to head back up for another run. Although we felt good about stability here, the Wasteland is chronically questionable. We were careful to spread out and work the low angle terrain as we chased after Tom's trailbreaking.

Tom had us back up to the summit ridge in no time, and we looked down from our island in the sky as the ocean of clouds ebbed away below us. It was after 5 PM by the time we were ready to drop into our second lap.

We scratched over the scoured rime and rocks of the entrance before sliding into the golden evening light. Nyssa:


All too soon we were done milking turns of alpenglow and slipping into the foggy moraine at the bottom.

Photo: Tom Flynn

Tom wondered if we had time for another lap.

A third go on Nest Peak sounded great to all of us, but the sun was imminently setting. Knowing we were still seven miles from the trailhead, we broke trail out of the basin and towards Bird Creek.

Dusk was becoming night as we reached the shoulder that we hoped might avoid the worst of the alder nightmare below. Having forgotten my headlamp - which was attached to my helmet which I also forgot - I was feeling particularly motivated to mosey down ASAP.

As we skied into the murk it seemed promising that there might be skiable turns in the shrubberies.

Not being able to see in the dark it was hard to say for sure, but the long tumble down thru the alders felt pretty darn thick. Dangling by a shrub off of a cliff, I couldn't help but think of this great college roommate I had in Colorado. He spent his weekends contentedly watching football while I spent mine frothing at the mouth to get onto I-70 and into the traffic jam to the mountains. I've always been envious of his ability to just enjoy being while I must rappel the proverbial alder of meaning.

The satisfaction of the jungle ended after only an hour of happily downclimbing on skis while getting poked in the face by all manner of vegetation. Ready for dinner at the Brown Bear, we double-poled the miles of trail back to the truck. But, not before stopping to investigate the local insect population.

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