Wednesday, March 1, 2023

Peak 6530 Ski - 2.25.2023

Peak 6530 first came into my awareness years ago while looking south from Bashful Peak with my good friend Charlie on a perfect midsummer day in the Chugach. I thought that its northwest face draped with a bulbous glacier looked like an aesthetic ski line, but thought it was guarded well enough by a long approach and alder jungle that it would remain a pipedream for me.

Peak 6530's northwest face as seen on Google Earth:

...and cool imagery showing the extent of that hanging shroud of ice near the end of the summer melt season. I assume there's less ice now than there was in 1996.

In February 2023, the zone came back to into my mind for winter objectives upon a recommendation of Benevolent Peak from Aaron while chatting at the ARG. With a weekend forecast for clear skies, but also the possibility of wind, we decided to check out Eklutna’s East Fork. By 9 AM on Saturday were unloading sleds a the Eklutna Lake parking lot as large snowflakes lazily fell around us. With the insulating clouds still holding in some "heat", it was relatively warm as Nyssa, Mike, Austin, and I sledded across the lake to the East Fork trailhead. We knew it wouldn’t stay warm for long.

At the bridge over the East Fork, we parked the sleds, shed layers, and skinned into the unbroken snow of the incised valley. I was impressed with the trail winding past the peaceful river and tucked under the giant walls of the Mitre as we followed the tracks of moose and wolverine up-valley through the mixed forest of birch, spruce, and cottonwood.

At the creek that drains the Bashful-Benevolent-Peak 6530-Baneful amphitheater we turned east and began the climb into the hanging valley. Leaving the East Fork behind, we passed an awesome 100-foot-tall frozen waterfall where a fire hydrant of icy water sprayed vertically upward as it rebounded off rocks at the bottom.

Clinging to the steep and thick alders, we quickly realized that skinning was hopeless and switched to booting through feet of faceted sugar snow while fighting the brush that clung to our skis. Given the temperature and wind forecast, wild card that snowmobiles always are, and general uncertainty about conditions in the zone, I had low expectations for the day. I expected that the alders would be the final straw for us. But Austin was particularly motivated, and we could only chase after him as he crashed upwards through the nasty shrubbery. A couple hours later I was shocked to emerge from the wall of vegetation into the hanging valley.

This amphitheater was an absolutely incredible place with the south wall of Bashful rising 4,500 vertical feet above us. The peaks were all bejeweled in fresh snow and looked really magical in the midwinter light.

The northwest winds were clearly cranking above us with plumes of snow hundreds of feet long streaming off the tops of Bashful, Benevolent, and Baleful. Seeing this rapid loading of southerly aspects, we knew that climbing the southwest couloir of Benevolent not an avalanche-safe option for the day.

Again, my low expectations were not surprised but the day was still young, we were in a beautiful spot, and the B.S. of the approach was over. We figured we might as well keep ascending towards the northwest face of Peak 6530 which was not being loaded by the prevailing wind direction. The strong north wind that was scouring the snow from the peaks was also bringing in frigid arctic air, and we shivered in our puffy jackets as we made our way up valley.

In a sort of trance from breathing the fresh cold air in the huge mountain amphitheater, the gradual ascent to the face seemed to fly past and we were soon transitioning onto the glaciated northwest face of Peak 6530.

We worked climbers left up the lower face to avoid an open moulin and exposed ice, then crossed a lower angle bench of snow covered ice to reach the nose that would lead us to the summit.

At the nose, the slope suddenly pitched up to 45 or 50 degrees and we switched from skinning to booting. Plunging our feet and hands into the deep midwinter snow, we all immediately realized how cold it was. Progress slowed as we took turns warming our hands and feet before continuing. Additionally, each step higher meant a step further into the upper levels winds.

At the top of the steep nose our cold hands fumbled to transition back to skinning for the last few hundred vertical feet to the summit. Based on local weather stations, lapse rates, and forecast temperatures, I think it was about -10 or -15 °F and blowing 25 mph at this point. That's a wind chill of -40 F. We rushed to finish the climb to the summit from where we stared into the otherworldly headwaters of the East Fork:

To the northeast, South Baleful towered over us:

Past Baleful we drooled over the headwaters of Hunter Creek:

Given the combination of the time (5 PM) and the bitter weather, we did not linger at the summit, but quickly transitioned for the ski back the way we came.

Skiing the summit cone was a mix of sastrugi, breakable crust, and watering eyes as we rushed to descend below the highest winds. By the time we reached the nose, the snow had transitioned back to ultra-cold and light powder. We skied the pitch of the nose one-by-one, rendezvousing at a flatter safe spot on the buttress-like nunatak that splits the upper face. Mike:


From the nunatak we descended to the skiers right, working to avoid the steep exposed ice and moulin we’d seen on the way up. I skied a steep section of glacier adjacent to the moulin, crossing a snow bridge, then scraping across glacier ice before rejoining the rest of the group who had taken a better low-angle route farther to the right.

At this point we knew we were in a race against the setting sun, and party skied towards the alders and the descent to the East Fork.

Wading through the alders with skis still on our feet, we got passed by Mike who had given up on skiing through the tangled nest of branches and was going faster on foot. This was a signal for the rest of us to switch to walking as well!

We were out of the alders and back on the riverside trail as the last pink, purple, and gold light of the day kissed the summits of the peaks above us. We ate a dinner snack in the fading daylight, then under the peace of a new moon, we kicked and glided down the trail to the bridge and our waiting snowmobiles. Sledding back across the lake, it was cold enough that Mike and Austin had to stop every few miles, warm up, and trade who was in front. Eleven hours after leaving, we were back at the parking lot, surprised that we had even made it above the alders, let alone topped out a beautiful point in the Western Chugach.

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