Monday, May 15, 2023

Three Bell Spire Ski - 4.1.2023

Three Bell Spire first came into my consciousness many years ago on the Bomber Traverse as we skied down the Penny Royal Glacier and stared up at the beautiful blue jewels of ice crowning the spire. As is often the way with these obscure objectives, years slipped past waiting for conditions, stability, interest, schedules, and the cosmos to align.

This spring, Three Bell finally emerged out of the depths of the gray matter and into my consciousness. On a beautiful April day, Nyssa, Erin, Tom, Carolyn, Scott, and I loaded onto one widetrack snowmobile and lurched out of the Goldmint parking lot.

Somehow we managed not to dislocate any shoulders, get the sled stuck, or catch it on fire, and soon were parked at the motorized boundary at the bottom of the Reed Lakes trail. Six people on one sled is certainly a proud highlight of my ski career, though now my goal is at eight people.

In the warm sun of the spring morning we skinned away from the sled and towards Lynx Peak.

As we rounded the corner and stepped onto the top lake, Lynx Peak rose above us at the head of the valley. I remembered the last time Nyssa, Zack, Eric, and I were here on a particularly chilly January day. It was -10 °F and windy, covered in icy-cold frost, they looked like snow ghosts; I probably did too.

Lynx's west chute was filled with dense settled pow that made for efficient skinning. We briefly slowed to go one-by-one up thru the choke and over the steep roll at its top, then kept moving quickly upward. The center-left point on the skyline is Higher Spire. Years ago Alex and I skied its north face following it up with a stunning diagonal cave of a chute before touring back to the Snowbird Hut - I thought that was a great day.

As we approached the summit cone we began to encounter variable wind slabs and switched to booting to better manage the pockets of potential instability.

Once off the face, we booted the short ridge to the summit and looked across the buried Little Susitna River far below to the spiny peaks of the Mint Valley. Then we peered into Lynx's north face. The clear nights had worked their magic on the shaded terrain, and the incohesive square pow sloughed away as I skied down to a safe spot on a rib next to the face. Scott:

From there I had a front row seat to watch as everybody came flying by. Tom:


Regrouping on the flat bedrock bulge above the Bomber Glacier, we skied the last steep pitch onto the glacier. Nyssa:

We enjoyed the soulful hippy pow that often hides in these protected and cold little ice blobs, then skied together off the glacier and down the valley.

Reaching the Bomber Hut, we had returned to civilization as people started to pop up around us along the popular traverse. Turning north, we chased after Tom as he broke trail towards Three Bell Spire.

We passed the Penny Royal Glacier, then, as we contoured around the west buttress of Three Bell, the prehistoric hanging ice of the Brontosaurus Glacier came into view. I tried to memorize landmarks for the descent, which it turns out I did a very poor job of.

We skinned straight up the low-angle slope of the lower Brontosaurus until we were past the vertical rock and ice guarding the middle of the face, then started booting the adjacent steep chute framed by white granite. 

The access chute worked out great, and we were soon standing on the flat bulge on top of the upper glacier. Unsure if it was worth it to switch back to skinning, we comically waded through the deep snow until we were all thoroughly drenched in sweat, then laughed as we finally stubbornly admitted our mistake and resumed skinning.

We skinned for a few hundred yards before it was again time to boot. Even for this brief jog, skinning was totally worth it - backcountry skiing can be so fiddly. Behind Nyssa is the Wintergreen Glacier and the flanks of Montana Peak.

The steep climb brought us to a small platform just below the summit and a decision on how to proceed next. Above us was a cornice wrapping onto the exposed north face. We could probably sneak onto the summit by traversing under the cornice, but that would leave us hanging it out there above outer space. Instead, we climbed straight up to the cornice, sawed our way through it, then smearing our Vibram boots off the adjacent vertical rock, clawed up onto the summit ridge.    

The snow of the summit ridge was cooked firm by the sun and felt secure although we were still careful to steer clear of the cornice we'd just tunneled through. Trying not to dislodge the impossibly perilous mushroom of snow teetering on there, we arrived at the top.

From the summit of Three Bell Spire, the entirety of the Bomber traverse spilled away below us. To the north, we looked at the peaks at the head of the Mint Valley capped by the skeletal ridge leading to the summit of Montana Peak. Although sometimes there is continuous snow directly off the summit, we did not like the hazard of the thin continental slab-over-facets hanging from the steep unsupported face, and opted to downclimb a bit before skiing the north face. That was a great a tour - some good snow, lots of bad snow, and plenty of adventure.

Swiveling south, we inspected the ants skiing and sledding on the Penny Royal Glacier under us. Above and right of the Penny Royal, we could see the profile of the north face of Lynx where we had been just hours before. The east face of Lynx looked cool, and I put it on the list to ski sometime in the next decade or so.

Hindsight and a change in perspective often bring our vision closer to 20/20, and this was the case looking down from the summit as we prepared to descend. From up here we could now see that we could wrap around the backside of the cornice that we'd crawled up for a much more straightforward (and skier friendly) route back to the north face.

With a great sense of elevation above the hanging glacier and the valley floor, the turns down the face were steep, soft, and aesthetic.

Following the trench from our ascent, we retraced our tracks to the access chute. Tom:

The snow just got better. Carolyn

Playing caboose to the lower glacier, I lost my landmarks and frame of reference and ended up on top of a too big cliff above a too flat landing. With Nyssa's direction, I was able to climb up and around without splatting into the parking lot of the glacier. Ascending avoidable unsupported slopes is never fun, and I was reminded of how challenging it is to get every detail of a ski tour right.

We watched Third Edge Heli cover our fresh tracks in heavy slough, then cruised down-valley towards our climb to Bomber Pass. Our tracks from the morning were lit up by the evening light, and we admired the beautiful north face of Lynx ass we curved up the glacier to the pass.

At Bomber Pass we soaked in the glorious gold light and looked across Upper Reed Lake at a pretty face that has been on my list for years, and I just haven't gotten around to. Who knows, maybe we'll ski it next year, or in twenty years?

The solar snow above Reed Lakes had been roasting in the oven of spring all day long and was funky and challenging, especially on our silly little touring skis. Nyssa still made it look good:

Of course we all love good snow, but the reality of backcountry skiing here is that part of every season, day, and run usually involves some form of nasty crust, primordial mank, or sticky goo. For me its the time spent in wild places with these special people that make it so magical.

As Scott regaled us with Hatcher Pass crust skiing war stories (talk about death defying), we ping-ponged down the Reed Lakes trail to the widetrack and then bounced back the rutted sled trail to Gold Mint.

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