Monday, July 17, 2023

Benevolent & Baneful Ski - 4.21.2023

Benevolent has been on my mind since we first attempted it on an impossibly cold day earlier this winter. On that February day we'd hoped to snag the peak before the spring sun arrived and started baking the southerly couloir and its solar-collector walls. We sure didn't have any sun effect to worry about, but we were scared off by arctic winds blowing plumes of snow into the confined terrain trap.

Each day, as time continued its endless tick forwards and the sun rose higher into the sky, Nyssa and I waited for a corn cycle that could bring safe conditions to our objective. We'd need perfect timing. More than a few warm days and the snow would be turned into a landfill of wet slide debris and rock fall. Less melt-freeze cycles and we'd be dealing with cold snow instabilities in a thin and unknown snowpack.

In late April we decided it was time to try again. Ripping the Skandic across the frozen lake, we passed Iris and Kevin as they skated towards the Eklutna Traverse. At the East Fork trailhead we parked the powder pony and skinned along the river waking from winter.

Reaching the falls, we debated the best way to enter Red Dot Creek. In February we'd groveled up the alders on climbers right of the falls. Although totally safe, it had been a pain in the ass. This time we decided to ascend to the left. Nyssa quickly found flagging that led to an alder-tube that made for "relatively efficient" progress.

As we crawled upward, the tube turned into a steep chute with a bit of water ice. Stemming up this bullshit mix of moss, ice, gravel, and frangewhacke, I realized how vertical it was when I looked between my legs to see Nyssa straight below me.

Clawing onto the bench above the East Fork, we were relived to have the approach over with and be in the Red Dot Basin. Many alders that had been standing in February were now crushed by two more months of snow, and we easily skinned higher. Knowing we were working against the strong spring sun, we were happy to be able to move quickly again.

Soon, Peak 6530 and the apron of our destination were coming into view.

There was some debris in the apron, but we were glad to see that the entire line hadn't been bulldozed by wet slides.

Reaching the bottom of the apron, we stopped for a snack in the valley floor, took a deep breath, then began the long climb. I'm relatively acclimated to/tolerant of climbing these snowy mountain slot canyons, but this one still felt very intense.

Not only was the vertical wall above spitting loose rocks, but the hanging face of the peak would eventually warm to an unstable level. We stayed far out of the way from the rock fall while focusing on putting one foot in front of the other.

The line was huge and it was amazing how little our perspective changed as we pushed forward. I was intimidated by the scale of the mountains here and tried to remind myself that I thought this one was within our skill and experience set.

Rounding the dogleg, I was stoked to see the saddle at the top of the line and the summit ridge.

With discrete points of reference, our perceived speed seemed to increase and we were soon past the saddle and onto the summit ridge. Careful to not stray too far onto the hanging west face, we followed the ridge to the summit.

From the top there were spectacular and huge mountains in every direction. The gargantuan Baleful was just out of reach to the east:

Starting with Hunter Creek, I tried to memorize everything I could.

Beyond Peak 6530, the headwaters of the East Fork were spilling over with tantalizing skiing.

Dwarfed by the other giants, Baneful seemed to be just a bump below us. Hoping to head there next, I remembered how big its rock buttress had felt when we'd skinned under it.

The sun was not waiting for us, and we hurried to descend before our corn overcooked. I skied the hanging snowfield to the saddle where I met Nyssa who had rationally decided to walk the ridge.

Then we dropped into the impossibly huge coolie. As expected, the snow wasn't perfect, but it was skiable, and most important, stable.

Now with skis on our feet, and making good time, I was able to take in the scale of this crazy cleft in the earth. I also noticed the saturated browns and color of the lichen-splattered rock that I'd missed before.

Somewhere out of sight, way, way above Nyssa is the hanging snowfield and summit of Benevolent.

Burning quads brought us back to the valley floor where we turned around and craned our necks back to look all the way up the giant face we'd just climbed and skied.

Months later, I still can't get over this one. In terms of scale, relief, and quality I'd put it right up there with Pioneer Peak and Mount Rumble. Probably the Malignant Couloir and the Grand Teton too, but I haven't skied those yet.

The afternoon shadows were getting long, we were still both recovering from another round of COVID, and the truck was 20 miles away, but Baneful was calling. After some negotiating about trail breaking duties, Nyssa agreed to another summit, and we started the next climb. She is the best ever!

Every step upward brought a better view of our prize for the day.

The settled powder hiding in the mountain's shadows made for efficient skinning as its northerly catchers mitt tightened into a chute. By 7:00 PM we were onto the col below Baneful's summit.

We looked down at the East Fork winding through the incised gorge thousands of feet below us. Above us was the face that would take us to the summit. Bookended by cliffs and rock, the upper face was a serious test of our abilities to safely travel through big avalanche terrain.

Zigzagging up the convexity of the face, I couldn't believe the relief around us. Although not as tall as Benevolent, we were still just as far off the ground. By 8:00 PM we cautiously tiptoed and probed onto the summit.

Somehow the enormous 4,000 foot south face of Benevolent was dwarfed by the even more enormous peaks of Bashful and Baleful.

The mountains quaked from huge waterfalls of wet snow crashing down the solar walls of Bashful, Benevolent, and Baleful. Through the shaking air we looked east at Peak 6530 highlighted in gold.

Looking past 6530, we drooled over Bounty Peak which is still on our list. Nice work to Garth and Abe for getting that one!

We crammed a cinnamon bar into our mouths for dinner then hustled to start skiing down.

After challenging conditions on our first lap, it was so nice to ski powder and a less extreme pitch. Like we'd done on the climb, we were careful to ski down the apex of the upper face and away from the oblivion below us.

From the col, we dropped into the north amphitheater. The upper turns on this face were unsupported, and I was glad to ski past the cliffy choke and into less suspect terrain.

In the protected heart of the mountain we found generally soft snow coupled with the occasional surprise of predatory crusts so classic of backcountry skiing in the big mountains.

Coasting onto the valley floor, we were stoked: two huge and rarely skied mountains in the middle of nowhere in one day!

We took one last look at the Red Dot Glacier draped in memories from the past, then pointed it for the alders.

With the morning's unpleasant scramble all too fresh in our minds, we descended to the skier's left of the falls. The alders were pretty laid down and I don't think we even had to take off our skis once as we bushwhacked to the valley floor.

Dreaming of dinner, we followed the winding trail down the giant old gorge and towards the lake where  we were relieved to find that Ben, Miles, and Abe had not stolen our sled. Following the bouncing tube of the headlights through the dark woods, we rattled onto the lake and towards home.

Back at the parking lot it seemed kind of dark - looking at the clock it was 11:30 PM - I guess it had been a rather full day.

Note: This is one of my favorite ski days of all-time. Thanks to Varney and Thrasher for pioneering the ski line on Benevolent. I hope everyone who likes a good (or bad?) slog-to-ski ratio, feeling small in big mountains, and obscure objectives gets a chance to do this tour.

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