Thursday, August 10, 2023

Koktoya Peak Ski - 4.23.2023

Last spring we stood on the summit of Temptation and looked south into the Anchorage Front Range. There were many familiar lines tucked into the nooks and crannies of our mountains, plus one I hadn't noticed before: a steep rock hallway chiseled into the north face of Koktoya.

The image of that obscure couloir has been glued to my gray matter ever since. On a Sunday in late April, Tony, Carolyn, the Pattersons, and I skinned out of the Dome parking lot to give it a go. As we wound uphill through the well-grazed willows of the north fork of Campbell Creek, there were bear tracks everywhere.

While Tony and I pontificated about the mysterious ways of the Weather Service, Carolyn was paying attention to her surroundings. She watched as a brown bear easily ran past us as we climbed into the U-shaped valley. I love that we can have such wild experiences in our backyard.

Reaching the far end of Long Lake, we paused to slop on sunscreen, snack, and ponder how we had now gone seven miles without doing any skiing. Then, we started winding up the bulbous rolls at the base of Koktoya.

The sunny south face was corning into edgeable and tacky snow which made for efficient skinning. It seemed too easy and I almost wished that my skins were glopping, slipping, or maybe even doing both. Almost.

At the summit cone we switched to booting for the last couple hundred feet of steeper terrain. I can't remember for sure, but at this point I bet that Tony and I were still complaining about the NWS.

At the summit of Koktoya, Caitlin reminded us that she had a plane to catch that evening while I erroneously assured her that we had plenty of time to ski several more peaks. Sound familiar to anyone?

To the south, we daydreamed over the peaks around Indian Pass where this winter we had a lot of fun exploring obscure terrain in bad weather and horrible visibility. Nyssa says it doesn't count if you can't see where you're going - I guess we'll be going back for seconds on many of those.

Eventually we dragged ourselves back to whatever state of quasi-reality we inhabit and turned to the business at hand. The north face of Koktoya is guarded by large overhung cornices and cliffs, so finding the entrance to our line was going to be a challenge. Tony skied ahead down the ridge so that we could spot each other.

Yelling incoherently back and forth at each other, I was pretty sure we were near the entrance to the line. Standing 10 feet from the edge, and freshly squeezed from our big day on Benevolent, I became very aware that I was low on gnarly juice.

Slowly probing forward, we peered over the event horizon. It looked good.

Since it was my bad idea, I got the honors of guinea pig. Making hesitant turns down a fin of snow that appeared to be dangling into empty space, I could feel my grundle tickling as I looked for a relatively safe spot. Where the line began to funnel into the mine shaft below, I figured I might not get swept off the 1,000 foot cliff, and pulled off to wait.

Once the group skied down to join, I felt the relief of being off the hanging face, and we focused our attention on the crevice boring down into the heart of the face. Tony:

The chute below us was steep and tight perfection.



Although I'd seen most of the descent from Temptation and had since poured over aerial imagery, the bottom of the line remained a mystery to us. The adventure of the unknown terrain is always part of the adventure, but when we skied around the lower dogleg, I was happy to see continuous snow through the choke.

At the choke, a rock prow split our descent into two options. Tony and I went right while the Carolyn and Caitlin left. We hopped over a rock step that is at least a ten foot cliff in the summer, then skied pow to the bottom of the basin.

From the flats we looked up at the wild line, and the ladies hunting rock sharks in the apron.

Transitioning for the climb out of the Ship Creek drainage, I drooled over the high peaks of SoFo. There are so many gems back there. I was particularly focused on Mount Ewe which we would link up with Concerto and Triangle the following weekend. Calliope with Scott was a memorable day too.

As we started skinning towards Tanaina, our perspective lined up with the full glory of Koktoya's north couloir.

Just left of center, the northwest line of Ewe is peeking out, while the huge Concerto couloir is hidden out of sight deep in the heart of the north face.

I felt like we were moving fast, but there was a lot of elevation to gain and it took us awhile to climb from the hole of our descent up to the top of Tanaina.

Using our best shuffling, sidestepping, and dry-skiing techniques, we followed the ridge to the entrance to our next couloir.

At the entrance to the line we found the tracks of an odd pair: a snowboarder and a brown bear.

In a couple hours we'd catch up with the snowboarder who turned out to be our friend Shasta. He told us about chasing the grizzly up the south slopes of Tanaina. With his field of view blocked by the rocky benches of the climb, he couldn't tell how close he'd been to the bear.

Like the last couloir, Tanaina's was protected from the heat of the spring sun by the peak's big rock walls and held cold wintery snow. Carolyn:


Caitlin's flight time was rapidly approaching and we were at the bottom of the wrong valley - time to boogie towards the car. Fortunately Caitlin can move fast - she's a national SkiMo champion and Olympian after all. Jogging uphill towards Tikishla Pass, we were thankful to Shasta for putting in some skintrack for us.

At the pass, I bid adieu to Caitlin who raced towards the airport while I waited for Carolyn and Tony.

Basking in the glow of evening light, I watched Shasta carve beautiful turns down the west face of Tikishla. Next to Shasta's tracks are the those of his partner for the day: the peak bagging bruin. 

We sat enjoying each other's company as the angular light filtered through the Tordillo Mountains, bounced off the waters of the Cook Inlet, then poured into our corneas. I greedily wanted more - to keep skiing all night with these special people.

Photo: Carolyn Stwertka

For better or for worse, I was overruled by grumbling stomachs and the promise of future great days together. Together, we skied towards the car and our great ski city by the sea.

In the willows of the Long Lake trail we finally caught up with Shasta who had paused for dinner or maybe just to give us a chance to finally catch up. I never get to see enough of him, and it was a treat to share the laughter of the mario-cart mayhem of the egress.

All too soon, we were back at the car for the short commute home. Still, the mountains had one last treat for us: on the side of the road were a pair of carefree teenagers wrestling in the snow.


  1. That's a sweet link-up on a remarkable day.

    1. Hey Brian, good to hear from ya. Never ceases to amaze me how many great link-ups and remarkable days we are treated to around here!