Wednesday, September 27, 2023

Winner Creek Tree Skiing - 2.15.2022

It was a stormy Tuesday in February and Dane, Charlie, and I had the day off work. Well, Dane might have been playing hooky, and I probably was too. At least Charlie had the day off.

We were all hungry for a big day (like always), and looking for options with contrast, we tossed around Alaskan "tree skiing" options - aka chutes and couloirs. The Eagle Lake Chutes had been on our radars for awhile and were tempting. At the same time, we thought of the windloaded catcher's mitt sitting on facets at the top of east chute. 

The chutes would have to wait for another day. Instead we headed for a tour in one of the few actual tree skiing options around - Winner Creek.

Big lazy flakes of snow fell from the sky as we followed the familiar track out of the parking lot. Storm skiing here is often confined to the cat skiing terrain, but we wanted the diversity and escapades that wouldn't come with yo-yoing laps up and down the small bowl. Passing the turn to Notch, we continued up Sunnyside. When we reached the alpine where sharp windblown snow bit our cheeks, we dropped north towards the A1 drainage.

Bouncing between well-spaced glades maddeningly followed by impenetrable thickets, we skied until we ran out of vertical at the gurgling A1 creek. 

One lap down, we climbed farther into the heart of Winner Creek and towards the Northstar trees.

On top of our next north-facing run, we squinted up through the storm in search of the outline of the drainage's namesake couloir blurred above us in swirling snow. Charlie dropped first into the mellow entrance, stopping to peer over the edge as the line steepened.

We chased after to find Charlie standing on top of what appeared to be a very large pillow. He yelled up to announce he could easily send it 40 or 50 feet. Haha. Maybe ten years ago before we became creaky weekend warriors on floppy skis and pin bindings who think house projects are a cool thing to talk about.

With the help of a few kick turns, we found drops sized more appropriately for a doctor, volcanologist, and engineer. Charlie threw a nice spread eagle as he came zipping off the edge - its going to be awhile before we outgrow those!

At the bench below the steep pitch, we stopped to jot mental notes for next time before enjoying a bonus thousand vertical feet of  hippy pow towards Winner Creek.

Standing on top of lumps and bumps made of alders crushed by months of maritime snowfall, we prepared for the long winding climb back to the top of Sunnyside. Climbing towards treeline, we looked below us at the valley filled with wispy clouds and trees frosted by fresh snowflakes.

It was magical climbing through this winter wonderland of old growth trees clothed in dripping beards of moss. From the top of Sunnyside, the Girdwood Valley stretched out beneath us painted by the moody hues of the winter storm.

The clouds closed back in as we dropped into the rolling terrain. With the weak February sun blocked by the overcast skies and all contrast stolen from the snow surface, our inner ears teetered, wobbled, and swayed our way down to the cat track.

By the time we reached the snow road, Dane was nowhere to be found. Apparently the black hole of his hijacked inner ears had pulled him lower down the path. Unfamiliar and even more uncomfortable with the concept of sitting still, Charlie and I twitched in place while we waited 30 minutes for Dane to reappear.

With Dane's reemergence we began the next link of our tour with the climb up Notch. I think that one of the things that makes for a great ski tour is the sense of a journey as you move around the mountains and the snowglobe swirls into new views. Our figure-eight path combined with the low visibility of the falling snow really brought me the sense of adventure of moving through multiple worlds and made this tour special to me.

From the top of Notch we looked south into Winner Creek and the next microcosm of the day.

I'd never skied the south side of Notch and was impressed. Filled with alder pillows and plenty of pitch, it was one of the longer laps of the day. Thanks for showing us this hidden gem, Charlie!

At Winner Creek we found open water. I love the ridiculous race to cross icy streams like these before the cold water finds its way past the creases of plastic boots. Already really stoked on this tour, this splashy sprint was the cherry on top for me.

As dusk closed in around us and the short midwinter day came to an end, we retreated along the last leg of our journey down the egress to the parking lot.

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