Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Valdez Bluebird Skiing - 4.8.2012

With gray skies and blowing snow for the previous 3 days, waking up Sunday to see bluebird skies was absolutely breathtaking. Spending the previous day in the clouds, I had no idea what the terrain around us looked like: in every direction were huge, beautiful mountains. Around us, you could feel the energy in the parking lot: the buzz of snowmobiles, the hum of helicopters, and the lingering smell of two stroke exhaust.

Our friend Carp graciously gave us a quick sled-tow a mile down the road to the base of the Worthington Glacier where we started skinning:

After 1500 vertical feet we diverged from the glacier and headed towards the valley wall to the south. Looking back at tracks down the glacier:

As we reached the north facing valley wall we stopped to dig a snowpit on the aspect that we planned to spend the day skiing. After that, a set of switchbacks brought us to a saddle on the ridge and even better views, looking back at the parking lot:

Then we followed the ridgeline west:

There's so much incredible terrain around Thompson Pass. Unfortunately, with the sun high in the sky and the warm spring weather, only north facing terrain is still holding good snow. But I can dream, right?

More dreamy lines:

Before long we were at the end of our ridge:

Across the way a group was heading straight up a very scary looking face, something I would never dream of doing in Colorado:

Looking around, we realized that we had not ended up where we intended to, but were instead on a false summit. We were blocked from continuing along the ridge by a large cliff. After a short discussion we decided to drop into the relatively short northwest-facing bowl below us and decide where to go from there. Nick dropped first and immediately disappeared from view:

As I stood on a snow-covered rock outcropping waiting for him to reappear, I heard a loud whompf. Although I didn't think I was standing on a cornice, my immediate concern was that I actually was, and that it had just collapsed. Then I saw Nick come shooting out into the bowl below in the middle of an avalanche. Somehow he managed to ski over flowing four foot tall waves and dishwasher sized chunks of snow, escaping out the front of it:

We did not anticipate this slide happening, I am not glad it did, nor am I proud of our decision making leading up to it. Although this slide was not large enough to bury Nick, it could definitely have hurt him, which would have had extremely severe consequences. All feedback about this is much appreciated. I considered not posting about this avalanche because I in no way want to promote the concept that avalanches are not deadly. But, I feel like it is a valuable learning opportunity. Some mistakes we made and things I learned:

  • Aspect: We dug our pit on a north facing slope and found very stable snow. This relatively small change in aspect was very significant.
  • Wind loading: The slide occurred on a slope that had very clear signs of windloading at the top.
  • Weak points: The slide started on a rock buried immediately under the surface of the snow. We should have avoided skiing near small surface rocks that were probably indicators of other hidden rocks.
  • Rushing/Summit fever: All I wanted to do on this beautiful bluebird day was ski, we could have taken our time to retrace our steps and skied an aspect we knew was stable.
  • Heuristic traps: Just because we saw another group nearby center-punching a huge face together was no indication that we should let our own guard down. 
  • Skiing through avalanche debris: The flowing snow Nick was skiing through was not smooth or soft. It was waves of large blocks of snow that were throwing Nick every way as he fought to stay on his feet.
  • I'm sure I missed some points and would love feedback about our decision. 
After this Nick and I were freaked out and agreed to head for mellower, shorter, north facing terrain for the rest of the day. Nick skis back down towards the Worthington Glacier:

Nick lower down:

After reaching the glacier, we headed back to our skin track from earlier in the day, where we had dug our snow pit, had observed stable snow, and knew there were some short mini golf lines.

Nick heads back up:

We started by dropping a short pitch back to our skin track:

Nick brought up the rear:

Finding great snow and stability that matched our stable snow pit results we headed back up for a second lap. I dropped first:

Hmmm...that was fun!

followed by Nick:

After 5000 vertical feet of skinning we were ready to call it a day. With one last look back up the glacier at the beautiful light and long shadows we headed downglacier back toward the parking lot. More to come!

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