Sunday, March 29, 2020

Carpathian Peak Skiing - 3.29.2014

Updated 3.29.2020 to include another great day.

Carpathian, the name is filled with intensity and intrigue, but where does it come from? Does it come from the Carpathian Mountains of Romania, perhaps the mythical super humans that inhabit them, or maybe an Indo-European root word for rock? No one seems to know. Regardless, the mysterious power of the name embodies the mountain. Storms pouring into Turnagain Arm from the Prince William Sound pound the mountain with precipitation – rain, snow, ice. The extreme weather and the seracs, avalanches, and glacier hazards that come with it mean that it often takes two, three, even four attempts to get up and down Carpathian.

Back in late March, Malcolm and I decided to check it out. Due to my usual early morning grogginess, the day started out as a bit of a circus. I forgot the appropriate allen key to adjust my crampons for my new boots, and my camera was definitely missing its SD card. But, after a refueling stop for power rings (donuts), we were on our way across Portage Lake. Due to its proximity to the coast, the lake is often a nightmare – a wind tunnel of ice fog and ground blizzards. We got lucky, finding calm wind and fast, firm snow.

Three miles later, our faces covered in a fresh layer of rime, we were across the lake and at the base of the Portage Glacier:

Following the advice of a friend, we continued past the toe of the glacier, then climbed one of the lateral moraines which brought us past the terminal ice fall. As we moved up the Portage more glaciers came spilling down towards us.

After a few more miles we roped up, threading our way through the crevasses and holes. Malcolm running up through a gap in one of the ice falls:

After negotiating another ice fall the summit pyramid came into view. The exit couloir from the hanging snow field is not visible in this picture. It exits through the rocks just lookers right of the large hanging serac.

Feeling the pull of the mountain, Malcolm surged ahead; he is so fast, something I was quickly reminded of by the rope/tow strap between us.

We passed under the huge north face of Carpathian following a narrow pass towards the northeast ridge. At the pass, the ice field and Blackstone Glacier unfolded beneath us.

From there, we followed the northeast ridge towards the summit. Covered in firm rime and snow, the exposed ridge was fast and fun.

100 vertical feet below the summit we moved back onto the north face, belaying each other across one last sagging crevasse before the final climb. Of course, the last 65 degree push to the summit was shiny and hard alpine ice complete with a frustratingly rotten layer below it. Hoping we’d find soft snow somewhere, we brought our skis to the top.

Popping out on the summit, it was much smaller than I expected. Its just a few feet wide and 50 feet long, falling thousands of feet to the ice field on one side and Skookum Glacier on the other. Knowing we still had miles ahead of us we briefly took in the incredible views of Marcus Baker, the Prince William Sound, and Isthmus peak, to name a few.

Skiing rock hard 65 degree ice above open crevasses, seracs, and thousand foot cliffs was out of the question. So, we began the tedious process of climbing down the final 100 feet. This process was mentally exhausting for me. At least I had an ice axe, Malcolm had forgone his ice axe for a whippet. But, Malcolm is Malcolm, and was unphased. After the downclimb we put on our skis and approached the first bergschrund crossing. I jumped it first, with Malcolm bringing up the rear.

The next 1,000 vertical feet was intense: equal parts chalk and gnarly ice. Navigating the ice through open and bridged crevasses was…rough.

Stoke or relief? Both?

We rolled into the next steep section with the constant concern of more ice as we skied towards the huge cliffs below.

As we approached the exit couloir, it got firm again. Really firm. I watched Malcolm slide sideways on his edges past the entrance. Finally he was able to get his edges into the ice, stop, and begin the painstaking process of sidestepping uphill on the bulletproof ice. Getting into the protected couloir was a huge relief. Fly on the wall:

Into the good snow, time to relax a bit:

Approaching the lower bergshcrund:

The exit couloir already hidden from view, we enjoyed soft relaxing turns below the summit block.

Then retraced our steps back down the Portage.

Back at the lake we refueled on wine and smoked gouda, offered to us by a wonderful transplant from Georgia. All we had left was the three mile skate out across the lake. Looking back at Bard, still on the hit list.

10 hours and 25 miles later we were back at the truck, sharing our adventures with a stoked group who had just done a couple laps on Bard.

Combining all the elements of big mountain skiing in Alaska, the day was physically and mentally exhausting. I can’t wait to string together Bard, Carpathian, and Byron next year. And, yes Malcolm, I have scars from the blisters I got on our race back across the lake.

Six years to the day after the first time I skied Carpathian with Malcolm, Nyssa and I went back. This time we skied Isthmus the day before, then camped at its roots on the Spencer Glacier. Waking up on the clear March Sunday morning, it was 5 degrees as we had chocolate, cookies, and figs bars for breakfast in our sleeping bags.

Eventually Nyssa dragged me out of my cocoon for our seven mile shuffle to Carpathian up the north fork of the Spencer. I love how big the country is back here.

Approaching Carpathian's east ridge we could see a group in front of us moving toward the summit. Alaska is a small town and we had a strong hunch that we might know these mountain monkeys, and guessed who they might be.

I had forgotten how scenic the east ridge is; the other huge bonus is that it doesn't have the same level of tedious and dangerous cornice hazard as so many other wind-hammered ridges. Behind Nyssa is Blackstone Bay, Port Wells, and the rest of the Prince William Sound.

Upon reaching the rime-plastered summit cone we transitioned from the east ridge onto the north face. The last 200 feet was fun and fast with grippy snow and a particularly fun series of moves thru a chimney of rime.

Popping out on the top we found Charlie, Chris, and Jimmy! Charlie is a good friend of my cousin Anna's from Colorado and its been treat exploring Alaska with him over the years with our skis, feet, and paddles.

With only a light breeze on the summit, we soaked in the spring sun, chatted with the boys about carbon skis, and looked 6,000 feet down on the ocean and so many Southcentral Alaska memories. Nyssa on the summit with Isthmus to the south:

Refueled, we downclimbed the rime cliffs of the summit block, exchanged our crampons for skis, then worked onto the face. Like last time, the bergshrund was the crux, but after a hanging traverse and some sidestepping we were in the clear.

As the face rolled over, Nyssa leapfrogged by me and skied past the tumbling rapids of the frozen river.

We skied between a wall of ice and another of rock as we made our down the hanging snow towards the exit. After skiing impenetrable 60 degree funk on the north face of Isthmus at 8 PM the night before, the 50 degree duff was a walk in the park.

The hanging seracs had been shedding missiles of ice onto the Portage Glacier, and as we skied the exit couloir we couldn't believe that such a clean line could exist right next to so much objective gnar hazard.

Out of steep terrain we party skied towards Portage Lake then joined the masses for the crust ski back to the car, dry socks, and cotton hoodies.

In some ways a lot has changed in the last six years, and in other ways much is still the same. If there is one thing that will never change it is how much I cherish the memories of these special days with special people.


  1. Nice! I've been curious about this peak for a while. Sick photos!

    1. Thanks Nelson, hope your summer is off to a good start!

  2. Searching the web for Beta on Carpathian and Isthmus, and traversing from Portage to Seward, and your stuff is so great!! Thank you for recording it!