Thursday, June 2, 2016

Sheep Glacier Ski Trip - April 2016

Its 6:30 on Saturday morning and rain is pattering down on the roof above my bed. We're supposed to be flying into the High Talkeetnas this morning - its hard to believe it will happen with the rain. A call to Last Frontier Air Ventures reveals that its actually "blue" up north and go time.

In Palmer we scramble to jam our glorified car-camping gear into the helicopter and do a safety briefing. Andalyn notices that the finger the pilot repeatedly uses to point at the rotor doesn't have its tip. After a liability waver that looks more like a volunteer signup for a trail crew party we're off the ground and above the snowless Matanuska Valley. At Granite Creek Patrick turns north into the mountains. Popping over the first ridge, there's mountain...

...after snowy mountain.

A few minutes later, the Sheep Glacier comes into view: its big, smooth, and ringed by glaciated peaks and granite spires quintessential to the Talkeetna Mountains.

Patrick finds a flat spot, sets the AStar down, and hops out in his jeans. He might be more stoked than us. We throw out our gear, watch Patrick leave, and as the helicopter disappears over ridge, take it all in.

Now this is Alaska!

Everyone is itching to ski, so we hurry to set up, then skin north out of camp.

Trips to remote zones are challenging because there's such limited snowpack information: there are no local weather stations, there are limited observations, and you don't know the zone's "repeat offenders". First, we try a northerly chute only to get turned around by a hollow slab over facets, then we're turned around by thin snow bridges high on the Chickaloon Glacier. Finally, on our third try we find good snow.

In true Alaska style, the light goes flat at the top.

With heavy snow falling we ski back to camp.

On day two, concerned about flat light from overcast skies, we check out a couloir across the way. The approach across the glacier in the lightly falling snow is mesmerizing, it feels like a snow globe.

The couloir is classic Talkeetnas: white granite spires guard the line.


At the bottom, Andalyn and Cody go on the hunt for better snow, while Mike and I head up to check out the twin chute on the backside of the last line.

Dropping into the next drainage, we find a fun zone. Mike:

After a few rounds of mini golf we return to camp. Cody and Andalyn are already out for an evening tour. Inside, Cody has been busy perfecting our kitchen - its laid out better than my house.

The next morning is clear. Given the weather we all want to go for a peak we've dubbed "Cloudhaven" because it hasn't stopped snowing up there.

Aptly named, a cloud arrives and it starts snowing as we top out. A few turns from the top and the sun is out again.

Next up is a sunny ramp high above the divide between the Sheep and Chickaloon Glaciers. Just short of the ridge, a scary slide breaks under our feet and steps down to the ground as it flows down the face. With our tails between our legs we head back to camp.

At camp the weather is beautiful, so Mike, Andalyn, and I go out for an evening tour. Cody sticks around camp to put the final touches on the kitchen and bar.

We're back in the snow globe again - huge fluffy flakes somehow materialize from the blue sky above and drift lazily down in the evening light.

Tuesday morning is beautiful; its hard to believe that Patrick will be flying in that afternoon to pick us up. We're motivated to get in one last tour, so head for a glaciated bump above the Matanuska Valley.

Like everything on the Sheep its farther away then it looks. Eventually, we top out and are greeted with new and spectacular views. The Chugach is just out of reach to the south, and closer there is the clear transition from tilted sedimentary layers to bent and weathered metamorphic rock. Below us, a glacier spills into the headwaters of Kings River.

Its hard to drag ourselves from our loft in the sky, but the lure of  soft turns makes it easier.

45 minutes later we're at camp. I call Last Frontier Air Ventures for a pick-up, Gary tells me: "Mike, I want you to look west towards the horizon." As he speaks we can already hear the whompf-whompf-whompf of the AStar.

Minutes later Patrick happily jumps out in his jeans. There's only one problem: we're not actually ready to leave.

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