Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Arctic to Indian Skiing - 2.5.2017

Updated below on 1.21.2023 to include an extended version of Arctic to Indian (A2I+), and then again on 3.9.2024 to include Indian to Glen Alps.

Almost everyone around town has done Arctic to Indian. Shoot, most people have done it multiple times, even multiple times each year. However, I unreasonably prioritize backcountry skiing above everything, so I miss out on a lot of other fun things. But, after starting out the weekend by skiing Byron and Wolverine, I was willing to try something else.

The descent down to Ship Creek was one of the most exhilarating things I've done in awhile. It also made me wonder why cross country skiers don't wear helmets. And hockey pads. And how anyone could consider cross country skiing safer than downhill skiing.

We reached Ship Creek and began to follow it upstream just as the sun was starting to touch Temptation Peak. It might be covered in beautiful couloirs and spires, but I still haven't been tempted to brave the bushwhacking and slogging to get there.

First light along the creek was absolutely magical: clouds of mist with each breath, huge crystals of hoar frost formed from the creek's unlimited supply of moisture, and the sun sparkling in the trees. Temps around -5 F were also very similar to those of the previous morning on the way up Byron.

At the confluence between the two forks of the creek we turned south towards Indian Pass. I think that's Mount Ewe in the background.

Stringing together meadows above the river was quick work and highlighted by countless tracks from wandering ptarmigan, moose, wolves, foxes, and wayward yuppies. Also, at risk of stating the obvious, this stretch is way better on skis than postholing thru bushes and swamps in summer.

As the sun got lower in the sky Alex took over and broke trail towards the pass. Alex usually seems to end up breaking trail when the sun is getting low in the sky. That's Avalanche Peak to the right, and Bird Ridge Overlook to the left.

Moonrise over the peaks that separate the forks of Ship Creek. This is roughly where we came thru when we did our weekend hike from Girdwood to Anchorage. Lots of sheep up there!

By sunset we were at the top and ready for our long descent to Indian. Early February in Alaska would put sunset right around 5:20, so still plenty of time before bed! That's Indianhouse Peak to the right of Alex, lots of good skiing up there.

6 miles of downhill may seem like the ideal way to finish a day. Add cross country skis, impending darkness, and temperatures rapidly dropping back towards the negatives and it quickly becomes memorable. Next time I will bring fresh batteries for my headlamp.

1.21.2023 Update:
Between a wasteland of sastrugi at Hatcher and a plethora of persistent weak layers at Turnagain, the last month has required creativity to make the most of backcountry skiing in our winter wonderland. As such, the Eye of Sauron has turned to the mountains around Indian Pass, where we have slowly worked our way deeper into the zone.

First, it was days of digging pits and testing the snowpack in Falls Creek before we were confident enough to wind our way up Indian Creek to the hidden gem of Bidarka tucked amongst the bigger peaks of the zone. All week we've been anxious to get back out there, but with this week's set of windy storms we knew we'd have to deal with a recently loaded snowpack with little beta.

With what seemed like the first clearish day in a month, we settled on an extended version of the classic Arctic to Indian route.

In the netherworld of dusky first light, we chased John and Eric's tracks into Ship Creek then took our turn breaking trail for them as we passed under the spires of Temptation's north face where goblins certainly lurk. At the confluence between the north and south forks of Ship Creek, we bid adieu to the Airport Heights sloggers on their way back to the hood via Ship Lake Pass, then broke trail into the unknown woods of the north fork.

With ten miles of trailbreaking down, I started to realize just what a chore A2I is when the trail isn't in. Finally reaching the roots of The Sail, we crawled onto the bench above the creek and clawed our way thru the alders to the alpine. Reaching the alpine, the cold north winds were finally pushing the clouds off the Chugach.

With baselayers drenched from miles of sweaty trailbreaking and bushwhacking, we felt our clothes freeze into crispy sheets of ice as the cold north wind pilfered the precious heat from our bodies. 200 yards below the summit of The Sail, we clipped our skis to our packs and followed the exposed brown Frangewhacke rock to the summit while the clouds evaporated around us.

Soaking in the midwinter sun, we drooled over the south faces of the huge peaks at the headwaters of SoFo Eagle River. We've skied, run, and climbed some of these over the years. Others remain on the list - maybe this year will be the year for them for us!

Looking south, our attention turned to the immediate surroundings in our group of peaks. I'm looking forward to skiing Tail Feather Peak, and for that matter, The Wing.

Finished scrawling notes in our mental beta notebooks, we ripped skins and watched as Ben dropped into the south face painted gold by a midwinter sun rising 9 degrees above the horizon.

Shivering in the heatless sun, we waited our turn then ripped down the fresh snow to where he waited at the col.

Photo: Ben Americus

As the face rolled into steeper and complex terrain, we found the windloaded snow that had kept us off the higher peaks for the day.

Skiing thru the loaded features, several small slabs broke off around our skis.

Tony says avalanches always happen when he skis with Austin. I wonder if Austin thinks avalanches always happen when he skis with Tony??? Austin:

Skiing to the valley floor, we slapped on skins back on under the big, shady faces of the wild basin for the next climb up Shaman Dome.

Passing fresh wolverine tracks in the new snow, and with seven hours of trailbreaking down, we were all thankful to have Ben pull us up another skintrack.

Behind us we looked north at the last sunlight of the day on The Sail. Lots of lines there to go back for.

With the sun setting over the Neacolas to the southwest, we rounded the corner for the last push to the summit.

On top of the Shaman Dome we made sacrifices to our all important winter deities then clicked into ski mode for the long descent towards the dark valley hidden under the north face of Bird Ridge Overlook. If Neil had been here I bet he would have sacrificed some tater tots for Ullr.

We cautiously tiptoed through the sharks of the thin first turns, before opening it up in creamy turns under civil twilight. Nyssa:


A cold wind was blowing in our faces as cold hands fumbled through the icy transition for our the last climb of the day to Bidarka Pass.

Following Nyssa and Tony as they broke the last couple miles of trail, I was again reminded that A2I and especially A2I++ is a lot more work when your group is breaking trail the whole way.

Under a sky filling with emerging stars, we ripped our skins and raided our snack bags. Then, under the questionable lighting of our headlamps, we began the long descent down the rolling alpine, past bent alders, and along the sinuous trail winding through the hemlocks to the truck.

3.9.2024 Update:
Saturday morning started with the purchase of a really old, really expensive project. My- coworker tells me that my life is just one big project. Jeff says each cylinder you add to your life takes 10% of it. Dan says that's how you know you're doing it right. They aren't wrong.

Back in Anchorage, now burdened by less money, but more projects, we brainstormed what to do with the rest of our day.

A quick call to Carolyn and we were driving up the hill to meet her at the Glen Alps parking lot bustling with intro to avy students, snowshoers, and dog walkers. We dropped a car shuttle, made sure the keys came with is, then drove the Subaru towards the trailhead at the back of Indian Valley.

Skinning out of the small parking lot tucked into the big trees, the snow was littered with pine cones from the recent high wind events and crusted over by dripping trees as we started to climb towards Indian Pass.

As we skinned higher along the winding trail, the valley opened up around us. To the west were memories of many days in Falls Creek, a spring day on the Yuyanq' Ch'ex Peaks, and a day of golden January light linking up the deep and snaking north couloir of North Yuyanq' Ch'ex to Homicide to Hope Point.

To our east were memories from Peak 4055, BRO, and Bidarka:

At the pass, we started to meet the first groups of the day on their way from Arctic Valley to Indian.

I thought about how beautiful this pass is in the summer. Clear from underbrush, its carpeted by soft fields of wildflowers furnished by small trees.

We coasted for a mile down the slight grade of of upper Ship Creek before our turn towards its namesake lake.

Climbing towards Ship Lake, we followed the waddling trails of porcupines and the occasional snowshoe hair.

From the lake, we were dwarfed by Avalanche Peak. Hiding up there was the Thin White Line which Nyssa, Tom, Carolyn, and I borrowed our way up on a surprisingly deep spring day in 2023.

I wondered about the tantalizing north face of Avalanche where there is a ski line tucked amongst rocks covered with flutes of snow.

Approaching Ship Lake Pass ravaged by arctic winds from the north and coastal storms from the east, we ran out of snow and walked across rocks exposed crowberries - they actually tasted pretty good.

Cresting the pass into the powerline valley, our fair ski city spread out below us. Past the Anchorage bowl and across the Cook Inlet, were the glaciated giants of the Tordrillos highlighted by Mount Spurr.

We walked down until the scoured scree was replaced by sastrugi then clipped back into our skis for the bouncy descent down the packed waves of snow to the valley floor.

The glide towards towards the South Fork of Campbell Creek was another dive into our memories. To our left we first looked up at the lovely north chute of the Wedge that pairs well with TWL, the Ramp, or more of the Wedge. Next, was the classic S-Coulior.

Past Ptarmigan, the grade of the valley disappeared, and we switched to skating on the firm windboard formed by the persistent winds that howl down the channeled valley.

Five hours after leaving the peaceful trailhead in Indian Valley, we passed the last dog walkers and slid back into the Glen Alps parking lot.

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