Tuesday, March 16, 2021

Skiing the Pinnacle - 1.4.2020

Note: Updated to include an optimized Pinnacle linkup.

When I was a young grasshopper in Colorado I drooled over the exploits of Alaskans like Peter Knape, Billy Finley, and Joe Stock. Peter's writing had me dreaming of Turnagain spines in alpenglow. From Billy I was fantasizing about exploring the Chugach. And one of Joe's posts stood out: the Pinnacle.

Since first reading about the Pinnacle, I've been waiting for the right weather, snowpack, partners, and schedules. On Saturday, after seven years, the stars aligned to ski all four sides of the massif.

The morning light was starting to kiss Independence Mine as we approached the Pinnacle. Under the southwest Pinnacle chute we turned right, threw our skis on our packs, and headed up.

Per usual, the southwest chute was a mix of powder, windboard, and breakable crust. As we booted past the col the snow deepened and the pitch ramped up to the summit cone. I began to have visions of peeling backwards off the face and felt like I was going slab climbing not skiing. I made a pact not to become an alpinist. After the 30 minutes of alternating between using our hands as shovels and as snow pickets the slope began to back off.

I'd never been on top of the Pinnacle before and was surprised by how big the summit was. I think Zack was stoked about it too.

Above the inversion and in the mid-day sun, the cold melted away to a balmy 0 degrees F.

The 360 degree views from the top brought so many fond memories from the last six years. To the west was the iconic Fairangel Ridge where we've had plenty of good and bad days. Particularly memorable are the times Haley, Malcolm and I skied basically everything in Fairangel, and when Zack, Brady, Neil, Alex, and I skied many things across Archangel

After sunny pizza, ice-water, and GUs we bundled up and slid into the shady face. Zack:

Dmitry was third, and as he rolled over the convexity we watched a crack propagate across the face:

Then the snow shattered into blocks and poured into the steep terrain below.

Zack and I had both crossed the slab, it wasn't until the third set of tracks that the buried surface hoar failed. This is exactly why its taken me so many years to even try the Pinnacle.

We regrouped at the col before heading into the deep-freeze of the north couloir.

Dmitry dropped first, surfing the double fall line of the wall:

Once we were all down we rushed to transition to booting as we shivered in the dark cold of the bath-tubbed valley inversion.

Everyone was motivated to move fast to warm up; 30 minutes later we were in the sun and transitioning for another run. Many thanks to Dave Bass for teaching us the magic of the 30 minute lap, and more thanks to Will for breaking trail!

Zack and I watched Dmitry and Will rip the variable snow into the Independence Mine Valley, then chased after them. Its amazing how consistently inconsistent the snow of the west gulley is. Zack:

Done with a morning in the shade, everyone was stoked to climb the southwest face in the sun. How can the sun feel so warm when its only 6 degrees above the horizon?

From the ridgeline we drooled over the beautiful west face of Souvenir, and debated the merits of warm skiing in the sun versus the symmetry of a frigid Webfoot lap.

In the end, the cold shade won and we pointed our skis towards the northeast couloir. It was the best snow we'd found all day.

Photo: Dmitry Surnin


It was cool being directly under the big granite face that we'd stood on top of then wrapped around a few hours earlier. Will:

At the bottom, it was time for one last climb and a race against the sun. Behind us Reed Lakes was painted in vivid pink alpenglow. On the horizon were Lynx and Montana peaks. We had a memorable day on Montana Peak a couple years ago, and I still am dreaming about Lynx.

Powered by a promise of one more lap in the sun, we reached the ridge just in time for the last light of the day.

Zack dropped first into the purple sunset.

In the basin we paused to look up at the fourth line of the Pinnacle. Nice to see so many people out enjoying their public lands, and good job to whoever put in that skinner!

Then in the fading light we skied towards the car, beer, and hot dogs. Beyond the Matanuska Valley we could see the giants of Eklutna and Eagle River. So many fun memories over there with many great people. The West Pencil Twin, Bold Peak, and Rumble come to mind. 

Another great day to add to the memory bank, I won't forget this one for awhile!

In March 2021, Tony, Nyssa, Erin and I went back for one of our go-to Hatcher Pass linkups. Unlike, the plump winter of 2020, 2021 has been lean in the Talkeetnas. So, we would not even consider skiing the steep, unsupported slabs that make up the summit of the Pinnacle, instead sticking to the protected and filled in chutes and couloirs that pour from its shoulders. 

We chatted with Zack in the parking lot, and Dmitry returned my wallet which has been safely wedged under his seat, then skinned into the cold adiabatic winds flowing down the Independence Mine Valley. Over the years, experience has taught us to start the day by skiing in the morning sun of the northeast banana of the Webfoot Couloir.

We could barely feel the buried rain crust in the line, and knowing we had a good day ahead, happily starting breaking trail back between the rock walls. It would be nice to have a skinner in for use later in the day when our legs weren't so fresh. Erin:

With Nyssa and Erin leading the charge and Tony detailing what he's looking for in the ultimate woman (hint: its not just a cowboy), we were at the top and ready to drop the southeast slabs back towards the Rock Garden. Erin:

Next up was to climb the Pinnacle's west gulley. This line gets hit harder by the wind than any other line on the peak, and Saturday was not exception. Skinning up a mix of crusts, it was an easy decision to drop into the peak's north Pinopsicle couloir. Per usual, a giant cornice was overhanging the entrance. Tony just sent it with his skis on, while the rest of us tiptoed around, crawled backwards off, dangled over, then slid down into empty space to a landing in the soft snow below. Hiding from the monster cornice in the rock cave, we wondered if it would actually protect us if the sleeping giant fell detached.

After a few hesitant turns of bed surface, the Pinopsicle opened up enough to harvest the double fall line, while our slough poured into the adjacent gut. Descending the line we looked over to see Dmitry, Cam, Conor and Jordan skiing the east chute out of Fairangel Valley. With a similar aspect and style, Dmitry called the chute "Wrongfoot" which nicely characterizes it as Webfoot's little sister. Dmitry:

The dark basin was filled with frigid air, and we hurried to warm up with some trailbreaking. Applying the best hack of the Pinnacle tour, we made the short climb to the pass that gives you a full bonus run to the bottom of Webfoot - and puts you back on your existing skintrack. Four laps into the day, our legs were starting to burn, and we were happy to not break trail for once.

Again on top of our second, and now fifth line of the day we ran into Bobby who was bronzing in the March sun. Its hard to go anywhere in Southcentral without running into friends, and it was a treat to catch up with him, then watch as he floated down the sunny face.

We chased after him down the consistent pitch, then yet again started breaking trail, this time towards Nosehairs. Ripping skins on top, the discussion turned to whether we should ski the Rabbit Ears Couloir. It was already 5 PM, and the sun was setting soon, but it was just so darn enticing. Nyssa:

So...when we skied out of Nosehairs and onto Gold Chord Lake to find a skinner going halfway to the backside of the Rabbit Ears, we just couldn't resist. Who could really?

It wasn't even sunset by the time we were knocking snow out of our tech fittings and transitioning to drop towards the steep choke below the ears. This would be the first time down the line for a couple of us. Bonus! Nyssa:

No one regretted the added lap, and we gritted our teeth as our tired legs broke trail one last time back towards the Independence Mine Valley. Across the Mint Valley, Arcose Peak was glowing in the last light.

At the pass, we hacked at and crawled over the cornice, clicked into our bindings, indulged in one more view of Cloudbuster, then in the fading evening we party skied towards the car.


  1. Good times! I've had some fun on the Pinnacle on the sharp end of a rope in summer, never have summitted in snow season (yet) Keep on rockin!

    1. Mark, I forgot to mention all the time I spent browsing Teletips!

  2. Nice, whatever happened to dongshow?

    1. I guess he started sailing and stopped paying for his domain name. I would gladly pay for that domain name to bring back that piece of AK ski history.