Wednesday, September 13, 2023

Tanaina Peak Ski - 2.15.2020

Note: updated below the original post to include a great linkup with the impressive north face of Koktoya on 4.23.2023.

Filled with so many glorious powder days this year has been incredible, but its been a little low on the satisfaction of slogging. By the middle of February we were starting to feel the itch for the long days, tired legs, and adventure of objective skiing.

Per usual, little beta existed about conditions in the Front Range, but I suspected that the inset couloirs of the zone were filling with stable snow. The weekend started with the old faithful of Front Range coolies, and with a good day there, we knew it was time to head deeper.

Rolling into the Dome parking lot at 9:00 on Saturday morning, Nyssa's car was already covered in a dusting of new snow. It wasn't until Tikishla Pass that we caught them.

Peering over the edge of the pass, I immediately thought: "this is stupid, I'm going home". Everyone else felt about the same. Below us was the classic shallow continental setup of windslab over depth hoar. However, with some creative discussion we agreed to avoid the slab by ice skating down the wind-scoured scree next to the face. Perfect.

We slid down the loose rock into the fog below. As the slope angle slacked off we ventured onto the snow and were immediately greeted by a giant whompf. Yep, glad we avoided the steeper snow!

In the dense fog of the Snowhawk Valley it was tricky telling which way was up, let alone where to go. Needless to say I've gone in much straighter lines.

With the help of our phones and a little back and forth we eventually found the mouth of the line and started booting up the untouched powder.

Inside the walls of the rocky cleft, the snow was untouched by the wind that's been busy blowing our snow to Kansas. We were in for a treat.

The booter was that perfect hero snow where its deep enough to be a challenge, but not quite unsupportable or bottomless wallowing. Julie peeking around Eric makes this my fav pic from the day:

On the ridge we found the sun, which almost made the 5 degree temps feel warm.

Soaking in the midwinter light, we followed the ridge east to the summit. North of us were so many fun memories like PeekingBold, and a great early-season ski on Raina with Eric.

Just past those were more fond days on Pleasant, Korohusk, and Rumble. The Malignant Couloir is sticking out too; I'm still waiting to add that to the memory bank.

To the east of Ram Valley and Peters Creek were the giants of Icicle Creek. We got East Killiak last March; like so many peaks the others are on the five-year hit list.

We lounged in the icy sun until we were shivering, then dropped into the abyss.

With a big group, lots of slough, and a tight line we each skied non-stop from top to bottom; a real treat from the usual leap frogging of the backcountry.

The snow was better than we could have hoped for in the wind-savaged wasteland of the Front Range: hoots, hollers, and giggles bounced off the dark walls of the vertical amphitheater.


Skiing the soft and mellow apron to the valley floor was a party. The fog had finally lifted and we could see our spazzy skinner thru the morning's pea soup.

Retracing our steps, we were soon climbing the BS ball bearing scree of Tikishla Pass that we'd boot skied down a few hours before. At the pass we looked down towards the sea of clouds over Anchorage. So nice to get above that gloom!

4.23.2023 Update:

Last spring we stood on the summit of Temptation and looked south into the Anchorage Front Range. There were many familiar lines tucked into the nooks and crannies of our mountains, plus one I hadn't noticed before: a steep rock hallway chiseled into the north face of Koktoya. It looked like it would link up perfectly with Tanaina. 

The image of those couloirs has been glued to my gray matter ever since. On a Sunday in late April, Tony, Carolyn, the Pattersons, and I skinned out of the Dome parking lot to give them a go. As we wound uphill through the well-grazed willows of the north fork of Campbell Creek, there were bear tracks everywhere.

While Tony and I pontificated about the mysterious ways of the Weather Service, Carolyn was paying attention to her surroundings. She watched as a brown bear easily ran past us as we climbed into the U-shaped valley. I love that we can have such wild experiences in our backyard.

Reaching the far end of Long Lake, we paused to slop on sunscreen, snack, and ponder how we had now gone seven miles without doing any skiing. Then, we started winding up the bulbous rolls at the base of Koktoya.

The sunny south face of Koktoya was corning into edgeable and tacky snow which made for efficient skinning. It seemed too easy and I almost wished that my skins were glopping, slipping, or maybe even doing both. Almost.

At the summit cone we switched to booting for the last couple hundred feet of steeper terrain. I can't remember for sure, but at this point I bet that Tony and I were still complaining about the NWS.

To the south, we daydreamed over the peaks around Indian Pass where this winter we had a lot of fun exploring obscure terrain in bad weather and horrible visibility. Nyssa says it doesn't count if you can't see where you're going - I guess we'll be going back for seconds on many of those.

Eventually we dragged ourselves back to whatever state of quasi-reality we inhabit and turned to the business at hand. The north face of Koktoya is guarded by large overhung cornices and cliffs, so finding the entrance to our line was going to be a challenge. Tony skied ahead down the ridge so that we could spot each other.

Yelling incoherently back and forth at each other, I was pretty sure we were near the entrance to the line. Standing 10 feet from the edge, and freshly squeezed from our big day on Benevolent, I became very aware that I was low on gnarly juice.

Slowly probing forward, we peered over the event horizon. It looked good.

Since it was my bad idea, I got the honors of guinea pig. Making hesitant turns down a fin of snow that appeared to be dangling into empty space, I could feel my grundle tickling as I looked for a relatively safe spot. Where the line began to funnel into the mine shaft below, I figured I might not get swept off the 1,000 foot cliff, and pulled off to wait.

Once the group skied down to join, I felt the relief of being off the hanging face, and we focused our attention on the crevice boring down into the heart of the face. Tony:

The chute below us was steep and tight perfection.



Although I'd seen most of the descent from Temptation and had since poured over aerial imagery, the bottom of the line remained a mystery to us. The adventure of the unknown terrain is always part of the adventure, but when we skied around the lower dogleg, I was happy to see continuous snow through the choke.

At the choke, a rock prow split our descent into two options. Tony and I went right while the Carolyn and Caitlin left. We hopped over a rock step that is at least a ten foot cliff in the summer, then skied pow to the bottom of the basin.

From the flats we looked up at the wild line, and the ladies hunting rock sharks in the apron.

Transitioning for the climb out of the Ship Creek drainage, I drooled over the high peaks of SoFo. There are so many gems back there. I was particularly focused on Mount Ewe which we would link up with Concerto and Triangle the following weekend. Calliope with Scott was a memorable day too.

As we started skinning towards Tanaina, our perspective lined up with the full glory of Koktoya's north couloir.

I felt like we were skinning fast, but there was a lot of elevation to gain and it took us awhile to climb from the hole of our descent up to the top of Tanaina.

Using our best shuffling, sidestepping, and dry-skiing techniques, we followed the ridge to the entrance to our next couloir.

At the entrance to the line we found the tracks of an odd pair: a snowboarder and a brown bear.

In a couple hours we'd catch up with the snowboarder who turned out to be our friend Shasta. He told us about chasing the grizzly up the south slopes of Tanaina. With his field of view blocked by the rocky benches of the climb, he couldn't tell how close he'd been to the bear.

Like the last couloir, Tanaina's was protected from the heat of the spring sun by the peak's big rock walls and held cold wintery snow. Carolyn:


Caitlin's flight time was rapidly approaching and we were at the bottom of the wrong valley - time to boogie towards the car. Fortunately Caitlin can move fast - she's a national SkiMo champion and Olympian after all. Jogging uphill towards Tikishla Pass, we were thankful to Shasta for putting in some skintrack for us.

At the pass, I bid adieu to Caitlin who raced towards the airport while I waited for Carolyn and Tony. Basking in the glow of evening light, I watched Shasta carve beautiful turns down the west face of Tikishla. Next to Shasta's tracks are the those of his partner for the day: the peak bagging bruin. 

We sat enjoying each other's company as the angular light filtered through the Tordillo Mountains, bounced off the waters of the Cook Inlet, then poured into our corneas. I greedily wanted more - to keep skiing all night with these special people.

Photo: Carolyn Stwertka

For better or for worse, I was overruled by grumbling stomachs and the promise of future great days together. Together, we skied towards the car and our great ski city by the sea.

In the willows of the Long Lake trail we finally caught up with Shasta who had paused for dinner or maybe just to give us a chance to finally catch up. I never get to see enough of him, and it was a treat to share the laughter of the mario-cart mayhem of the egress.

All too soon, we were back at the car for the short commute home.

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