Friday, April 24, 2020

Bench Peak Ski - 4.9.2020

For some reason no one could ski Bench peak on Thursday, so the day started as they do when I have no accountability: I didn't get out of bed. I eventually stopped hitting snooze and was running out the door sometime after 9:00.

Turnagain is usually a mid winter ski destination with the commute in the dark. It was a treat to do the drive in the glory of daylight. The raw beauty of the rainbow of grays of Turnagain Arm ice never gets old, and driving thru the glacier carved U of the pass in full sun was special.

There were a couple inches of new snow when I pulled into Johnson Pass. And, skinning away from the car, the trail was criss-crossed by tracks of snowshoe hares on their way to breakfast. The non-motorized route was bumpy and indirect, so I left it in favor of the quasi grooming of the snowmobile tracks. The first few miles thru the valley bottom went quickly and I soon left the Johnson Pass trail and headed for Center Creek.

Progress slowed as I was forced off the creek by road blocks of open water in the gorge. Skinning up and down thru the grabby suncrust and pine cones of the woods was comical and inefficient, but the crust was firm and there was no partner to suggest more practical routes, so I kept making pretty good time. Entering the space between the Pastoral and Bench Peak massifs the valley opened up. Behind, Silvertip and Twin Peaks rose above Johnson Pass.

Looking north at Granddaddy and Pastoral brought back so many fond memories.

Like my first Turnagain tour, and skiing blower pow off Bad Santa on a frigid January day. That's also when we had to lift and pull each other over the cornice on the way out of Skinny Santa.

When Divide Creek joined from the south I turned towards the north face of Bench. As the valley tightened up another gorge formed forcing more sidehilling thru alders and slippery sun crust. But, the advantage of sun crust is that it reduces trail breaking.

4.5 hours from the car I was past gorge numero dos and stopped for a chocolate fig bar and salmon cake before more elevation. Turns out fish cakes are not good when cold. The third gorge was in front of me, and a small slide there would bury me most of the way to China. So, I stayed high and kept contouring up.

Contouring kept me away from the gorge, but also significantly increased the distance traveled as I was now circumnavigating the basin. In retrospect one could safely gain less elevation above the last gorge.

There was more snow up high, and I was started to feel 13 miles of trailbreaking. Fortunately, Michelle Obama's awesome book on tape provided the inspiration. May we all be a little bit more like her.

The intention had been to follow the northeast ridge to the top, but it was shiny, slippery, and icy. With nothing sharper than ski poles, booting the small northeast face to the summit was better. Having not brought Verts (obviously), I was relieved to encounter only knee deep booting. The top of the face brought short ridge of rime to the summit. Firm snow is so efficient.

Each new summit is special with the unique perspective it brings. To the north stretched the expansive flats of Twentymile and Placer where we've done bumpy crust skiing, nearly naked duck hunting, and night-time packrafting.

East of Placer was Explorer's long ridge sticking up above the Prince William Sound. That place is an Alaskan skiing snowglobe - glacier fun, soul turns, chutes, and spines. Next to Explorer was the imposing south face of Byron - another Portage favorite.

Rotating right was Carpathian and the south face that I used to lust over. I've convinced myself that its not that cool, but will keep that on the down-low when trying to get someone to ski it with me 👿.

Further clockwise continued the trip down memory lane. There was Isthmus rising over 5,000 feet out of the icefield. I think that will always be one of my favorite slogs.

And in front of Isthmus was the new peak on my radar - The Pregnant Woman. With many peaks that are closer, larger, and have better skiing, this is the "because its there" category.

Looking south brought the ridiculous memory of Alex's new sled becoming a large cloud of green smoke. Sled insurance is an amazing thing. So are the stacked valleys of north facing couloirs above Johnson Lake.

We skied one of these after the sledplosion. It was so steep and tight that with each jump turn our tips and tails would momentarily suspend the skis before flexing into the steep convex snow.

There are many more pinners to go back for:

Still 13 miles from the car, it was time to shove fuel down my throat in the lovely spring sun, and then start down. With steep rolls of predictably firm snow skiing off the top of the peak was like a backcountry groomer.

As I descended from the windswept summit the snow got deeper with only minor wind affect and  fun slough. This minor wind affect immediately reminded me that anything with "objective" in the description skis horribly in variable powder. My first pair of 1080s were a better powder ski. I'm going to keep complaining about this while my friends roll their eyes at my unreasonable expectations of skis.

Although people (including myself) have opinions about skiing solo, it is so much fun and I really enjoyed working my way alone down the face with Prince blasting in my earbuds. The snow got better and better as I skied down the face to the point that even my silly little skate skis enjoyed it.

In the basin below the face I found open water, refilled my gatorade bottle, and forced myself to drink another liter of ice water.

Then, with one last look at the face it was time to debate efficient skinning vs lazy sidestepping around the gorge. Obviously I went with the lazier and less efficient option.

Sidestepping and sidehilling went pretty well and put me past to the second gorge. I had more sidehilling up and down ahead of me and this time was smart enough to put my skins on. They stayed on until I was past the open water of the third gorge.

From there it was just a few miles of double poling, skating, shuffling, and Michelle Obama's voice in my earbuds to get back to the car about 8:30 after I'd started.

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