Tuesday, March 23, 2021

Highbush, Lingon & Kinnikinnick Skiing - March 2021

As March arrives the sun rises higher in the sky, and our focus shifts from the golden midwinter light of south faces to the shady north slopes. With that transition there is a nexus where longer days allow us to reach the farther out solar slopes before the sun does. 

In early March, with that sweet spot in mind, we headed up Peterson Creek hoping to beat the sun to Punch Bowl. The Peterson approach was the usual mix of hopping between frozen rocks, crawling under gateways of alders, and inching across icy overflow - all important ingredients for cooking up a good mountain memory.

Dmitry was excited to be out, and lead the charge, bringing us to the shoulder of Bearberry Point:

Feeling the chilly morning air bite our cheeks, we party skied the mellow slopes of the glacier into Kern. Above D and Nyssa is Lowbush; there's a funny memory of watching Neil drop into its face only to watch a slab rip at his feet. With eyes like saucers Andrew immediately turned around and skied the other way.

Once past Lowbush we looked up at the low pass that would take us into the Punchbowl. Rising above Dmitry is the big south face of Highbush; its a fun one to dream about, but conditions would have to be perfect to get it safely. 

Seemingly feeling no ill effects from a snapped ski in Upper Bird and a slog out California Creek the day before, Nyssa broke trail to the pass. As we climbed, I looked up at the big west chute of Lowbush - it would couple nicely with a lap on the south face and a run off Bearberry or Bramble to finish the day. This one is definitely on the list. 

Popping into Punchbowl, there was a red and white cub parked on the glacier and a group in front of us on the uptrack. It looked like Jeff's plane, and hoping that Najeeby would be there to give us summit bikini waxings we chased after. 

We caught the group near the summit, only to find to my great disappointment that it wasn't Jeff and Jeebs. The spa treatment would have to wait for another day. On the bright side, the summit was beautiful and we took a long break to lunch in the sun.

Photo Dmitry Surnin

As always my eyes were drawn to Spine Cell. I've finally come to terms with approaching this one without a sled; the six miles would be a good way to wake up, and horizontal doesn't count anyways, right?

We refueled on pizza, fig bars, and corn dogs while the other group skied.

Then it was our turn; below Dmitry you can see the ski planes parked in the shade.

Just as we'd hoped, the east face was untouched by the early March sun and protected from the winds that have been ripping down Turnagain Arm towards the Gulf of Alaska. Stoked on what we'd found, there was a discussion about giving Nagoon a go, but we're trying to be less sendy and decided to save it for another day. So, we transitioned to skinning and began switchbacking up the south side of Lingon.

On her new jetpack skis, Nyssa again zoomed away in front, leaving Dmitry and I in the dust while we marveled over how Highbush juts out of the surrounding terrain like a jagged tooth. Funny to think we'd been bronzing on its top only an hour before.

The skin was surprisingly fast and efficient, leaving us on the summit drooling over Kinnikinnick's spiney west face. I'm hoping we can combine it with Nagoon, another day that will likely leave us slogging out Winner Creek in the dark (more on that later).

Tiptoeing to make sure we weren't on a cornice dangling in outer space, we peered into Lingon's north face. It had looked yummy from Mystery and A1, but from above was a shark tank of manky rocks. Instead we opted for the west ridge, which we'd drooled over from the northeast face of Little League back in January. Nyssa dropped in, and pulled off to report primo snow.

I leapfrogged Nyssa and hide in a safe spot as Dmitry cranked fast turns past; the way he bends his board and sticks his hands and hips in the snow is a blast to watch. 

Behind Dmitry is the crazy west face of Nagoon; the chute dropping from the summit col would be great for a February day.

By utilizing relatively safe spots as we worked out way down. We like that the leapfrog method usually lets us have eyes on everyone, and keeps us closer to each other if something goes wrong. It also gives our legs a break.

Done with the steep terrain of the upper ridge, we party skied hippy pow down the rolly polly terrain above Winner Creek.

This mellow lower terrain is prime Chugach Powder Guides terrain - I think I like heli skiing - minus the helicopter.

We drained the run to the creek and looked back at the summit of Lingon where we'd just been.

Looking upvalley, Nagoon's northeast face had come into view. Now that's going to be a good day.

With one last look at the triple crown of peaks behind us, we put on our skins and started the slow shuffle towards Girdwood.

Then in the last alpenglow of the day we skated the nordic trails back to the car.

Since drooling over Kinnikinnick on that early March day its been an earworm in our heads, and on March 21st Nyssa, Erin, Tom, Scott, and I went back to cure the problem.

This time we approached from Kern Creek. I'd heard stories of entire days spent battling the man-eating alders of Kern and was looking forward to a good bushwhack, but we followed the well flagged trail from the highway and never even had to crawl. Disappointing. 

It was nice to not be in the mega terrain trap of Peterson, and with Scott breaking trail the approach was really fast and we were soon gaining elevation with Turnagain Arm falling away behind us.

From Kern we took the same low pass to Punchbowl that we'd used last time. There was a suspicious and cracky windslab sitting on the lee of the pass, and we slowed down to zigzag through thin parts of the slab. On the far side we found protected pow as we dropped into the Punchbowl. 

There's a surpising amount of ice in the Punchbowl drainage, and it was cool to pass it as we skipped down the rolling terrain towards upper Twentymile.

A couple Gs of party skiing put us under Kinnikinnick and we tossed our skins on for the climb. Back on the Punchbowl a couple of skis plane had landed and we watched as they put in a pretty skinner then skied the protected shoulder of Highbush.

Skinning up Kinnikinnick Creek was straightforward and after a 1,000 vert we were back on glacier. We'd seen large chunks of ice and bergshrunds from across the way, but I didn't really even notice crossing the shrunds when we got there. Under the cliffed and near-vertical massif we turned right and began booting the summit chute.

Tom heroically took the lead as we entered the chute and the slope ramped up to 50 degrees where it stayed until the final ridge. The snow on the climb was about as good as you could ask for on a prominent peak in the middle of nowhere, and I tried not to look between my legs at the creek 3,000 feet below. 

Nearing the summit ridge we were waylaid by mushroomed bulges of rime and near vertical snow. My knees vibrated under me as my brain stem focused on the highly unlikely event of ragdolling all the way back down. My head game just isn't what it used to be - which is good.

Popping out onto the summit perch, everyone was smiling about the new summit and new views.

The north winds were blowing and we crammed a quick snack into our mouths as we looked into the heart of Twentymile. I'm thinking that when we go ski Peak 5825 I'll just have Scott tow me while he skates the 12 mile approach; it will be fun:

We're really more of skiers than climbers, and all felt reassured to have our skis on our feet as we prepared to ski off the summit. Unfortunately my confidence was briefly shattered upon discovering that my forward pressure was backed almost all the way out. Thanks to Nyssa for the field repair!

As soon as we dropped off the summit ridge and into the steep face we were in the meat of it. Ski mountaineering isn't about making pretty turns, its about getting down, and we all did our fair share of sideslipping until past the poisonous rime mushrooms. This pic of Tom gives a good sense of the pitch of the upper face:

Once past the mushrooms and into more open terrain and consistent snow it was really fun to open it up on the steep chute as we continued our usual program of leapfrogging from safe spot to spot.

In such steep terrain, slough volume built really quickly and we'd pull out every few turns to let the dragons of snow pour away. At one point I managed to unleash a rather large one at Tom, and he did a good job of diving in and grabbing the ground was it went pouring past. 


At the lower choke the tons of snow we'd knocked down had thoroughly scraped out a firm surface, and we jump turned thru the final crux to the glacier. More Professor Larson:

Back on the glacier, everybody was stoked; as far as I know, no one has skied from the summit of the peak without a helicopter, so it felt like a big accomplishment. Of course there are lots of quiet crushers up here who may well have done it, not shared, and left the feeling of something new for others to experience.

Done with the steep stuff, it was time to enjoy the long glacier run down to the creek. As much as I like steep skiing, what I really like is the hooting and hollering of party skiing (preferably naked, but not this time), so this was really the icing on the cake. 

At the creek we discussed our ambitions of the north face of Nagoon and how we'd get there. From our location the climb would involve thousands of feet of crossloaded terrain above an incised terrain trap. 

We weren't working with green light stability either, and the group agreed to save Nagoon for another day and instead pick Lingonberries for dessert. As for most of the day, Scott broke trail while we huffed and puffed and looked behind us at our proud line.

On top of Lingon we again peered into its north face - still a junkyard of rocks and cliffs, making the tried and true west ridge an obvious choice. Nyssa:

The snow wasn't as perfect as last time, but as we skied from the alpine into turns through the birch forest below Tom commented that it was like all-time Vermont conditions. I'll take it.

All smiles after another great day of ski assisted peak bagging, we set our sights for the Winner Creek trailhead. In the interest of science, some of us shuffled and some of us skinned. Its hard to say which was easiest, but Scott was definitely the fastest.

Nyssa says she has a quota of four Winner Creeks per winter. Sounds like we'll need to go back one more time.


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