Thursday, June 3, 2021

Frontier Peak Ski - 4.23.2021

It was spring and our dreams were turning to ski mountaineering. But, recent wild temp swings left us uncertain about high north faces. We needed to get up 6,000 feet on a shady face. Would the snow be soft? Stable? The crux was a destination closer to the trailhead so that we wouldn't be committed into make a questionable choice.

Rising more than a vertical mile straight from the car, we settled on Frontier Peak's aesthetic north couloir with a linkup to the big west gulley of Mat Peak. Caravanning from Anchorage, we parked a shuttle at the Mat Peak trailhead, triple checked our keys, then continued to the end of Maud Road. By 9:30, skis were on our packs, local pallet burning ordinances had been reviewed, and we were swatting sleepy mosquitos while walking down the ATV trail in our running shoes.

Our beta for the route was water cooler talk from Nelson of a climbers trail with rope rigging leading to a quick summit of the peak. Peering off the double track into the devil's club there was flagging everywhere - hardly encouraging for identifying a trail. Just after the second creek I wandered off to check out a baiting station only to hear Nyssa yelling that she'd found the ropeway. Indeed, just as Nelson had described, there was the rope snaking up the bluff and towards the southwest ridge.

Like most local social trails, burning calves took us straight up without the convenience of switchbacks. Covered in the leaves of last fall and the droppings of the wayward moose, the dry path was in amazingly good shape.

A brief bushwhack brought us above the alder line where we stopped to snack, wring sweat out of our dripping layers, and look down at the Knik Valley. Below us were the winding sloughs of Jim Creek where we've skated over schools of black fish hiding under the glassy ice. Across the valley, Pioneer Peak with its vertical mile of relief mirrored our route; its hard to beat the bang for the buck of it's north face.

With the warm sun cooking the south face it felt like summer as our southwest ridge joined with the southern one. 

After 5,000 vertical feet we were off the ridge and looking at the last climb up the summit cone. In front of us a small group of napping sheep stood up in surprise. They were in the process of losing their winter coats and with large tufts of straggling winter fur sticking straight up on their heads seemed to be wearing ridiculous hats out of Doctor Seuss. 

The loose talus painfully bouncing off our shins as we treadmilled to the summit provided a reminder of what we'd missed over the last six months while the bowling balls for ankles had been firmly frozen in place. 

We followed the sheep nearly to the top before parting ways. From the summit above Jim Creek we looked into the heart of the high Chugach, ate lunch, stuffed our water bottles full of snow, then turned our attention to the north face. 

Peering over the vertical edge, the snow looked possibly soft. So, we upped our testing by tossing rocks of various sizes into the snow below. The rocks stuck - the at least wasn't impenetrable boilerplate and might be soft. We were here to use Frontier as a proxy before going for deeper and bigger objectives. The only thing left was to enter the couloir.

The line was guarded by a school bus-sized cornice visibly separating from the mountain as it peeled slowly away. Where the snow of the chute morphed into cliff we found a thin entry of vertical snow to could clamber down. 

Hanging above rock walls and snow of unknown and questionable quality, we carefully downclimbed the no fall zone. The snow seemed firm, but possibly OK - not a safety issue or worth reclimbing our entrance. So, we unstrapped our crampons and clicked into our bindings to begin the cautious descent. 

The first steep turns on the firm snow were intimidating, and I tried not to imagine throwing a shoe and ping-ponging down the rock walls.

We worked our way down, finding some acceptable snow, some bad snow, and some nearly unskiable impenetrable runneled ice. 

By the time we skied out of the rock cleft and into the apron we had the information we'd gone there to collect - conditions were not right for skiing big lines in the high peaks.

However, we were more certain of the conditions to come on Mat Peak's big banana chute, so plastering on more sunscreen we started the climb. Ascending the backside of the peak we followed a low angle gulley full of blown-in snow, efficiently skinning to within 500 feet of the summit.

I took a wrong turn and lost Nyssa on her straightforward path to the summit and found myself climbing a series of steep, icy chimneys. Far too reminiscent of something the elder Records would have done. Nyssa was waiting patiently as I crawled out on top, from where we looked back at our pretty line on Frontier:

Then worked our way thru the rock sharks into the long descent towards the car.

Growing up in Colorado where the atmosphere is thin and the sun is bright, corn was the bread and butter of my early backcountry days. But, here its a less common meal as we often ski powder (or windboard) until our seasons end. I'd forgotten how much fun smooth ripe corn is and really enjoyed the line.

3,000 vertical feet of leg burning turns later, Nyssa and I popped out into the flats at the bottom of the line. We talked about what a perfect corn run Mat Peak is, and wondered why people don't view it as more of a classic.

Then came several miles of ACL yanking slogging thru the isothermal glop of the egress. Slipping and sliding thru muddy snow and snowy mud, avoiding small wet slides, and lots of giggling brought us to the car shuttle where we wished we stashed beers.


  1. Very nice report! Thank you! Makes me want to go there!

    1. Thanks :) I'd highly recommend it - ideally with softer snow!