Sunday, November 28, 2021

Fishs Breath - 3.6.2021

Rising straight from the headwaters of California Creek, Fishs Breath's big east face is the kind of dream line that Alyeska skiers dream of from across the Girdwood Valley.

And like any classic that we drool over, its guarded by its own set of gatekeepers. Measuring right around 37 degrees for 2,000 vertical feet, its the perfect angle to harbor a persistent weak layer while surrounding steeper slopes flush. At the bottom of that dangling snowfield is an incised terrain trap that an avalanche could quickly fill with tens of feet of debris. Then there is its location on the far western edge of the maritime zone where the snowpack is thinner and the winds constantly rip through Crow Pass.

In short, everything has to line up for this one, and as we skinned out of the Crow Pass parking lot on a cold clear day last March it looked like we had the conditions we needed. Steph, Tony, and Malcolm seemed to be feeling fast, and we tried to keep up as they turned away from the trail and skinned towards the pass between Magpie and Raggedtop.


At the pass we looked over the cornice and into upper California Creek.


Finding a way around these dangling bulbous drifts is always a good challenge, and we worked our way back and forth peering around and poking thru the cornice until we found a safe spot to enter for the ski towards the climb up our objective.

The snow on the descent down from the pass was an inconsistent mix of wind affect, sun crust, and pow - perfect for ruining anyone's confidence in their skiing ability.

Staying in theme with the day's marine goal, Tony was on his fish-scale skis from work, and we coasted down valley as he skated furiously after us. Maybe someday we'll find the appropriate use for these skis...or maybe not.


Despite the harrowing snow, the ski from the pass was an efficient way to get to the base of Fishs Breath's east face and we were soon transitioning for the climb. Malcolm


We skinned until the slope was too steep for our little synthetic seal furs to grip the snow, then switched to booting.


There was an old booter going up a rib which we jumped on and chased after Malcolm to the summit ridge.


Reaching the ridge we were still at least 30 minutes from the summit, so continued to boot thru a classic mountain mix of rime, facets, rocks, and ice.


Clouds from the valley rose as we reached the top, leaving us shrouded in mystery as we poked around for cornices and the point to drop in to the big north couloir. The new-to-us summit coupled with the tendrils of myst wrapping around and obscuring the view of the north line left us with the heightening of the senses of the flow state sought by skiers, athletes, musicians, and so many more.

Dropping into the big dark funnel that drains into upper Bird Creek, the snow was settled powder with no signs of a slab - the best we could ask for. Nyssa:


Working our way from one safe spot to the next we leapfrogged in and out of sight of each other down the fog of the face. Steph:


Halfway down the snow very suddenly changed from great to horrible, icy, and bulletproof avalanche bed surface - the big storm slide had stepped down repeatedly, leaving multiple big crowns scattered across the face. Given the change in conditions we immediately changed our skiing to the slow, cautious, and calculated style of ski mountaineering.


But even with our game faces activated the snow was too hard. I slipped out briefly and accelerated rapidly on the lubricated face before popping back onto my feet. Then one of Nyssa's bindings suddenly popped off. With her edges swept out from under her she fought to self arrest as she sped down the greasy surface of the couloir.

Working to keep her feet downhill she aired off a ten-foot crown and stopped when her ski snapped on impact. As we talk about a lot, we don't usually even know when we have a close call, and experiences like this are always jarring wakeups.


Nyssa did the right thing by fighting to self arrest and keep her feet down hill. Self arresting is such an important skill in the mountains even in cases like this or avalanches. You do it like you're trying to rip your fingernails off - not a half-assed attempt - shit hits the fan so fast, its important to get under control ASAP.

In retrospect there was also a little ice that hadn't been cleared from her binding as we transitioned atop the line. This was the amount of ice that wouldn't matter in soft snow, but suddenly becomes significant when you're binding encounters the ripping force of the big mountains. And in these mountains bad snow can be encountered unexpectedly at any time; this was a good reminder to always clean out every last bit of ice.

We were basically at the bottom of the line, and everything below us was a cruddy mix of ice-rink bed surface and refrigerators of concrete avalanche debris. So, glad that the damage was only a snapped ski, we started the bootpack back up.
On a different day the climb up the north line would have been great - a steep line cloaked in fog and the carved into the dark north face of the peak. But, we were more focused on getting Nyssa home on one and half skis then enjoying the moment.

On top of Fishs Breath for the second time that day, we prepared for the long ski to the valley floor, while Nyssa prepared for her long slog out. Tony:

Even during this relatively quiet weather period, the perpetual winds of Crow Pass were still brushing against California Creek and leaving behind a breakable skin on the snow. The kind of crust that you can blast through on two skis, but with just one Nyssa's only option was to walk down the gorgeous two thousand vertical foot face. We'll be going back for redemption!


Once at the creek, Malcolm, Tony, and Steph split to zoom ahead and grab our shuttle at the California Creek trailhead, while we started the slower egress with the broken ski.


Nyssa had the handy idea of making a sort of ski tip with her extra climbing skin on her mini half ski, and made impressively fast progress down to the moss of the trees. Under the warm canopy of the temperate rainforest, the snow was replaced by ice and we slipped, slid, scratched, smashed and crashed down the trail to the road. Between Nyssa's half skiing skills and the high speed luge thru the woods, it wasn't even dark by the time we were lounging on the side of the cold Crow Pass road and waiting for our pick up.

I think we're both looking forward to the next time conditions line up to give this one a go with all of our skis intact!

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