Monday, November 1, 2021

Petes Skiing - January 2021

Early season last winter brought every southcentral Alaskan skier's dream: storm after storm rolling off the Pacific, into the Gulf of AK, then burying Turnagain in feet of snow. The north end of the pass usually gets more snow, and it was getting too much - overloading the snowpack - so we headed south to Petes.

On a January Saturday Tony, Erin, Nyssa, and I broke trail thru the rain crust of the Johnson Pass parking lot towards a refresh of 18 inches of Alaskan velvet awaiting in the alpine. We were joined by Sydney and Rob - old friends of mine from Crested Butte.

It was still stormy as we climbed out of the trees and onto the exposed ridgeline. The avy danger for the region forecast as considerable, and although we didn't think it applied to our end of the pass, it would be a day of slowly working into bigger terrain. So, we started with a low consequence run down the rolling ridge and into the trees. Without the telltale cracking, settling, or moving snow of instability we were ready to move into the alpine.

The next progression was a north facing chute scoured by the predominant storm winds that funnel through the pass. Rob and Sydney skied first into the tight entrance with precise turns that brought back fond memories of many inbounds days in Colorado. We chased them down the chute, whooping gleefully as the storm snow bounced off our faces. The chute had "only" sloughed with no slab movement - another good sign for stability. 

With the clouds clearing we knew it was time to head to the top. Anchorage is as good as it gets for backcountry skiers in the U.S., so it can be easy to get jaded about how good we have it. From the summit of Petes it was awesome to hear the awe of Rob and Syd as the spines, faces, ribs, bowls and mountains of Turnagain opened up around us. We talked about local weather and pointed out some of our favorites, then dropped back towards the road.


Yep. Anchorage is America's last great ski city.

Regrouping in the basin below we were all hungry for more and happy to recycle our skin track for another lap. Back on top, the next order of business was which direction to go next. It was the first day of Syd and Rob's trip and wanting to save their legs for the week ahead they settled on a long lap back to the car while we pointed our tips down a dark north chute into the heart of Spokane Creek. With too brief of instructions to "just ski towards the car" we parted ways.

Photo: Nyssa Landres

I dropped into the double fall line sidewall of the chute savoring sticking my hip in the snow on each hard right hand turn while my slough poured away into the gut. Then looked back up to see Nyssa and Tony tag teaming the parallel chutes. 

From the heart of Spokane Creek we looked up to drool at the spines at the head of the basin, before turning our attention to breaking trail up for yet another lap.

Meanwhile Syd and Rob were having a very different experience getting back to the car. I wasn't there and its not my story to tell, but my understanding is that Sydney hit an unexpected avy crown in the flat dark light of midwinter and blew her knee. From there she self evacuated through two thousand feet of rain crust, incised gulley, and bushwhacking back to the car.

Over the years so many of us have had to evacuate from the backcountry after an accident, and hearing about another can only make you cringe and shiver knowing how horrible it is. You don't have to be far from the car, and you definitely don't have to be doing something gnarly to suddenly be in a life or death situation or have an epic. Syd is one of a the best athletes I've ever met, and was skiing terrain way way under her ability. But, it doesn't matter who you are or what you are doing, it can happen to anyone, anytime. Its a good reminder that the best thing you can do is be prepared, look out for each other, and remember that every day on this planet is a gift.

And that is exactly how we felt as we skinned into the pastel colors of midwinter sunset - that life on this planet is a gift.

Standing above Johnson Pass, I looked back at Nyssa, Tony, and Erin framed by the south facing gems of Turny.

Swinging 180 degrees to the south, I soaked in the mesmerizing massif of Bench Peak. Bench was one of the last things I skied before having my own near death and horrible extraction experience in Utah. Like every day in the mountains, Bench was a special one that I hold dearly.

Knowing we had still had a long dark egress out the Johnson Pass trail, we took one last look at our endless mountains draped in soft indigo evening light, then dropped into the three thousand foot south chute of Pete's.

The snow conditions were great, and we hadn't seen signs of instability all day, but center punching a terrain trap the size of a small town was eerie. 

With burning legs we party skied the low angle apron, then with the moon rising above us and our knees shivering in fear we survival-skied the grabby raincrust to the valley floor.

At the valley we clambered over concrete debris from the mountainside flushing during the last cycle - exactly why you can't ski a line like this very often - then chased after Tony for the hour of skate skiing back to the car.

A week later, after another cycle of Pineapple Express storms, Nyssa, Malcolm and I were back and finding another clean canvas at Petes. This time we started on Petes North dropping the long steep south face into Petes Creek.

With clear and cold conditions so perfect for facetening the snow the night before, the sloughs on that first run were fast and big, and we were careful to ski directionally and not get caught ahead of the blasting walls of loose snow on the decent. 

Slapping on our skins for the next climb, our eyes were all drawn to the same jewel: the fins dropping west from Granddaddy Peak. We knew where we were headed. With Nyssa blazing trail we tried to keep up and were soon on the ridge to the top. 

Zooming along the ridge in front of us Nyssa disappeared with a sudden squeak. Wondering if a glacier had suddenly formed on the ridgeline, we tiptoed towards her last seen point on the way to China. And there she was dangling in a crevasse that had formed as the maritime snow of the plastic cornice peeled away from the mountain. Malcom helped to fish her out and we continued on our merry way to the summit. 

On the peak we ran into Eric, Julie, and Ryan with Dane's crew hot on their heels - Alaska is a small town. But, even though its a small town, its still a big place and there was still plenty of untracked for us after they dropped. Malcolm:

I managed to weasel my way around a cornice the size of a triceratops and was rewarded with an untouched fin. The line wasn't too steep and the snow was perfect. Porpoising in and out of the blower on each turn, wisps of backlit cold smoke sparkled around me as I floated down to everybody.

Meeting in the bottom of the upper basin and full of the overpowering drug that is mountain flow, we parted ways with Eric, Julie, and Ryan as they headed down Spokane Creek will we started the ascent back to Petes Peak. Like Sydney the week before, it wasn't until later that we'd find out that Ryan broke his collarbone on that egress. Anyone who's snapped their collarbone knows it can produce a level of pain that is so much worse than many "worse" injuries. And again, Ryan didn't get hurt skiing a spine in avalanche terrain, but instead on the low angle egress. As many of us have experienced, it often happens in these moments we let my guard down - like a trick that I have dialed, when I'm just goofing around, skiing "easy" terrain, or when I've fallen into a routine or rushing. Its not until it happens that you get a reminder of just how fragile our incredibly strong bodies can be.

About the same time we were topping out on Petes Peak with no idea what was happening below us in Spokane Creek. We waved to Josh and Nikki who were on the skintrack below us (and had been huge in helping Sydney with her extraction the week before), then surfed south off the bowling ball into Petes Creek. Malcolm:

You all know what we did next - skied another lap. Even on a busy Saturday with everyone in Southcentral in the same zone there was still plenty of untouched for more delicious trailbreaking. Or at least more trailbreaking for Nyssa.

In front of us Josh and Nikki had topped out on our last lap.

By the top Malcolm's skins had failed. We could see the car, and skiing another lap was oh so tempting. But, as we've learned too many times its often in sight of the car that nasty accidents happened. So, thankful for the great day we'd already had, we skied into peach light out of a fairy tale and towards the car.

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