Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Lynx Creek Ski - February & March 2022

In the middle of February 2022, a wet storm riding strong south winds pounded the mountains above Turnagain Arm, overloading the snowpack, and producing a dramatic avalanche cycle. We needed a snowpack that received less of a load, so headed south for the Johnson Pass trailhead. 

As we drove along the Arm we passed the terrifying remains of splintered trees, new avy paths, and concrete debris that had covered the road and railroad. My reptile brain screamed to go home and ride the Stairmaster, but we knew what we were seeing told us nothing about the stability, or lack thereof, in Lynx Creek.

Rolling into the parking lot we could see a couple big crowns in the headwaters of Lynx. As we skinned out of the parking lot and thru the two-stroke exhaust hanging in the valley I figured our odds of a shutdown on our objective of Captain's Chair were around 75%. Soon we were skipping across the flowing waters of Bench Creek; I love a good creek crossing and figured this was a good omen for the day.

As we entered the Lynx drainage we left the creek and started to gain altitude towards Captains Chair. But, not before first stopping to inspect the little cabin overseeing the valley. Tom and Erin took notes for their future cabin - especially on the importance of having a good supply of food for the local porcupine population. 

Entering the hanging valley below our objective we could see that the chute had already slid. Sweet. We weren't in for a complete shutdown.

Based on the giant mound of debris in the apron this chute clearly flushes all the time, at one point we even crossed the hard ice of the early season's rain on snow event. The generally firm bed surface (and Tom breaking trail) made for efficient booting, and we made quick progress up the chute.

A few hundred feet from the top of the chute we passed the highest crown from the last avy cycle and swam into the deep untouched storm snow.

Paddling thru untouched snow was slower than following Tom up bed surface, but one by one we crawled onto the small ledge at the top of the line. With our little perch dropping steeply away on both sides, the five of us tried not to step on each other or off the edge as we stared at the fucked up north face of Spirit Walker to the southwest.

In some conditions it's possible to continue from the top of the chute up the hanging face to the summit, but the face is filled with thin trigger spots and wind pillows. With an avalanche rating of considerable and crowns everywhere this wasn't the day to push it up the unsupported face. Nice to have that nugget to come back for.

Erin was the most stoked so we let her go first.

We hadn't found a slab in the fluffy snow at the top of the line, but with the new snow and widespread crowns in the zone we knew a pocket could pop. So, the first few people took it carefully spooning turns and skiing the gut until we were past the storm crowns. Sabrina:

The slides in the chute had only cleared out the middle, leaving yummy pow to slash on the sides. Combined with the fast booting up the bed surface and the stability from the mid-storm slide it was the best conditions we could ask for to knock off an objective in a less stable zone. Tom:

Together we ripped the faceted pow of the apron and lower bowl past our skintrack.

Then stopped to peer back up around Tom and admire our handiwork. 

We didn't have anywhere near ideal stability, and there weren't more easily accessible lines to play the it-already-slid game, so we continued skiing down towards the creek with the plan to ski the more moderate terrain on the east facing wall of the valley. Nyssa:

This is when the fauna got good. All morning we'd been seeing funny tunnels from porkies wandering around looking for the next cabin to chew on, so were stoked when Erin spotted one of the vandals waddling thru the snow below us. Probably concerned by our squeals of excitement he tried to take refuge in an alder. This worked for a little bit before an awkward dangle followed by an unceremonious canonball back into the snow.

Next up were the tracks of a ptarmigan having a really hard time taking off. I imagine there was a lot of frustrated squawking and clucking. 

Speaking of animals, this reminds me of the gallon Ziploc of herring I rediscovered in my ski box that morning. They'd been transferred there after a memorable weekend of harvesting and swamping in Kachemak Bay in August, and had been marinating there since. Very very very stinky. Anyways. After visiting the zoo we started the skin up the east face of the valley.

Behind, the big west faces of the Groundhog Peaks opened up around us. I'd like to ski that long southwest line off the summit of West Groundhog Peak on some less solar day in the future.

Trading off on the sharp end, we worked the convexities and other microfeatures of the face, basically staying out of avalanche terrain as we climbed the two or three thousand vertical feet to the ridge. 

Then, with the clouds of a weak shortwave approaching, we dropped into the long run back to Bench Creek.

None of us had ever skied this line before, and after watching another group spin laps on it that morning were curious to see what it was like. We were impressed - it started with a rolly polly alpine bowl before transitioning into fun trees. Sabrina:

Then finished with some grabby mank thru alders and deadfall - excellent adventure skiing.

All that was left was one last splash thru the creek and 45 minutes of double poling back to the car. Turnagain is mostly a land of relatively short laps (and usually lots of them), it was cool to spend the day just doing two long laps; and I guess a pair of long approaches and deproaches too.

The next day we found ourselves back in Lynx Creek with Toomas and Charlie. As exemplified by the herring incident the previous day, this weekend was not the proudest for my brain. Today's brain failure was that I managed to forget Dmitry at Tesi. I still have absolutely no idea how this happened, as we stopped there, stood around in the parking lot for awhile, then just got back in the car and kept driving. Somehow we did not notice that he was parked probably feet away. Clearly I need to spend less time thinking about the weather and our real estate empire and more about communicating with the people in my life - my boss would agree with this.

We were hungry for the four thousand vertical foot couloir dropping north off the summit of East Groundhog and planned to work up to that throughout the day. Toomas and Charlie on the way up for our first lap; behind them is our Captain's Chair line from the previous day.

First up was a fluffy run from a shoulder of East Groundhog back towards the creek. Tom:

Yep, that was fun. Charlie looks slightly warmer here than that time we rode in the back of a pickup going 65 mph when it was -15 degrees out.

The first lap was good, so we headed back up for more on the next shoulder up the valley. Behind Tom you can see Charlie's zipper skintrack from the first lap, and behind that is TT43 - responsible for that cold, cold hitchhike with Charlie years ago.

We skinned most of the way, then a quick booter brought us to the top of our next line which was just down the ridge from our run down the Captain's Chair chute the day before.

Topping out, we drooled and pondered the southwest face of East Groundhog. Five miles north of here the snow would be stickier, the snowpack would be twice as deep, and this face would look a lot like Goldpan. But, here in the transition between Turnagain and Summit its a sketchy thin face filled with lots of trigger spots.

Done transitioning, imagining Lynx Creek with a maritime snowpack, and eating stroopwafles, we chased Tom and Charlie down a clone of the first lap. Tom:

With more data from a couple of pits and a couple of runs we were feeling better about the snowpack and ready to at least peer into that big terrain trap off the summit of East Groundhog.

Charlie did an admirable job of installing another zipper of a skintrack up another skinny ridge, and the Kenai Mountains started to drop away below as we shuffled higher.

Gaining the ridgeline, the heart of Johnson Pass sprawled out before us. We all know how much brain space I spend wondering if I should get another sled (or two), and Johnson Pass is one of the main reasons for that.

We followed the ridge to the summit of the east peak and peered into the huge terrain trap dropping thousands, and thousands, and thousands, and thousands of feet. There was obviously a wind pillow sitting in the starting zone of the line and I think everyone was pretty intimidated looking down what was essentially an XXXL toilet offering to flush us into the creek. We putzed around for way too long trying to drop a cornice bomb into the line with basically no success. I think this picture of Charlie doing everything he can go nowhere near the edge exemplifies how we all felt.

After thirty minutes of generally procrastinating we admitted to ourselves that no one wanted to drop first into the couloir, and instead skied into the adjacent and more reasonable northeast bowls.

This option was far less stressful, and actually quite fun. Tom:

We skipped over roll after roll of alpine powder before eventually arriving at treeline. The trees were initially awesome, and my first thought was that we stumbled upon a hidden gem of steep glades teleported straight from BC. Charlie:

Then the alders appeared, and just got thicker for the next thousand feet of descent. Dangling from various alder rappels I quickly got separated from the team, but mostly kept tabs on them by a game of Marco Polo. Honestly I get a big kick out of this BS, but looking back up at this picture it sure isn't the portal to BC that we'd briefly fantasized.

Finished with our alder judo lesson, we refueled, then spent the next hour trying to keep Tom in sight as we double poled, shuffled, skate skied, and flailed down the snowmachine track back to the JP parking lot.

Over the next couple weeks, wind events, and storms that giant north tube stayed on our minds, and early March found us back there with Tony to give it another go.

This zone doesn't see much traffic or have much beta - combine that with the recent wind and it would be another day of terrain progression. We started the day dropping west off the Captain's Chair ridge. There was a grabby wind skin, and I spent most of the run trying not to cross my tips or look like I'd never skied before. Nyssa making bad snow look good:

We needed to find more protected snow, so headed for a sheltered ramp dropping north from West Groundhog Peak that Nyssa had spied.

In these thinner and deserted zones stability is always more of a question mark than the moguls of Turnagain, so we were careful to space out and avoid any possible thin spots as we worked our way up the ramp.

Working the edges of the face we were able to mostly stay out of the avalanche hazard in the middle and were soon ready to drop back in just as the afternoon light started to kiss the first few turns. Tony:

Nyssa had been totally right about the snow here - it was great. Here she is reaping the rewards of her detective work:

Two laps down, much country traveled, feeling pretty good about stability, and the shadows were getting longer. It was time to give the Groundhog's den another go, so we headed back up the now familiar ridge to the East Summit. Behind Tony is the endless terrain of Johnson Pass - basically another Turnagain, but deserted, and with little beta.

My eyes were drawn to the wall of chutes we call "Moria" hidden behind Bench Peak. Hans, Alex, and I skied one of these five years ago. That was the first day Alex had his new sled, it was also the day his new sled exploded into a green cloud of antifreeze. His second sled lasted about as long - except I tossed that one off the trailer and into a ditch while driving with my stiff ski boots on. Sorry Alex. Lesson here is only drive in boots with a flex equal to or less than 100, like F1s.

Looking past Moria we dreamed about the giants busting out of the Isthmus Icefield. We've spent some time back there, but not enough. Many of the untouched king lines of the Kenai are guarded by this inaccessible land of ice, snow, and wind. 

Shifting our view from the high peaks, we watched the heli skiers lapping the alders several thousand feet below. This is a reminder of just how lucky we are that we routinely literally look down on people paying thousands of dollars to experience a lifetime dream that is only a fraction of our weekend warrior life.

Arriving at the top of our objective, we looked into the intimidating line, and I felt my anus tighten. It tops out at a mere 45 degrees, and there are no cliffs, but holy shit 4,000 vertical feet of terrain trap under a starting zone and finishing in a smashed forest of debris is intimidating. Like last time we could see a wind pillow in the entrance, so Nyssa and I both ski cut the slab before pulling out in a safe spot to watch Tony. As Tony ventured laterally away from our ski cut, the pillow immediately fractured and slid. It was a relatively small pocket, but exactly why we'd made sure to get into a safe spot.

Knowing that the slab had likely cleaned out any remaining instabilities we started to work our way into the heart of the line. Tony:

The upper half of the line was mostly bed surface - partly from Tony's handywork but also because huge couloirs like this are always cleaning themselves out with spindrift, slough, and slides - you have to make sure there's no natural slide hazard when you go into a place like this.

By the midway point the snow surface had improved dramatically and we had fun working the double fall line pow of the sidewalls. Nyssa: 

Eventually we caught up with the debris from Tony's slide which had made a soft slough cone - Seth's high school nickname. I suspect he may have had several high school nicknames. Below Tony you can see the destruction this snowy septic system routinely wrecks on the valley forest when it flushes.


With other huge lines like TT43 and Pete's south face, the south end of Turnagain is home to many monsters, and this one was no lesser. Between ski cutting and carefully working from safe zone to safe zone, it was an hour before we were at the bottom. Tony:

Hilariously I had been kind of concerned that we were not taking full advantage of the daylight, and that maybe we should have skied another lap, but those concerns were quickly relieved by the hour of challenging skate skiing back to the car. Lynx Creek may be this year's Winner Creek for us, but at least it does have more stream crossings going for it!

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