Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Explorer Ski - 4.12.2022

With spines, bowls, chutes, alders, and crevasses, Explorer Peak is a snow globe of skiing in southcentral AK. The problem is that its right next to Whittier, starts at sea level, gets a lot of sun, and is a huge terrain trap. A complete day there requires conditions that rarely line up: calm coastal gap winds, a low rain line, manageable solar affect, and stable avalanche conditions across a range of elevation bands and aspects - things that rarely line up. 

When we saw pix of Bob, Sam, and Emily ripping pow from the summit of the peak we knew to head that way - thanks for the hint guys! Fresh off the plane from Kodiak fieldwork, Nyssa picked me up at the airport at 8 AM and we raced south on the Seward Highway to give the snow globe a good swirl and shake.

We parked past the salmon ponds on the shoulder of the Portage Road, clawed up the icy snowbank, followed crust skier tracks thru the woods (where don't those guy's go?), and skinned into the gully. Getting buried in an avalanche at the bottom of a ravine would always be bad, but getting stuffed into a crevasse here would be an added bummer.

There was another group ascending via a different route and we passed them as we climbed higher in the basin. They weren't close, but Alaska is a small town and we figured we'd probably know em. At the col below the summit cone we peered over the edge into the Skookum Glacier then started the booter to the top. The Skookum gorge, with Carpathian as its crown jewel, is big country that seems out of place on the Kenai Peninsula. It would fit in better in the Alaska Range or the High Chugach.

We made quick work of Bob's bomber booter from the previous day and a few minutes later were standing on the peak looking east towards Middle Glacier Peak, Byron, and Carpathian.

There are still a few peaks and many many lines around here that we haven't had a chance to ski yet - good thing life is long. We made mental notes on the hit list while we sat in the sun eating lunch and watching a solo skier make their way up Middle Glacier. I wondered who it was. Maybe Dane?

Dropping into the northwest face of the peak, I was impressed. For a variety of reasons I hadn't skied off the top before, watching my slough pour down thru the steep terrain and over the bergshrund was a good tickle. Nyssa in the steep terrain:

Once down the steeps, Nyssa and I skied over the flat glacier to say hi and found our friend Rusty - again its a small town.

Then it was on to another part of the snow globe - the chutes draining into the Explorer Valley. We looked back at Rusty and Co. on Explorer's summit pyramid, then squeezed past a small gap in the cornice and into the chute.

I remember last time up here noting an impressive amount of slough that made a large standing wave of flowing snow over the bergschrund. The same thing happened this time - its amazing how much clear nights can facet the snow on shaded aspects even during the heat of mid-April.

For those who aren't familiar, and like so many other physical processes in the world, faceting is driven by gradients (differences over space or distances). The difference between the relatively warm/wet air in the snow and longwave energy leaving the cold/dry atmosphere on clear nights produces a pressure gradient that drives water vapor through the snowpack to the surface and changes round and cohesive snow crystals into square and loose ones. has a fun animation that describes the process:

We'd been waiting for the sun to soften the southeast slope above us, and it was time to ski this shot, so up we went.

I've wanted to ski this little shot in non-crust conditions for awhile now, so was stoked it lined up right!

With another lap in the books, the sun had moved across the sky enough to ripen the south bowls of Explorer that drop towards the Skookum. It was time to harvest that corn. For years I've dreamed of skiing this big, sunny basin, but its hard to time stable conditions thru the northerly approach with good conditions on the south side. It felt good to have played the aspangulation game right (at least this time) as we skied down the endless rolls.

Hopefully we get to ski these sunny fields again sometime in powder snow and golden midwinter light.

The corn skiing component of the snow globe was complete, and we headed back up for another north facing chute. The uptrack was a game of looking for a spot with cell service as we tried to coordinate with the plumber fixing a leak back in town. I should crush my phone and unglue.

Finished coordinating slumlord repairs, we each picked our own route down the next lap.

Another new line - always makes me stoked.

Five laps down and there was one line we still wanted in the snow globe - the one that everyone looks at from the highway - the large, exposed, and badass fin dropping from the shoulder towards the valley floor. This line has some street cred from its feature in Freeskier in 2017.

It was getting late in the day and the spring sun was starting to peel snow off the solar slopes adjacent to the line, so Nyssa and I rallied to boot up the objective before too many point releases and rocks came down from above.

From the top we looked down on the Portage Valley and its namesake glacial river snaking 3,000 feet below our feet, thought about all the great memories we have had together in this zone, then prepped to drop into our last line of the day. 

We snuck under the huge curled cornice of sticky maritime goo and started to ski.

The line was everything we'd hoped for: steep, exposed, aesthetic, sloughy, and that spicy sense of adventure that comes with something new as the cherry on top.

Then we were driving the car back the Portage Road with the day's jewel glowing in evening light in the rearview mirror.

Looking back on this line in the Freeskier article, Wiley Miller stated: "We all agreed that it would be a lot of work, probably the most vertical that we had to do during the whole trip". The pro-dawgs skied one line this day, while we'd done six laps - a pretty standard day for many of the weekend warriors living in this backcountry skiing heaven. Although, I admit: our light gear helps a lot, we ski way slower, and spend waaaay less time in the air than the pros! Still, I think its so cool and makes me proud to live in a community where the standard day for an engineer, doctor, lawyer, teacher, land manager, or other working professional is 6 times that of a pro athlete. 

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