Monday, October 16, 2023

Indian Pass Skiing - January 2023

Between a wasteland of sastrugi at Hatcher and a layer cake of persistent weak layers at Turnagain, midwinter 2023 required creativity to make the most of our backcountry skiing mecca. Our attention turned to the mountains of Indian Pass, and we slowly worked our way into the zone.

First, we spent days digging pits, testing the snowpack, and bingeing on Falls Creek. The heavy early season snow had bent the alders into a tube to crawl through as the long winter night eroded into first light.

Leaving the caves of shrubs behind, we climbed into the Falls Creek basin. The storm cycle had brought down new avalanches everywhere along the approach. Some had filled the creek with 20 feet of debris and others left pulverized piles of shattered alder Lincoln Logs.

We'd hoped that the big chute dropping west from the summit of Falls Peak would be in play, but it was one of the few things that hadn't flushed. Without big rock walls steadily spindrifting to clean out any lurking instabilities, there was no way we'd be climbing into the mouth of that monster.

Instead we headed towards where most days here start: the north chute of Falls Peak. Wading upwards through the deep snow, we watched the rising sun bathe South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex in pink then gold morning light.

Dmitry was feeling motivated and raced ahead to break trail until we popped into the refreshing sunlight of the ridgeline. Towards Turnagain Arm, the south chute dropped away below us. It looked delicious, fat, and tempting, but didn't seem to fit with plans for the rest of the day.

Hoping to instead work our way towards South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex, we skied north into our dark ascent route. We'd been in this line a week before, and it was cool to see it had grown 10 feet wider as the storms packed snow into it. Nyssa:

The snow quality on our first lap was great, and we were stoked. Ready for the relative warmth of the winter sun, we reapplied our skins and set course up the south chute of the Falls Creek Knob. We'd had stable results in our snow pit in the zone the week before, but the avalanche cycle had us on edge and we stopped in the apron to dig a pit. Our layer of concern was distinct facets over a thick melt-freeze crust almost a meter down. Without failures within CT or ECT parameters, but with an imperfect snowpack structure, we climbed the chute one at a time.

At the top we were in the sun and above the inversion; the 15 °F air felt almost warm as we transitioned to again drop north into the next dark rock cleft. A valley away, we looked at the cruiser south face of North Yuyanq’ Ch’ex that we surfed on a great day with Charlie last spring.

Refueling on PB&Js, we watched as Nyssa dropped first into the namesake Falls Creek Couloir.

At its crux the coolie was still pretty darn tight and concave. I'd never skied it this early in the year, and was reminded just how much snow the wind shovels into these chasms over the course of the winter.

Down the rock hallway and standing exhilarated on the lake, we looked up at the sunny face of South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex bathed in the gold. There was one obvious choice - we'd have to do a lap on it. Thinking back on the powerful mid-week avalanches that had tumbled off of Sheep Thrills Ridge, we knew that the big face would be the most suspect place we'd go today. Especially if we hit a thin spot. To avoid the possible risk as much as we could, we followed a subtle 25 degree ramp.

The face had a sneaky amount of vertical, and the light had turned pink from the refracting sun creeping sneaking towards the horizon as we reached the top of Tatooine.

Turnagain Arm's lazy river of clouds flowed slowly past as we shoved our snowy skins into icy packs. We looked around in awe at our magical mountains that hold so many dear memories and more yet to be made.

Then, with the sun dipping below the western horizon of the Neacola and Aleutian mountain ranges, we carved into the 4,500 foot descent towards the car. Nick:

After another week of snow trickling in, the Indian Pass SNOTEL was almost 50% above median, and we wanted more. This time we set our sights on a hidden gem tucked amongst the bigger peaks of the zone: Bidarka Peak.

As the morning dawned, we snaked thru dripping hemlocks and under wary alders before popping into the meadows of the pass.

We wanted to upcycle of our stable pit results from Falls Creek so turned towards the south face of Bidarka Peak. As the pitch of the face cranked up into avalanche terrain, we stopped to dig for the facet-crust combo we'd seen the week before.

There were no CT or ECT failures, so we continued upwards. Its always a thrill to be in the middle of an open face in avalanche terrain. Being the first tracks in desolate zone tinted by moody skies reminiscent of Mordor really enhanced the tickle.

At the ridge we merged with tracks of sheep whose trail we followed to the summit of Bidarka.

On top we found fresh sheep beds where the magical animals had been enjoying the view of Bird Ridge Overlook and Peak 4055. Nyssa's north line on Peak 4055 is visible, the king line on BRO is still on the hit list.  

Peering over the curving edge of the mountaintop, we looked down on the flock of sheep whose sleep we'd rudely disturbed.

We took in the enchanted lunar landscape around us, then dropped south past our uptrack and to the valley floor two thousand feet below.


The snow was creamy and there were no signs of instability. Having dipped our toes into the shallow end, we thought we were ready for the more consequential north face of Bidarka.

Our established skintrack efficiently brought us back to the summit from where we peered over the brink into the steep north entrance. 

Later in ski season this spot would be filled in with months of snow, but in January it was an unskiable slip and slide of rocks.

We downclimbed the fifty feet of treacherous scree until there was enough snow to click into our skis.

In early season conditions, the north chute was a fun series of tight chokes and ice steps.


We cranked turns around the rocks and ice, and the banana of a line curved, leaving behind what appeared to be an impenetrable cliff above us.

As we skied lower, the alpine face gave way to glades of dwarfed trees stunted by the angry and unending winds of the Front Range. Our skis wove thru these green bits of life as we rolled over old moraines to Indian Pass. 

At the pass we stopped to gawk at the jaw-dropping beauty of the snowy mountains of the Kenai rising from the icy gray waters of Turnagain Arm. Then, with hearts full of the magic of this wild place, we careened down the luge track to where the car waited in the night.

All week since Bidarka we'd been anxious to get back out there, but with the week's windy storms we knew we'd have to deal with a recently loaded snowpack sans beta. With what seemed like the first clearish day in a month, we settled on an extended version of the classic Arctic to Indian route.

In the netherworld of dusky first light, we chased John and Eric's tracks into Ship Creek then took our turn breaking trail as we passed under the spires of Temptation's north face where goblins certainly lurk. At the confluence between the north and south forks of Ship, we bid adieu to the Airport Heights hardmen on their way back to the hood via Ship Lake Pass, and broke trail into the quiet woods of the north fork.

With ten miles of trailbreaking down, I started to realize just what a chore A2I is when the trail isn't in. Finally reaching the roots of The Sail, we crawled out of the facets and onto the bench above the creek then clawed our way thru the alders to the alpine. Reaching the alpine, the cold north winds were finally pushing the clouds off the Chugach.

With baselayers drenched from miles of sweaty work and bushwhacking, our clothes frooze into crispy sheets of ice as the cold north wind pilfered the precious heat from our bodies. 200 yards below the summit of The Sail, we clipped our skis to our packs and followed the exposed brown Frangewhacke rock to the summit while the clouds evaporated around us.

Soaking in the midwinter sun, we drooled over the south faces of the huge peaks at the headwaters of SoFo Eagle River. We've skied, run, and climbed some of these over the years. Others remain on the list - we'll slowly keep picking them off!

Looking south, our attention turned to the immediate surroundings in our group of peaks. I'm looking forward to skiing Tail Feather Peak, and for that matter, The Wing.

Finished scrawling notes in our mental beta books, we ripped skins and watched as Ben dropped into the south face painted gold by a midwinter sun rising 9 degrees above the horizon.

Shivering in the heatless sun, we waited our turn then ripped down the fresh snow to where he waited at the col.

Photo: Ben Americus

As the face rolled into steeper and more complex terrain, we found the windloaded snow that had kept us off the higher peaks. Skiing thru the loaded features, several small slabs broke around our skis.

Tony says avalanches always happen when he skis with Austin. Does Austin think avalanches always happen when he skis with Tony??? Austin:

Skiing to the valley, we slapped on skins under the big shady faces of the wild basin for the next climb up Shaman Dome.

Passing fresh wolverine tracks in the new snow, and with seven hours of trailbreaking down, we all were thankful to have Ben pull us up another climb.

With the sun setting over the Neacolas to the southwest, we rounded the corner for the last push to the summit.

On top of the Shaman Dome we made sacrifices to the winter deities then clicked into ski mode for the long descent towards the dark valley hidden under the north face of BRO. If Neil had been here I bet he would have sacrificed some tater tots for Ullr.

We cautiously tiptoed through the sharks of thin snow at the top before opening it up in creamy twilight turns. Nyssa:


A cold wind was blowing in our faces as cold hands fumbled through the icy transition for our the last climb of the day to Bidarka Pass.

Following Nyssa and Tony as they broke the last couple miles of trail, I was again reminded that A2I and especially A2I++ is a lot more work when your group is breaking trail the whole way.

Under a sky filling with waking stars, we ripped our skins and raided our snack bags that were becoming dinner bags. Then, under the questionable lighting of our headlamps, we began the sinuous descent through rolling alpine, past bent alders, and through the hemlocks to the truck.

Before the month of January came to an end, we wanted to squeeze in one more day at Indian Pass. Following the winding trail towards Indian Pass, we climbed towards the sky and the falling snow.

The aesthetic north chute of Peak 4055 was on Nyssa’s hit list, and the contrast of its rock walls seemed like a perfect place to start another stormy day as we turned away from the trail and skinned up the apron. Trying to keep up with Tom and Charlie’s long and fast strides, it was soon time to start booting.

The storm hanging on the ridges and mountains of Ship Creek enveloped us in windblown flakes as if we were leaving our own world behind. Erin:

In this monochrome microcosm of rock and blowing snow, we tunneled up the mountainside and onto a small perch at the top of the line. Exposed on the ridge, we hurried to prepare for the descent as the mischievous gusts tried to steal our gear. Then, with the wind nipping at our heals, we slipped into the protection of the rock walls.

Our skis found creamy snow whipped by spindrift as we followed echoes of Charlie’s singing voice. Tom:



At the bottom we found a new skintrack curving up valley. It was the fingerprints of our friends Ryan and Sam who had passed under while we climbed 4055. We hadn’t seen them thru the falling snow, but they had heard us singing.

Following their tracks, we ascended to the pass between Bidarka and Bird Ridge Overlook and onwards towards our next destination on the north side of The Beak. From the pass we skied into the barren upper basin of Ship Creek. Gliding down the valley, we looked over our shoulders at the vertical rock walls and incised couloirs of BRO lurking in the shadow of the storm.

A mile later and it was time to start the contouring skinner into the north basin of The Beak. With the squalls nipping our watering eyes, we again climbed into the storm. Blown from sheep beds on the cliffs above, scat bounced past us like little landslides of pellets as the wind pried its wispy tentacles anywhere it could.

The sheep appeared out of the storm above us as we closed in on the top of the chute.

From the top of the chute there was a snow ramp to the summit, but with the lashing winds we didn’t want to suffer the same fate as the sheep poop and decided to call it there. The descent was a big mountain treat. Nyssa:

The turns were steep and tight with plenty of moving snow that we had to carefully manage as the new accumulation broke loose below our skis. Charlie:



In the bottom of the basin the storm was pounding and the weak light of the short day was fading. I argued for a bonus lap on Bidarka, but was shot down by the four voices of reason around me.

Skinning back towards the pass, my senses were flooded by the wild weather engulfing our little human experience. Unglued from the constraints of the rat race and the city, my soul was full of the mountains and dear friends.

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