April (and a little of May)

In skier’s lingo, spring means time to relax, take a break from training, and go do what you like to do.  For me, I like to go training, but a different type of training.  Mostly this involves vertical endeavors on cold white or blue substances.  There is plenty of time for running, cross country skiing, and all the other types of training all summer, but backcountry skiing is a spring sport for me.  It could even be considered just an April sport.

 

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Another spring sport: Ice climbing.  Photo: Caitlin Patterson

 

After racing wrapped up in Fairbanks, it was time to get going on fun activities.  My sister, Caitlin, decided to hang around Alaska with me for a couple weeks.  While this did mean that adventures had to be suitable for her, it also meant that I had a reliable buddy for doing things even if we did have to sort gear.  A plan for Eklutna Traverse quickly fell apart due to other commitments and poor snow conditions.  However, this opened an opportunity. Instead of Eklutna, we threw together gear and plan to go climb Mt. Sanford in the Wrangells.  Mt. Sandford is the 6th tallest peak in the US and involves significant glacier travel, something Caitlin had never encountered.  We put her in the middle of a four-person rope team and figured we would be fine.

Due to the hasty nature of the trip, we caved in to my torment and used snowmachines.  I am firmly opposed to snow machines as recreational pursuits; however, there is a grey area in there for use as transportation.  15 miles up a river bed was made quite a bit easier with two sleds to haul us and our gear.  From there we had another 15 miles of fun flat skinning to make it to the glacier.  It was made slightly more eventful by a few misplaced items.  The hat that was dropped early on was deemed an item for the way out, but a glove that was misplaced later was not.  I was volunteered as a retrieval team.  There are always benefits to being the fittest.

Sanford has a nice icefall between 6,000 ft. and 8,000 ft. that provided some excitement on the second day.  We never had to move to crampons, but were quite lucky with the few ice bridges that we found. Caitlin had her eyes opened a bit when bridging some crevasses.  (I still think moulins are some of the scariest things in existence.) Once we got through the icefall the snow turned to powder and crevasses made less frequent appearances.  We trudged up to a high camp a bit over 10,000ft and somewhat sheltered from the wind.  A quick check to the thermometer indicated -10°F as we curled around some food and crawled into our sleeping bags.

Several hours later, we were stripping off extra clothing as the temperature warmed up and the wind died down.  A summit day was looking promising.  In the morning, however, things were not so great.  Our camp was beautifully sunny, but the summit was still obscured.  Nonetheless, we decided to have a go for it. We lightened loads, boiled water for the day, and grabbed a couple sleeping bags for emergencies before starting the slog. About 5’ in, I called the first break of the day in an emergency: water leaking from my bag onto my pants.  An inspection indicated that one of the emergency down sleeping bags was quite wet and I had lost a full liter of water.  Not the most promising start, but we kept our heads down for several hours after that reaching about 13,000 ft. At this elevation on Sanford there is a slight plateau with a false summit to the West of our route.  Accelerating winds and lingering clouds obscured views of either the summit or the false point.  This came to a quick head as we rolled onto the plateau and found our rope team staring into a chasm. The first question of left or right morphed rapidly into up or down as the whiteout rolled further in around us.  Our sparse wanding of the route on the way up began to look like a serious mistake. Down pant, jackets, and mittens all came out as we huddled together to make the dangerous decision to continue, bivy, or descend.  Descend became the most feasible so we pulled out the GPS, wiped our goggles off so we could hunt for wands, and un-roped for the ski back to high camp.  Wind crust and sastrugi made skiing interesting, but we all made it back to high camp safely.

 

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The day started pretty nice.  Photo: Peter Mamrol

 

Then came the waiting game.  The decision game.  Up or down. Today or tomorrow.  Summit again… We did have cell service up there as Glenallen was within view; however, this eventually was our downfall.  Sitting around in a tent for 18hrs before going for the summit again seemed alright, but sitting for 18 hours just to go back down didn’t sound that fun.  Also, we would have to charge out to get Neil back to work.  The 40mph winds, 3 inches of snow, and clouds forecasted eventually made the decision.  Time to bail. 

 

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Looking up from high camp at one of the clearer moments.

 

At least bailing was fun though.  We had a foot of light powder topping the crevasse field.  Skiing down un-roped was at time scary but also exhilarating.  The icefall went quite smoothly too and soon we were off the glacier and back to picking our way through rocks.  Camp was called as soon as we made it far enough down river to find wood for a fire.  In a week’s worth of food for four people no one had been smart enough to bring marshmallows though.  The morning brought the real disappointment when the mountain dawned clear.

After a few crust cruises in the Anchorage area, Caitlin’s time in Alaska reached its end.  Fortunately, I had several other reliable partners for the weekends.  The backcountry boards did not get underused this spring.  The most memorable was a 15-hour day trip to ski Mount Rumble.

 

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Crust cruising. Photo: Reese Hanneman

 

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Playing on the ice at Spencer Glacier. Photo: Caitlin Patterson

 

 

Mount Rumble had been on my list for a while as a summer hike.  It is the 5th tallest peak in Chugach state park.  Also, it holds a position of prominence in the headwaters of Peter’s creek valley which is an area that previously I had avoided due to private property issues.  Skiing it wasn’t on my radar until Neil mentioned it one evening.  That kick started the route planning as there are several other prominent chutes that can be skied on the way in and out.  On the given day, we departed Anchorage at 4am heading for the X-couloir and Rumble link up followed by a trudge over bombardment pass. We found beautiful powder in places, steep ice in a few, and altogether an awesome day out in the mountains with friends.

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Down-climbing from the summit of Rumble with the Wall Street Glacier far below.
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Eying one more couloir after 15 hours skiing.  We opted out.  Photo: Neil Liotta

After a few more adventures, I left for my first camp as an official US ski team nominee in Bend, OR. That will have to wait for another update though.

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More skiing.
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Until next (selfie) time!
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