Dispatch from the North: As Days Grow Longer, So Do the Ski Turns


Post by WildSnow.com blogger | February 7, 2018      

(This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.)

A bluebird day above the clouds at Eddies in Turnagain Pass, AK last week reminded me of my first trip there a few years ago

A bluebird day above the clouds at Eddies in Turnagain Pass, AK last week reminded me of my first trip there a few years ago.

The Seward Highway heads south out of Anchorage, Alaska winding along the dramatic Turnagain Arm, a coastal inlet that bites into the Chugach Mountains. Fifty miles south of the edge of town, the highway leaves the coast and turns into the Kenai Peninsula, climbing 900 feet to Turnagain Pass. With a deep maritime snowpack and steep mountain ridges, the dramatic slopes of Turnagain are a backcountry dream come true.

The first time I skied at Turnagain, a friend showed me a place called Eddies Ridge above Ingram Creek towards the north end of the pass. I spent a good bit of the morning skeptical. It was late February a few years ago and we woke up in a rainstorm. The parking lot was wet and there was no snow. These sea level problems followed us some ways up the trail – a scene that many locals feel is getting increasingly common as climate change hits Alaska. My friend was insistent that a mere drizzle was nothing to worry about, and sure enough we popped above the clouds to an absolutely beautiful alpine ridge with endless snow.

Safety note: The geologic youth and recent glacial history of the Chugach Mountains means that terrain gets steep in a hurry. Avalanche terrain abounds around the pass. As with all popular backcountry areas – a skin track already in or previous ski track cutting a slope doesn’t mean that slope is safe. Be careful, be cautious, dig pits, read forecasts, practice your systems.

The road down there is only about 800 ft above sea level, but at this latitude tree line is only a narrow strip down low

The road down there is only about 800 ft above sea level, but at this latitude tree line is only a narrow strip down low.

Early in the week I broke a ski boot, which after some other recent gear reorganization left me with only my skimo race boots. This gave me a good excuse last Wednesday to see how deep my race skis could get. . .turns out pretty deep. (photo by Sagar Gondalia)

Early in the week I broke a ski boot, which after some other recent gear reorganization left me with only my skimo race boots. This gave me a good excuse last Wednesday to see how deep my race skis could get. . .turns out pretty deep. (photo by Sagar Gondalia)

While such days are encouraging, it is also a bit scary to see how delicate the coastal winter is in the far north. This winter we have been lucky enough to have good snow at sea level and this week saw cold air, high pressure, and stable conditions lite up the stoke at Turnagain.

Tincan is popular for a reason. ‘Tincan Common,’ shown here, is beautiful, accessible, and relatively close to the road.

Tincan is popular for a reason. ‘Tincan Common,’ shown here, is beautiful, accessible, and relatively close to the road.

My car’s thermometer read -6 degrees Saturday morning as I pulled into the Carrs supermarket parking lot in south Anchorage at 8 am to meet up with a couple of friends. Such civilized hours of the morning are considered early by many Alaskans, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that 8 am is still quite dark. While your average cross-section of vehicles takes up the parking spots closest to the store, the back row of the lot is mostly Subarus, 4-Runners, and Tacomas all laden with ski-themed stickers. We knew we were not the only ones heading south for the snow. An hour later we pulled into an empty parking lot at one of Turnagain’s less popular trailheads.

Turnagain Pass is absolutely huge. As I have started to get the lay of the land I have noticed that 99% of skiers go to probably about 1% of the terrain. Most backcountry travelers on the Pass go to an area called Tincan, which offers good turns close the car. The skiing at Tincan can be great, and the scenery is amazing, but the crowds can make it feel decidedly un-Alaskan. I have had some great midweek days there recently, but was itching to get a bit further from the beaten path on Saturday.

Up high in the heart of Turnagain.

Up high in the heart of Turnagain.

I had run into Andy a few days earlier while skiing at Eddies, and he said he wanted to start to make use of the long days (we are all very excited to make it 8 hours without a head lamp). Aiming to avoid the comfort of tracks, Andy schemed up a tour to the back of the valley to check out an area that we had not been before. We headed out a ridge that is known for Nordic skiing and mellow terrain in between Tincan and Sunburst (another popular area). Looking across the valley at these two more popular zones, we saw skiers and ski tracks a plenty, but they slowly dissipated with each mile and after a couple hours they were nearly gone (though not completely, which was both impressive and saved quite a bit of trail breaking).

Justin heading over the edge. (photo by Andy Moderow)

Justin heading over the edge. (photo by Andy Moderow)

I asked Andy what this place is called. Pastoral Peak, Taylor Pass, Kickstep Mountain were all clear landmarks, but we were somewhere in the middle on a somewhat non descript point near the head of Lyon creek maybe 4 miles from the highway.

Andy just said, “I dunno.”

I still haven’t gotten used to this part of the ‘Alaska factor’.

Only about four miles from the road, this peak granted ample solitude – we didn’t see anyone else all day

Only about four miles from the road, this peak granted ample solitude – we didn’t see anyone else all day.

It had not snowed in about a week, but cold temps and calm winds had not only kept the snow soft, but lightened up the pow. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves up on a ridge eyeing endless potential lines. We kept looking up thinking a short dash would get us to crest where our skins were pointing, but as is often the case in the alpine, the scale was deceiving. Switchback after switchback led up, eventually to a short boot pack and small peak that overlooked the heart of Turnagain Pass. 45 degree slopes up high mellowed into rolling open snow fields and 1600 ft of ripen pow flew by as we skied to the bottom of our run.

The Pow Abides (as does Andy’s matching red pants and jacket...)

The Pow Abides (as does Andy’s matching red pants and jacket…).

After a second lap, the sun was behind the mountains and we knew we had to start the march back towards the car — fueled by thoughts of a litany of new lines seen on our tour.

Getting up high on the ridge across from Kickstep Mountain gave me lots of ideas for this spring (grin)

Getting up high on the ridge across from Kickstep Mountain gave me lots of ideas for this spring (grin)

A month ago, long days on the snow were scarce. The days are getting longer now and the arc of my ski turns seem to be following suit.



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Comments

5 Responses to “Dispatch from the North: As Days Grow Longer, So Do the Ski Turns”

  1. Lisa Dawson February 7th, 2018 9:29 am

    I love your Dispatches from the Far North. The stunning photos make me ready to move to magnificent Alaska. (My heat seeking soul is ignoring the bit about your thermometer reading -6.)

  2. Alex February 7th, 2018 9:46 am

    Thanks Lisa! …and its really not too cold down by the coast 😉

  3. Bill B February 7th, 2018 10:18 am

    Beautiful Alex
    Thank you so much.

  4. Lenka K. February 7th, 2018 2:14 pm

    Ooooh, was this -6 F??? 🙂

    Thanks for sharing Alex, I enjoy the various trip reports from afar here on WildSnow, it’s a source of inspiration and dreams of future travel!

  5. Alex February 7th, 2018 3:09 pm

    Thank you Bill and Lenka. Yes it was -6 F (I think it was -11 that morning at my house, I’m told I live on the ‘cold side’ of town). Last week Anchorage had some cold nights, but it was an inversion with warmer sunny weather found about 1000 ft and up! …its back to 25 and foggy today. Cheers, Alex





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