When I made the heavy decision to move to Alaska, I did so with significant anxiety since I was turning my back on the best ski mountaineering in the lower 48. What would I find in Anchorage? As most skiers know, there are few towns in the U.S. that have the kind of access we have in the Tetons. So, it was a great relief to get to Alaska and discover I need not worry.
A few months ago when I was considering this move, a friend was speaking with some Alaska Chamber of Commerce folks, or something like that, at a conference she was attending in L.A. She did me a favor and asked these assumably knowledgable folks what the skiing was like near the city. They didn't really know of any. I heard this and was concerned. At the same time, I knew the mountains came right to the edge of the city. How could there be no skiing? They had to be wrong.
So, when I traveled to Anchorage for my interview, one of the first questions I asked someone who should know was about the "after work" skiing opportunities in the front range above town. They just laughed and told me there was plenty to be done. I was relieved.
Now I'm here and I know they weren't lying. I've been in Anchorage for three weeks and the perfect weather and heavy snow pack has allowed me to sample some of the plentiful offerings. Without the kind of partners I enjoyed in Jackson, most of my trips have been solo missions. You'll have to pardon the boring photos. But I wanted to share my excitement about what I've found so far in the Western Chugach. This only scratches the surface.
A Quick One After Work
Once my decision to move here was made, I figured I'd be learning to Nordic ski since Anchorage has a lot of that going on. There's no Snow King here. And I still might do that. But 20 minutes from my door is a local hill known as Peak 3. It's 2,300 vertical feet from the car up a summer road and then up the gut of a treeless face. It's close. It's busy, at times. And it's perfect when weather permits. Now, Anchorage has it's share of nasty weather and the treeless nature of Peak 3 will certainly shut it down during snow storms. But a bright head lamp makes even the darkest winter night a small obstacle for those wanting a hour skin when time and conditions permit.
I've done dozens of laps on Peak 3 in the last few weeks. I can't say it's anymore boring than the King and it sports 800 more vertical feet. There's a social vibe to it when the weather is fine, similar to the King but with more dogs and no patrollers barking at you. Great option.
Cruising further up that access road yields similar faces on Peak 3 1/2 and Peak 4. Skin for an hour up the road and the real mountains of the Chugach reveal themselves in all their glory.
After some warm up days on Peak 3 I was Jonesing to get on something else. I'd heard about Ptarmigan Peak and it's North Couloir. You can see this tasty line from town and it's siren call is strong for the uninitiated like me. I made a call to the one local source of beta I know and he told me what I needed to know.
Originally, he suggested I skin up Rabbit Creek to the south aspect of Ptarmigan and make a tour of it, coming back over Ptarmigan Pass after skiing the North Couloir and then back to the car. This is the same drainage that accesses Peak 3. I'm pretty adamant about climbing what I ski so I opted for a different trailhead, Glen Alps, which allowed me to skin right up to the base.
The trail follows Powerline Trail, a popular low angle summer mountain bike outing. It's a flat skin, gaining only 800 feet in about 3.5 miles. I took my race set up as my friend made the mistake of giving me his split for the effort. I couldn't help myself. The weather was perfect and I was alone for the day. I was excited to be heading toward a "real" ski mountaineering objective and it loomed in front of me the whole way in.
In less than 45 minutes I was booting up the 2,000 foot couloir, happy to be following someone else's boot pack. The slope averaged 35 to 40 degrees. The classic line tops out on a shoulder of the peak. Getting to the summit requires a long traverse. This is better to hit with the alternate south approach, something I was saving for the following week.
For now, I skied the perfect powder and chalk to the base and then worked the side hill on the run out and managed to leave the skins off the whole way to the car. I stopped the watch in 2:09. Could this kind of skiing really be this close?
The northern end of Chugach State Park is accessed from Eagle River, a small community 20 minutes from Anchorage. This drainage is the jumping off point for both casual powder skiing tours and huge ski mountaineering outings. A "big" peak around here is one that's over 6,000 feet. When you're starting from sea level, that's some serious relief.
A brief storm steam rolled through the area late in the week allowing us to set the snow fall record finally. It was a big deal to everyone since they had to suffer through the piles of snow all winter. There simply was no place to put it. Might as well get bragging rights to it. Anyway, Sunday dawned perfectly clear and Dave and I headed to Highland Road for some powder skiing. We ended up in North Bowl for some perfect bottom feeding with 6 inches of blower to brighten our day. It was windless and perfect. Too bad Dave had to work in the afternoon or we would have farmed that thing into submission. Lot's to do up there. Note to self.
In his effort to tease and, at the same time, reassure me, Dave has been sending me smart phone photos of various treats in the hills. One of them, the Lightening Bolt Couloir on O'Malley, caught me attention. Since I can see the peak from my house, I needed to see this line up close. Dave is a fast guy and was pretty sure it couldn't be done after work. That's all I needed, of course, to give it a go.
The approach is a little tricky and you must navigate a couple of cols to find the face. I only had one photo of the face in my memory to guide me. When I got under what I thought was the line, nothing looked familiar. I figured I hadn't gone far enough. So, I dropped into the next drainage and continued up the Middle Fork of Campbell Creek. I saw more amazing terrain as I skinned along but nothing looking remotely like what I was looking for.
Tail between my legs, I turned around and retraced my steps. Sure enough, my original hunch was correct and from the opposite perspective the couloir was plain as day. It was too late so I simply made a note and vowed to return. Three days later I made short work of the approach and was poised under the face in 1:20. There looked to be some spice getting into the gut. The booting was perfect and I was able to scratch my way over some thin rock slab to get into the meat of the business.
Averaging 45 degrees, I was giddy with anticipation. As I turned the corner to the final stretch to the summit, I was stopped cold by steep, bony slab. Shit. I would miss the last 200 feet but the line below me would be a nice prize anyway. Skiing was perfect. A nice manageable slough of winter powder eased my descent. Skis came off twice as I back tracked over the slab sections. More perfect powder down the apron and I was safe. Back to the car for a 4:37 day. Dave was right about the after work timing.
Ptarmigan Peak, part deux
Since I knew the snow on the north aspects was perfect and with the current high pressure coming to a close the next day, I decided to hit Ptarmigan again, this time from the south. This would let me see this approach and get to the summit. I expected no surprises on the way down. There was also a cool little pinner couloir next to the main chute that I thought I would boot up and ski.
The impending change in the weather was easy to see even though the morning was sunny. Clouds were visible to the south. I made the pass in an hour and was booting below a soloist and his two dogs soon thereafter. The corn was frozen solid but the pooches looked unphased on the 40 degree slope. Four wheel drive is nice. I was just happy to have crampons.
The summit was super cool and a short walk down to a saddle between the two main peaks led to the take off point for the descent. More powder. Ho hum. The 45 degree pitch kept the boredom at bay. Bomber snow pack. I turned the corner 3/4 of the way down and booted the little couloir I coveted. Sugar over slab near the top stopped me from getting all the way out but the ride down was worth the effort.
A fun 20 minute tour over Ptamigan Pass had me back on the south side and an easy coast to the car in 4:14. Another great outing. This is all low hanging fruit. As things melt out I'll head to the high ground like Turnagain Pass where skiing should be fat well into summer. Stay tuned for more. - Brian