The Chugach. The Alaska Range. The Coast Mountains. The Wrangells, or, more formally, the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve. The Talkeetnas. I’ve heard of all these Alaskan mountain ranges, even seen pictures & videos, and checked out stories of skiers and boarders getting rad in them.
The Neacola Mountains? I heard of this zone for the first time exactly seven days before Joe from the Anchorage-based Sportsman’s Air Service dropped Jason, John, and myself off on the Pitchfork glacier. Agreeing to make this range home for two weeks took me about .003 seconds. Merely from a (dryland) Google Earth image, it was obvious: the Neacolas held what we were looking for. Couloirs. Not couloirs for days, though. Couloirs for weeks. Maybe months. Probably, like any decent range, couloirs for years. As we would soon find out, the Neacolas are many, many steps up from a ‘decent range.’
Arranging this trip was not without struggle, as our first, then second, range choices became unavailable for different reasons. Discussions over our third zone choice came down to two ranges, the Tordrillos or the Neacolas. But mostly, we’d just been planning for several months on hitting one area.
Here, a shoutout to ski partner and trip planner extraordinaire Jason True is necessary: this guy has his stuff together. On these Alaskan adventures (Haines last year, and the Neacolas this year), I sometimes feel I and other members of the team do little more than say things such as, “Yes, sounds good, what about this, that looks good, ok, good, fine, mmhmm, is this covered?, great, and.. done,” during the protracted planning phase.
Jason creates and updates spreadsheets, does a ton of research and beta gathering on potential zones, and generally keeps us on track with communicative emails, a sense of direction, and the like. Backcountry.com is lucky to employ this talented guy. When headhunters hunt, I deeply suspect they’re looking for people of Jason’s caliber. For my part, I feel supremely lucky that he wants me along on these once-in-a-lifetime trips. Trips that we’re aiming to take more often than just once…
Zone choices aside, it seems that few folks realize just what they’re missing out on by way of these expeditions. The current year’s example is illustrative: we had something like eight different potential partners agree to join in before bailing on the trip. This doesn’t include several people who expressed interest but threw in a reluctant, “Would love to, but can’t,” as their means of expressing refusal.
Pouring salt in any of the non-existent wounds of non-attendants, comes the following tidbit: If last year was an exercise in WHAT YOU DON’T WANT TO HAVE HAPPEN WHILE LIVING ON A GLACIER, this year’s expedition was exactly 180° in the opposite direction. 5 star weather and snowpack, beginning to end for the most part, the end marred only ever so slightly by some missing pants and shoes. (not mine) The fellas are working on getting them back though..
Following are abbreviated descriptions of our Neacola-based shenanigans over the course of 13 days, March 24 – April 5, 2014.
Day 1: Dreamline One. Set up camp (BD Mega Mid cook tent, 3 personal tents) in an existing camp we found on the Pitchfork glacier. 4pm, head out to ski Couloir 1, a beautiful, long line spotted during the trip’s research phase. Back in camp by 8:15pm. Snow was a mix of windboard, firm, chalky, and comparatively soft névé. If conditions remain at least this good, we should be set! @4 miles RT, @3,000 vert.
2: Dreamline Two. I awoke earlier than the others so built the 5 star toilet (more on that later), we all ate, then headed for Couloir 2. This line was a longer version of the couloir from the previous day, with some added features, immediately adjacent to the South. A deeply faceted section, east facing, overlaid with ice, joined the lengthy lower couloir and the upper bowl. This upper section also offered 2,000+ feet of exposure, giving us some white knuckle time. Which was a fine epilogue to Jason getting hit with a large ice chunk during the ascent. In the bowl, snow conditions deteriorated quickly, and we pulled the plug. Couloir snow conditions similar to previous day’s. @4 miles RT, @3500 vert.
3: The Cleft. I duck under the cook tent (rather than unzipping it) and find John shoving a hot and loaded breakfast bagel in my face. As I munch away, he runs off to give Jason his: breakfast in sleeping bag! Wow. The team effort on this trip is going great already! We all head for a W facing couloir nearby, N and slightly E of our tents. The line itself isn’t visible from base camp, but the rock walls guarding this cleft have offered hints over the preceding several days.
30 minutes of approach find us caching ropes and a few other items on the apron. Up we go, beneath cornices so big, it’s as if every hanging cornice from Utah’s Wolverine Cirque is combined into two big ones above us. We’re in the line of fire during most of the ascent. Whew! Reaching the top of the line, we skin a wide ridge until we hit the high point, then head back down. Snow on the ridge is immaculate; in the couloir, we find it firm and chalky with a sun-warmed but icy section at the entry point. Reaching camp, work on an igloo begins; reaching about 4/5ths of completion. @3.x miles RT, @2200 vert.
4: NW Couloir. Long skin W up the glacier to check out NW aspects, which we suspect may be more continuously soft. Enter cirque behind a huge alpine walled peak that we can see from camp. Choose line from among several, rope up, cross multiple bergshrunds, unrope, ascend névé. Top out on narrow ridge. Descend, then enjoy the sound of my Dynafit TLT’s bursting into walk mode from ski mode upon landing the air across the ‘shrund. Four steep somersaults later, self-arrest. Double pole 5 miles back to camp. @15 miles RT, @3,ooo vert.
5: Tiny Tour. “Rest day.” Just NW of camp, looking for an easy day, we ascend the terrain of choice to find a view at the top that blows us away. An amazing cirque. Ride down, impressed at the soft quality of the S facing slopes. They should be sun-baked and ratty, but they aren’t except for the last 100 vertical, just above the Pitchfork glacier. @4 miles RT, @1800 vert.
6: *Twin Towers Couloir. Head to previous day’s cirque, many possibilities on the mind. Decide to head towards an ice cave to take photos, en route to another line. Decide to ski the awe-inspiring couloir immediately above. Promise John to return the following day to ride a line he has spied in the distance (today’s original goal), which we forsook in exchange for the line above the ice cave. Névé, E facing. Rocky, deeply sugared crux up high in the line. I downclimb through and am happy I did after watching Jason’s entry through the zone. Returning to camp, I construct a very high wind wall around my tent to supplant the meager one I’d built. Much quieter sleeping at night. Bonus! @9 miles RT, @4200 vert.
7: Beelzebub. SE facing line. Top 100 feet are icy/windhammered, but beneath that, we find the best névé of the trip, and the most consistent, deep turns. True finds his inner strength, pushes himself, and breaks the booter the entire way up. Looong and fast apron ski down. Then ascend, then descend via the Tiny Tour back to camp. @11 miles RT, @4500 vert.
8: Tiny Tour. Despite the bright sunshine and cloudless skies, I take a rest day, while the fellas hit the Tiny Tour again starting about 3pm. They’ve been gone not fifteen minutes, and I sit down to contemplate being all alone on a glacier in the middle of nowhere and how good that feels. Suddenly, the sound of huge rockfall shatters the silence. I look up, searching, and see a small plane cutting through a canyon into our glacier zone. It’s immediately followed by an F-18 or equivalent fighter jet. Later, True admits that upon hearing the same sound, he thought they were going to die in rockfall. **@4 miles RT, @1800 vert.
9: April Fool’s Day Prank, TEST-TOGD. We ascend a distant canyon to ski an E facing couloir or two that were visible from the Beelzebub line. The snow is soft and perfect for 4/5ths of the shot, the top looks thin but reaches the ridge. Skis loaded on my pack, about to start booting up, I’m suddenly informed that someone doesn’t want to ride the line. I chalk it up to an April Fool’s gag and decide to be as nice as possible about this turn of events. Because being forgiving is a conscious choice we’re allowed to make, no matter how disappointed we may be. I remember that this is the sort of situation in which we could all communicate a bit better. We ride a 12° slope instead, then head for home with a few climbs and descents between us and camp. @15 miles RT, @5600 vert.
10: Pitchfork Glacier Circumnavigation Tour, solo. The fellas take a rest day and I get out for some exploring, leaving camp to the W and returning from the E. One fine oval with lifetime views. Nice way to see the backsides of many of the Neacola peaks we’ve been staring at all week, as well as the front sides of many others.. Rolled back into camp pretty tired, just as the guys headed to their tents for the night. ‘How was it?’ they inquired. ‘The most beautiful circumnavigation of my life,’ I replied. Nothing more needed be said. The boys had left hot food for me in an insulated container, along with plentiful melted snow. Cheers, fellas. Unexpected, and very thoughtful. @17 miles RT, @2300 vert.
11: A perfect slope for a high danger day. Clouds had hit overnight. Questions arise, largely based around whether we will ever escape this glacier. After 10 straight days of uninterrupted sunshine, we’d arranged to end our trip a few days early to beat the approaching storm system. We were a few hours late. The Sportsman’s Air Service plane wouldn’t be picking us up with the limited visibility on tap. Enthusiasm runs a bit low, so I suggest a mellow tour up a canyon with a perfect slope angle for riding in any conditions. True’s skins glom unmercifully with snow despite heavy wax application, and greenhousing (increased intensity of the sun’s rays as they bend through the clouds) has the temperature – fairly steady and cool throughout the trip so far – on HIGH. Jason yells up that he’s heading down, John and I reach the next non-descript high point and transition.
The ride down is not what dreams are made of, but it is smooth and the snow is decent. We return to camp, knowing we’ll spend the next three or four days, minimum, rotting in our tents waiting out the storm. Ugh. After surviving an eight day blitzkrieg of a storm during our Alaskan outing last year, True and I aren’t looking forward to this at all. Mental scars remain on both of us, a year later. @4 miles RT, @1500 vert.
12: DOONBATL, Day One of Not Being Able to Leave. Although we don’t shovel one bit, several inches of snow fall, which could have been shoveled. Clouds linger, windless. We eat, read, drink almost no water, and spend the day mostly horizontal. @95 feet around camp each.
13: The Sound of Salvation. We’d eaten breakie, looked at the dismal cloud situation, and already retired to our tents, from where we’d check out the cloud cover every 30 minutes or so, just like the day before. Suddenly the noise of a plane broke the silence. Non-jet airplanes don’t sound like rockfall, they just sound like a very loud weed trimmer. WTF? Is someone else landing their expedition at our camp? The plane nearly shook the tents as it clearly did a flyover. Like ants scurrying out of a mound, there were suddenly three dudes standing outside their tents, watching as Joe landed, then drove up the glacier like it was NBD. We performed a full speed camp breakdown and did the Alaskan version of GTFO of the Neacolas. The End. @117 miles, one way.
*We’re not claiming any of these as first descents, but rather put some names on the lines, as usual, simply as a point of reference to remember them by. After seeing the airport area filled with 200 or so private planes, many outfitted to land on snowy glaciers, it would be awfully presumptive to think these lines have never been skied before. Even though we went to a remote and less frequently visited part of the Neacola range.
**Disclaimer: I use the @ symbol to denote that distances and verticals are approximate, because no matter how good technology gets, it still gets garbled when used in the mountains. Couloirs specifically often cause GPS signals to bounce back and forth, instilling a lack of accuracy to such measurements. Canyons and valleys can cause much the same state of affairs. Barometric pressures change, causing further inaccuracies in non-GPS enabled units. (In my experience using such units on the same route on different days, I’ve come up with wildly different readings.) When people state with veracity that they’ve done ’41,844 inches of vertical today,’ I usually wonder why they’re offering up such precision when they should be aware that such measurements are precisely inaccurate.