REGION: Chugach Range




Spring is here and with it came a good snow pack and perfect snow for front range skiing. On Sunday Charlie T. and I climbed the West Ridge of Ptarmigan from the Rabbit Valley side. The route up was great - with freshly kicked steps from a party just ahead of us. We climbed both summits and stared down the north couloir; conditions were perfect. I then skied the west face - dropping down one of the couloirs in perfect shin deep powder.

I got home that afternoon and began thinking about the north couloir. The fresh stable snow beckoned so I called Todd and we made a plan. And then yesterday at 12:30 we set out and skied down Powerline pass to the base of the route. En-route we passed two climbers who had just climbed the route. They told us the snow as a little hard down low - but nice up high.

By 2:30 we were at the base of the route and skinning up. The snow quickly grew hard so we clipped on our ski crampons and continued up. However it got steeper and the snow harder so we soon pulled the skis and started booting. We had left our crampons at home thinking the snow would be soft; and thus the lower portion of the route went slowly as we carefully booted up the ice hard snow with our boots barely biting in at times.

Ptarmigan couloir is one of my favorite local routes. I had climbed it seven times previously with many good friends including Jeff Munroe, Brad Horning, my bother Charlie, my brother John and nephew Matt, Yvonne - and of course with Pharaoh back in his tough dog days. Yesterday was my eighth and Todd's first time up the couloir. Todd had skied the route once before but never climbed it. So it was a first for both of us.

The lower portion went slowly, but once we entered the couloir proper the snow-pack grew better and we kicked steps up in shin deep snow. After the bend the snow grew deep and we traded leads booting up the final 50 degree slopes in crotch deep powder.

We reached the col (north of the east summit) at 4:15 and sat in the sun checking out the route. Then we strapped on the skis and pointed them downhill.

Todd dropped off first; he went slowly at first given that the top portion had an obvious wind slab we needed to assess. A little further down he picked up speed but the sluff was pretty heavy so he stopped every few turns and pulled off to the side to let the snow slide down around him. Then after getting comfortable with the snow-pack, he let it rip and linked turns down 500 feet to the first safe zone.

I followed and dropped in directly above Todd's first turn. The snow felt kind of funky for a second - and then it ripped. A slab 5 inches deep and a patch 10 x 10 popped loose and slid. I quickly maneuvered to the side to let it rip past - but it didn't go anywhere and the blocks gathered just below at Todd's next turn. The next couple of turns also produced a few blocks but as I dropped lower the snow-pack grew better. Like Todd I had to pull out to the side every few turns for sluff management - but the snow was awesome! Thigh deep 50 degree powder at the top of Ptarmigan couloir. It doesn't get any better then that!

I joined Todd at the safe zone and he took the next pitch one again linking jump turns down to the next rock outcropping. I joined him shortly and he lead off again. However as we got lower the snowpack grew worse and soon he was doing jump turns down through breakable crust. Todd carefully descended down and dropped down the "S turn" and soon was 3/4 of the way down the couloir where he stamped out a safe zone on skiers left of the couloir.

I followed; carefully making jump turns down through the breakable crust. The lower portion of the couloir can be dangerous in that if you fall and don't self arrest you're going over a 500' foot cliff at the bend. So you have to ski carefully and in control until you reach the bend and drop down and skiers left in the lower couloir.

Once in the lower couloir the breakable crust turned into boiler plate snow - which again was spooky in that if you fall there are a number of exposed boulders at the base of the couloir which would suck to bounce off of. I linked the turns; but on every turn my hand was just above the snow and I was ready to punch my whippet in just in case. For once I wished I was skiing with two whippets!

I soon joined Todd and then we skied the lower portion of the couloir together - cutting skiers right to the far side of the lower bowl where there were no exposed boulders.

The bottom part actually skied almost enjoyably (for ten turns or so). We reached the bottom at 5pm elated and glad to ski out into the sun where we sat on our packs staring up at the route.

In skiing Ptarmigan couloir I overcame a mental crux which had been blocking me for years. I used to not see how anyone could ski something like that; now I treat skiing just like I treat climbing in that I look at the route in pitches and imagine linking the pitches instead of looking at the overall route and getting scared.

The route is a wonderful ski in good conditions; but it's also a high risk descent due to the run out and not one I'd recommend to intermediate skiers (like myself) unless you climb it first and can assess the snowpack. That said; if you ever get the chance to ski it on a stable powder day it would probably rank pretty high on your list of good runs!

  •  Todd at the base Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  Looking up Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  Wishing for Crampons!
  •  Todd at the S Bend
  •  Todd at the S Bend
  •  Booting up the middle of the route.
  •  Booting up the middle of the route.
  •  Todd digging the snowpack!
  •  Upper portion of Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  Upper portion of Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  Upper portion of Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  Me nearing the top.
  •  Me topping out on Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  Digging the March Sunshine
  •  Todd looking down the couloir...
  •  ... first turn...
  •  ... second turn...
  •  Sluff Management
  •  Beautiful Snow!
  •  Nearing the S Bend
  •  Nearing the S Bend
  •  Leaving the couloir
  •  Final Turns
  •  Our tracks in Ptarmigan Couloir
  •  All smiles back at the base!
  •  I love this place!

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