The snow report for Turnagain and the Kenai Peninsula was pretty abysmal but Todd and I were itching to get out so we drove south in search of a nice long tour. After looking at various options we opted to ski up Silvertip creek to check out the couloirs in the back of the valley. Lots of interest has been focused on these valleys lately with a major media blitz from the “Mountain Riders Alliance” currently underway. MRA is proposing to build a lodge and lifts at Manitoba Mountain - a popular backcountry ski area that lies pretty much due south of Silvertip Creek. According to their media releases (apart from a couple videos they've yet to actually release any data to the public) their plan is to build lifts on Manitoba Mountain and thus bring "economic stability" to the region.
I'd heard about the Silvertip couloirs but I'd never actually looked at them so we travelled up valley in the hopes of checking them out. We figured skiing them was out of the question due to the terrible snow report (the ave report actually read "a good day to do taxes") so we took the dogs and travelled slowly.
About 20 minutes up the trail we came across the remnants of the Feb 27th avalanche that ripped off the north face of Twin Peaks. Apparently the crown was around 10' deep and it ripped about a mile wide. The debris pile is out of this world… it filled a gorge that is about 200' deep and piled snow a good 50' above it. There are chucks the size of short buses turned side ways and planted in the snow like a natural Ant Farm installation.
I've seen lots of debris piles - but this was the biggest I've ever seen. The chunks at the base look more like serac fall than avalanche debris. The ave center termed it a "D3" - D stands for Danger and a 3 is classified as 'Medium, relative to path." I'm not an ave forecaster - but if it's a medium I'd hate to see a 5 / "maximum"! (More on the D scale here.)
It's fun to see debris piles, marvel at the raw power of nature and imagine what it would have been like at the time it slid ("Hell is empty And all the devils are here") – but the truth is - if you're a skier and you're out skiing and witness an avalanche this big then you seriously screwed up (then again, if you didn't screw up every now and then you wouldn't get shots like this).
We poked around on the debris pile for a while – but then set off again and travelled up valley to see what lay beyond the corner. In all we travelled about 5 miles up valley to reach a cirque that lay a the base of Silvertip Mountain.
The north cirque of Silvertip Mountain is an amazing spot – with steep couloirs dropping 1000' or so down to a dying pocket glacier. However… it was not the day to ski steep couloirs, so we pulled then skins and skied breakable crust, sastrugi and ave debris all the way back to the car. A nice day with pleasant meandering in a valley I've never visited.
As for the Manitoba ski area. I'll save my full thoughts about the project for another post – but people need to be aware that this group is moving forward with the intention of building a lift on Manitoba and closing it off to backcountry skiing.
Manitoba is a well-established backcountry ski area that sees lots of traffic on any given winter day. There are well documented complaints regarding user conflicts in the region that go back at least 15 years and in 2006 Alaskans had almost a full year to comment on the USFS Winter Management Plan for the area. The major areas included in that review were Resurrection Pass, Crescent Lake, Russian Lakes and the peaks surrounding Summit Lake. At the time of review the motorized / non-motorized designation was about 70% / 30% (70% motorized). The motorized lobby is very strong in Alaska - but non-motorized users were able to form a consensus and push for a few changes in the area.
When the final plan came out non-motorized users gained 2 major areas: We were able to turn Resurrection Pass into yearly rotation of motorized / non-motorized use; Resurrection Pass is now motor free every odd year. The second big win was we managed to close the West side of the highway in Summit Lake to snowmachines and shut down the eastern winter motorized corridor next to Manitoba. Prior to the 2006 Plan motorized users high-marked on Fresno ridge, and frequently went over to Manitoba Mountain for some quick laps on the closed slopes. With the eastern corridor now shut down, poaching is no longer a problem and you can ski in Summit without hearing snowmachines all day.
MRA chose Manitoba for two reasons: (1) Manitoba was a ski area from 1941-1960 and (2) Manitoba is one of the few accessible peaks on the Kenai with minimal avalanche danger.
That said, 137 lost ski areas have been identified in Alaska, so pushing for the resurrection of Manitoba based on historical grounds is moot when you consider that ski areas were all over the place in the 50s (see http://www.alsap.org/alsapmap.htm).
"This project takes away one of the best green terrain spots around. During storms and afterwards when avalanche danger is considerable, Manitoba is a nice spot to go to get some turns in.
When Manitoba is gone, all that is gone."
In regards to avalanche danger; Manitoba is one of the few places you can safely ski during high avalanche danger. The slope angle barely reaches 25 and it has a very safe run-out. I know many skiers who will only ski Manitoba after a storm cycle. It's one of the few places you can take large groups - and a perfect spot for beginners. Lately is has become a destination for kite skiers in search of low angle mountainous terrain. I couldn't give you an estimate of users - but the parking area always has a number of vehicles in it from October through April.
MRA is not currently seeking feedback - but their PR pieces are showing up everywhere from ESPN to the Boulder Weekly. I encourage Alaskans to submit comments supporting backcountry skiing when they see these PR pieces. Potential MRA investors and backers need to understand that Manitoba is a well established backcountry ski area – and that developing a backcountry ski area conflicts with MRA's pseudo-environmentalist stance.
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