Alaska has woken from its slumber. Last weekend I saw bear tracks meandering through the snow; yesterday I saw a coyote slink through the trees. Rock climbers are venturing out onto the cliffs next to the highway and the dogs are lounging around outside in the sun. However… there is still snow to be had for those of us who don’t wish to put the skis away quite yet. At the same time the climbing bug has returned…what to do?
In an effort to stave off caching the skis in the shed for the season Yvonne and I opted to do some ski mountaineering on Saturday. We pouring over the maps and finally settled on Explorer Peak down in Portage. Explorer Peak is a small mountain at the far western edge of Portage Road, The summit is only 3,440′ – but you start at sea level, have a little glacier travel and finally get to boot up a corniced ridge; it’s the perfect shakedown trip to get ready for spring mountaineering routes.
We enlisted Dan Boccia to help break trail and on Saturday morning we headed down and by 9:30 am we were skiing through the trees towards the glacier. The initial part of the route is pretty moderate; you ski through a stand of dead spruce and then start heading up the valley towards Explorer Glacier. There is an obvious drainage that you work your way up which dumps you out on a plateau just right of the glacier’s toe. We then skied up a broad snow slope to the right (west) of the glacier until reaching a bench where we stopped and roped up.
Above the bench you venture out onto the glacier proper and then work your way up and right towards the obvious headwall that looms on the far western edge of the glacier. The glacier travel was quite benign; there was still a lot of snow on the route and none of the crevasses were showing where we were skiing. To our left, where the glacier bends, the crevasses were open but we managed to stay far away from them.
At the base of the headwall the snow became deep and the light totally flat. I broke trail up towards a ridge but before I knew it the angle got very steep and I found myself trying the break trail through thigh deep snow on a slope steeper than 35 degrees. I stopped for a while and tried to figure out a better way but couldn’t seem to get my bearing due to the flat light. So I relented the lead to Dan who began poking around to the right of where I was and soon found a way up a moderate bench. After a few switchbacks we gained the top the headwall where we regrouped, ate some food and then began skiing to the pass west of the summit.
We reached the pass around 12:30, cached our skis and began booting towards the ridge. Heading up the ridge the snow was deep! At times it was thigh deep and I had to dig away in front of me before I could stamp a decent boot platform. After literally wading for 200′ I finally gained the ridge where the snow was a bit better. Once on the ridge I stayed just to the left of the cornices and began wading towards the summit. At times we were forced to climb down away from the ridge due to cornices, but soon found that if we ventured too far downhill the snow became very deep and at times dangerously hollow. We continued up balancing between the deep snow below us and the cornices above us, placing pickets as needed. The climbing was pretty mellow – the steepest section being around 50 degrees; however the exposure to the south was amazing (3000′ of steep snow and rock) and the slopes to the north went from a mellow 45-50 to 60 plus degrees for about 500′.
After a particularly deep section I traded places with Dan who then booted up the upper ridge. He stopped just shy of the summit, having placed all the pickets and not wanting to run it out to the top. I lead on, breaking trail to the summit while a bald eagle circled above us in the winds.
We summited at 2:30 – just as the winds were picking up and the snow started flying. Dan followed our footsteps up, looked around and said “OK… lets get out of here!!!” He turned tail and quickly began booting down the ridge. Yvonne and I followed and we were able to downclimb our ascent path in half the time.
Back at our skis we decided that skiing down unroped was safer then trying to ski potential avalanche slopes roped up, so we packed the rope away and began heading down. The upper slopes were easy going, but dropping down the headwall required a little bit of work as our skin track had been blown over leaving us to try and figure out a safe descent path from the top down.. Dan skied first – piecing together a few moderate ramps and finally dropping down the last bit of the headwall in creamy shin deep powder. Yvonne went next and I brought up the rear, skiing with a rather wide stance due to the heavy wet rope weighing me down.
Once off the headwall we quickly skied down the broad ramp where the lower slopes had turned to corn and we soon back at the toe of the glacier. Below the glacier toe we encountered deep rotten slush and soon we were back in the woods and skiing the last bit to the car.
We reached the car at 5:30; an 8 hour day – which seemed short considering it’s not getting dark till 10!