We had the worst avalanche report of the season – multiple weak layers, 6 plus feet of new snow, warming temperatures – and to top it off, the threat of a rumbling Mt. Redoubt 130 miles to the west. But we couldn’t stay home; the forecast was calling for a blizzard warning that evening. We had one day to give it a go before going back to the wait game.
So the Friday afternoon discussions began; where to go what to do who wants to go. I cast big in the hopes of netting some trailbreakers and got 1 yes and 4 definite maybes. Saturday morning we called around and again more reports of indecision filtered in. Eventually we set up a meeting time and at 9:30 we all gathered. First there were 2, then three – until finally 7 people showed up. 7 people is 4 too many for my comfort level, so we chose a spot with low angle trees, jumped in the car and drove south.
We chose to head into Wolverine via the circuitous route through the woods which I had eventually unlocked after 6 times of wandering about in circles in the dense woods between the highway and the peaks. Technically I wasn’t lost during those forays – but some had taken to referring to these forays as “getting lost” – a semantic blunder that I always countered. I don’t get lost. Lost is when you wander about in circles with no direction… sort of like that TV show where they shoot polar bears in Hawaii and struggle with inner demons. I might, at one time, have wandered about in circles – but I always had a clear direction: to unlock the secret route from the highway to Wolverine. As the cliche goes, Not all who wander are lost. Tolkien and pop-culture references aside, there is some basis to the notion that people get lost in the Turnagain-equivalent of the Bermuda triangle that exists North of Eddies and South of the highway. On my first foray into the area I tromped into the woods with Dan in the hopes of skiing “Sharksfin” – a fin-like projection North of Eddies on a sunny spring day some years ago. We set out in the morning eager for turns… only to end up at the base of Eddies looking up a slope that we ski fairly regularly. We then set about wandering up and down a canyon before finally figuring out that we needed to ski down a hidden drainage and approach it from another direction. We had fun that day touring to the back of the ridge and skiing some fun runs and returned the next day with some more friends to ski immaculate tree runs in dense powder. However… upon leaving Wolverine we opted for a direct route back to the highway and ended up wandering in circles in the dark.
4 other times I’ve been back there and have attempted to find direct routes back to the car – these have resulted in everything from post-holing through crusty snow above a canyon to a dreadfully cold January evening where we skied out with high tensions in pitch black while descending steep cliffs. I have also seen groups of skiers emerge from the woods beaten and battered wondering why they just endured 4 hours of bushwhacking to arrive at a slope where they’ll be lucky to get a single run in before needing to return. And then there was the eager group who, upon seeing us pull up, eagerly departed seeking first tracks. We never saw them all day – I can only imagine they repeated what I had endured so many times: endless tromping through thick brush above high canyon walls while a mile to the east sunny slopes glistened. The hardships aside – if you can get there, the goods await. And I think I can get there [knock on wood]. So to the amazement of all my friends I fearlessly lead our large group past trap lines and placer mines, through dense brush and sunless trees, down canyon walls and up chest deep rotten snow, through winding woods above running water and into a meadow glistening in the morning sun and easy slopes to the base of Sharksfin.
At the base of Sharksfin we re-grouped and then skied a run through trees and down into the deep canyon between Wolverine and Sharksfin. We then set a trail up into the meadows below Wolverine and soon were breaking trail up the ridge venturing onto the West Ridge of Wolverine in high winds. We stopped just shy of the peak, ripped our skins and dropped down through knee-deep powder into the trees whooping and yelling at the top of our lungs. We then set off again – this time pushing past our highpoint and upward towards the bump that separates Wolverine from the mighty summit of Flying Cornice. Scott Fennell put in an excellent trail, threading the needle between the deep wind loaded snow just below the peak on climber’s left – and the rolling terrain that drops 2000′ of cliffs on climber’s right. We all followed his track and soon 7 of us were standing on the peak looking down at Placer Valley and the Skookum Glacier. We then all dropped off the top in immaculate powder for a mile of excellent turns 2000′ down the ridge and into open meadows.
After a brief lunch we started uphill again for yet another run. Just after we passed treeline my legs started to tire, so I slowed down and let the others pass. I stopped for a food and water break and noticed the sky beginning to darken. The forecasted snow was moving in faster than NOAA had predicted. I continued up, but as the sky darkened I noticed that the cloud wasn’t normal. It billowed above us like a mushroom and was moving at an amazing speed to the East – the direction opposite from where storms approach Turnagain Arm.
That’s when it hit me: the cloud above us wasn’t a storm cloud – it was an ash cloud moving in from Mt. Redoubt. I stood transfixed staring up at what can only be described as an apocalyptic sight. The cloud drifted over us and as I stood staring up the slopes around us suddenly started turning gray as the ash coated everything. The peaks across from me turned gray before my eyes. For a few minutes I couldn’t move… then I jumped into high gear, ripping my skins, donning my goggles and covering my mouth with my balaclava. The others skied down to me and we regrouped in total awe. We were about 3 miles from the car – and had at least 2,000′ to descend plus an extra 800′ to ascend to reach a spot where we could easily reach our existing ski tracks. All this would take about 2 hours – if we were lucky (and didn’t get lost). Everyone set off at panic speeds as we careered downhill (once again in glorious powder) and cruised back to the slope that we needed to ascend to reach Sharksfin. We threw on our skins again and began moving up, our mouths covered with various pieces of clothing and our eyes covered with sunglasses and goggles. Behind us our ski runs glistened white against the ash coated slopes.
Our tracks on Wolverine; note tracks right off the top.
By the time we reached the base of Sharksfin the ash cloud had passed on. The skies were blue but everything was coated in a layer of dust. We admired it for a minute – but then once again removed our skins and began moving downhill as fast as we could manage. I tried skiing without glasses, but halfway down I could feel ash embedding in my eyes and had to stop and put them on. Eventually we reached the creek – and by following our old skin track we were able to reach the cars without any detours or mishaps. The cars were coated with a dusting of ash – and we quickly piled in and drove North back to Anchorage. The drive home was surreal: all the peaks were coated in ash. Cars passed us with drivers wearing dusk masks and goggles. Back home the dog squealed wanting to go outside only to be denied. Ferocious winds howled and drifting snow and ash battered against the windows. At 7:30 pm Redoubt blew again and NOAA issued another ash advisory until 1am. Winds up to 60mph shook our home. We covered the furnace intake with filters, sealed the doors and went to bed wondering what tomorrow would bring…