Bomber Traverse in Winter

Note – Spring 2013 Lots of people are searching for this page so they can get more information about the traverse. Please be aware that since implementation of the new Hatcher Pass Management Plan there has been an unprecedented level of illegal snowmachine access occurring at the Snowbird Glacier and throughout the Glacier High Peaks Subunit that includes the MCA huts. If you do the traverse and observe motorized users, please document the behavior with photographs and send Hatcher Pass Rangers a detailed report (report form here). Likewise please report what you observe to the MCA.

The Bomber Traverse in Winter

I have done the Bomber Traverse and variations of it maybe 7 times (I’ve lost count)- but until last April I had never done the traverse on skis. This was partially due to my aversion to the dreaded Talkeetna Sugar Layer which has plagued me many times – but also in part due to my addiction to Chugach powder. And so when Yvonne, Alex Wilson, Rachael Steer and I planned a spring ski trip I nixed the Bomber early on in favor of something further south. But southern trips can be plagued by wet spring dumps and after Girdwood got 5 feet of snow the first week of April we changed gears and packed up for a Bomber Traverse.

The real winter Bomber Traverse involves 3 huts, 2 mandatory passes and 2 mandatory glacier traverses. Of course you can’t go out there without sampling the goods so you end up skiing on at least 3 glaciers. 4 if you’re lucky and strong. These glaciers are pretty benign as far as glaciers go. I think I’ve only fallen into a crevasse on them once which is pretty good given I’ve been on them dozens of times without a rope. And given that 1 in 20 are pretty good odds we left the rope and gear at home and headed in fairly “light”.

The Mint Hut

The best way to do the Bomber Traverse is to start at the Gold Mint Valley trailhead and ski up the 8 mile mellow trail to the headwall which hut entries lovingly refer to as “Heartbreak Hill”- it’s not near as bad as Denali’s Heartbreak Hill – but the final 1000′ in 1 mile will kick your butt if you’re not in shape. And since most first days usually consist of last minute packing, getting to the trailhead and realizing for forgot skins or whatever it also usually means you’re getting there near dark. Once you’re there you actually have to find the hut- which at times can be rather tough. A friend of mine once showed up in the dead of winter and skied to where he thought the hut was- only to not see a thing. He stood there perplexed and imagining a long night ahead when out of the dark appeared Dave Staeheli – one of the original builders of the Mint Hut. Dave skied over to where my friend was standing, dropped his pack and pulled out a shovel. A few minutes later the roof of the hut appeared under a foot of snow.

If you haven’t been to the hut before it’s a good idea to have GPS coordinates. You can get the coordinates after you join the Mountaineering Club of Alaska; since after all, only current MCA members are allowed to use the hut. If you’re not a member and someone else shows up they are within their rights to toss you out the door to sleep in snowcaves and battle wolves and whatever might show up. It costs $15 for a year- a deal when you consider the pain of digging and sleeping in a snow cave while current MCA members play Parcheesi in the cozy hut.

Any ways- as I was saying. We headed in with overly stuffed packs. Lack of climbing gear meant that we could do things like carry moose sausage and smoked salmon. Not as bad as the time a friend of mine carried an entire bottle of 12 Year Old Single Malt- but we were trying to go light so I only carried ½ a bottle of Baileys. So on we went.. breaking trail and suffering along without glide to a persistent ash layer from Mt. Redoubt’s recent eruption.

We made it to the hut in early evening- too late and too tired to go out exploring. Only those coordinated enough to get an early start will be able to get out for a ski after reaching the hut. Most people reach the hut and promptly eat all their heavy food realizing their mistake.

If you’re one of those coordinated people then the skiing is up to you. The Mint Glacier is an obvious magnet for skiers. The glacier is pretty tame but there is a big crevasse near the lake at the terminus. And there is a sizable crevasse field at the base of Troublemint’s North Face – which, unfortunately, is also the place where all the steep skiing is.  Closer to the hut there is a beautiful couloir that tops out just climbers left of Management. If avalanche conditions are suspect this might be a good afternoon objective because this couloir is relatively safe and not as prone to loading as Backdoor Gap, which is the obvious pass you’ll need to head over to reach the Bomber Hut.

But like I said – it’s up to you. Look out the door, choose a slope or couloir and go. Or just stay in the hut, read, play cards and eat the heaviest dinner you have – tomorrow is a big day.

We had moose sausage and pasta. And Bailey’s and hot chocolate, pretzels, fancy chocolate and a couple more choice heavy items. But as much as we ate – our packs were still too heavy.

The Bomber Hut

Wake up, stretch, tank up on coffee. Whenever you get packed up step out the door and look Northwest. The big obvious pass closest to the hut is “Backdoor Gap” – the pass you need to go up and over. In the summer Backdoor Gap is a long talus jump. In the winter it alternates between a mellow meandering skin track up, and a mean whoomping, shooting crack, sluffing nightmare that you stick with until you’re up and over thinking that staying next to the walls of Management will somehow protect you when the entire slope rips loose. Of course I exaggerate a little.., it is an obvious avalanche slope but it’s not all that bad. We started up with decent visibility only to have the clouds sock in and the snow start up. The bottom half was fine – but as we pushed on the snow got deeper and sluffs started pouring off the cliffs above us. Somehow I was designated lead trail blazer and thus I was out front busting a bootpack up knee deep snow.

I pushed on – making sure everyone stayed well spaced and after what seemed like half a day, but was probably all of 2 hours, I emerged at the top of the pass and collapsed. Yvonne, Rachael and Alex soon showed up and we paused for a snack and then prepared for the descent.

The glacier you need to descend is the Penny Royal Glacier. And like the others in the area it’s pretty mellow with the exception of a few fairly obvious crevasses. Well at least they’re obvious in the summer. The last time I was up at the top of the pass there was actually a crevasse – or perhaps moat – a few feet below on the glacier. I didn’t see it this time so I deduced it was safe and tromped down to a flat spot and strapped on my skies. Below us lay an obvious route off the glacier and a brief hole appeared in the sky giving us much appreciated visibility so we could scope the route. But then the flat light closed in again so I offered the lead to Alex.

Alex competed as a freeskier in the Nagano Olympics– and if there is anything I would suggest for a Bomber Traverse (other than a nice bottle of 12 Year Old Malt) it would be an Olympian who can really ski. Rachel is a recovering Olympian too, but her sport was shooting while running around on skinny skis. This would have served us well had she brought a shotgun and planned on hunting ptarmigan, however she left her gun at home so her Olympic skills were lost on us. So like I was saying- having an Olympic freeskier along comes in handy when you can’t see and the terrain might get un-expectantly steep.

I pointed Alex in the right direction and he took off (as the cliché goes) like a bat out of hell. Thankfully skiers leave tracks- and tracks are visible in flat light so we were all able to head down without incident. And thankfully Alex neglected to choose a route with mandatory air or something along those lines and the descent to the valley floor went smoothly.

Once down the clouds parted and we threaded out way through rocks and gullies towards the Bomber Hut that was glistening in the sun.

Like the Mint Hut, the Bomber Hut can be hard to find if you’re not familiar with the area. Unlike the Mint Hut it doesn’t get buried in snow – but unlike the Mint Hut it’s not painted bright red and instead covered in siding which reflects the snow and pretty much makes it invisible. GPS coordinates are recommended – and the Mountaineering Cub owns the Mint Hut this hut so you need to be a club member to stay.

Once at the hut, drop your excess gear, chow down on a fast lunch and then head up to the Bomber Glacier. The Bomber Glacier offers wonderful skiing and you can be at the top of it within an hour or so of leaving the hut. If you’re feeling bold the North Face of Lynx Peak is the prize to get. This line is steep and in your face but pretty doable if conditions are right. If you’re less steep inclined the glacier offers skiing in the 20-25 degree range. But watch out for airplane parts- somewhere under all that snow is an old B1 Bomber that crashed about 30 years ago. In the summer you can climb into the fuselage and play with the old machine guns (just kidding) – but in the winter there’s no sign of it at all.

We reached the upper glacier in a total white out. Our beautiful sunny day had given way to a severe blizzard – so once again I pointed Alex in the right direction and down he went. This time the flat light was so bad that the only way I managed to pick my way down was to look for the ash that had been exposed by Alex’s ski turns and try and follow them down.

Back at the hut we ate our second heaviest dinner and turned in for a good sleep.

If you have the time this is the place to take a layover day. The skiing on the Bomber, Penny Royal and on the NW side of Montana would be excellent. But be aware- in recent years snowmachiners have been frequenting this cabin. On a good snow year they can reach the cabin via the Kashwitna River. Hopefully the new Hatcher Pass Management Plan will restrict motorized usage in this area. The wind blows hard in this valley and the tundra is exposed all year long. The entire valley is much too fragile to sustain much traffic from heavy snowmachines.

The Snowbird Hut

Getting from the Bomber to the Snowbird Hut takes anywhere from 2 to 6 hours depending on conditions. The day starts with about 1-2 miles of slightly downhill skiing until you reach the junction with Bartholf Creek. Then you turn left / uphill and start breaking trail towards the Snowbird.

There are a number of ways to access the glacier; the best way is to continue up until you reach the Upper Lake and take the long mellow gully to the hanging valley. If snow is suspect you can boot up the ridge – but it’s fairly steep and the snow needs to be compact enough to support your weight over the steep rock bands. Otherwise just probe carefully and ski up.

We tried the ridge but the snow had started to pull away from the rock faces and I found a gaping hole separating the snow from rock; so I changed gears and broke trail up a steeper face. In hindsight I should have hunted around a little more for a better route but it went well enough.

Soon we were at the Snowbird Hut; a golfball like dome that sticks out of a snowbank and has seen better days. Unlike the other huts, the American Alpine Club owns the Snowbird. The AAC plans to rebuild the hut in the summer of 2010 – but they have not yet announced whether or not you need to be a member to use it. Regardless – if you climb and ski you should join the AAC and help support the building of a new hut.

The Snowbird is a classic glacier ski hut- in its heyday the oil stove would churn out a smoky heat and there was extra food and sleeping bags stuffed into every corner. It’s since gone downhill a bit; the stove no longer works, the sleeping bags are dank and the food moldy. But it’s still a fine place and you can spend hours perusing the books, journal entries and old photos. If you’re from Alaska you’ll recognize half of people who have made entries in the journal and marvel at the incestuous relationships of our ski and climbing communities.

But if it’s nice outside you don’t want to spend much time in the hut. We had beautiful sunny weather so we dumped our extra gear and skinned up to ski the classic “Nunatak East” run. The Nunatak has two fine ski runs – the East, which is quite mellow – 25 degrees at most, and the West run which has a beautiful 30+ degree rollover down a glacier headwall. Avalanche conditions were a bit high the day we set out (I had already kicked off one) so we kept the angle down. My second test slope of the day failed after I stomped repeatedly next to a steep rollover – and after seeing that I had no intention of skiing anything steeper that day. We skied a number of laps and then headed in for a final smoked salmon dinner.

Unfortunately we only had a single day to enjoy the Snowbird- but if you’re looking for a ski destination the Snowbird hut is one of the finer destinations in Hatcher Pass. Just about everywhere you look there is a ski run – and the angle ranges from 15 to 60. The classic lines are Nunatak East and West, the Upper Snowbird to Lake run and the long runs off of Didelkama. For those who can ski the steeps – Higher Spire regularly sees descents.

That said – of all these high alpine areas, the Snowbird Hut is the one area that has seen snowmachine traffic in the past and will probably continue to see snowmachine traffic unless the state restricts access to the area. If the state opens up Reed Valley (as one of the proposals states) then you can pretty much kiss skiing on the Snowbird goodbye. It will become a high traffic area for highmarkers and snowmachine tourers trying to reach the huts. If this happens there won’t be a single patch of snow that isn’t tracked up, your quiet ski tour will be subject to constant traffic and highmarkers will be pushing past you to clip that last bit of snow above your head.

Snowbird to Parking

The last day isn’t too long of a day – it takes 4 hours at most to ski from the Snowbird to the car – but unless conditions are perfect you should get an early start and bomb down the valley to Reed Creek before the sun bakes the southern slopes you’ll be skiing under. It’s very tempting to wake up, go for a couple ski runs and then ski down late afternoon – but wet spring avalanches routinely cover the entire valley; so unless conditions are bomber get an early start.

To get down is easy- ski up glacier to the lowest point of the upper glacier (just W of Lower Spire) and once you’re at the top, rip your skins and head down. The best way is to stay skiers left of all the rock outcroppings and domes. This will put you in the gut of the avalanche debris but it’s all downhill so you can ski it fast and never once stop to put on your skins and break trail.

Ski like demons till you reach the flats. The piles and piles and piles of debris you’ll continually ski over will reinforce the decision to ski fast. Once you reach the lower valley you can stop, eat, drink and put your skins back on. From this point on it’s a slog till you reach the road and then skate back to your car.

We flew down the avalanched slopes and regrouped at the bottom. It seemed in the 4 days we had been gone spring had pushed in even harder and we found ourselves skiing over dirt and through patches of mud and tundra.

And soon we were back at the car – happy to have dry socks and eager for pizza and beer – as always happens when you reach the car after slogging around in the Talkeetna Mountains.

Which brings me back to the beginning. The Bomber Traverse is a classic ski route in winter and a classic hiking route in summer – but the state has essentially allowed unrestricted access to machines.  Submit a conflict report if you notice illegal incursions.

Thanks to Alex Wilson for all the photos. I realized the first night that I had left my camera battery in the car.