Your world is getting smaller.
Like it or not, there are more people skiing the lines you like to ski. Head down to Turnagain on a powder day and it can be hard to find fresh tracks. Try and ski a peak close to the road 5 days after a storm and the chances of fresh tracks are pretty low. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ve always been a big proponent of self propelled backcountry travel. I don’t mind skiing other people’s tracks and on crowded days at places like Tincan or Magnum I enjoy seeing old friends and meeting new people.
The mass number of skiers infuriates some of my friends. One friend, who will remain nameless, always wants to get going by 7am and will drag you all over the place to obscure valleys and hills in the hopes that we’ll stumble upon some untracked glade with shin to knee deep powder. Another local, who also shall remain nameless, has taken to parking at one lot and then skiing a mile out of the way just to hide his skin track. He pulled this stunt on me once: I saw him in the Eddies parking lot and he told me, “Eddies is skiing reeeaaal nice.” It looked tracked out to me so I went elsewhere – only to meet him on the skin track a good 2 miles from where he parked his car. “Hey man,” he said when he saw me. “You’re poachin’ my skin track.”
It’s all good – my trackless powder addicted friend breaks trail into some nice places and we ski really good snow. But in truth I don’t normally mind the people and tracks as long as I can ski something fun.
Besides, I have always reasoned, ski one hour out of the way and you’ll get fresh tracks. Ski two hours and you’ll have an entire mountain to yourself.
Thus with that reasoning in mind we set off to climb and ski Bench Peak. To be fair we knew there were tracks on the run we wanted to ski. But only 4 sets of tracks – and when those tracks are made by ubiquitous local skier “Eric the Viking” and his crew, and those tracks mean you don’t have to route find through the wilds of Center and Divide Creeks, then you can forgive the 4 sets. Besides, following Viking and his crew’s tracks down a Turnagain area run is kind of a given. If it’s good and it will go, chances are Viking has already skied it that week.
First climbed in 1969 by Harry and Dub Bludworth, Bench Peak (5,575′) is the highest peak in the greater-Turnagain area. To quote mountain historian Steve Gruhn:
The highest peak on the Kenai Peninsula west of the Alaska Railroad and north of the Trail Creek-Kenai River drainage, Bench Peak is the eighth-most prominent peak in the Kenai Mountains. The nearest higher peak is more than 7 miles away. In clear weather this relief enables tremendous views from the summit. (April 2010 Scree)
In other words – this peak beckons. Climb anything in Turnagain Pass and once you reach the top you first look NE for the prominent summit of Carpathian and then SE for the prominent summit of Bench. Both peaks have distinct flat summits that sit above everything around them – and both peaks make skiers dream of the right combination of factors that enable a safe ascent and descent.
So like I was saying- we set off to climb it. Viking had been there a couple days prior so I called him up and got directions. Basically he said go up Center Creek, then go up Divide Creek, then go up the North glacier, then go up the East Ridge. Then ski the North face. “You will get wet,” he cautioned.
We skied off. Up the Johnson Pass trail to the bridge where we turned and began heading up Center Creek. Like Viking said, the creek was open. River crossings became a combination of wading across with plastic bags over the boots, jumping across snow bridges that collapsed as you leapt and sketchy bridges that somehow supported body weight. But the tracks were in front of us so for the most part we didn’t have to think and just slogged up the valley.
When we reached the Center Creek canyon we had to traverse off the river and climb above the canyon on the east side of the river – but the tracks were still visible so it went fast enough. And before we knew it we were all the way past Center Creek and past the “No Snowmachines” boundary (complete with dozens of snowmachine tracks leading off past the USFS closure signs) and heading into Divide Creek.
It took us 3 hours to get to the basin that sits just below Bench Peak where we stopped, had a quick snack, melted a couple quarts of water and then set off again. Beyond the basin we ascended slopes to a ridge where we were finally afforded a glimpse of the line we came to ski: the North Face of Bench Peak.
You’d think that such a prominent peak would have a gnarly North face. But that isn’t the case – the majestic North face drops 3,500′ – but it’s quite moderate and even has a couple safe zones in the middle of the route. Not to say that the run is kid friendly – technically the run’s moderate angle (around 35 degrees) increases the likelihood of avalanches. Plus the route is glaciated – which means you’re skiing over crevasses and bergschrunds. But compared to other big glaciated north faces in the area it’s pretty mellow. And a moderate angle complete with safe zones is something I can ski – so without further dallying we continued on.
However something was wrong. Where there should have been four tracks coming down the knoll we just skinned up, we were now seeing about 15. Did Viking and his crew do laps? Unlikely. At this point we were a good 7 miles from the car (and still had 3 miles and 3,500′ to go) and even though Viking and his partner Kathy are tough – and the young men they enlist to break trail are tougher – they’re not that tough. It just didn’t make sense. But I was pretty tired at this point and was trying to blank out my mind in preparation of the long climb ahead so I pretended not to notice.
And then we crested the hill.
Before us lay the North Glacier of Bench – and on the glacier and the surrounding bowl there were tracks- not just tracks. But TRACKS. Like around 75-100 sets of tracks. I knew that heli-skiers came to this region, but I always thought heli-skiers flew to some random distant peak where there were no tracks. Apparently that isn’t the case. Apparently when you shell out $1000 for a day of heli drops you get to ski a bowl that looks more like Peak 3 on an April afternoon than a wild untracked Alaskan bowl. Maybe heli-skiers don’t know what they’re missing? Maybe this is just the warm up bowl? Whatever the case I was glad we weren’t skiing the glaciated bowl. Thankfully they hadn’t been dropping skiers down the north face and there were only 4 sets of tracks down the run.
The trudge up through the skied out bowl was a slog. Long, mundane and exhausting. We crested the glacier after 6 hours on the go. Not just 6 hours – but 6 hours, 9.5 miles and 4,500′ of elevation gain. I was feeling a tad wasted at this point and had to sit, drink and eat for a while to regain some strength. But you couldn’t ask for a more perfect day. Crystal blue skies and the view down Placer Valley and over at the Isthmus icefield was completely sharp and clear. We looked north and west at familiar peaks like Carpathian, Byron, Pastoral and Flute – and south and east at unknown spires that called.
After eating and drinking we set off again; this time shouldering the skis, and climbing up through boot to shin deep rime and powder to the long East ridge that we needed to traverse to reach our run. Viking’s tracks had filled in so we carefully booted out and onto the face and then tiptoed along just below the ridge threading the thin line between the cornice that overhangs the south face and the deep snow that overhangs the north face for most of the year.
The ridge climb was fun. Exciting enough to keep my attention (and wish I had the ice axe that I had left hanging in my basement), but never really spooky. It took us a little over an hour to traverse the entire ridge and by 3:45pm we were standing on the summit looking all around at the Kenai Range and north into the Chugach Range. A spectacular summit on a perfect day!
And then the fun began: the north face ski descent began with a couple short drops down to safe zones where we could watch each other. This was followed by a 2,000′ slope that rolled over a glacial budge next to blue seracs poised above a rock band that ended at yet another safe zone. We then cut skiers left and skied a couloir that dumped us out into a moderate bowl at the base of the face which we followed out and into the flats. A wonderful run that had absolutely perfect shin deep powder!
Back on the safety of flat ground we collapsed in euphoric giggles amazed at how everything had come together. But we were still miles and miles from home, so without further dallying we once again set off and began reversing the miles and miles of snow travel that took us over the river and through the woods.
Slogging for miles after a long day my mind’s eye began to think about the Bludworths and their long weekend day back in 1969 before I was even born. Maybe when Harry and Dub first slogged into Bench Peak, Johnson Pass was a calm and wild place. Sure the USFS was already hard at work shaping the trail into the well-traveled thoroughfare it is today (along with slightly more impactful “upgrades” like altering stream beds to improve fishing). Cabins existed on trail and people were obviously beginning to explore the peaks and valleys all around, but wilderness still lingered just beyond the trail.
No longer. The area is now one of the most heavily used winter motorized corridors in the state. There are snowmachine tracks everywhere – on the river, in the woods, down the trail. Technically upper Center Creek and all of Divide Creek are closed to snowmachines – but with minimal enforcement, snowmachines pretty much go anywhere they want.
My theory that you can head back just one more ridge and be on your own doesn’t really hold much weight any longer. The non-motorized area of Turnagain Pass is a small sanctuary that you can traverse, east to west, in just a few hours. You start on the west next to Sunnyside where the snowmachines are cranking, and once you drop off the ridge down towards Center Creek you again enter into snowmachine territory. Slog east a little further and higher to escape the snowmachines and the helicopters show up. Push past the helicopters and you drop down into Grandview where the USFS is about to start on an ambitious $14 million plan to improve access and develop European style huts complete with bunks and caretakers.
Your world is getting smaller.
Head north and the USFS has the go ahead to sell off 10 million cubic yards of gravel and rock (on 600 acres of land) next to the Spencer Glacier. This strip mining will in part finance the Whistle Stop project. Head south and a group is trying to turn a prime backcountry ski area into a ski resort.
Your world is getting smaller.
We had to wade the river six times on the way out. We were too zoned out and tired to try and keep ourselves dry so we just ran across the shin deep creek in our ski boots and then kept skiing with our toes sloshing in water. 12 hours after starting we burst out of woods and into the parking lot where our car floated in a puddle of melted snow. Bench Peak, which used to seem so far away, really didn’t seem that distant.
Everything is getting smaller.
Steve Gruhn has a write up on Bench for his “Peak of the Month” feature in the April 2010 Scree. He also has a write up of an ascent of the SE Ridge in the November 2007 Scree. Harry Budsworth’s account of the first ascent can be found in the August 1969 Scree. His write up has an interesting discussion of the USFS’s work in the 60s to divert Ohio Creek in order to make Bench Lake a clear water lake to promote fishing. All Scree can be downloaded here (membership required).
The first crux of Bench is having the right combination of factors that will enable a safe descent. This combination needs to be (a) snow stability, (b) good weather and (c) sunlight. So unless you’re an incredibly fast and strong skier then you’ll have to wait until that magic window in early April when all these factors sometimes come together. My advice would be to wait until we have crust and then to blast out in early morning to take advantage of easier traveling conditions.
The second crux of Bench is getting to the head of Divide Creek. We took Johnson Pass trail to the bridge then followed Center Creek up the deep canyon. Once at the canyon we climbed out on climbers right (east) and then traversed the canyon rim in glades just above the river. Once past the canyon we dropped down to the river again.
However – according to local XC master Tim Kelley there is an easier way to reach Divide Creek: head a little over a mile past the bridge and you’ll reach meadows that will take you up and over a bump and all the way down to the head of Divide Creek. This is the route that poaching snowmachiners often take so the more skiers who head out there the better. Let the USFS know if you encounter snowmachine tracks in the area.
Once you reach Divide Creek just head up the valley. Stay on the south side of the canyon to avoid the sun-baked slopes. Take this valley all the way up and over a bump that will deposit you at the base of the N face. Continue up the North Glacier all the way to the East Ridge. Take the glacier all the way to the ridge then boot across the East ridge taking into consideration the cornice and poor run out (over cliffs) below you. The N face entrance is mellow and the route has a few safe zones. You can assess the run from the valley as you’re headed in.
This is a big run – 3,500′ – however it is quite doable if the conditions are right. Given the tracks we saw on the north glacier and the fact that CPG had left a marker on the summit, it must get guided every now and then so don’t be surprised if you get all the way back there and find tracks on the run.
However, it’s one of the best runs I’ve done in the Turnagain area. And it’s not that hard to get all the way back to such a prominent point and ski it without the use of snowmachines or helicopters so I highly recommend it. It took us just under 12 hours round trip but we had approach tracks and a skin track to follow. So I’m going to say anywhere from 6-10 hours up and 4-6 down.