Thin White Mank

I’m a bit of a nomenclature geek. I eat up stories about how peaks and routes got their name. Take Cornbiscuit for example. Whoever came up with that name? Turns out the name came from two people who used to ski it all the time back in the late 80s / early 90s. Two French expats living in SCAK who were named Körn and Biscüit (or something like that… this is after-all a skintrack story so umlauts have been added to make their names sound more French). Kôrn and Biscùit skied Cornbuiscuit all the time and the locals started to say “Hey – let’s go ski that peak that Körn and Biscüit ski all the time” – and so the name morphed into Cornbiscuit. Or Superbowl. Legend has it Viking et. al. first skied it on Superbowl Sunday – thence the name.

Other places are a bit more nuanced and naming conventions morph based on perception. For example, Tincan Peak is an actual peak registered with the USGS – but the proper registered peak is way at the back of Center Ridge. It’s not the peak right next to the road that everyone calls Tincan. And so skiers have taken to calling roadside peak Tincan, the summit next to it “Tincan Proper” and the properly named and labeled peak “The Real Tincan”.

Thin White Line.

Or “Wolverine”. Not Wolverine Peak just outside of town – the peak at the far northern edge of Turnagain pass. Where did “Wolverine” come from? The first recorded attempt of Wolverine was in 1988 by Robert Spurr and friends. They wrote up an account in Scree and proposed the name “Flying Cornice”. The name stuck for over a decade with local climbers until some skiers who apparently had no regard for historical significance came up with their own name. That shit wouldn’t fly anywhere else in America. If skiers renamed peaks or runs just because they skied it, fisticuffs would follow in Boulder or Jackson.

The “S” couloir is another example. “Fat City and Urban Ice” clearly labels Ptarmigan couloir as the North Couloir. Williamson, Ratz and Miller, in their UAA AWS analysis of the infamous 1998 Ptarmigan accident do refer to the couloir shape (“The 1,200-foot, “S”-shaped North Couloir”) but their subsequent publication in Accidents in North American Mountaineering identifies the couloir as the “North Couloir”. Matt Kinney once got strafed for renaming overtly sexist named runs to boring PC terminology and the same standards should apply to other guidebook authors.

Ptarmigan N. Couloir.
Skinny couloir off Ptarmigan. Mandatory rap couloirs / NE Face.

Go further north and both Joe Puryear and Colin Haley have argued extensively that Mt. Hunter’s North Buttress is “commonly and erroneously referred to as the Moonflower Buttress“. Colin and Joe’s argument being that Mugs Stump (who named the Buttress) did not make the FA (he only climbed as far as the ridge crest) and that it is wrong to apply new naming conventions in an area that has historically seen a set naming convention (e.g. West Buttress of Denali, SE Spur of Denali, West Ridge of Mt Hunter).

The same applies to the West Face Couloir on Huntington. The West face couloir had seen numerous attempts but no one had actually completed the route until Dave Nettle and James Quirk climbed the route in May of 1989 and claimed the first ascent. The name “Nettle/Quirk Couloir” stuck but Joe intentionally revised it to the “West Face Couloir” in his 2006 book Alaska Climbing – again citing historical naming conventions.

Petty? Sure. But when you spend all your sunny-day free time climbing and your rainy-day free time talking about climbing, then petty matters take on an importance of sorts.

All that said… Eric and I set out to climb Avalanche Peak and ski Thin White Line. Avalanche Peak it should be noted was once called Powerline Pass Peak – but was renamed in honor of troopers who were caught in an avalanche there in the 60’s. Thin White Line is that classic line that sweeps just below the summit that you see from just about every peak in the Front Range. Whether Thin White Line refers to the era of colonial authority, cocaine use, the great 1983 Avengers punk tune or Paul Denkewalter and David Whitelaw’s 1990 guidebook “Thin White Line: 87 Not-so-classic Climbs on the Seward Highway” is a story lost on most of us.

Photo shamelessy lifted from Eddie Phay’s site. RIP Eddie. Hope there’s climbing where you’re at.  

So out of the Glen Alps parking lot around 9am for the slog back to Powerline Pass. Up valley passing Ptarmigan’s North Couloir which already had 4 sets of tracks. Past the skiing, rappel mandatory couloirs on the NE face of Ptarmigan and past the not so direct fall line couloirs on the ridge between Ptarmigan and Homicide.

N. Suicide NE Couloir.
Random couloir. Homicide N. couloir.

As we approach Powerline Pass the snow turns to hardpack so we transition from skis to crampons to ice axes. Eric, always on the hunt for something fun, bypasses the trail and opts for a body width steep gully that deposits us on the South Ridge of Avalanche. Then up the ridge which goes on and on in mid-summer and goes on forever when you’re booting shin deep breakable mank in April. It takes us a solid 1.5 hours to go from just below Powerline Pass to the top of the couloir until finally we were standing at the top looking down.

Eric low on the ridge.

Eric high on the ridge.

After looking down the run I will say Thin White Line is a slightly dramatic name for what is in reality a moderate run. But Alaskan skiers love dramatic ski run names: Shoulder of Death (OK… this wasn’t named by an Alaskan thus we can forgive the overt hype) , Tommy Moe Run (nothing makes you pause like knowing the first descent was by an Olympic gold medalist), Todd’s Run (grimly named for Todd Frankiewicz). But whatever… it’s still a cool name. And when you’ve slogged over to a run that you’ve feared for years as being too steep, discovering that it is moderate is a secret joy that you manifest by saying “Oh…Bummer. Looks totally mellow doesn’t it? Too bad there’s not a steeper entrance.”

Down to business: eat, drink, pack away the skins, strap down the helmet, lock down the ski boots, step into the skis, bang the skis around to make sure the bindings are tight. All good? Let’s go.

Eric is already down over the lip and standing at the top of the run so he gets first dibs while I continue to futz with gear. He pokes around. “I don’t like this windslab,” he says. I feign concern. When Eric says he doesn’t like something but he’s already in the thick of it I’ve learned to just nod my head. He’ll get through it without a problem like he always does. The real concern will come when it’s my turn to follow. But I have two whippets, two brand new skis with edges sharp as sin and no qualms about side slipping an entire run with whippet sunk into hardpack if that’s what it takes – so I just nod.

“I don’t like this windslab!”

Eric slips and slides like a snowboarder down into the entrance. “It’s definitely hardpack,” he says. “And I really don’t like this windslab.” I nod again but I’m really just thinking, Yeah whatever Eric as he finally stands up and makes a sharp jump turn down into the meat of the couloir.

He stops as suddenly as he hits the snow. A groan floats up out of the couloir. “Well it’s not fucking powder in case you were wondering,” he spits. I’m really concerned now. If Eric is complaining about snow quality it must really be bad. I start contemplating booting down the entire run in my crampons.

“It’s not powder.” Trying to stop shaking… Funky dance moves.

He keeps jumping. He does this weird thing with his arms where he flails them in the air as he jumps and then returns them to his sides when he lands. He lands and yells expletives, throws his arms up in the air and jumps again. He repeats this for about 500′. Near the bottom of the choke Eric gives up on jump turns and sideslips about 100′ feet down and out of sight. Watching this I notice my (normally manageable) essential tremor has worsened to the point where my camera is almost bouncing out of my hand. I pack it away, take a deep breath and start sliding towards the entrance.

Eric had booted out about 10′ whereas I am in skis, so I do a weird shuffle thing where I stomp with one ski and sink the other one into soft snow on a rock wall. I stomp hard with the left ski and a windslab about 5″ thick and the size of a kitchen cabinet door breaks loose and rockets down the couloir. I don’t like this windslab I think. I stomp and poke and slide over to the platform Eric had stomped out. And then I start slipping down and back into the start of the run. Eric’s first jump turns are higher up the steep lip then I’m willing to deal with so I sideslip down towards his first body weight divot. Stopping just above the divot I sink my whippet and stomp hard. Another chunk of windslab, about 5″ thick and the size of a closet door breaks off and rockets down the couloir.

I really don’t like this windslab.

Looking down mid run. Note how Eric’s tracks barely show up.

I sideslip another 4′ to the next divot where I do another stomp. This time the windslab is small and insignificant and my breath comes a little easier. I relax the death grip on my sphincter, plant my downhill ski pole and jump, twisting my body to the left and down into surprisingly carvable hardpack while my uphill hand sinks my whippet into the slope. Not so bad, I think while conveniently ignoring the fact that Eric has just pounded his way down this with a hundred jump turns and I can barely tell where he went. I breath deep and say to myself: I can do this.

Jump. Twist. Slide into place. Sink whippet. Compose. Repeat.

The snow softens, the run starts to get fun. I don’t know what Eric was bitching about I think. And then I jump and as I slide into place the snow turns into solid ice, my skis chatter and I have to punch hard to sink the whippet into place.

As I jerk to a stop I look around and realize that I’ve reached the sun / shadow line and am surprised to note that this run gets a fair amount of sun. Of course in retrospect we realized that’s a no-brainer as we skied out Ship Pass watching the sun bake the upper couloir, but standing on ice in the middle of the run all I could do was start cursing.

I backslide to the “soft” hardpack and note that I have a 6′ wide section of non-sun affected hard pack that has a rock wall on one side and ice on the other. And then it’s tight jump turns down the hardpack trying not to ram the wall when I jump left, or slide into ice when I jump right.

This goes on for about 200′ or so until the entire width of the couloir turns into solid ice. I look over to see Eric standing in an open bowl down and skier’s left of me. “Oh yeah… I side slipped all of that” he says. If Eric sideslipped a section then I have no shame, and so I plant the whippet and start a controlled slide down perhaps some of the worst snow I’ve ever subjected myself to.

This finally opens up and I spot soft snow down and left, so I stand up, plant my downhill pole and jump, relishing the feeling of soft snow that I will soon have.

Except it’s not. It’s solid ice. I land and start bouncing downhill, my skis in full chatter until finally I am able to lean in and self arrest.

Eric, bemused at my flail, says, “Oh yeah… forgot to tell you that section is total ice.”

But I’m down. The rest of the run looks mellow and we’re able to traverse to a north facing bowl where there is sure to be powder. Eric takes off – and his turns look good. Great actually. This is going to be fun!


Then Eric eats it. Groans float up replaced by curses. He picks up what appears to be a rock and throws it down slope. “It’s variable” he yells. In this case variable means powder, ice, breakable and apparently rock. More curses float up as he picks his way down. I follow milking turns up high and then taking it slow as I near the spot where he wrecked.

More dance moves. Lower apron. Looking up from mid way.

The lower part is another choke. Eric takes the skier’s right exit where he finds variable mank. I take the skier’s left exit hoping for softer snow but don’t find it. We end the run by dropping off a rock band and down onto Ship Lake where we sit in the sun and look up at our run.

“Well that sucked,” Eric says.

“Classic my ass,” I reply.

We throw on the skins and then slog up 1500′ to Ship Pass where we stop and look over our shoulder at the sweeping line that drops down the West Face. Ignoring tradition, history and local ethics we vow to rename the route.

From henceforth it will be called Thin White Mank.