We set out to tour the valley around Pinnacle with the hopes of skiing something interesting. Checking out conditions on the approach we noted two large natural releases that had occurred sometime midweek on the SW face of Marmot and the occasional crown in steeper terrain that appeared to be have either released during or shortly after the most recent storm cycle. Taking the obvious signs into account we then studied the tracks on pretty much every aspect and angle and noted that had minimal releasing other than occasional sluffing.
With the signs in mind, Scott, Stephanie, Dan and I toured out of the parking lot and up through the Rock Garden where we chose to sample the valley that sits just due west of Pinnacle. Pushing into the valley NW of Pinnacle we found ourselves breaking trail and were able to meander around on small hills to test stability on small rollovers on multiple aspects. Everything felt great with the exception of a sun crust that had developed on SW slopes – so we kept going with the intention of skiing something facing east or northeast.
The Rock Garden.
West of Pinnacle.
Heading up 1st Run.
After poking just a little further we found ourselves at the base of a fun looking east facing couloir that was perhaps 500′ and maybe 35 degrees at the top. We regrouped at the base, put two skiers behind a rock in a safe zone and then Scott broke trail up the couloir while I followed 2 switchbacks behind him. We found consistent, safe snow from top to bottom.
I got first dibs on the run. The skin track had pretty much chewed up the run which meant I was able to put in a ski cut and stomp above every switchback and despite best efforts to initiate a sluff, everything stayed in place top to bottom for all 4 skiers and dog. Everyone felt good about the snowpack, weather and snow quality.
Unknown skiers b/t Pinnacle / Gold Chord.
Stephanie down run #1.
Stephanie above Dogsled Pass.
We then set off to the back of the valley with me breaking trail up a south facing crusty gully. A little while later we were standing at the top looking at the big three and debating where to go. 200′ to our left was a small notch. Does it go? I skied over to investigate the route where I spied a beautiful couloir dropping down towards Fairangel valley. Upon returning to the group I was able to sell everyone on a tour instead of turns: Down the couloir to the dark and quiet Fairangel valley and then out to Archangel and the snowmachine road. Promises of a beautiful NE facing mellow couloir and lack of people and tracks made it an easy sell.
This time Scott got first dibs and he carefully slid into the run probing and feeling his way. The snow felt good and there was zero sluffing and the drop below him looked moderate. He made a few tentative turns and then began picking up speed.
A few seconds later he rolled out of view and I slid into the couloir so I could spot; not 2 seconds later I heard the deep whumpf of collapsing snow. Instantly alert, I looked down to see a powder cloud shooting out into the valley.
“Avalanche!” We all went into alert mode — but a few seconds later I saw Scott safely skiing down through the debris.
Scott called up to a us on the radio with a report, “The snow up high is great – but as you leave the couloir and transition onto the apron the run steepens slightly and I triggered an soft slab that was easily avoidable. The debris pile is all of 1′ deep and the bed surface is soft and skiable — the risk is manageable, but be careful.”
After a moments hesitation I dropped in. Up high the run skied great – and I was able to push turns above Scott’s tracks in the hopes of initiating a slide. Nothing – not even cracks. I slowed as I approached the crown: 16″ deep and perhaps 40′ wide. It had slid for about 400′. Looking around I opted to push skiers left in search of lower angle ground… however seconds after I skied past the crown the slope fractured again at my feet. As Scott had reported – it was a soft slab and I lifted my skies slightly and easily stepped right out as it slowly slid beneath me.
I stopped to catch my breath. The second release was about 30′ wide and had slid for about 300′. Again the debris pile was all of 1′ and the bed surface consisted of a couple inches of facted snow overtop the bed surface. I dug out my camera, took a couple pix, probed the bed surface for a second and then dropped the rest of the run – sticking to the bed surface before pulling out to ski to low angle ramp on skiers left.
Regrouping with Scott we looked up to see a fracture about 75′ wide that had slid for perhaps 400′. We debated for a while what the other two should do – and gave them the option of carefully skiing down and dropping the crown to ski the bed surface – or returning via our skin track. In the end Stephanie and Dan opted to drop the run. Scott and I put our skins on just in case we needed to climb – but both skiers were easily able to ski down and drop onto the bed surface without any issues.
After we all regrouped, Scott took the second half of the run – choosing a mellow 25 degree ramp. The snow was perfect – but on the valley floor we could all feel the layer that had collapsed above us.
Fairangel Valley is a cold steep dark place with lots of snow above you on either side… and there was no way we were going back up what we had just come down so we spaced out and began skiing down valley. A few spots tightened into classic terrain traps with sun baked south facing snow on one side and deep powder on the other. We pushed though these quickly and quietly and soon were through the worst of it and skiing down through the giant talus fields that guard the hanging valleys of the Talkeetna mountains.
Back on the flats every step we took initiated a large whumpf – tell tale signs that we hadn’t encountered at all just one valley west.
And soon we were out of the shadows and pushing across to the snowmachine track on Archangel road – and then 5 miles down the snowmachine track and back to the road sunbaked, blistered and happy.
Variability. Learning that variability is always present is a good lesson as long as no one gets hurt. In this case we had traveled from the Independence Mine area to a pass overlooking Dogsled Pass and then traversed to the notch overlooking Fairangel where we noted that the temperature dropped. Fairangel valley is a very deep and very cold valley that sees very little sun and little traffic. The start of the run was at 5300′ – which is several hundred feet higher than most of the runs in the Independence Mine / Government region. Combine higher elevation with a narrow hanging valley that holds cold temperatures and you get a slightly different snowpack. This wasn’t apparent at the top of the run – but quickly became apparent after the slab was triggered. The variability became increasingly obvious as we dropped further down valley where we felt and heard collapsing.
Traffic. Unlike almost every route in Independence Mine / Government region there was zero traffic in Fairangel. The classic paper on heuristic traps talks about the scarcity heuristic where skiers throw “caution to the wind as they compete with each other to consume the powder that is untracked for a limited time only”. In a sense we fell victim to this trap because we were pushing into unfamiliar terrain in the hopes of avoiding the crowds that were pushing up valley (we had encountered a group of 4 shortly after skiing our first run). Likewise we had taken existing tracks and used them to judge stability while neglecting variability on steeper, colder and higher terrain. Had we traversed into the run and dug a pit we might have discovered what was in store for us.
Communication. I never ski with radios but at the top of the run Dan dug out a radio and passed it to Scott. It turned out to be really really helpful. Radios are one of those things I know I should ski with – but they always get tossed out to save weight. In the future I will rethink radios when heading out to ski unknown or steeper terrain. Lou Dawson has a good writeup on what kind to buy here.
Nomenclature. Social media banter about our ave once again confirmed to me that most Hatcher Pass users don’t know what the area they’re skiing is named. It’s fine to say “we skied the valley north of Pinnacle” but should an event happen where a rescue is needed then you’re going to have be more specific. Thus I took my notes from the hut logs and combined them with Nancy Pfeiffer’s map to create a google map that will hopefully aid others. The map is embedded below with a direct link here. If you would like to contribute to the map and help with names and locations please contact me and I’ll add you as an admin. Feel free to embed it anywhere you want.
All that said… a great day out and a wonderful tour. The run from the notch dropping into Fairangel is well worth skiing. The loop ends up being around 10 miles and 3000′ with only a little bit of slogging on the Archangel road. If I were to do it again I think I would start with skiing up from Gold Chord lake and dropping Farside. This would give you an idea of the snowpack on north facing terrain. From the base of Farside you can be back to the col in less than an hour. Traversing to the notch requires that you tread carefully under loaded snow and over rock bands. Fairangel valley, as noted, is narrow and steep so attempting this traverse in unfavorable conditions would expose you to a fair amount of danger from above.
You’ll note that Google Maps isn’t so good when it comes to their topographic layers. Compare the above map points to an actual USGS topo for the real deal.