Milk Glacier to Goat Couloir

The day started like most ski days do. A phone call around 8:30 to finalize meeting times, ski partners, and the objective for the day. Only this time, mention of the group’s desired ski goal made me nauseas: Raven Peak. It’s a big mountain in the upper Girdwood Valley at the head of the Raven Glacier, but more importantly it’s the location of a major avalanche I was involved in almost two years ago . . . although I feel healed from that experience and have gone on to reintroduce skiing and climbing in exposure, I hadn’t really considered the potential of going back for my redemption. But, at the same time, it was the last day of a super high pressure stability window and there was no reason not to go. When we got to the trailhead, Zach realized he had forgotten his skins, so we drove back to Girdwood to borrow a pair from Aaron. On our way, we laughed at backcountry skiing in Alaska, where we seem to always be walking a fine line between backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering . . . I am not even sure that, at this point, I know what the difference is.

So, we remedied the skin debacle and were on our way back up, ready to get cranktastic in an effort to catch the other three who had gone ahead to break the trail and travel at a more relaxed and enjoyable pace. I struggled a bit on the initial skin in, as I was on my backup skis having broken my binding the day before on my Bro Models. I was also a bit agitated, probably due to the underlying uneasiness over where we were going, and the chance to meet my fear head-on. As we traveled onto and then up the Milk Glacier, we got a view of the ramp we’d intended to ski, a super aesthetic line with sustained 40-45 degree slopes. However, we could also see that it was pretty wind-affected and made me immediately want nothing to do with it . . . no need to get owned by windslab twice in the same area . . . thankfully, the boys ahead had the same realization and had headed over to a nearby face that had been wind buffed instead of wind hammered and looked quite appetizing. We all met up at the base of the bootpack and Erik took off ahead, creating a lovely stairway to heaven. We topped out in one of the most beautiful places I’ve been, with the expanse of the Eagle Glacier and the heart of the Chugach Mountains at our feet. Our spirits were high both with the view and the fact that the sun, hard to come by in Alaskan January, was illuminating the entirety of our run . . about 1200 feet of perfect 40 degree alpine terrain. Mike dropped in first, arcing huge turns down the slope, making me smile at how my role in a particular group varies so widely . . . in this group, I wasn’t even near being on team get-rad, with these boys all being super strong skiers who prefer big fast turns in big terrain. Zack went next, taking the extreme entrance as he aired off a perch on the col we were standing . . . a few more GS turns down the face and he was in the safe zone below. Neil did the same, and then my turn.

Since 2010 is the year I’ve decided to no longer be traumatized by taking air, I chose a fun entrance with a small rock to launch from, running out my speed before I started down the skier’s left of the line. The snow was lovely and fast, supporting pretty aggressive turns that popped me from ski to ski . . . and then, with burning legs, I made it over the bergshrund and to the guys below. Erik came last putting the final touch on our artwork for the day with style.

Psyched from our run and enjoying the loveliness of the afternoon, we decided there was probably time to make it back up the bootpack and drop off the front side back to the car. At our initial top-out, we had realized that we were actually at the top of the Goat Couloir, perhaps one of the most aesthetic lines in the Girdwood Valley that, although many of us have skied tons of peaks in the area, had eluded our exploits thus far. Our desire to exit the area in style was unanimous, so back up we went . . . oh how we love to bootpack! We topped out at around 4:30pm, just as the sun was setting and the alpenglow setting in on our run. We poked around the super corniced entrance and found a location that went without air, as a mellow entrance was much preferred given the death exposure over cliffs that was necessary to navigate before entering the main couloir.

I dropped in 4th and executed my critical turns without issue, entering the couloir to be greeted by super lovely sluffed and buffed slopes. It was one of those lines that’s so beautiful to be in – high walls on both sides, steep enough to be interesting and to capture the momentum in the transition between turns, surfing the gravity wave down to the bergshrund, safely airing out of it, and enjoying the glacier apron turns to the group below. From there, it was extreme meadow-skipping turns . . . mellow angle, but necessary to watch for and dodge crevasses all the way out. In true Alaska style, we had some alder bashing and creek navigation to end the day with, but smiles as we finished the 4300ft line to the car.

So, in the end, the day had become the type that reminds me why I live in Girdwood and why I love Alaska. What I’ve learned is that Alaska pretty much always brings it and the potential is endless, both for amazingly aesthetic ski descents, and for unknown challenges and adventure . . . sometimes you end up accidentally skiing a classic couloir you’ve dreamed about and sometimes you end up realizing the fine line we walk everytime we set foot in the mountains. It’s amazing and wonderful to me that this can all occur in a location from which I can see my house . . . On this particular day, we had worked well as a group, moving efficiently through varied terrain, selecting beautiful lines suitable for the weather and wind pattern the area had experienced, taking advantage of the available light, and unintentionally skiing a truly classic line. I am in awe that such grandeur exists out my back door, and so appreciative for the ability to go and experience it.

And so, although the weather window closed today, I will smile and close my eyes with frequency, remembering what it felt like to stop in the middle of the bootpack and scope out a lifetime of incredible ski descents with poignant inspiration to keep exploring; remembering the soft light on the distant peaks and the soaring feeling in my heart engendered by their expansivity; re-living the rhythmic jump turns in the alpenglow-illuminated Goat Couloir; feeling again the chilly breeze on my cheeks as I watched my friends nail their lines with grace and style; and appreciating the fullness that I feel in recollection of how cool our sport is, how amazing these mountains are, and how extraordinary our lives are to be out adventuring here.

1 comment:

Sherrie Soltis said...

I love it!! Great writing!