Steep Week- Cherry Couloirs and Hard Knocks in Valdez
Photos by Tyson Bradley
“Holy shit!” exclaims Ray. “That was worth the price of admission right there!” shouts Scott. “Just like in the movies,” echoes Mike, as he pans around with his camera, capturing the mind-boggling scenery. Dave is tight-lipped, looking around nervously. “How the hell do we get down?” he finally asks. We’ve just been deposited on a postage-stamp sized snowdrift, on a razor-sharp ridge above the Tsaina lodge by a Valdez Heli-Ski ‘copter. There is no easy way down. Steep couloirs, guarded by rocky entrances are the only “weaknesses” between dark gendarmes of splintered slate piercing the Alaskan sky.
This is the Iguanabacks: a row of sawtooth ridges lined with stacks of 1,000-foot “coulies,” filled with Chugach powder. Its a ski-mountaineering paradise, and we’re starting our day at the top. Only problem is, we’re not warmed up from 4,000’ of skinning and booting, because we flew here. In fact were freezing, and our stomachs are full of butterflies. “Now where’s that warm-up chute I saw from the air,” I ask myself as I scope the world below from various vantage points. It all looks much steeper on the ground, looking down.
“There’s an entrance over here, guys!” I shout, and bring the team in above me. I side-step down over shattered rock, trying my best to “exude confidence” as I’ve been taught in guide school, and working my way down to the ski-width-wide snow strip. Adrenaline powers me through a few hop-turns, and I tuck in behind a rock outcrop to watch and film the others dropping in.
A few minutes later we’ve all safely shredded the 1200-foot chute, and we skin up in the sun, sipping hot tea and munching a snack. We’ve arrived in the Chugach backcountry, no question about it. This is what we’d imagined and dreamed of. Just in this valley alone, I see more mouth-watering lines than we can shake a ski pole at, let alone ski. But over the next week we tick off quite a few.
For our first climb, we select a wide alley to our east, and start switchbacking up. Three quarters of the way up it steepens and we face the usual dilemma: sketchy skinning or a treacherous transition to booting? I ask the boys. “I’m doing fine here, lets keep the skis on our feet,” says one. “Easy for him to say on a broken skin trail…” I’m thinking. But I keep going, kicking laterally into the stiffening upper-snowpack crust and struggling mightily on the increasingly frequent kick-turns required by the narrowing gully.
Soon I give up and kick steps up the last 200 feet. Of course, its not all supportable, and I break through in places. Searching left and right for better booting, we must resort to doing the crawl; i.e. getting down on all fours, and distributing our weight, rather than concentrating it all on our boot soles. Then comes the inevitable cornice lip crux. I find a place thats only vertical (not overhanging) and excavate snow to create a trough up and through. Plunging my axe shaft is the only way to get enough purchase to mantle up.
A similar scenario plays itself out in one way or another on virtually every couloir we ascend over the next week. Its not as easy as flying to the top. In fact its a bitch, but we relish the views and workout on the up, and when we crest out and discover what’s on the other side, the reward is sweet. Here we see an untracked, windless run, splitting into 3 parallel shots as it goes down. Stoke trumps fatigue as we put the boards back on, ski-cut the slope and drop in. I get much better photos this time from an “island of safety” atop one of the cleavers that divide this chute.
Each guy rips his own line, the powder is great and now we’re in another spectacular amphitheater of skiing. We pick a plumb, climb it, shred down, and repeat. Before we exit this “Crud Cirque,” Ray suggests I put my ice-axe adze to good use and chip some glacial ice off an exposed blue bulge. I pack it in a ziplock baggy, and we bring it to the bartender at the Tsaina Lodge for a time-honored Chugach end-of-day tradition: Whiskey (or Scotch) on freshly harvested glacial ice!
Confidence increases each day as we enjoy soft snow and sunshine, and soon Mike is asking me, “Where’s that 65-degree pitch you mentioned?” I had skied such a precipice on my first Valdez visit, in “The Books” area, in ’95. But its here too, in certain places. I grant his wish by traversing onto a super-steep flank of a 50-degree chute we’ve recently climbed. Dave rips the gut, and Ray lays down another powder track next to his. As Scott watches on the ridge, I bring the steep-hungry Mike out along my traverse.
I remind him to watch out for his sluff as we discuss strategy, and he drops in below me. Two high speed turns on the steep flank bring him back into the gut, where a previous sluff has exposed a hard bed surface. At the same moment his skis accelerate on the firm snow, the 6” deep, 20’ wide soft-slab mini avalanche he released on the flank catches up to him. The combination punch knocks him down. He’s been “Chugached!” He’s off to the ride of his life. I watch him go 500‘ before stopping upright in a waist deep pile of soft debris. “Are you OK?” I shout.
“Ya, I think so,” he musters, obviously shaken, “but I only have one ski and no poles.” Dave spots a pole, and I’m not too worried about the other one, but we really want the second ski. Its a long way to the Richardson Highway, and its already 4:30 pm. I begin sweeping with my pole in the debris as I criss-cross the chute from the fall spot down to Mike, but to no avail. Then I start looking for signs, and sure enough, I spot a little “mole trail” going straight down the fall-line left of Mike’s position.
“Is there any chance its below you?” I ask. Dave says, “No, I doubt it,” but I decide to follow the submarine trail, sweeping back and forth frantically as I go. Clink! There it is! Relief floods me as I yank one of Mikes sweet new 128 mm-waist K2 planks, with an early-rise ‘tip’ that starts just in front of the binding, triumphantly out of the debris. Mike’s shoulder ends up being sore for a month, and his confidence takes a while to rebuild, but at least he’s gliding out to the Mile 42 bridge, and we’ve dodged a late-night epic on one ski.
The very next day, however, we get a more serious lesson from the Valdez School of Hard Nocks. Long-time guiding friend, Doug Workman, directs the heli up a deep drainage south of the highway so we can preview our exit. Then we land on “Two Goats,” where the wind is howling, and the ambient temperature is 8 F. Wind-chill is certainly way below zero as the bird flies away, and we soon realize the only clean run off the top is stripped of powder. We have no choice but to carefully pick our way down a 50-degree, east-facing chute on a chalky windboard.
Using whippet ski poles for self-belay, we start down, side-stepping or side-slipping. “Oh what a difference snow makes,” I think to myself as I swing my hands to keep finger tips from going numb and carefully, slowly lead the team off the crux. The pitch appears to back off below us, and I’m far from thrilled with having all of us stacked on top of one another with the slide-for-life potential.
The first guy above me is hating both the frigid wind and the hard snow. He’s over the controlled side-slipping. “Can I fucking ski now?” he demands. “OK,” I say, “but keep your turns tight and slow.” As is often the case in steep skiing, pitches appear to flatten out much more than they actually do when you’re looking down. Two swooping turns later, he’s going way too fast and tries to put on the breaks as he skids through the narrows.
Unfortunately, the surface there is rough with strips of eroded “saastrugi” acting like speed bumps running up the fall-line. One of them catches his edge and he gets thrown onto his back. Down parkas don’t offer much friction, and we have different version of being “Chugached.” Luckily, most lines around Valdez widen out below the choke into an alluvial fan, or apron, and so does this one. He slows down and stops as the slope backs off, but his ski tails have been catching on the snow as he slid backward. Dynafit bindings were cranked up so as not to pre-release on the firm snow, and now he’s paid the price. When I get to him, he has already diagnosed his injury. “I tore an ACL! Its happened before. I heard the pop.”
“Damn, damn, damn…” is all I can say as I call the heli-base on the radio and put a parka and spare set of shell pants on his shivering legs. The others assist me as we move him diagonally down to an improvised landing spot we dig. The heli is there in a few minutes, and we load our comrade in and send him out with heavy hearts. We all know it can happen, and he’ll get through it, but it sucks. It means a long summer of rehab for a normally very active friend.
We can’t dwell on the harsh reality of the accident, we need to get out of the wind, warm our bones, and find soft snow. We head east across the glacier to get in the lee of a smaller peak, and take a low-angle run in deep, soft pow; almost too deep for the flat glacier. We skin up the down track and cross through a pass. Soon we’re on top of the small peak, but here its calm and warm. We look across at the site of misfortune, and then turn our attention to powder skiing.
As it turns out we find excellent snow and spend the day shredding a variety of more benign lines, and even some south-facing corn before snaking down the long, scenic and increasingly deep erosion gully we previewed on the flight in. Luckily it remains snow-filled and we can travel through, even as we become fully committed. It would be impossible to climb out without turning around and skinning far back up, and then we’d have to find some other way back to the highway; a task that’s easier said than done. Finally the gorge ends on the south side of the Tsaina river, and a short glide brings us to a bridge and the usual end-of-day van pick-up
Cracked Ice Glacier, where we land near 6,000’ feet the next day, is the first run of yet another fine heli-assisted tour closer to Thompson Pass. Up high we trigger several shallow, but wide and sensitive slab avalanches, because the corridor wind is building fresh drifts. The snow improves and the wind abates as we drop northwest for 2,000’. Two of us head for Python Peak’s enticing Cherry Couloir, despite knowing its wind-affected, while Adam and the others lap up the tasty pow. Mike and I top out after skinning and booting for a couple hours, and enjoy big views southwest toward the Pacific Ocean, The Tusk, and the Valdez H20 terrain. Technical skiing on steep, variable snow is a worthy challenge. We make controlled hop-turns, take regular rest breaks in islands of safety, and are stoked to tag a classic Valdez line in good style.
The next day we round out our Valdez adventure with a full, 7-run day with VHSG snow-safety director and legendary avalanche guru, Don Sharaf. At my request, he brings us east of the base to the Mt. Billy Mitchell circuit. This is the highest (7,217 feet) and furthest east major peak in the Valdez Chugach. It holds a thinner, more continental snowpack than the wetter mountains closer to the sea. Its also out of the wind that often strafes the “corridor” near Thompson Pass. Rendezvous Heli-Guides have their base below this iconic peak, and usually frequent it. However, they are not in business this year, due to the passing of their lead guide and owner, Theo Meiners. Don is excited to ski terrain that he guided regularly before Meiners split off from VHSG a decade ago.
As we board the A-Star, Don asks me to rate the group. “They’re A skiers, not A+,” I reply, knowing he’s spent the dawn patrol hours guiding Warren Miller athletes on sick lines just east of here. They got the best footage of the season for the annual ski film. He’d probably be glad to take us straight to that sort of “super-gnar,” given the stable avalanche conditions. In light of our awesome, but humbling, week in the Valdez backcountry, we don’t have to be scared shitless to have fun.
Nonetheless, after a warm-up run in Crybaby Cirque we land atop the daunting Contest Line, dropping at a sustained 45-degrees for over 2,000‘. We all get fresheez because Don lets me know via radio from his vantage point below, that there is a parallel chute part way down for the second two skiers. Below the coudloirs, we hop-turn left to skirt a heavily crevassed Seal Glacier icefall and finish by wiggling west to a low pick-up. Here we meet a couple tourers who’ve come up from the highway via the “Crescent Chute,” a narrow bushy weakness through the rocky Tsaina River bluffs. I will use this same exit from a Rendezvous Heli-assisted tour the following spring.
Then its on to one amazing encore run after another: insane-looking drop-offs, above scenic and varied shots in windless powder all day. We’re in heaven, yet by run 5 we begin to reach the saturation point. It becomes almost too much of a great thing. There’s hardly time to savor the beauty and quality of each line, like there is on foot, before we strap skis, huddle, and jump aboard to whirl back up to the next one. Its a far different pace than touring. As Mike muses, “Its almost like having too many desserts lined up in front of you after a gourmet dinner.” Perhaps, but as we drive back to Anchorage the next day we’re fully satiated on Valdez, for now. The memories, both glorious and painful, will live large for years to come, and draw us back here again for new challenges and adventures. For we know we’ve barely scratched the surface of the Mecca for steep skiing.