My foot punched through several feet of snow until it stopped abruptly. I looked down the slope at Heather and saw her sink to her hip as well. I looked uphill as my dog, Shiro, made an attempt forward. He popped out of the snow, and then sunk out of sight. He may be faster than us, but he wasn’t faring much better. My words from the day before went through my head, “Just lookin to have a chill and mellow last day out skiing, should be fun!” I had told her. This was absolutely not chill or mellow. In fact, this was about the least chill and mellow I had been on a tour all winter. It sucked. In that moment, I was having zero fun.
I should know better by now. Alaska always has something to throw at you. Every time I toss out the words “Quick”, “Mellow”, or “Easy” to describe a plan, something always happens.
Let me backtrack to the beginning and explain the string of decisions that had lead me to this point in our adventure. We had set out early that morning, headed up to Turnagian Pass, Alaska’s backcountry skiing mecca, for some late-April spring turns. We checked the local avalanche report. It hadn’t dropped below freezing for a few nights so the snow was warm and soft. Avalanche conditions were at moderate, but rising to considerable as the temperature continued to warm. The snowpack was going to be a little dicey to manage so we elected to stay on easy, manageable terrain.
“Ok. So we agree on skiing Center Ridge?” I asked as we pulled into the parking lot. Next to the mountains on either side, Center Ridge was a babe among giants. It looked innocuous in comparison to the rugged mountains surrounding it. Heather liked the plan. The catch was neither of us had skied Center Ridge before; finding the route might be a challenge.
We geared up and headed off. Less than 5 minutes in, the skin track split. Yes, route finding was going to be the theme of the day. Shiro veered down the left fork. Sure, follow the dog, why not? We can always turn back. After about 45 minutes, we reached a deep gully. Not the small but inconvenient kind that you can safely scurry down and back up the other side and be on your way. This gully had menacing vertical, jagged walls several hundred feet high as far as the eye could see in either direction. Center Ridge stretched out before us, just on the other side of the gully. We turned back. Mellow day, ha.
We retraced our steps and tried the right fork of the trail. Just out of sight of where the trail forks, we found a bridge over the gully. Better late than never to find a reasonable route. We traversed the thin ribbon of three foot high snow to the other side of the bridge. It was smooth sailing for the next 20 minutes.
We took a break and discussed our plan of attack. I proposed breaking our own trail, cutting below some cliffs, and winding up the gently rolling slopes covered in alders. Of course, we were would give the runout zone below the cliffs a wide berth. Heather liked the plan, so I took the lead as we set off.
What I couldn’t see was that even though the cliffs ended, the only way up is rather steep-far too steep for skinning on wet snow. Of course, I didn’t know this. I was having a blast picking a trail through the alders. The first 10 minutes were great. I love breaking trails. The decision making and mental aspect adds to my enjoyment of the tour.
I started sliding more and more as the “gently rolling slopes” increased in steepness. The soft snow rendered my poles increasingly useless. I started grabbing alders when possible to avoid sliding downhill. Heather was no longer amused at this point. I was having serious second thoughts about my plan. I looked around for a feasible route up. There was none except to go back.
This was pushing into the “no longer mellow” zone. We were both sliding. Shiro was sinking to his chest. He tried hitching a ride on my skis. That didn’t fly; I sent him off to fend for himself. Sorry pup. Finally, Heather ejected a ski as she slid. It was time for a break.
It was deemed that no further uphill progress was going to be made on skis. I didn’t like the idea of skiing something that steep in heavy snow with so many alders to hit. Sure, they are alders, but catch a ski wrong and twist your knee and there goes some important ligaments. No thanks, I have already sacrificed an ACL to the ski gods; I don’t wish to repeat that any time soon. I was pretty sure I could see the top and made a convincing argument for bootpacking onward.
We strapped our skis to our packs and headed up. I kicked into slush and sunk a little. I took a few more steps, grabbed an alder, and began to crawl through them. Not mellow. Below me, Heather didn’t sound like she was having better luck.
This brings us full circle. I took another step and sunk - up to my hip. “What have I gotten myself into this time.” I thought. The top suddenly looked miles away. I leaned forward, put my ski poles horizontal and used them to leverage myself out of the 3 foot hole I was in. To add to my enjoyment, the liner gloves I was wearing were immediately soaked, resulting in painfully cold hands. I shouted encouraging words to Heather. “Almost there!”
I lied to her… and to myself.
After what seemed like hours (10 minutes) of struggling, the terrain started to flatten. Shiro came over to greet me. He’s used to post holing and didn’t seem as miserable as I felt. I tried to catch my breath as I shouted one more encouragement to Heather. This time, I believed myself. She joined me on the flatter ground, relieved and ecstatic to be back in the “mellow zone”. We put our skis back and skinned the last hundred feet to where we would switch over to descend.
While the ascent was far more than I had bargained for, the descent made up for it. The snow was perfect; soft enough for buttery turns. The slope was gentle and rolling. Our line back to the parking lot was delightful and flawless; no backtracking or post holing required.