Playing it smart during the spring shed in Alaska, plus 4 tips for staying safe.
Story and Photography by Matt Hage
Dragging sleds laden with gear and supplies through a foot fresh snow is rarely easy, especially when you add in an uphill climb. But the old moraine hump would offer a place to dig camp above the threat of avalanche run out. It was hot work in the March sun and the warmer temps had triggered the beginning of the spring “shed” here in south central Alaska. With a mixed bag of persistent instabilities lingering on the surrounding peaks, we knew we had better have our assessment dialed if we were to take advantage of this break in the weather.
Backcountry skiing in the Talkeetna Mountains is always a serious prospect. Located about an hour north of Anchorage, the range exhibits characteristics more in common with a continental snowpack where cold, dry conditions keep the powder fresh, but also contribute to poor structure and bonding. It also doesn’t help that when things let loose in the Talkeetnas, they usually go big.
With full respect for these precautions, we still had hope for getting some calculated turns in during this brief lull in an otherwise miserable month of weather. Various ridges of high pressure had directed warm tropical air up from Hawaii, bringing a channel of precip to AK. We call this reoccurring phenomenon The Pineapple Express. Several feet of wet, heavy snow covered the mountains south of us making them untouchable for weeks. Up here in the Talkeetnas, the storms had been laying down snow in more measured amounts and at colder temps. Any pockets of stability could produce deep powder skiing, something this season had seriously lacked to date.
Once our thorough assessment of the proposed terrain gave us the go ahead, we headed for a group of north facing couloirs. The snow was already starting to heat up on the ridgeline and we could feel our window of opportunity closing. My partner Kyle stopped at the top of the furthest chute and started to transition to down mode. After finding a break in the cornice guarding the chutes, he linked turn after turn, milking out the run in perfect powder snow. At the bottom, we could already see signs of critical warming and decided the face had entered the danger zone for wet snow slides. Today was a “one and done” day, but that’s what you sign up for out here. It’s about quality over quantity (and the day delivered that for sure). Besides, relaxing in the sun back at basecamp with a cold IPA pondering what tomorrow will bring is not too shabby.
Tips for Safe Backcountry Travel this Spring
Spring’s longer days and sunny, high-pressure systems bring an exciting change to backcountry skiing. But the hotter days also introduce new hazards in the snow pack. Before heading out, it’s important to take an avalanche course to understand these changes and their consequences fully. Here are just a few reminders for how to plan for and think through spring touring missions.
Start early, end early
Spring avalanche hazard is generally lower at night and in the early part of the day when the refrozen snowpack hasn’t had a chance to warm up. Time your ski days to wrap up by early afternoon. Observing snowballs starting to roll down adjacent aspects is a sure sign that your day is quickly coming to a close.
Look up, avoid cornices
Cornices have had all winter to grow and warming spring temps can weaken their attachment to ridgelines. Make sure you know what’s above you and that the run out is clear if you decide to cut one loose.
Know the snow pack
Know what that new storm is laying fresh snow down on. If it’s been hot and sunny for the past week, that new six inches of fresh are probably sitting on a super slick layer of sun crust. It’s going to take a while for that to heal.
Watch the temps up high
Watch the overnight temperature up high. Extended periods (3-4 days) of above freezing temps can introduce water into the snowpack, dramatically reducing stability. This is usually the beginning of the Spring Shed—and the beginning of mountain bike season.
Alaska-based photographer Matt Hage digs all the new super-light carbon made alpine gear, but still likes to free the heel and drop a knee on the deepest days.