(This post sponsored by our publishing partner Cripple Creek Backcountry.)
The Seward Highway heads south out of Anchorage, Alaska winding along the dramatic Turnagain Arm, a coastal inlet that bites into the Chugach Mountains. Fifty miles south of the edge of town, the highway leaves the coast and turns into the Kenai Peninsula, climbing 900 feet to Turnagain Pass. With a deep maritime snowpack and steep mountain ridges, the dramatic slopes of Turnagain are a backcountry dream come true.
The first time I skied at Turnagain, a friend showed me a place called Eddies Ridge above Ingram Creek towards the north end of the pass. I spent a good bit of the morning skeptical. It was late February a few years ago and we woke up in a rainstorm. The parking lot was wet and there was no snow. These sea level problems followed us some ways up the trail – a scene that many locals feel is getting increasingly common as climate change hits Alaska. My friend was insistent that a mere drizzle was nothing to worry about, and sure enough we popped above the clouds to an absolutely beautiful alpine ridge with endless snow.
Safety note: The geologic youth and recent glacial history of the Chugach Mountains means that terrain gets steep in a hurry. Avalanche terrain abounds around the pass. As with all popular backcountry areas – a skin track already in or previous ski track cutting a slope doesn’t mean that slope is safe. Be careful, be cautious, dig pits, read forecasts, practice your systems.
While such days are encouraging, it is also a bit scary to see how delicate the coastal winter is in the far north. This winter we have been lucky enough to have good snow at sea level and this week saw cold air, high pressure, and stable conditions lite up the stoke at Turnagain.
My car’s thermometer read -6 degrees Saturday morning as I pulled into the Carrs supermarket parking lot in south Anchorage at 8 am to meet up with a couple of friends. Such civilized hours of the morning are considered early by many Alaskans, and I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that 8 am is still quite dark. While your average cross-section of vehicles takes up the parking spots closest to the store, the back row of the lot is mostly Subarus, 4-Runners, and Tacomas all laden with ski-themed stickers. We knew we were not the only ones heading south for the snow. An hour later we pulled into an empty parking lot at one of Turnagain’s less popular trailheads.
Turnagain Pass is absolutely huge. As I have started to get the lay of the land I have noticed that 99% of skiers go to probably about 1% of the terrain. Most backcountry travelers on the Pass go to an area called Tincan, which offers good turns close the car. The skiing at Tincan can be great, and the scenery is amazing, but the crowds can make it feel decidedly un-Alaskan. I have had some great midweek days there recently, but was itching to get a bit further from the beaten path on Saturday.
I had run into Andy a few days earlier while skiing at Eddies, and he said he wanted to start to make use of the long days (we are all very excited to make it 8 hours without a head lamp). Aiming to avoid the comfort of tracks, Andy schemed up a tour to the back of the valley to check out an area that we had not been before. We headed out a ridge that is known for Nordic skiing and mellow terrain in between Tincan and Sunburst (another popular area). Looking across the valley at these two more popular zones, we saw skiers and ski tracks a plenty, but they slowly dissipated with each mile and after a couple hours they were nearly gone (though not completely, which was both impressive and saved quite a bit of trail breaking).
I asked Andy what this place is called. Pastoral Peak, Taylor Pass, Kickstep Mountain were all clear landmarks, but we were somewhere in the middle on a somewhat non descript point near the head of Lyon creek maybe 4 miles from the highway.
Andy just said, “I dunno.”
I still haven’t gotten used to this part of the ‘Alaska factor’.
It had not snowed in about a week, but cold temps and calm winds had not only kept the snow soft, but lightened up the pow. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves up on a ridge eyeing endless potential lines. We kept looking up thinking a short dash would get us to crest where our skins were pointing, but as is often the case in the alpine, the scale was deceiving. Switchback after switchback led up, eventually to a short boot pack and small peak that overlooked the heart of Turnagain Pass. 45 degree slopes up high mellowed into rolling open snow fields and 1600 ft of ripen pow flew by as we skied to the bottom of our run.
After a second lap, the sun was behind the mountains and we knew we had to start the march back towards the car — fueled by thoughts of a litany of new lines seen on our tour.
A month ago, long days on the snow were scarce. The days are getting longer now and the arc of my ski turns seem to be following suit.
Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.