Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Skiing Shishaldin - part 0.5

At the time of my last post we were stalled for a day in Cold Bay, Alaska trying to get our last flight of our journey to start hiking towards Shishaldin.  So I familiarized myself with the thriving metropolis:
A gigantic dock that seemed pretty unused, but I'm sure it gets a lot of summer fishing boat action
A fairly bleak phone booth nearby that probably sees less action than the dock
Considering a tsunami rolled through here and took out the town after the 1964 quake that leveled Anchorage, this is fairly real. 
slaying the bar's shuffleboard game
and got antsy for our trip:
Finally we were able to get on the flight to False Pass:

 and get started on our journey.  The weather was promising:
walking up creekbeds to get above the (alder) treeline is important; alders give scrub oak a run for their money as kings of bushwack fests.  
We had a good look at our intended route (in red) to get around the unnamed peak to the left.
and got our first taste of the hard snow.  

it's a bit hard to convey wind in a picture, especially when there's no snow to blow around.  But the wind was cranking here, and just above this we faced the prospect of traversing across those slopes shown in the arrow in the pic above.  We cramponed up and mounted the skis on our packs and started to move, but the wind - that I guessed was in the 60mph range  -was literally blowing us off our feet, especially with skis sticking up over our heads and acting like sails, and making the traverse across 40 degree slopes into the gusty winds with 800 feet of yawning slope below us was unappealing and the day was getting long anyway, so we retreated back down to the creek bottom to a sheltered spot to camp.

There were some nice clouds in the area; I wonder what those cool lenticulars mean?

We found out.  The next morning we awoke to even higher winds, colder temps, and snow.  We later heard that there were 80mph gusts recorded back down in the village, and we had one of "those days" on expeditions (if being 3 mi from a village was indeed an "expedition") that was spent almost exclusively in our humble little home.  Due to weight considerations we went with a pretty small tent with a vestibule, so we had to sleep head to foot since our combined shoulders wouldn't fit, and realized that only one of us could move at a time.  Fortunately Cameron is a really interesting, funny, and chatty guy so the day passed pretty quickly (tho I had to shut him down a bit to dive into the book I had hauled along!).

The next morning broke with clear skies and somewhat reduced wind, so we packed up and headed up towards Round Top Mountain (we changed course to avoid the skitchy terrain we'd been on prior) which we had to skirt around to get into the rolling terrain that would take us past Isanotski to Shishaldin.  And despite our efforts otherwise, we still found some good Alaskan Thwack:

The wind had stipped the peaklet behind our tent fairly clean
Looking back down the drainage that we had come up

We had mellow, rolling terrain as we got towards the peak:
we had two potential routes around this peak:  right and left. 

and actually some powder had blown into the little protected gullies:

But generally the "snow" looked a little on the hard side:
"Gleaming" is rarely a term I associate with snow
We needed to ascend one of two 35-40 degree slopes to get over the flank of Round Top; here's a bit closer view:

and we started skinning up a ramp that took us to the rocky ramp in the middle of the photo.  It was still cold and windy, and despite the fact that it was already around noon and the sun had been out all morning there was no softening going on.  But again, with both ski and boot crampons it would likely be fine.

However, as I was ascending the ramp I looked down to put my hands into my pole straps and a big gust of wind came up and buffeted me; I staggered a little and moved my foot/ski out to the side to brace myself, and suddenly my skis shot out from under me and I was down on my hip, and was stunned as I instantly accelerated to about 20 mph sliding down the ramp that I had just skinned up.  I was in no danger at all, but could not believe how slick it was.  And this was the formidable pitch I slid down:
all of 15 degrees.  
I finally stopped down in the flats not far from Cameron, who had been equally amazed at a) the fact that I slipped in the first place, and b) the speed that I achieved so quickly, even with my pack dragging on the snow.

As I shook myself off and struggled to heave me and my pack to my feet on the ice, Cameron hollered into the wind "Maybe we should talk about this!"  We had literally never experienced snow/ice like this; sure, I'm a Wasatch-based Middle Aged Powder Pussy (MAPP) but Cameron's a former racer, and we realized that our edges were not having any effect on the snow; a "turn" was more like a controlled downhill sideways slide.
whoahh!  45 years of skiing and I look like this on a little ice?!?!  But The Gleamage was on.... 
We looked around and realized that the prospect of actually skiing anything much steeper than what I had slid down seemed scary; it was so weird to look at slopes that we'd normally slash down with nary a thought about it and have them sorta strike fear in our hearts!  I'm sure that our Vermont friends would have laughed at such child's play ice, but it was odd and intimidating.
Tho this is what our Vermont friends were doing at the time!  
We retreated to a slightly less-windy spot for a snack and to discuss.   As I mentioned in the earlier post, Shishaldin is remarkably uniform and we guessed that its steepness was a consistent pitch of the mid-high 30's for nearly all of its 8500 feet of relief and steeper at the top, which in any other snow conditions would be totally fine, but with that ice - that wasn't even penetrable with an ice axe, much less a whippet (an ice axe attachment on top of a ski pole grip, which is all I had) - and even though climbing it with crampons on was fine, the prospect of clicking in and skiing it sent chills down my spine.  The forecast was for decreasing winds and warming temps, but was it enough to soften the ice on Shishaldin?  We guessed that the temps were still in the low-mid 20's; and I asked Cameron what our elevation was:  "Um, 800 feet."  Ok, I'm no meteorologist who knows all about lapse rates, but I do know that typically temps drop as elevations rise, and the concept of any change in snow conditions happening 8500 feet up seemed low.  And even with the wind at False Pass expected to drop, we had been told by virtually everyone that these mountains - at the intersection of the Bering Sea and the north Pacific - create their own venturis, so it was bulletproof, but at least we'd continue to get blown around on it.

For sure, had we brought ice screws and a rope things could have been different, but it wasn't really a "climbing" trip per se....

So it came down to this:  we realized that the prospect of skiing the peak was low at best, so were we willing to hike for 2 days to confirm the decision and then turn around and hike back, or do we decide now and cut our losses?  It wasn't really a backpacking trip, and even getting over our first obstacle to get to the rolling terrain was clearly "a deal", and the answer seemed fairly clear.  And thus we made our retreat.
skittering along the gleamage.  The noise of our edges was deafening.  

As we got back into the drainage this guy seemed to be sort of mocking us:
but we looked back at the mountains and saw the day's prior skiff of snow blowing off the peaks:
Upon reaching False Pass we were greeted by our fan club:
and retired to the community center:
to await the flight scheduled for the next day.

That night I tossed and turned a bit and started second-guessing our decision:  why not just go for a ramble in the mountains in a remote area?  We'd scheduled the time, the weather was fine, and maybe there was powder up that high?  But as we hung out in False Pass we realized that the "warming" that was forecasted meant it went from the low 20's to the mid-20's:
Cameron chatting with a local all bundled up
and we felt that our decision was validated.  It simply had been a lean snow year with cold temps and tons of wind, and thus the conditions did not invite success.
But it sure did look appealing at sunrise.  Our intended route around Round Top was through the col in the middle of the pic
Not surprisingly, Cameron got the better pic.  Looks like fun skiing!
One of the planes associated with our retrieval back to the real world had mechanical problems, so we got to spend another day hanging out in False Pass.  A few interesting bits about life out there in the Aleutians: Energy is created by generators, and they go through 250 gallons of diesel a day for the 45 residents:
they get grocery delivery by boat - including produce - once every 2 weeks.  And it's a pretty small place:
Where even the labs got some Alaskan husky (eyes) in them:

It's a pretty bleak place to live and the lack of available resources and expense/challenge of leaving for any reason is really interesting, but folks there seem to roll with it just fine.  And there is a nice little hike above town:
vanquished but happy
Alaskan hiking shoes
apparently it's a big migratory route for grey and humpback whales; it's the first real break in the Aleutian chain between the Bering and Pacific.  But apparently there's a sizeable orca population, and the orcas prey on the greys by grabbing the fins of the young whalettes and drown them.  But some folks actually realized that the parents go underneath the mess of orcas hanging onto their young and just push them all up to the surface (and humpbacks have been seen doing the same to grays to help their fellow whales against the orcas).

The plane finally came for the next leg of our journey home:
You can tell we're going home because Cameron's walking the opposite direction than he was in the previous airplane pic!
Back in Cold Bay we appreciated the mellow airport again, that has no prob with a bit of imbibing near the gate:

And eventually ended back in Anchorage, where we were able to check in with Wendy and her man John for some yuks:

That area of Alaska has had a cold, windy, and relatively dry winter, and even though we had more time there, I wasn't keen for hunting and pecking for icy gullies between wind-swept ridges, so I headed home (tho Cameron stayed and the cold, high pressure forecast at Girdwood somehow yielded 8" of powder the next day!)

If you want the security and predictability associated with most vacations, late winter in Alaska and specifically the Aleutians is probably sub-optimal.  And Shishaldin may be a bit elusive even beyond that.  Maybe later in the year, like May?  But with a ratio of 2 monster grizzlies per sq mile there would be an added adventure layer.   Will I be as keen as Cameron and return for another go?  Unlikely.  But despite the lack of activity and the lack of success, it was a fun trip, mostly because Cameron is a great pard for something like this and made the downtime pretty entertaining.
My only view of our objective, from the plane......

Sunday, March 12, 2017

Skiing Shishaldin - part zero

About 20 years ago I was on a flight to Asia for work watching some dumb action movie or reading Sports Illustrated when the pilot came on to give us a quick flight update.   “We are passing over the Aleutian Islands” I looked down and was stunned to see a lot of big mountains that looked like great skiing.  We flew along for a while just paralleling the string of islands stretching towards Russia and I marveled at the ski potential that existed on those islands. But, like seeing a pretty girl, I kinda forgot about it and have spent all of my ski energies since then on more civilized skiing. 

Fast forward to last July, when I got a call from our old friend Cameron Lawson, an adventurer/pilot/ professional outdoor photographer who has become in the last few years a literal “Titan” in the industrial strap world. He had a proposal for me:  how about skiing Mount Shishaldin, which has the distinction of being the highest peak in the Aleutians.  Immediately my recollection of my action movie interruption bubbled back out of my brain, and in the searing heat of July the prospect of skiing an Alaskan peak in the middle of the North Pacific sounded delicious.  As such, I couldn’t think of a good reason not to, so I said “Sure, why not?” 
From a map in the airport, with Unimak island circled
Actually, there are a lot of reasons “why not!”  I have never been very tempted to try to ski Denali or the other big AK peaks, mostly because I like my toes and fingers too much and struggle with their circulation enough that I worry about the deep cold and the potential inability for external sources of heat to warm them (not to mention the many other challenges associated with far north, high elevation ski mountaineering).  And I have never actually winter camped; I have had years where I’ve spent literally hundreds of nights outside, but always in spring/summer/fall; I basically have felt a bit smug in saying “I’m smart enough to have always done my winter adventuring out of a nice warm friendly hut or yurt or….my house!” and it’s worked out well for me.  Why spend all that time melting snow for water when you can just use the local spring or creek or, for that matter, the tap?  The long nights of winter have always seemed a bit daunting, and I’ve also felt a bit twitchy about the concept of spending days at a time waiting out bad weather, which seems to be as much a function of winter trips as anything.  And like a lot of big adventures, just getting there is a PIA; first fly to Anchorage, then to Cold Bay (pop 108) then another 3-times-per-week flight to False Pass (pop 68); all with their own fares and baggage fees.  It basically takes almost as much time to get to the start as it does to get to Japan to ski, with comparable air fares (and comparable grocery prices!).  But at least it’s famously windy in the Aleutians!  And due to Cameron's schedule and flight schedules I sheepishly admit that I was sorry to miss the mighty Wasatch Powder Keg and/or a good desert adventure with the New England and Cincinnati Canyoneering teams happening at the same time.  

But Cameron’s suggestion of Shishaldin had some appeal.  It’s not a big AK peak:  it’s only 9300 feet high and it rises more or less right out of the ocean so the climate is maritime and  the Aleutian chain dips quite a ways southwest from the Alaskan peninsula so it’s not that much further north than the huts we go to in BC.  So the weather is not the same blistering cold that is prevalent in the Alaska range, even in the latter’s spring climbing season.  It’s a 23 mile hike in to the base, so theoretically it can be a 2 day approach, one big day to summit and back to camp, and 2-3 days back out.  But because of the weather it’s important to have extra food (and books; tho Cameron doesn’t seem to have any, nor is he a Scrabble player!) for storm days.  And it’s a beautiful conical peak; in fact, The Google actually calls it the Most Conical Peak in the world.  And while it’s big and dramatic relative to its neighbors, it’s small enough so it’s very reasonable to bust out big day from the base to the top and back without having to spend a night at elevation. 
I hope we don't have to take advantage of this fancy Coast Guard heli, but it's nice to know its there....
Cameron came to give Shishaldin a go last year and arrived a couple of weeks later and they were ironically beset by wet weather; he said it felt like walking into the face of a ski resort snowgun blowing slush at them, and they didn’t make it very far before retreating, which turned out to be a wise decision, though it only fueled Cameron’s obsession with this adventure.  As such, I have felt compelled to remind him that I am not obsessed with it, nor am I generally a summiteer who feels that my very being is only fulfilled by summitting ze peak.  I just wanna have fun – and am willing to work hard and suffer a bit - which he says he appreciates and understands.
Oh Yeah!  Cameron stoked to be putting on some cold-beating weight via the Anchorage airport Cinnabon
And thus today we find ourselves in the thriving metropolis of Cold Bay, Alaska.  We spent the night at former Salt Laker-turned-Chugach Avalanche director Wendy Wagner’s home and had a flight filled with views of great snowy mountains.  Cold Bay is – according to Wiki – the cloudiest place in the US, but we were lucky enough to get one of the typical 61 clear days a year and got some great views:

The mountains nearby are beautiful, partly because of the sunlight gleaming and shimmering brightly on the “snow” on their flanks; we may not be skiing classic Wasatch powder! 

The airport is unpretentious:
Just chuck the bags through the hole.  Note the dreaded sleds....we are hoping to not have to engage those...

It's nice to have an airport library for weather issues....
As is the hotel shuttle, the hotel itself, and the proprietor:
Chris was a logger on Kodiak, and he has bear-sized paws himself as a result
Because the flight from Anchorage was sold out on Sunday and the flight to False Pass is on Monday, we have a full 2 days to hang out in Cold Bay.  There ain’t much goin on here any day, and I think it will be particularly acutely quiet on a Sunday, but we’ll make it happen.  We are hanging out with a couple of FAA guys who gallivant about the many small airports in Alaska and one of them told me that he really likes Cold Bay because the people are so nice; for reference, the folks at the Fort Yukon (on the Dalton Highway, north of Fairbanks) airstrip not only have shot at them but have vandalized their facilities since they represent the big bad regulatory government.  And their impression of the local’s hospitality has been represented:  the owner of the bar unexpectedly showed up at our room this morning with an egg breakfast!  (and barged/flown in food isn’t cheap to just give away out here).

Cold Bay is actually very well known in avaition circles; the airstrip is 12,000 feet long and they have been the emergency stopping point for trans-Pacific flights that have had issues, including two in the last few months.  It sounds like accommodating 240 guests for a day/night is a challenge for a town of 108 people! 

So far we have been warned about bears that don’t seem to be hibernating anymore, and they are on the big side:

and there are supposedly 3800 bears on this 1500 sq mi island; I’m no mathematician nor wildlife biologist, but that sounds like the Tokyo of the Ursine Kingdom!

But one of our plane mates told us we don’t need to worry about bears; it’s the wolverines that aren’t afraid and will getcha!
I'd love to see a wolverine....but then again, maybe I wouldn't......
The proprietor of our fine establishment asked us about what our “heat source” was; Cameron showed him how we just will button up our little down puffies against the wind before we realized that he was talkin' heat as in “packin heat", mostly for the wolves!   

Apparently there are so many they are decimating the local caribou herd.  Hopefully there are still plenty of caribou left so they don’t decimate the endangered species of skinny skiers carrying too much gear to move faster than a shuffle.  Our hotel proprietor actually offered to loan us his heat; maybe we’ll take him up on it, though Cameron and I are probably far more likely to shoot each other with it than take down any alpha predators. 
another sight I'd love to see, til I don't.....
The weather this year has been great; here is a link to the webcam on top of the adjacent peak Isanotski (whose a not ski?  and why not ski?).   We’ll see if it holds.   The forecast is favorable enough that we may cut our food supply from (a somewhat crushing) 10 days down to a more-manageable 7 days and see how that works out.  
this is a pic of a pic of our likely route up the (pretty mellow?) left skyline.  
It’ll be a unique adventure for this guy.