June 10, 2008

Raven's Milk Summer Skiing

Ski season is winding down.
It's nearly over.
But, it will begin again.
And, it's never really over.


Descending Raven Headwall
Raven Headwall on a Cloudy Day
Summer skiing is a great way to see the country, and Raven Glacier should definitely be on the AK Skiers' list! It's accessible from the Crow Creek Trailhead in Chugach National Forest.

The historic Iditarod Trail crosses the Chugach Mountains at Crow Pass. Relics from the old Monarch Gold Mine are strewn about the trail, now home to a well known family of mountain goats. One of my favorites, the Crow Pass area presents the ardent skier with limitless possibilities, but this area is also the site of multiple avalanche fatalities, so preceed with extreme caution.

Extreme avalanche hazard conditions make Crow Pass a no-go for me during winter. But, for fall , spring and summer skiing, it's at the top of the list. I enjoyed my first summer skiing experience here, and among my most recent. It was 1982, the first time, and the most recent and not the last, I hope, was July 2007.

Getting There: The Crow Pass Trail starts at the 1550 foot level in Chugach National Forest at the end of Crow Creek Road. From downtown Anchorage drive the Seward Highway to Girdwood, exiting at the Alyeska Highway. Take the Alyeska Highway almost 2 miles up the valley from the Seward Highway and turn left on Crow Creek Road, and drive 5.7 miles up the valley to the end of Crow Creek Road. At the end of Crow Creek Road, you will find a Chugach National Forest trailhead for the Crow Pass Trail.

Approach and Ascent: The Crow Pass Trail switches back four times, then traverses up to the Monarch Mine site at the 2550 foot elevation. Near the Monarch Mine bunk house ruins, there are two options. Based on the signage, I believe the National Forest Service prefers hikers to follow a single long switch back which begins at 2500 feet, and follows a long traverse (right to left from lookers’ view.) For more than 25 years I have used another established trail that has several switch backs beginning just above the Monarch Mine bunkhouse area. Both routes meet up near the crux – an avalanche chute which has killed.

At the crux, the trail crosses a natural avalanche path with a deadly run out zone. The avalanche path dumps over the cliffs of the Crow Creek gorge - a spectacularly beautiful location in the summer, but deadly when loaded with avalanche conditions. Prevailing winds tend to load the crux with wind slab creating potentially deadly risk. Hazards remain beyond the crux – but they can be avoided with good route finding and safe practices. Several areas are accessible from the Crow Pass Trail and all pass through the crux. Maintain your avalanche awareness and exercise good avalanche country travel practices even beyond the crux. A word on descending the trail: having climbed up the Crow Pass trail more than 50 times, I have skied down the main trail about 5 times. Of the few times I have skied the main trail down, I have always hit rocks, and only once or twice have I really let my skis run because the snow cover has been thin.
Looking north from Crow Pass at the Raven Glacier terminus.

Raven’s main draws are the fantastic corn and scenic splendor. Raven is a half-mile wide glacier more than 2 miles long with many deep and wide crevasses and steep sides. It is oriented more or less east-west, and shaded by Summit and Goat Mountains.

The normal route follows the main Crow Pass Trail to the Forest Service cabin (3500 ft el.) Beware of avalanche danger on the Crow Pass Trail. Follow the main Crow Pass Trail between the cabin and Crystal Lake. Just past the cabin, the easiest access to the Raven follows a trail trending slightly higher than the main trail. This higher trail is obscure at its juncture with the main trail, but it becomes more apparent as one ascends. The Raven route traverses, just west of a tarn at 3850 feet el. There is a faint trail just west of the tarn that leads to a north-facing slope. Depending on the season and time of day, this north-facing slope just beyond the tarn can be corn, hard sun cups, powder or something in between. This slope is often skiable onto the Raven Glacier.
Raven Glacier has many crevasses. Safe glacier travel is advised on the Raven. I prefer skinning out toward the middle of the glacier directly up the gentle fall line. Many, many descents are available depending on the season and snow pack. A few of my favorites are described.
Roping up is not a bad idea, especially on the upper reaches of Raven/Milk where the crevasses are deep and falling consequences are great.

Descents: There are four main areas I have skied on Raven: the Raven Knoll, north-facing couloirs, Raven Headwall, and Raven Bowl. Numerous other lines await the ardent skier.
The Raven Knoll is a glaciated high point at 61°3.5’N, 149°4’W. Virtually any aspect is skiable from Raven Knoll. The easiest route up the Knoll is skinning up north of the knoll and up its eastern flank. Crevasses are plentiful on Raven Knoll; some very deep and wide.

Raven Headwall is the white strip of snow reaching a saddle on the right in the background.

Raven’s north-facing couloirs can be excellent skiing. These couloirs flow from down the north face of the Summit Mountain ridge directly down to the Raven Glacier. When conditions are right, kick steps directly up the fall line. These couloirs will expose skiers to avalanche, fall, and crevasse risks. Fall risks are two-fold, falling and sliding into rocks or a crevasse.
Raven Headwall appears on the Imus Chugach State Park (Imus Geographics, 2000) map. It is a south-facing headwall that leads to Raven Pass. The Raven Headwall grade makes kicking steps the easiest ascent in spring and summer. The grade is definitely steep enough to avalanche, and like Raven’s north-facing couloirs, Raven Headwall exposes skiers to avalanche and crevasse risks. The backside of Raven Headwall, the West Fork of Eagle Glacier, is definitely worth exploring. The West Fork has many, many possible lines for the day tripper; it is also part of the popular multi-day Eklutna Traverse (Thorp, 1987). Risk is lower in Raven Bowl, but still considerable. Crevasse risk is the greatest hazard in Raven Bowl. Raven Bowl is a very pleasant ski down from the Raven Headwall, and from the north side of Raven Knoll. The Raven Bowl grade averages about 12 degrees, enough to turn on corn, but pretty flat if the snow is very deep at all.

The Milk Glacier shares a pass with Raven. It is smaller than the Raven and unusual in its southwest-facing aspect. The Raven-Milk traverse is a wonderful day trip awaiting the adventure skier. Due to the length and hazards of the trip and daylight, I have only skied the Milk during late spring and summer when days are long and the snow is corn.


Milk Ascent: Beware of avalanche danger on the Crow Pass Trail. Skinning up the Raven is the easiest route to the Milk skiing. Follow the Raven ascent instructions to get to the Raven-Milk pass, a glacial pass at 5280 ft el., joining the Raven and Milk glaciers.

Milk Descent: Milk is more crevassed than Raven and its firn line is higher as it is south-facing. But, it has some great adventure skiing down the middle of it. And my ski partners and I have enjoyed wonderful skiing on the west-facing side slopes flowing from Goat Mountain.
After the fun part (the skiing), the route off Milk requires dismounting the glacier on skiers’ right side of glacier at approximately 3800 ft el. on a lateral moraine with very steep sides. Dismounting the Milk can be trying – take your time, and dismount Milk Glacier slightly above the saddle between Jewel Mountain and Barnes Mountain. Walk the lateral moraine for 1000 feet or so, then drop down to descenders’ right into a trough between the moraine and the Jewel-Barnes ridge. Climb from the trough up a pass at the saddle between Barnes and Jewel Mountains (3600 ft el.)

The Barnes-Jewel saddle demands a break to take in the splendid scene. A sharp eye will locate mine adits on Jewel Mountain, and goats are often roaming the Barnes-Jewel area. From the Barnes-Jewel saddle, descend directly down the fall line and to the high traverse of the Crow Pass Trail, and follow the back to the Crow Creek Trailhead.

Looking Up the Milk
Several years ago, I descended to the toe of the glacier, descended the Milk Creek canyon, and traversed the south face of Barnes Mountain to the main trail. I adamantly recommend you avoid that route because there is no trail, there are almost impenetrable alders, and there are some exposed sections. 
Barnes-Jewel Saddle

If you descend the Milk, don't miss the Barnes/Jewel saddle shown here.

One final note, Milk Glacier has substantially receded since the USGS map was updated. While bringing the map on this trip is essential, it is not highly accurate where you need to dismount the Milk. But, if you are patient and take your time route finding, you can enjoy a fantastic ski adventure on the Raven-Milk loop.

2 comments:

Robb said...

POWDER!!

Robb said...

I'm getting snow sick... all I can think about is skiing, and winter is still 6 months away. Hope you're up for some turns when I get home in July!