December 19, 2008

Chugach State Park - Near Point Paradise

Where is your powder paradise? That wondrous place where one may find skier’s nirvana?

My backdoor is blessed with an obscure little mountain in the Chugach range just above Anchorage. The Chugach is a seemingly endless coastal range crowned by Mount Marcus Baker with massive rivers of ice extending to the tidewaters of Prince William Sound and Knik Arm. Marcus Baker, the high point of the Chugach, rises from tidewater to more than 13,000 feet above sea level. The glaciers of Mount Marcus Baker offer exceptional skiing, though they are remote. But, just out the backdoor is my personal powder paradise: Near Point, the Chugach baby, the smallest peak of the Anchorage front range with a measly 3,050-foot elevation.

At our 60° North latitude, Near Point has a timberline at about 2,400 feet with mixed conifer and hardwood forests on its flanks. The lower portion of Near Point below tree line generally has excellent snow from November through April. Skiing the upper most alpine is sublime after a storm and before the wind blows; but timing is everything.

Our home is 800 feet above sea level in the Stuckagain Heights neighborhood overlooking Anchorage. The name, Stuckagain, is a play on words for Cook’s Turnagain, and it was the fate of many a hapless traveler who ventured the original rugged road that climbed from the Anchorage tidal flats up the hillside to the Stuckagain Heights Resort. Cook’s Turnagain was the 18th century explorer's name for the glacial waters feeding his namesake, Cook Inlet. He sailed up Cook Inlet, and on reaching its upper most fiord, forced to turn again, failing to find the eternally elusive northwest passage. The neighborhood is named after the resort that was built above Anchorage in the 1960’s. Stuckagain Heights Resort was complete with indoor swimming pool, restaurant and rope tow; it sadly burned to the ground in the 1980’s.

Stuckagain Heights is nestled in the wilderness between the municipal Far North Bicentennial Park and Chugach State Park. Far North is an incredibly wild park in Anchorage where I've observed moose, brown bears, black bears, wolverines, lynx, coyotes, beaver, snowshoe hare, ermine, squirrels, mice, & voles. Also common in Far North are bald eagles, owls, falcons, ravens, spruce grouse, magpies, woodpeckers, redpolls, chickadees, and others. And, while closed to the taking by humans, king salmon are a favorite of brown bears on the parks' pristine Campbell Creek.

Chugach State Park, 500,000 acres of mostly wilderness, has all of the above and more; ptarmigan, silver salmon, marmots, dall sheep, mountain goats, wolves, etc. And, Chugach State Park has Near Point, my personal powder paradise.

Near Point has an approach ascent of 3.3 miles through the Far North Bicentennial and Chugach State Park. My favorite route to Near Point begins in Far North Bicentennial Park, crosses the Chugach State Park boundary, and ascends the old Near Point Homestead Trail. I usually use my rugged touring system with kick wax. But, many times, I have used my wider, heavier telemark system. Skins are needed for the last mile to the summit.

Just below the Near Point summit is an Alpine bowl with 700 vertical feet of tundra tilted at about 25 to 30 degrees. Below the alpine bowl, the angle steepens slightly on the south side for the next 500 vertical feet through mixed spruce, willow, and cottonwood forest, then the gradient moderates through a mixed birch and spruce forest to a mellow rolling terrain. The north side is significantly steeper with a hemlock stand.

The Near Point snowpack is typical of the Chugach front range rising above Anchorage. Timing is everything regarding snow quality in the summit bowl, but powder is the norm below tree line. Powder preservation is excellent below 2400 feet. And for the fortunate few that have ready access, there is that ephemeral powder paradise above tree line that exists until the wind takes it away.

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