October 18, 2011

El Gato de Nieve

The cat has nine lives, they say.  El Gato de Nieve started the day with nine lives, and returned with six remaining after another Crow Pass adventure.  High risk, high reward, I guess.

mw, Kruser, and yours truly trudged the Crow Pass Trail where we found avalanche debris about 1500 feet above the trailhead.  While heavy snow was falling on our party and the foggy clouds were obscuring the slopes overhead, I pondered the weather pattern over the past couple of days and the evidence of a recent avalanche.  What hidden hazard was perched above us?
It Begins
In the eery quiet of the heavy snowfall, inductive logic and instinctive reaction gnawed at my guts.  We talked about it: obcured loading above us, prior wind and heavy snowfall, and avalanche debris at a place where avalanche has claimed victims near Monarch Mine.

The Monarch Mine operated seasonally until 1947 with peak production of 1160 ounces of gold in its 1930's heyday.  Five men seasonally worked the mine in 1935.  They worked from mid-May through mid-October.  Snow in this region is just overwhelming.

Despite the evident risk, we pressed on, but settled on a safer route.  Up into the clouds we continued climbing on skis.  We decided on Jewel Mtn for our first run.  Visibility was poor, but many prior descents enabled avoidance of the big cliffs of Jewel.  With the winds in our favor, the snow floated down on an almost perfectly vertical descent, and the unsettled fresh snow skied like a dream.  Ski cuts freed foot-thick soft slab and sloughs that accumulated in sizeable a basin fan.
Unsettled Fresh Fluff
We weren't feeling it in the flat light on the cliffs of Jewel, so we opted for the cross-basin slog to Summit Glacier with its moderate gradient and mostly cliff-free glacier lines.  We each silently wondered whether the fresh snow would be too deep for the 25-degree slopes, but we happily found fast, unsettled snow that billowed around us as we arced down the glacier.

In a powder delirium, yours truly searched for that last untracked pitch on the final lap.  Slighlty disoriented in the flat light, I entered a swale that might have led to powder nirvana, but instead I skied into a hellish predicament on the Bahrenberg property.

Barhenberg prospected for gold on the Jewel Mtn north slope and glacial moraine in the 1930's.  Territorial Alaska Department of Mines' report on mining activity in 1937 described parts of the Bahrenberg property "so precipitous that it is entirely inaccessable."  I must have found the precipitous part.

After nearly all of the snow slid from the 50-degree slope, I couldn't go up and couldn't go down.  So, I resorted to a painstaking rock traverse on skis. 

Almost across the rocky traverse
With waning enthusiasm, I ooched across the rocks fearing a cartwheeling tumble down the rocks.  Finally arriving to deep snow on the glaciated base after a seeming eternity on a very steep rocky face, I was hesitant to crank a turn - would more rocks still be lurking?

It was getting late, so we descended to the Crow Pass Trail.  Rounding the corner, we made the stunning discovery of multiple avalanches across the trail.  The slides came down after we ascended, perhaps naturally triggered, or human triggered - seven skiers arrived on Summit during our 1st line down Jewel and they descended well ahead of us.  Either cause was disturbing.

One of Multiple Slide Paths
We enjoyed incredibly sweet skiing with October face shots.  But, risk versus reward?  I would not repeat the Jewel-Summit trip in such conditions.  El Gato de Nieve may have a few lives left, but this cat enjoys his life too much to accept such exposure.

Photocredits:  Kruser

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