Forums Trip Reports Spring Descents in Denali NP, May 2008
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  • #570745
    snowsavage
    312 Posts

    I was asked by the Backcountry Rangers in Denali to document the routes I rode last spring, as they had surmised that most of them were first descents and desired a record of such activities alongside detailed descriptions of routes and conditions. The following is the report I submitted. I post it here in hopes that other splitters will come ride in the Alaska range!

    “Backcountry Skiing and Snowboarding along the Park Road in Denali National Park & Preserve”

    Overview
    During the month of May 2008 I climbed and snowboarded four routes with fairly easy access from the Park Road. The Following will provide a description of the routes I completed, some suggestions and other observations for visitors who inquire about backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering on this side of the park, and some ideas for other ski mountaineering routes that seem appealing/feasible as single day and/or multiday trips from the Parks Road.

    As general description of what to expect from ski mountaineering from the Park Road I want to stress that the window of opportunity for trips requires timely planning. When the road is open to mile 15, there are certainly some skiing options, but the more interesting and easily accessible opportunities begin around the Igloo Campground area. This area first becomes accessible when the road opens to mile 30 at the Teklanika Rest Stop. From here skiers must hike or bike their gear 2-3 miles for access to some worthwhile ski mountaineering accessible from the road. After the road opens beyond Teklanika Rest Area it is closed to public travel after mile 15 and then visitors must use the bus for access. It is my opinion that, while the window of opportunity is fairly short, (1-2 weeks after the busses begin running out to Toklat or Eielson) excellent ski mountaineering opportunities abound in the smaller, easily accessible peaks of the Alaska Range along the parks road. Much needs to be explored!

    Ski mountaineers should be aware that this side of the park has a precarious, continental snowpack. There is abundant depth-hoar lurking in all areas into the spring and I witnessed numerous wet-slab avalanches that broke all the way to the ground. Proper avalanche precautions and intelligent route finding is mandatory. If one is safe and makes good decisions, skiing here can be quite rewarding.

    Routes
    I do not know the exact dates of these trips, but I will list them in order of completion starting from mid-May and ending around June 1st. This will hopefully provide the best idea of conditions to expect at the specific time of the month, but is only based on the conditions specific to the 2008 season.

    1.Cathedral Peak. I arrived in the Park on 5/13. My first ski trip, to Cathedral Peak was a few days after that. The 3 mile hike on the road to Igloo Campground was easy. From the campground I ascended a very brushy slope at the base of Cathedral through very rotten snow bearing south and slightly east. Upon reaching an elevation where the snow was colder and thus more stable for travel, I began a skinning traverse bearing almost directly east, which required me to go up and down a couple of gullies. Upon reaching the base of the obvious main north face of Cathedral peak I began a skin directly up the gully in which the face drains into. Through inspection I surmised that I would able to skin up the gully and as it steepened to around 40 degrees would be able to traverse left and all the way to the ridge on the climbers left of this gully, thereby avoiding a potentially dangerous boot pack on the exposed face. The skin steepened tremendously and I was barely able to gain a low-angle platform above some small cliff bands and chutes on the left flank of the main north gully without switching to step kicking. I do not recommend skinning/climbing up into the upper reaches of this gully, as an avalanche here would be difficult to escape. Additionally I heard some eerie hollow noises prior gaining the upper traverse. There may be a safer route to gain the avalanche benign ridge left of the main face, but it would still require a short boot pack up steep, potentially unstable snow at its base. Upon reaching the ridge I was able to skin along it to near the north summit (4905 ft.) but had to dismount and ascend the last 200 ft. of scree on foot.

    My original plan was to descend the north face proper which looks to be an excellent route. There is a small chute leading into the north face directly from the summit. This chute is guarded by a small cornice that should be easily overcome by a short jump turn in soft snow. I suspect that this slope is in the 45 degree range up top, and then giving way to lower angles as the chute exits the rocks into the open face below. This would be a good option for a descent of Cathedral, providing one has the proper skills in steep terrain. Another option, and the probably the easiest ski descent of Cathedral, would be to avoid the summit couloir and descend the ridge bearing east for approximately 200 vertical feet, and ski into the north face proper on lower angled, more spacious terrain.

    On this particular day I elected to explore the summit ridge of Cathedral traveling south. There are a number of west facing gully systems extending all the way to the Sable wildlife closure that can provide ski descents ending directly on the park road. Seeking powder snow I elected to descend one of these gully systems, all which provide north facing aspects and snow protected by the sun and wind. I travelled approximately 1 mile south along the ridge to a position just below point 4821 ft. on the map. There were some steep sections of loose rock that require negotiation via traversing and down climbing to reach this point and I suspect this may be the case farther south as well. I found a wonderful looking powder ‘ramp’ and planned to ski it until I became concerned about some cliffs at its exit. Upon closer inspection, and by traversing the ridge on my snowboard bearing west, I discovered a very nice, but thin (30ft.) couloir with a definite exit. From here I skied excellent winter snow to an apron/bowl which gave way to corn. Looking back up I found that the ramp I had luckily decided not to gamble with had no exit other than 50-60 ft. cliffs. From here I skied low angle corn snow through a fun gully all the way to the park road. I was then forced to make the tiring 3 mile walk on the park road back to TEK rest area. I recommend that people starting from the TEK rest area attempt the approach and return to Cathedral by bicycle carrying their skis. See photos below:

    2. Igloo Peak. On the way out to Cathedral the north face of Igloo Peak will easily catch the ski mountaineers eye. From a unique east to west knife-edge spine which forms Igloo’s summit (point 4,751 ft. on the map), the north face is tiered with a number of cliff bands in the direct fall line. However, these bands provide ramping/couloir exits to the skiers right (east). The upper ramp on the north face is particularly aesthetic as a ski descent and thus became my next objective.
    While offering a shorter approach and easier climb to the summit than Cathedral, this route on Igloo’s north face is a much more technical, exposed, and committing line of descent. It should only be attempted by thoroughly competent ski mountaineers. The trick is getting from the rock knife-edge summit onto the tier which leads to the entrance to the upper ramp. There are 4 ways to accomplish this; a) climb the descent route direct, which means a much more troublesome bushwacking approach, prolonged exposure to unstable snow and rockfall, and forgoing the summit of Igloo mtn; b) Ascend the easy gully and slopes from Igloo campground to the summit ridge and travel approximately ½ mile north on this ridge to the summit (options b-d use this approach). From the summit descend west a short distance to get to avoid the knife edge rock and begin a high traverse on the upper tier of the face, just below the knife-edge formation. This may be possible on skis without ever having to dismount and kick steps, yet, as a final move on the traverse, it seems as if one must climb up a short distance to obtain the ramp. From hear you are skiing; c) from the summit negotiate the knife edge on hands and feet (scary, loose class 3-4) until you reach a small cleft/weakness in the rock that may be sufficient for a 30-40 downclimb (class 4-5.0). Due to the nature of the rock this is not recommended; d) After getting a look at things from the top, descend the ridge you came up, bearing south, to the first couloir on your left (east facing). Descend this couloir until its left flank gives way to a traversable slope. This is south east facing so in the late spring will probably be a foot traverse across semi-exposed scree. From here you will reach the prominent east ridge of Igloo and a small col at the knife-edge feature’s east end. Looking north down the fall line is a small 35-40 degree entrance that leads into the prominent couloir which forms the lower 2/3rds of this descent described here. If one descends from this col a short distance, hugging its west flank, a small chute which exits at the base of north face’s prominent upper ramp is encountered. Descend this chute by a short ski descent or step kicking downclimb. From here one can climb the upper ramp to its terminus, and begin skiing back down from there.
    My choice of route on Igloo was option d. Because of a late start, climbing the upper ramp was a tad precarious, yet I was awarded with a wonderful descent. The ramp is around 35-40 degrees steep and is very aesthetic and enjoyable as a ski route. The ramp’s easterly fall line ends at a dog-leg which forces one into the prominent couloir on the looker’s left side of the north face (all easily seen from TEK rest area). This couloir adds to the enjoyment of this descent as it winds around and has big walls to make turns on. Near its end, the couloir gives way to a choke that, for me, proved to be a formidable obstacle. As the couloir narrowed and steepened, horizontal cracks began to form which led me to suspect an icefall. As I crept into the choke it soon gave way to about 70 ft. of water ice, a mandatory down climb. Balancing on my heel edge I meticulously chopped away a platform in which to safely dismount from my snowboard, retrieve my crampons from my pack and get them on my feet. With my snowboard strapped to my pack, and using an ice-axe in one hand and a whippet in the other, I was able to safely descend the ice fall. This required required downclimbing a vertical section of about 8 ft. and then easy 40-45 degree ice to the exit of the couloir. From here the ice gave way to a short apron of spring snow and then ended abruptly in a drainage full of willows. I then bushwacked about 1 mile back to the park road and caught a bus, which at this date were now running far into the park.
    I highly doubt that skiers attempting this route would need to worry much about this ice formation if they descended it a bit earlier than I did. I skied this very late in May and the ice was extant as a result of wet slide activity and quick melting. The couloir can be seen from the TEK rest area and binoculars should give one a good indication of the conditions. On the day of my descent I did not have binoculars and I could see evidence of new wet slide activity and that a good amount of snow had melted since the photos were taken. Yet from the rest area it still looked doable. Nevertheless, one should bring their crampons, ice tools and be prepared to downclimb the choke at the bottom of the route. See photos below.

    3. Peak 4640 ft, summit of Erratic Ridge. A popular area for ski touring with park employees and locals is the slowly rising, small north facing massif easily accessible from mile 8 on the park road. People will usually park at the turnout and skin to the ridgeline, make a descent and yo-yo around for a couple more. If one were to follow this ridge east they would reach Peak 4640 ft. on the map. From this point if one continued over the high point and remained on the ridge they would eventually hit the Erratic bouldering area.
    The north face of Peak 4640 ft. catches the ski mountaineers eye from the park headquarters area. It is steep (possibly 50 degress at top, giving way to 40-45), and aesthetic, with a large face extending down from the summit, which eventually branches off into two prominent gullies. The run is short, but beautiful, and one can easily make it a part of a day ski touring and descending other lines in the area.
    I made a jump for this line after work, hoping to get some ‘midnight corn’. I left the mile 8 pullout at about 7:30pm, bushwacked and struggled postholing through rotten snow. This was a lot of work. I eventually reached a solid snowpack and was able to skin up to the ridge and then follow it east to its high point. I arrived around 10:30pm with clear views of Denali to the south west. At this time of the night the snow starts to get good again and the upper turns on the north face were excellent, although the steepness and tight rocky sections on this particular night certainly require skill and caution. As the slope angle lessens a skier will reach a low angle gully, make a few turns more and then begin traversing hard skiers left (west). If you keep going you will end up in bushwack land and have to climb up to the road around mile 5. Don’t do it. Throw your skins back on and ascend back to the bottom of the ‘mile 8 bowl skiing area’, which takes about 20 minutes. From here one can either head back up for another run or two, or traverse left and head towards the pullout. Getting back requires a couple of hill climbs and really brushy stream crossings, as does the approach. This descent is worth doing, just for the glory of seeing your turns while at work the next day. I believe that a day of ski touring beyond Peak 4640 ft. and into the other ridges and gullies behind it to the south might be a worthwhile exploration. I have identified a number nice looking couloirs in that area. Sorry, no pictures.

    4. Peak 5965 ft, directly south of Divide Mtn. I suspect that there are many ski mountaineering possibilities in the Polychrome/Toklat area during the short window when the bus is running and there is still a good amount of snow. The north east face of Peak 5965 ft., directly south of Divide Mtn. in the east Toklat drainage (BMU 9) caught my eye one day so I made plans for a bus ride to attempt this line.
    The descent route features an amazing open bowl that starts direct from its summit. This bowl is any skiers dream. Wide open, maybe 35 degree at it steepest, and providing a feeling of floating on top of the Alaska range with the Toklat river bar a few thousand feet below your feet. The deterrence for many though, will be the 45+ degree couloir that is mandatory to exit the route and safely arrive back at the river bar. There is actually a system of couloirs, potentially three options, each equal in challenge. These are great, long lines for the experienced; steep jump turns in corn filled chutes you don’t want to miss. This descent totals almost 3,000 vertical feet. It is highly recommended.
    To get there, first get the earliest bus possible, get off the bus at I-Scream gulch and head into the river bar to divide pass. From here can one can either a) climb this route direct, or another of the couloirs mentioned, or b) ascend Divide Pass west and then ascend the ridge at its saddle south to the summit.
    I climbed the ridge from Divide Pass, gambling that a rock obstacle I viewed from the river bar would be benign. It was not and was probably class 5 and very loose. I was forced to traverse on steep, loose scree on top of frozen dirt underneath west flank of the ridge. This was very strenuous. I finally found a weakness in the rock, a loose and very steep ramp, and was able to gain the ridge again. From this point the ridge becomes highly enjoyable with excellent views of the range. The summit is very worthwhile. In my opinion option A would be a better route to ascend this peak, providing that one is confident in the snow stability. One could climb a couloir, reach a bench above the bowl and then easily reach the aforementioned ridge, avoiding the exposure of climbing straight up the bowl and avoiding the scary rock on option B.
    This was my last run of the season, and occurred around June 1st. It would be better to get there a little bit earlier, but I had excellent conditions regardless. It was an exceptional route to end my season of spring skiing. See photo below:

    Future Peak Descents

    1. “Kings Crown”, Peak 6855 Ft. at East Fork River’s exit onto the Plains of Murie. Descents on this fine looking peak will probably require a base camp, but maybe not. See Photo of proposed routes.

    2. Polychrome Glaciers Couloirs.

    These right leaning diagonal cuts look like excellent and exciting snow climbs and ski descents. They are easily seen looking south from Polychrome Rest Area.

    3. Double Mountain, 5899 ft. has a very appealing North Face which looks as if it could be descended from the prominent saddle between its two summits. I suspect this could be approached from the Igloo campground bearing south east, avoiding the wolf closure, crossing the Teklanika River and then ascending a ridge on the mountain’s west side to the saddle. A descent of the north face would then lead to an area just west of the Sanctuary River and would require a bushwacking traverse back over the Teklanika Hills to the park road. I think this trip could be accomplished in one day. See photo;

    That’s all for now!

    #611075
    bigdood
    457 Posts

    Pics don’t seem to be working, want to see ’em for sure!

    #611076
    snowsavage
    312 Posts

    sorry, pics are up now, its my first TR so had to figure out how to post the pics…

    #611077
    lewmt
    570 Posts

    😯 WOW

    Thanks for posting

    #611078
    96avs01
    875 Posts

    Right On! :thatrocks:

    Alaska Range is amazing…can’t wait to get back there :bananas: :bananas: :bananas:

    165 Venture Divide/Spark Frankenburners/La Sportiva Spantiks
    163W Jones Solution/Phantom Alphas/Dynafit TLT5s
    162 Furberg

    Chris

    #611079
    bigdood
    457 Posts

    They are working now! Siiiiiick, holy balls! I need to get to Alaska for an extended period of time…like 2 years.

    #611080
    snowsavage
    312 Posts

    that has been my plan for a while now and I finally made the move this year. Just needed to live the Chugach for a while. Its the climax. Its rough country to get used to though (for example, all of my spring approaches require grizzly infested bushwacks). Later today I will try and post another TR from the amazing lines I scored 2 weeks ago. Got hooked with sun and 2ft. of stable, dry pow, on huge lines for mid-november. stay tuned.

    #611073
    IridePow
    288 Posts

    Awesome looking lines!!!

    #611074
    BGnight
    1382 Posts

    U carry a gun?

    #611081
    UTAH
    830 Posts

    Love the aesthetics of Toklat, very beautiful line. So are those two different grizzlies, that definetly increases the sketch factor. Using regular soft snowboard boots or a light mountaineering boot?

    #611082
    snowsavage
    312 Posts

    In response to BG night and Utah; I rolled w/o out any bear pro my first and second day out, but then ran into that 1st bear on the schwak out from Igloo, which hardly even acknowledged my presence. Still pretty nerve racking. I rolled w/ bear spray after that. Yet overall the bears are quite manageable and the key is to not surprise one, so you gotta make a ton of noise when charging through the brush. Overall things are pretty safe, aside from that rare rouge bear.

    As far as gats go, its illegal to carry one in a National Park Wilderness, although one of GW’s last laws will be the legalization of carrying a firearm in a national park. I just recently had to fire at a Kodiak bear while deer hunting. I was carrying 80 pounds of deer meat on my back and he winded me. I was quite a standoff. Firing a warning shot was enough to deter him, this time. Based on that incident, and the info I get from talking to Alaskans, I plan to pack some heat from now on. Better safe than sorry, but still you need to be a good shot, you cannot afford to injure one and just piss it off. As an old dude from the bush told me; “if a bear is coming to eat you, you need to be able to drop it dead with one shot”. I got a .375 rifle, but need to score pistol of equal stopping power, which will still be a clunker as far as weight goes. Stuff to think about.

    Utah; the second bear was a different bear, seen on the route up Toklat. I have had many bear encounters working in the park, and elsewhere. Usually they are benign. Although I was charged once, but from a distance, and the bear decided to stop.

    Utah; i rode all those lines with soft boots; Driver X, to be exact. I have made a hybrid snowboard mountaineering boot out of some old Scarpa plastics. I cut the uppers off of a snowboard boot and riveted them on the plastics to create ankle support. I have used these for some more technical routes and it is acceptable. I just bought some LaSportiva Nupste’s on pro deal, and plan on making a much higher performance hybrid out of those, but its a big investment.

    thanx for checking out my TR!

    #611083
    nomad
    288 Posts

    That’s sweet to see some descents on the park road. I drove a supply van on that road for a whole summer and always dreamed about the potential lines when snow was around. Toklat always had looked like an amazing line – and now I know that it can be ridden! Cheers to trying all of them out!

    Yup, getting the timing right with the road opening would be tricky, but it sounds like you had plenty of free time. Biking the road isn’t so bad when the road’s somewhat closed (I did the whole thing once which was a nightmare with all the bus traffic).

    Continental snowpack for sure.

    Then there’s Wrangell too……

    #611084
    fustercluck
    668 Posts

    Splitfest ’09?

    #611085
    schralptowner
    176 Posts

    Yeah BOI! Nice work JVL. Looks like AK treated you to some good riding into the spring. We need to go back and shoot all of that, looks like a whole life time of lines in those zones. I could do without the bears though! Nice shot of the Venture too!!!

    #611086
    dude_reino
    467 Posts

    Professionally written, Dr. Heshnar. Will these be published in a Denali guidebook someday?

    #611087
    fullers2oh
    525 Posts

    dear mr. savage – wow – thanks for taking the time to write up and post up this info. looks like some amazing lines you got there in denali np. that tokloatte or however you spell it looks really sweet. grizzlies and bushwacking in AK … sounds like fun. can i join you this spring?

    #611088
    snowsavage
    312 Posts

    Nomad; right on, happy to see someone on here who knows the area. I met a handful of folks who ride that were working up there, but no one I met had considered bringing their gear. If you go back up then you should try and ride some stuff. There is a lot to be had, providing you get that window. And yeah, when it gets too warm, wet slab city, cause of that continental thing.

    Fullers; thanks for looking at my TR. stoked that I inspired you. Yeah, stay in touch and if wanna do some spring descents in AK, we can do that.

    #611089
    samblack
    21 Posts

    Looks like some dawson classic style terrain in those hills. I like the excellent use of taxdollars to make a trip report. I just hope you got security clearance from NPS prior to posting all this information on the internet…or they may be after you! Good work.

    #611090
    SanFrantastico
    1514 Posts

    I knew Fullers2oh would chime in as soon as he got a look at that gnarly bushwhacking. Great report, Dr. Snowsavage. What awesome, beautiful lines. I’ve been reading some books about climbing in the Alaska range (David Roberts, etc) and wondering about the non-denali possibilities. Thanks for the great pics. Very inspirational. I would love to visit someday when my mountaineering skills are up to snuff. I smell a road trip in the future…

    Putting the poo in swimming pool since 1968.

    #611091
    snowsavage
    312 Posts

    SF; thanks for checking it out. There a prob a zillion lines in the more publicised areas of the range as well, i.e closer to the High One, which I would love to get into. However, the stuff in this TR got done because its prob. the easiest access into the range possible. No fly in, drive up instead. Maybe Denali HWY has the goods too, although the access is quite difficult (long approaches, Native land etc.) No matter what the approaches are gonna be knarly in the AK range w/o a fly in. Easiest approach for me was 3 mi. of schwakin’. There is a really nice line I am scoping off the Parks highway, but would require a packraft to cross the Nenana river in the Spring. Could be a winter ascent too. Either way you gotta trepass on Native corp. land to rail it. If you got loot , I say book a fly in instead! fly right over the bears and straight to the goods!

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