June 04, 2007

1st Annual Cooper Landing Ski Festival

Ashley and I recently returned from a ski trip to the Chugach Mountains in Alaska. Our good friends, Adam and Marci, organized the trip and showed up with their almost-one-year-old-daughter, Sophia. Two more of Adam's friends made the trip, Aaron and Jeremy. The final member of the group is a resident of Cooper Landing, Alaska, the town we did most of our skiing out of. I'm not even going to attempt to describe this guy, but suffice it to say that he's a real piece of work and goes by the name of Chunk. Below is a picture of Chunk's home - a large tent covered with a crudely constructed A-frame over the top to shed the snow.

Now that everyone is introduced . . .

After buying groceries in Anchorage, stopping by a friend of a friends house in Girdwood for a hot tub, and driving around the Turnagain Arm to the middle of the Kenai Peninsula, we were ready for our first ski adventure. This ended up being our first and only backpacking trip. We hiked up a maintained trail to camp at Carter Lake, near the base of a mountain referred to as L.V. Ray. The next day, Adam, Aaron, and Jeremy hiked most of the way up L.V. Ray skied a long, beautiful line down wide open chutes to where Ashley and I were waiting for them. We had hiked up a mellower valley to a saddle between L.V. and another peak and beat them back down to the point where our paths intersected. This proved to be a great warm up for the upcoming skiing. Below is a picture of a lonely skier (Ashley) in the vast expanse of the Chugach Mountains.

At the time of the backpacking trip, we had not yet met up with Chunk. Chunk somehow got word that we were camping up at Carter Lake and tried to come find us. Around midnight (still light out) Adam thought he heard Chunk's coyote call. He responded with a countering owl call, and nothing more was heard. When we met up with Chunk the next day, we confirmed that he did try to come find us without success.

After the backpacking trip, we drove to a campground just north of Cooper Landing, where we would make our home for the rest of the week. From our campsite, we had a great view of a skiable line on Junior Peak directly across Lake Kenai. Chunk, pretty much the only local skier in Cooper Landing and the only one pioneering the skiable lines in the area, claimed that that line we were looking at had never been skied, and was therefor unnamed. Our mission for our first day in Cooper became to ski and name that chute. The next day, we didn't start hiking up Junior until 4:00 pm for a variety of reasons. Of course, this didn't matter because it doesn't get dark until about 1:00 am this time of year. We donned the flux capacitor (unique system for carrying skis while bushwhacking so they form a wedge in front of you, thereby parting the bushes - devil's club - before you get to them) and began hiking up a steep, semi-maintained trail that Chunk constructed for just such purposes. A few hours later we were standing on the summit of Junior and at the top of our line of descent in a mild snow storm. The snow in the chute proved to be classic spring snow, and we were excited to find that what we thought might be a cliff in the middle of the chute turned out to be a rocky patch of snow that was skiable by Chunk's definition (see video).

Chunk, Adam, Jeremy and I leapfrogged our way down with no major mishaps for my first "first descent".

Perhaps now would be a good time to discuss the Alaskan ski run rating system according to Chunk. He uses the same symbols: green circle, blue square, black diamond, and double black diamond.
- Green Circle - if you fall, you will stop.
- Blue Square - if you fall, there is a good chance you will stop.
- Black Diamond - if you fall, there is a good chance you will not stop.
- Double Black Diamond - if you fall . . . well, don't fall.

Depending on the snow conditions, the same chute can vary drastically. Chunk gave our line on Junior a green circle because the steepness never really exceeded 45 degrees and the snow conditions were favorable. Because we were on Junior, and the chute was green, and mint is green, we unanimously decided to name the run after Ashley's suggestion - "Junior Mint".

The next day's events took place on a similar schedule, but this time Ashley came with us. She turned out not to be a fan of the flux capacitor method, but she did just fine. Jeremy, Aaron, Adam and Chunk were with us as we hiked to the top of Junior and out the ridge leading away from town. Ashley and I stopped when we reached the top of "7th Heaven", a bowl that was less steep and more wide open than any of the chutes. The four other guys continued along the ridge until they reached "Centerfold", an impressive looking chute with a large cornice guarding most of the entrance (see photo below).

Skiing down to the point where our lines intersected turned out to be the easy part. Subsequently, we engaged in a new sport which we dubbed "ski canyoneering". We skied down a steep sided canyon for a ways, past a natural ice cave, and eventually came to point where enough snow had melted that we could see the stream running through the bottom of the canyon. We delicately skied around many such obstructions, carefully linking up a continuous snow while weaving back and forth across the creek over fragile snow bridges. Then the canyon got steeper. These steeper sections were associated with a total lack of snow coverage, so we were forced to take off the skies and downclimb easy 5th class rock on the sidewall of the canyon, in tele boots, over slippery, moss-covered rocks. After getting all 6 team members through this section, there was one last steeper section with minimal snow cover. Chunk gracefully skied over the precarious looking snow bridge, followed by Jeremy on a snowboard who stopped near the opposite edge of the bridge. Aaron (also on a snowboard) came next and narrowly escaped disaster when he fell heal-side on the middle of the bridge, successfully collapsing it into the creek. Jeremy almost fell in as the abutment he was standing on also collapsed. As luck would have it, the ice blocks that once formed the bridge did not float away with the rushing torrent, and the rest of us were able to carefully cross the fractured zone.

Our final day of skiing involved the most snow filled chute on Cecil Rhode, Junior's big brother. For whatever reason, Chunk had named the chute "Young and Dumb" after he first skied it several years ago. "Young and Dumb" is the obvious line in the middle of the picture below.

The team this time consisted of Chunk, Aaron, Jeremy, Marci, and myself (Adam and Ashley were in charge of baby sitting and photography from town). The bushwhack and hike were similar to those on Junior but a bit longer as Cecil is taller. At the top of the chute, Chunk informs us that he's going to do a front flip off the cornice. He did so successfully, landing on a 70 degree slope, twice. He then led us down the hill in good form as seen in the video below.

It was warmer this day, which softened up the snow and sent wet sluff slides down the hill whenever a skier made a turn. Chunk descended fast enough to outrun the sluff, while the rest of us made a few turns and let the small, wet, and heavy sluffs make their way to the bottom of the chute. This long, steep run was my favorite of the trip.

Our group dispersed for the remainder of the trip, with Ashley and I heading to Homer, AK for our last two days. While in Homer, we visited the home and winery of a college friend's parents. Jasmine's mom, was home and made sure that we tasted all their wines (they had about 20 different brews), and came home with a free bottle. Most of their concoctions were made from local berries and fruits other than grapes, and were found to be extremely tasty. While at the winery, Ashley and I saw the only bear or our trip (see picture).

After a dinner of fish and chips and a brief tour through the Salty Dog bar, we camped on the beach on the Homer Spit.

The following day we did a bit of tourist shopping, drove almost to Seward to see the Exit Glacier, one of the exit points of the Harding Ice Field in Kenai Fjords National Park. The size of this glacier, relatively small by Alaska standards, was nearly unfathomable by continental US standards.

End result - everyone had such a good time we've decided to make this a biannual event (Every Memorial Day week in the odd numbered years), increasing the number of participants each time.

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