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Gearheads go to the Neacola Mountains, AK

Given my experience in Haines, Alaska in April of 2013, it may have seemed crazy to start planning a return almost as soon as I got back. But as time goes by, you forget the struggles (four days of dumping snow that required eight hours of shoveling a day) and think about the amazing terrain you experienced (or merely saw from a distance); returning has a way of consuming your thoughts.

Of course, there’s a lot of planning involved–but that’s part of the fun, at least for me.  I got a couple partners interested in the idea and started scheming. John Gilchrist, co-worker and friend, along with Adam O’Keefe of tetonsandwasatch.com and a vet of the Haines trip were up for the adventure.

We were intent on picking a zone with more couloirs than spine walls. The Revelations were the first range that came to mind, but as the 2013-14 season progressed, the reports of low snow across Alaska started coming in. We made the decision to focus on other zones.  After much deliberation and research, and several plans that had to be abandoned for various reasons, I found an article in the American Alpine Journal about a ski expedition to the Neacolas Mountains, which are approximately 120 miles southwest of Anchorage.  They mentioned a zone with numerous 3,000-4,000ft east-northeast facing couloirs.  I did a little more research via Google Earth and it looked like the spot. The Neacolas don’t appear to see a ton of traffic because of the cost and distance of the flight out of Anchorage, which made them more appealing.

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The shot that made our decision for us.

We planned the trip for March 22-April 9—a total of 19 days, which allowed for the inevitable bad-weather days. Prior to arriving, I was watching the weather models closely. Anchorage had been in a high pressure flow for the previous week; it didn’t look like it was letting up. My friend Matt, who would give us weather updates while we were on the glacier via our Delorme Inreach, agreed that we should see good weather for the first half of the trip.

We arrived in Anchorage to clear skies and cold temps, which meant that the snow at higher elevations should be holding up. We had a planned fly date of March 24; the weather looked like it was going to hold, so we got to shopping. Fuel, groceries, filling airbag tanks–all were checked off the list.  We weren’t sure what the coverage was going to look like in the zone so we decided a scouting flight would be worthwhile.  During the flight, we checked out some other zones in the Tordrillos as well, since they were on the way; they looked all right, but had fewer zones with the type of terrain we were looking for. The pilot, Ben, let me know we were about to reach the zone for the coordinates I had provided. We crested another ridge the zone came into view … yes, please!

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Ben set us down on a north-facing slope so we could dig a pit and assess stability.

The structure was not great, but since it had been settling for a week, there wasn’t any energy to propagate upon failing.  We would have to feel it out somewhat, but I was pretty confident we could get into the steeps.  However, it could be tricky if we received more snow.

At the bottom of the big couloirs, we could see the remnants of a camp.  At first I was a bit disappointed, but after looking through the shots I had taken in the air there was no doubt in my mind that, tracks or not, this was The Zone.  Adam and John agreed, and it was on!

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Stoke was high as we took off the next morning in the Beaver piloted by Joe Schuster of Sportsman’s Air, and headed southwest toward the zone.

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We decided to land next to the previous camp. As it turned out, we could use the spot they had dug out for our Black Diamond Mega-Light kitchen; the platforms they had stomped out for our tents were also good to go, saving us time. Less work, more skiing is always a good thing. Before Joe left we agreed on a pickup date of Monday April 7, again planning that we would have some weather and down days.  See you later, Joe.

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Camp was setup by around 2:30 p.m., so there was plenty of time for a ski. Couloirs everywhere, which one would it be? We decided to head east from camp and check out one of the northeast-facing shots closest to camp.

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Conditions were perfect for booting–névé (porous ice formed from snow that has not yet frozen into glacier ice) with a couple inches of new snow on top.  Everything in AK looks closer than it actually is, and this first couloir was no exception; it took us a couple hours to top out.  We took turns booting, going at a steady pace.

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Upon topping out, we were greeted with an amazing view to the toe of the glacier.  You can make out Mt. Redoubt, an active volcano, on the far back right

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All told, the couloir (including the apron) delivered 3100 feet of sustained steep skiing.

We skinned back to camp as the light was fading. The tour tallied 6.7 miles total with 4,000 feet of ascent. We cooked some red curry with chicken, peas, peppers, and potatoes, garnished with peanuts and extra Sriracha.  After listening to some music, we fell sleep around 10:00.

What followed was seven unbelievable days in perfect weather – clear and cold in the morning, then bluebird conditions throughout the day. We fell into a routine of making breakfast, melting water for the day, and getting out and touring by mid-morning. We’d usually go most of the day, get back, eat, hit the tents, and get back up the next day to do it again. We ascended between 3000-6000 vertical feet and walked 5-15 miles per day, depending on the objective. Our plan was loose–we explored multiple couloirs within striking distance of camp, usually tasty-looking ones we’d spotted from a high vantage point on the previous day’s tour. It didn’t really matter which way the slope faced–we found that the snow wasn’t particularly aspect-dependent. The sun was staying relatively low in the sky, so anything mellow wasn’t getting a ton of heating throughout the day; once the angle kicked up the snow quality suffered a bit down at lower elevations, but that was about it.

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John on top, looking to the west, #couloirsfordayz.

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Making some mellow turns down to the coulie.

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Scary overhanging cornices wanted to squash us. Photo Credit: Adam

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We knew for sure where we would be heading day seven.

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Booting was nice and consistent, made for quick travel.  We felt dwarfed with huge granite alpine walls rising up above us on either side

As the week wore on, we continued to enjoy the good weather, but it was starting to make us worried; we were just getting it too good. Knowing that Alaska weather is usually pretty fickle, we decided to prepare for the worst, just in case. We learned the year before in Haines that the tarp sheltering our kitchen works well most of the time, but if you start getting strong winds and heavy snow it can be tough to keep it standing. Perhaps just to prove that we weren’t taking the good weather for granted, we built an igloo so we’d be prepared in case the weather got bad.

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On our ninth day out there, we woke to light winds but clear skies, but we could tell something was moving in. Weather in a big city is an educated guess, but when it comes to forecasting weather in remote parts of Alaska, there isn’t much data to support a forecast one way or the other. Matt had texted us the day before on our Delorme Inreach to let us know we would see a weak disturbance hit over the next couple days

Wanting to take advantage of the time we had left with good weather, we ate a cold breakfast and got an early start. The plan was to head west then ascend another glacier and get on the backside of the zone we had skied the two previous days. It ended up being 5500 feet and 14.5 miles of ascending.  We had planned to ski a bigger line, but John and I were both a bit tired, so we just took some mellow pow laps and toured up and over to the zone we were familiar with.

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A NW facing zone I was salivating over.

Day 10.  The next day, John and I decided to take a rest day, we were beat from touring the last 10 days in a row.  Adam had taken a rest two days earlier, so he decided to do a long circumnavigation of the glacier we were camping on — a 17-mile day with 2300 feet of vert.  We had been in contact with Joe via our Delorme Inreach and set a pickup day for the next day, as it looked like it might be our last chance to get out before a low-energy storm came in. The next morning, however, we woke to low cloud cover and realized we probably wouldn’t get out.  Later in the day the clouds burned off—too late for a pickup, but plenty of time for a short tour.

The next morning conditions were more promising, so we tried to contact Joe with no luck. We retreated to our tents, wondering if we might be stuck on the glacier for the weekend, when we heard the familiar drone of a Beaver flying low—Joe had taken the initiative without us. We quickly packed up camp, threw our wet gear in the plane and got out of there.  After nearly ten solid days of touring, we were more tired than we ever would have expected from a trip to Alaska, where down days due to weather are practically a given. A weather window like the one we got may not ever come around again, but you can count on our tempting fate sometime in the future. The call of AK is hard to resist.

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