It is a beautiful spring day in Alaska. What all of us wait around for after the long dark cold winters. The spring days are lengthy with the sun coming up at 6:30 am and not setting again till 10:00 pm. We had a late winter storm that left us with amazing snow-covered mountains everywhere. It has been cold and the snow has stuck around as powder in many places into late April. It is starting to change now, but still little sign of a serious spring break-up or climatic transition. It is the season for going farther, doing long ski tours, and being able to just go. To ski all day, lounge in the sun, and feel free and relaxed in the mountains with friends, and finally be comfortable. Today it is Pastoral that we are headed for. It is a 4500 ft north-facing slope that usually guarantees some powder this time of year. And if it is timed right, the tour back out is fun slushy corn snow at lower elevations.
Some of my best backcountry ski days have been on this trip in spring. It is something about the feeling of the all day tour without any other obligations except to go backcountry ski with friends in the sun. It also is a place that I haven’t made it to all winter, so it is a prized possession of spring. Something like a gift for making it through the harsh cold and dark winter; putting in my time flat-light skiing in storms and below zero temps, so that I could have a day of skiing that is everything but that! And it is stunning! After a 3-hour tour and 3500 ft of climbing we are rewarded with miles of 360-degree views of the Chugach Mountains. Big ones, far off in the distance; views of the ice fields and snow-covered glaciers, of the mountains we will never reach. Even if the skiing isn’t good, the views are worth the tour.
Pastoral offers up everything to us today. The beautiful warm, sunny weather is left behind for a short time while thin clouds move in. But these leave us after awhile and the unpredicted wind is a reminder of the harshness that this mountain endures. We bundle up in all the clothing we can at the saddle and head up the peak onto the wind-effected sastrugi. The top of the peak is rime-iced reminding us that wind is often a constant condition for this peak. But that is what keeps the snow cold here. In a few moments I feel like I have transitioned from lazy spring backcountry skiing to “ski-mountaineering”. Just a taste of it, and it makes me feel alive! Making sure that each ski edge is gripping the icy 40-degree slope before I commit my weight to it; bundled up in my FlyLow shell and warm clothing against the harsh wind as we scout for the least wind-effected run down one of the main chutes of the north-face. Different than in the heart of winter here, I know in a few minutes we can escape the harshness with some ski turns and a descent back into the lower protections of the valley and the warm sun. I set off doing jump turns on the upper steeps and try to keep my skis from getting caught up in the stiff snow. It transitions in steepness and snow consistency keeping me active all the way down. Not the best powder run I have had on that mountain, but still super fun and manageable.
There are 3 of us today; all women, all avid backcountry skiers, all coping with personal issues in life. But today we are here just to ski, to enjoy the beautiful spring, and to bask in the beauty and fun of the immense mountains. All day long we ski, sometimes just skinning in silence, other times talking as women do. We talk about life, about relationships, about the snow, about our ski gear, about work, about friends. We comment on the beauty of the mountains, we talk about how great it is just to be out. We plan where we want to ski, talk about best routes, the snow, our health, and men. We commiserate with each other. We laugh about how we all have matching Osprey Kode backcountry packs in different colors, and how we all love them, except that Jo always likes someone else’s color better. We laugh.
We talk about the winter, the spring, the summer. We talk about past trips to Pastoral, and what each one was like. Jo tells us more about her interesting life, and teaches us how to yodel in the mountains. We decide that relationship break-ups are worse than cancer. We ski some more. We smile in the sun, and compare the different snow conditions and keep hunting for the best powder. We opt not to do another run in the punchy snow of the upper veins of Pastoral, and instead head lower into the chutes of what Jo calls the Mezzanine section.
Not sure how far down the snow will stay good, we go for it. It is better than we expect, so we put in the skin track back to the ridge for another run. The going is easy and we top the ridge back into the wind and a reminder that Alaskan mountains are never a walk in the park. We scoot up the icy corniced ridge, keeping our track somewhere in between the icy steep rollover on the right and the cornice on the left. One last crux move at the top to get over a wind lip onto the solid flat while we try to refrain our left eyeball from focusing on the steep drop-off over the rocks on the left. It keeps us all on edge with the exposure. I laugh as I look up and Jo is just a view of G3 skins and a butt as she scrambles, crawls, skins, and claws her way over the wind lip. I tediously work my way side-stepping the wind lip hoping that I don’t have to bare all bottoms up to Suzi behind me. Suzi’s turn, and she asks if I can just hold her wrist for safety while she takes her turn at the exposed move. She doesn’t want me to actually help her (as she is a fiery pillar of strength), but just wants me to be there if she messes up. That is what we do, support each other as women. We are all badass backcountry skiers in our way, but still just scared women sometimes.
We take a second run into more slightly variable, but fun powder. Suzi tells me how much she loves her new G3 Cake skis in the varied snow conditions. Sweet! She mentions that her first time skiing Pastoral was a few years ago with a bunch of “dudes”. She said the experience was rough trying to keep up with all of them as an intermediate telemark skier on lightweight skis. But with her new skis and the couple of steeps ski lessons she has taken at our women’s steeps clinic, she says with a smile, “I wish they could see me now!” I wish they could too. She is rocking it. We all talk about what ski skills we learned from the awesome instructors, Brooke and Maeve, at the recent Sisters in the Steeps clinic at Alyeska. It is helping all of our skiing today.
It is late afternoon now, and time to think about turning homeward. We are hoping that the sun has been intense enough to warm the lower boilerplate crust that we started the day on, but somewhere in the back of our minds we know the little bit of cloud cover and still relatively cool temperatures for this time of year might not give us the corn and slush skiing we were hoping for. We ascend out of the bottom bowl of Pastoral back to Taylor Pass. There is still a bit of cold breeze in the pass, but we stop for a break and our last views of the Pastoral basin. A wave of sadness passes over as I think about the ensuing end to another day at Pastoral. There is something so beautiful about the sunny spring days of skiing back here in the quiet stunning mountains.
We opt for the north face run off the saddle hoping for a bit more powder. We are rewarded with 5 luscious turns and then I unexpectantly hit the windpack and go down auguring in a ski tip. Had to happen sometime. We change plans and head for the south faces hoping for some softness in the snow. It is better there. We ski the fast flats back out the valley towards the highway. As we dreaded, we have to transition through a zone of breakable crust. We switch to survival ski traversing of the horrible crust. We feel like total goobers with our jittering tense cross-slope skiing, but we are trying not to catch a bad edge and take a “whiplash” fall. But soon we are back onto the sun-soaked lower slopes that have warmed just enough to allow us to make some soft surface snow turns back down to the car.
It was another memorable ski day. I am thankful for the beautiful mountains, the spring sun, the long days, and the wonderful female friends I have.