Finally, it’s beginning to feel like winter again here in the Chugach Mountains, Alaska! After a false start in October, hopes were high for a great early season in the backcountry. All hopes were quickly destroyed once Typhoon Nuri decided to shift a jet stream of tropical weather into the heart of South Central, Ak. For almost two weeks, the after effects of Nuri bombarded Alaska with wet, warm tropical storms. Temperatures at sea level were hovering at a steady 42 degrees with the highest topping out around 48 degrees.
Those temperatures came awfully close to matching the state record high of about 52 degrees for the month of November. Those are summer temperatures for Alaska!! It was a miracle we even had a snow line, which climbed to elevations as high as 4,500 feet. Keep in mind that these costal mountains top out around 6,000 feet in most spots.
Any snow we had below tree-line (2,000 ft), had been taken over by tundra and blueberry bushes once again. Many people started losing hope, skis were packed away, resort employees were sent home without work, and ski shop sales were down to nothing. Its amazing how two weeks of rain during a month that produces mass amounts of snow will mess with the flow of a ski community.
Not all hope had been lost. When the skies cleared, it was evident that winter had hit hard in the alpine. Just above tree-line it looked like a thick blanket of snow was left plastered to mountain faces covering up many early season features. Below tree line had almost no snow. From what I could tell, higher elevations looked in full swing; its just a matter of getting there. Soon after the temperatures dropped below freezing we received a few inches of snow down to sea level. This was just enough snow to allow us to skin from the highway into higher elevations.
The snow quickly gained depth as we rose through the trees. Once at 2,500 feet, we were sitting on top of about 3 feet in spots. Looking at old glide cracks and storm slabs suggested that the wind loaded spots were much deeper. The biggest crown I witnessed was about 6-8 feet deep. Average snow depth in the alpine was sitting around 4 feet where no winds had deposited any snow. With all the wet, saturated snow received on the mountain tops, the cold weather was able to lock it in and solidify our snowpack.
Most of the snow from about 2,000 feet to about 4,000 feet is one stout slab of ice and no weak layers to worry about. Above 4,500 feet we have an improving weak layer at the base of the snowpack. The newer snow on top of the firm crust has bonded well, with only sloughing to worry about in steeper terrain. Overall things were looking great and skiing great! With the firm crust beneath the soft snow, it was making it hard to hit rocks allowing for some actual pow slashing and smaller hucks! The best part about it was people hadn’t caught on that there was decent skiing out there. For a couple of weeks there we had the mountains to ourselves.
Over the last week and a half, we have had a steady flow of cold low pressures, depositing a few inches of snow here and there. These few inches have been adding up. There is now enough snow to creep below tree line and actually link some turns. Though not much, it’s still better than nothing. I have yet to dig a pit below tree line but some spots have at least 2.5- 3 feet of snow, other areas much less. A shallow crust below all the new snow is keeping skis from hitting rocks and dirt almost to the highway! More snow at tree line is needed to start skiing confidently. After all, early season tree skiing is the best. Always so many fun features that get buried by January!
Above tree line has been skiing wonderfully lately! Over the last two weeks we’ve seen a couple more feet of new snow. Things are relatively stable except for some wind slabs found on the south/southwestern aspects. Over the last couple days these mountain tops have seen a bit more wind, making the wind slabs up to 6-10 inches deep in spots. Although a majority of the alpine is stable there are chances of setting off a wind slab in isolated areas pushing the alpine avalanche rating up to moderate. For more detailed and up to date information on the avalanche conditions in the Chugach go to www.cnfaic.org!
Over all things are taking shape and lining up to be a great and potentially stable season in the Chugach. People are realizing that winter has been around for three weeks now as the pull outs are becoming crammed with cars by 11am. It’s good to see people are getting their winter stoke back, now if we could get some more snow so we can spread out a bit!
Note: All photos by professional photographer Corey Anderson (Follow on Instagram @chugachski)
Skiing by: Scott Rich(Follow on Instagram @downhillsr)