Operation: Tin Can, an AK backcountry exposé

Paulie | BackcountryBackcountry | Featured ArticleFeatured Article
The shine of Turnagain winter. M.Cuadrado photo

A fine February morning has only just dawned over Alaska’s Turnagain Arm and already Alyeska Resort, the state’s foremost ski epicenter, is happily humming.

Over winter’s calendar window the slopes of Alyeska will host a veritable army of aspiring Powder-Pirates whose numbers will swarm from late august til spring. They come, from near and far, for the ski-able acres. They come to conquer the terrain–and the Fizz.

They come because AK’s ski panoply extends well beyond piste.

Layers of fun as seen at Turnagain. M. Cuadrado photo

Turnagain Pass, a mere 20 minutes drive from grand Alyeska Resort, underscores a great day’s skiing at the Great Land. It is a pleasant (and nearby) proving ground for off-piste adventure as well as home to popular zone, Tin Can; an approachable, rip-able example of AK backcountry.

A Tin Can trip can be accomplished easily in a day and begins, as with all things, at the planning stage. Here, assembling a knowledgeable crew of manageable numbers can set the tone for a great hike. Going solo is of course ill-advised, but so too are disorganized hordes.

Tools of the trip.

And intrinsic to any planning stage is gathering the gear necessary for the journey ahead. This can imply a great variety of handy items to have in the field, but must-carries among that list are avalanche transceiver, probe, and shovel. Crews in ‘the know’ carry all three and absolutely know how to use them.

Once the troops are assembled and final gear checks complete, it’s time to hit the road. And it’s while in transit that the wondrous layout of the Turnagain area and Alyeska Resort rise in relief. Morning hot laps at the resort have arrived to Tin Can turnout in less than one half-hour. Parking there is an open, off highway variety that offers easy in-out access for traffic while boasting wide views of hike-ready terrain.

The awaiting ascent is at once a leisurely stroll or laborious effort, a speedy hike or crafty skin; Tin Can’s trip up (and down) can take many forms.

Bootpackin’ for white gold.

Routes of ascension here welcome the stout post-holing bootpacker yet splitboard populations are far more prevalent.

Skinning for glory.

From the roadside turnout, a trail crosses a snowy drainage and rises into bristling trees. The climb is gradual, airy and usually well-marked with the first few hundred meters paralleling occasional glimpses of flowing water beneath otherwise unbroken snow. Views both up toward Tin Can proper and outward across the highway to the opposing ridgeline beyond are stunning reaffirmations of the lore inherent to the Last Frontier.  The sloping topography is generally white with chief exception being the under-boughs of the trees themselves.

Tin Can appears as from a picture book.

The steadily climbing trail cuts around and through quiet groves of wind-shielded pines iconic to Tin Can terrain. Fat scoops of snow cling to their arms and bend double their tops. It’s a landscape straight from the pages of Dr. Seuss, and ski-able.

The continued climb will pass these groves and achieve mid-heights noted for scattered trees, expanded vistas, and options. This impasse is an oft employed site for digging a snow pit.

Pit party.

Below, several side by side gullies unfurl in tree-run glory. Above, the treeless upper reaches of Tin Can Proper yet rise.

Days marked by weather, low-viz, or suspect snowpack direct parties back into the trees, where clustered trunks provide wind defilade and increase likelihood of stability while clear skies and/or adventurous hearts urge line chasers higher still toward the pitched faces falling from Tin Can summit.

They say, ‘the sky’s the limit’ and mountaineering, when moving upward, certainly affirms the notion.

From Tin Can’s uber-under alpine crossroads, a steady (and increasing) incline awaits. Wind becomes a factor, as can altitude. Summit access seems so close, yet there’s mighty hiking yet to be done.

Colloquially known ‘Hippy’ and ‘Common’ bowls fall away while Tin Can proper looms ever-close. The gentle, cartoonish-ly pleasant topography of low-mountain has transformed into steep angle aspects comprising long snow lanes that race to rejoin the trees.

Turnagain’s famous for its vistas and Tin Can is no exception. J. Leon photo

Here the panorama is set to maximum exposure, and the waiting line tuned to maximum experience. At this stage, one would hope there to be calm enough, at least, for brief refreshment, but the wise do not overstay their welcome at height. And besides, the rush of descent awaits.

Even the wildest weather can feel calm in these moments. Simple movements of gear adjustment, outwear shift, or even one calm breathe become stitches in time. This is the cool still center to the land of loud silence.

Sliding into quiet space at Tin Can.

With planning, and good fortune, the zoom to follow unfolds as envisioned: start path to checkpoint, this zone to that. But it’s the spaces in-between that receive most lip-service, the surreal navigation; flowing passage through terrain set to risk and swooshing mute.

C. Anderson photo

As with most things in wild country, reward reflects effort. Tin Can egress takes form as narrow, imaginative passages that snake through close trees, returning ultimately to the drainage(s) first crossed when setting out. There’ll be another walk here, but the abbreviated more flattened stroll to transport feels more like a celebratory lap.

 

A short saunter to the finish.

The exclamation point arrives with departure and the welcome realization of proximity to well deserved rest.

Winter splendor at Alyeska Hotel. K. Graham photo

The indulgent pleasures of Alyeska Resort and surrounding Girdwood Village are but a brief drive from the raw mountain so recently descended. There awaits steaming plates or cool vessels served in relaxing restaurant/lounge ambiance and later still the allures of vibrant musical offerings at speak easy venue, Sitzmark.

Close of a winter’s day at Turnagain, AK.

 

Here this day in the Great Land comes full-circle; in the company friends, living life to the fullest, at a place called Turnagain.


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