Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Ice Skiing Through the Mountains

A trail sign in the White Mtns protrudes from the slim snow cover

Unbelievable... These were the only words I could mutter as we approached the Moose Creek cabin which rests on the edge of an open meadow in the White Mountains. It was just after midnight when we skied up the spur trail leading to the front porch. The temperature was 50 degrees above zero (+10 C). On this evening, portions of interior Alaska were experiencing the warmest January temperatures ever recorded since weather records began over 100 years ago.

I was dumbfounded. I just couldn't swallow the reality of this situation - that the atmosphere could possibly be so warm on a mid-January night just south of the Arctic Circle. But it was, so I struggled to embrace the unusual scene and tried to ignore the ramifications such warmth would have on the snowpack. Instead of the normal routine upon arrival at a cabin of firing up the wood stove and quickly shedding damp clothes, we propped open the door and windows and let the balmy southeast wind sweep through the log structure.

Our weekend traverse took us across the network of snowmachine trails through the jagged limestone peaks which define the heart of the White Mountains north of Fairbanks. We skied about 100 miles from one trail head to another and spent several nights in the cozy public use cabins en route.

After the temperatures dropped back below freezing the trail transformed into a rutted and icy luge run. This made the skiing extremely treacherous as we careened down the narrow trail and negotiated each turn with a bit of terror because the only way to stop was to plow into the surrounding brush.

Klister - John applies the tree sap-like substance to the base of his skis in order to get some kick, or the ability to push off the snow to propel forward. Not even the stickiest of ski products would perform on the icy path.

Dan and John take a break at the re-constructed Crowberry cabin. The original cabin was destroyed by a forest fire in 2004.

The skiing improved dramatically when a little fresh snow accumulated on the rock hard surface of the ski trail. This made us very happy because we were able to actually ski under control.

A glacial blue layer of water quickly fills our ski tracks as we cross a large area of glare ice on Fossil Creek. The water was just deep enough to splash over the toes of our ski boots. Areas of liquid water insulated by a layer of snow are not uncommon even in the coldest weather. At temperatures well below zero, the water will freeze instantly when it is exposed to the air, encasing your skis with ice and freezing ski bindings shut. This can make it impossible to remove the skis from the boots. Fortunately we have learned a few tricks to resolve this problem.

Kicking back in the Windy Gap cabin. The public use cabins in the White Mountains have a table, bunks, lantern, and stoves. A well deserved reprieve after a long day of skiing in the cold.

The logbook is full of stories and experiences of past travelers who found refuge in the cabin.

Dan negotiates some angled glare ice on the slope just outside the Windy Gap cabin. Large lobes of ice tend to form where groundwater seeps to the surface and interacts with the sub-zero air.

The guys ski towards a rocky precipice which looms above windy gap.

Sitting silently at the crest of the limestone ridge is the natural Windy Arch. It looks like something you would see in southern Utah except it is constructed from limestone.

Where is the snow? After skiing across ice, through water, and over brush we came to an area where the snowpack had been completely obliterated by the record January thaw. We found ourselves bridging our skis between large, grassy tussocks for several miles. Suddenly the trail conditions we had encountered the previous days didn't seem so unfavorable any longer...

Hear the chatter of our skis in this video clip compiled by John:

video

4 comments:

Cheryl said...

Hi Eddie,
I like the addition of the video although the ski chatter on the ice kind of creeps me out. I think I'd spend most of my time on the ground!

Anonymous said...

Absolutely wicked - I love it :)
xxxKiwi Lisa

SmithsinAK said...

What are your tricks for dealing with the overflow and ski bindings?

Jules said...

Hey there Eddie -
I was pretty homesick and craving a trip in the whites - UNTIL i saw these photos. i do not envy you this trip. you guys are crazy (not that I didn't already know that).
Miss ya!