Back in Alaska!
Last year, I had an incredible ski trip to Alaska, staying for a week with my friend Brant. This year, Kelly wanted to do the Tour of Anchorage 50k at the beginning of March, so I planned an earlier trip to work with that. I arrived in Anchorage one week before the race to get in some backcountry skiing with Brant. Conditions were definitely different than last time around – still more of a wintry snowpack with lingering weak layers. But at least I arrived with three straight days of sunny weather, which can be a rarity in Anchorage at this time of year.
For our first tour, I really wanted to see Turnagain Arm on a sunny day. This narrow, shallow body of water separates Anchorage and mainland Alaska from the Kenai Peninsula. The Arm is so shallow that it is more mud than water at low tide and a singular wave can move across as the tide is coming in and out. With some weak layer concerns, I suggested that we ski Pyramid Peak. This is a rather obscure peak on the motorized side of the highway. It does not get skied often, but I knew it would offer great views of the water and mellow slopes to ski on.
While most Alaskan tours start at closer to 1000-3000 ft above sea level, this tour started at 200 ft! We followed a powerline for a bit before ducking into trees. Forests here are not as easy to move through as our nicely spaced PNW forests, so it understandable that most locals avoid tree skiing at all costs. But it was not too bad and we found open alder slopes at only 600 ft.
Pretty quickly, we found the snow to be heavily wind affected. I had hoped that this east aspect would be protected from the strong westerly winds that race down Turnagain Arm, but this was not the case. Nonetheless, the windobard made for quick skinning and I was very stoked to have sunny views of the awesome Alaskan mountains all around.
As we crossed the col between the false summit and true summit, we encountered brutal winds. They were suffocating – almost to the point it was challenging to breathe. But luckily the winds eased once we were through this terrain gap.
At the summit, we found some old snowmobile tracks, but otherwise, only giant mountains, clouds, sea, and ice. It is incredible how huge the mountains in Alaska look and feel. Pyramid Peak itself is only about 3500 ft tall – the height of Rattlesnake Mountain – but it feels absolutely giant. Call it The Alaska Factor.
My favorite view was of Turnagain Arm. It was filled with an intricate network of sea ice. You could see rivers cutting through the ice, creating a beautiful mosaic of water and ice.
We debated what to ski, deciding on the gentle south face. The snow looked mostly smooth at least. The top actually turned out to be plenty carveable.
The ski quality alternated between decent firm snow and varying degrees of sastrugi, but we figured we would keep going as long as the skiing was not awful. We knew the winds would die down the further we skied, so that was encouraging. Slowly, the skiing began to improve. Below about 1200 ft, we suddenly found boot top powder through gentle alder meadows. The snow just kept getting better, all the way down close to sea level at 300 ft where we ended our run.
Down here, we were finally out of the wind. It was peaceful and beautiful, so we took a break to snack. This was a place far from any road that few people probably ever visit. The sun was beginning to kiss the slope and we took our time making our way up to lap the good snow at the bottom.
After a second lap, we decided it was time to head home and began the nearly 3000 foot climb back to the ridge. This time, we reversed the snow conditions, from powder to wind effected powder to sastrugi to windboard. It was a pleasant grind, with perfect temperatures in the cold February sun.
Atop the false summit, we transitioned one last time and descended back down the east slopes. The snow up high was surprisingly decent, and the views had only gotten clearer and more magnificent since the morning.
We were able to stay in downhill mode the entire way out back to the car, with only one short section of tight trees to get through. Brant had to end the day in Alaskan style by bouldering some roadside ice right near the parking.
I marveled at Pyramid Peak as we drove back to Anchorage. It felt fitting that my first “Turnagain Day” was not one of the classics actually at Turnagain Pass, but an obscure ski destination way closer to the water! We had low expectations for skiing, but found acceptable conditions and absolutely great views. This Alaskan trip was off to a pretty good start!
- Our tour measured about 12 miles and 7300 ft gain.
- The approach is pretty simple. Park at the pullout adjacent to the powerline and skin the powerline until it turns left. Then trend up and right through tight trees for a few hundred feet before arriving at more open slopes.
- The east and west faces of Pyramid look awesome if you have better conditions!
- This area tends to get more wind than Turnagain Pass proper because wind gets funneled down Turnagain Arm.