Sunday, December 11, 2005

The Big Whump

Anchorage has had record high temperatures the last week resulting in near annihilation of our Nordic ski trails. With temps in the mid-40’s, the only relief for snow craving skiers was Hatcher Pass where according to the staff at the Hatcher Pass Lodge, the temperature had not gone above freezing. With rain falling on our heads, we departed a quickly melting Anchorage early Saturday morning hoping for fairer conditions at the pass.

The rain turned to snow just outside of Palmer and by the time we reached the parking lot at Hatcher Pass, we were in the midst of a full blown snowstorm. We planned on skinning up to Gold Cord Mine where the low-angle slopes were hopefully safer than April Bowl or Microdot.

We decided to climb to a cross just above the mine buildings and ski some of the steeper vertical just above. Halfway up an extremely wind-scoured slope we heard the second most dreaded sound in backcountry skiing; a giant Whump! (The first most dreaded sound in backcountry skiing is of course a giant whump followed by the slope sliding out underneath you.)

A whumping sound is caused when a weaker layer of snow beneath the surface layer is no longer able to support the weight of the upper layer and literally collapses in a big WHUMP! Snow science experts more commonly refer to this phenomenon as “settling.” As the authors of Snowsense put it, whumping is nature literally “screaming in your ear” that instability exists. Needless to say we left the high-angle slope as quickly as possible and skied less-than-30-degree slopes the rest of the day. Even on the low-angle slopes below the mine, we could see shooting cracks along the tops of convex slopes.

Another interesting phenomenon we experienced on Saturday was the Hatcher Pass Whiteout which is probably more “white” and “out” than anywhere else in Alaska (ok, this could be stretching it a bit). By the time we were ready to head downhill, we could not tell where the snow stopped and the sky began, it was a perfect “white room.” While unnerving in the high-avalanche-risk terrain, when we started skiing the safer low angle stuff, it was kind of fun. The snow was soft so you just pointed the skis downhill, bent your knees to absorb unexpected bumps, and hoped for the best.

Riding just below Gold Cord Mine

Emerson and Riley getting face shots

"It's a great day to be a skier"


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