By early summer most backcountry skiers have switched to mountain running and pack rafting. But some skiers still crave the thrill of sliding down mountains on snow. Those diehard skiers head up to the mountains above Anchorage for early summer skiing, where snow lingers in shady gullies.
In winter, these mountains – the Chugach Front Range – are ravaged by wind. Anchorage backcountry skiers drive further to Turnagain Pass or Hatcher Pass for better conditions. But starting in April, the wind in the Chugach Front mellows and the snow settles and solidifies. The snow surface stays creamy and smooth for easy skiing. Avalanche assessment becomes a simple matter of avoiding slopes over 30 degrees when it’s ankle deep. By summer solstice, only threads of snow remain, snaking down the mountains like rivulets of water, creating the coveted couloir shape for skiing – 20 feet wide and dropping thousands of feet down the mountainsides. Combined with the endless daylight, these ski conditions are called “hero skiing” for the ego-pumping effects.
Summer skiing has been an obsession of mine since childhood. Dad told me, “June is the best month for skiing.” He’d take me on June ski trips to Oregon’s North Sister, Broken Top and Mount Jefferson. As a teenager, while assisting glaciologists in southeast Alaska, I found summer skiing extending into July and August. When Cathy and I moved to Anchorage, I realized summer skiing lingered only minutes from our house.
Anchorage’s most popular early summer ski run is Peak Three. Located just behind Flattop at the Rabbit Creek Trailhead, this 2,000-foot run captures the golden evening light as you zoom down to your car. It is the most bang-for-your-buck, after-work ski run near Anchorage. You’ll see naked skiers, beer drinkers, schussers, dog fights, parking lot barbeques – Alaskans enjoying daylight and warmth after a long winter.
When Peak Three melts out in early May – probably even earlier this year – you have to get creative. Falls Creek is one option. Car to car, it requires about four hours to ski a run. Start the trek to Falls Creek from Mile 106 on the Seward Highway, 15 minutes south of Anchorage. It’s an hourlong hike to tree line. From there, look around and select your ski run of choice. The best chute in Falls Creek is hidden away, tucked into a shady cleft above Falls Lake.
Another favorite summer ski run, especially for expert skiers on a timeline between work and family, is the S Couloir on Ptarmigan Peak. This chute is 2,000 vertical feet and tilted to 35-degrees. It requires expert skiing ability and the maturity to say “not today” when it’s frozen into slide-for-life conditions. The hyper and fit types can do the S Couloir in three hours, car to car. From the Glen Alps trailhead, bicycle three miles up Powerline Trail until you’re below the looming north face of the peak. Boot up the snow to the ridgeline for a gripping run back to the Powerline Trail.
My favorite day of backcountry skiing in the Chugach Front was on Summer Solstice 2007. Friends and I left the Rabbit Creek trailhead at 6 a.m. Nineteen hours later we hiked into Stuckagain Heights trailhead, having skied the north faces of Ptarmigan Peak, Avalanche Mountain, The Ramp and Taniana Peak.
Were we tired? Not really. It’s hard to get tired skiing on the longest day of the year.
Early summer skiing requires planning. During winter, conserve your energy for the long season ahead.
Take it easy in the fall. Let others ski thin October snow through tundra and rocks. Allow the snow to stack up and the avalanche danger to dissipate. Get your Nordic fitness going. Ski Turnagain and Hatcher while midwinter wind hammers the Chugach Front. Then, when most skiers stash their skis in a corner to collect dust, you’ll have two more months of stoke for skiing. Don’t forget to leave flip-flops in the car and a few Sockeye IPAs at the trailhead snowbank.