Tailgate Alaska Day 6 - Flat light city

I woke up on day six of Tailgate Alaska freezing my butt off. Apparently the heat in the RV stopped working again so getting out of my sleeping bag was a tedious affair. On the plus side, the sky was looking only slightly overcast, similar to the morning conditions on Tuesday. I was hoping the sun would burn away some of the clouds and we would get to go up. The ABA guides seemed positive about it so the decision was made to fly on day six.

I was teamed up with the swiss crew this time since Ian's heli time was done and it was easier to get four per ship this way, which is more economical from a fuel perspective. The crew consisted of Guillaume, Guillaume, and Jerome – remembering names wasn't going to be too hard – and our guide was Paul, an ABA partner, full time patroller in Tahoe (when not guiding in Valdez), and an ABA guide for nine years.

Guillaume, Guillaume, and Jerome with proper glacier spacing.
Glacier spacing and line of sight are important in flat light.

We had our first drop off on Bloodstain where I had seen the natural slide on Tuesday. Paul wanted to see if we could ride the bowl on the north aspect, but the high winds from the day before and cold temperatures overnight made the conditions rather unstable (wind slab over softer snow) so we decided to stick to the ridge which was also heavily wind scoured. Riding a wind scoured surface is a heck of a lot less fun than riding pow, however, so no one was really stoked on it. We did get a few pow turns, but since we were on an east facing aspect, that pow turned into a nasty sun crust; something we would want to avoid for the rest of the day.

In order to avoid the sun crusts, we would have to stick to northern aspects. However, northern aspects are in the shade in the morning so the light would be awfully flat. This proved to be a problem as it took us nearly an hour to get down from the Cold Smoke drop off point; our second drop. It was like reading the terrain by brail the whole way down. We had to maintain line of sight with the party members in order to not deviate from the course and get lost, or unknowingly lose someone in a crevasse. We did one more run in these conditions before Glen, the heli pilot, notified us that the light was getting flatter and there was no sign that it would be clearing up. So Paul decided to pull the plug after a half day.

Day six ended with a BBQ, bonfire, and my first sighting of the Aurora Borealis since I arrived in Alaska (it was green). A bonfire at Tailgate Alaska is almost like the water cooler at the office; It's where deep philosophical subjects such as how Alaska has the ability to separate the core riders from the a**holes (ahem Grenade), and also how there are probably many guys out there washing dishes who are better riders than Travis Rice. Activities such as this make Tailgate Alaska all the more worth while. Plus even though the snow and light conditions were less than stellar, I wouldn't consider the day to be a loss as it allowed me to think about, and apply, many of the safe travel techniques that I've learned in my various avalanche courses; something that will be very useful for future backcountry excursions.

Winter Matters Bubble

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