Find backcountry bliss in Turnagain Pass
Photo courtesy of Chugach Powder Guides
Backcountry skiing in Alaska is accessible from Girdwood to Turnagain Pass, but always be prepared for avalanches and ski with experienced guides.
By Brian Stoecker
Turnagain Times correspondent
Backcountry skiers and snowboarders questing after endless piles of Champaign snow, find it in Turnagain Pass, 50 miles south of Anchorage. The three most commonly used mountains (Kickstep, Sunburst and Magnum) are easily accessible, yet simultaneously remote.
Turnagain Pass lies 15 miles from Prince William Sound, placing it within the bounds of the surrounding temperate rainforest. In winter, that translates to limitless snow. The slopes are situated alee of the persistent gulf winds, protecting them from getting scoured, while collecting additional snow blown over the southeast ridgelines.
For the sake of both safety and harmony amongst the pass's two primary user groups (snowmachiners and skiers) the Seward Highway forms the demarcation line between them. Snowmachiners ride the west side, leaving the more expansive east to the foot-travelers.
Kickstep Mountain, commonly known as Tincan (Mile-70, Seward Highway) and Sunburst (Mile-68) have a proven reputation for phat snow and big air. The two mountains also provide options in the type of ride. Sunburst's broad consistent slope is devoid of trees, accommodating anything from wide turns to a ballistic schuss.
Tincan's high terrain is similar to Sunburst. However its rolling foothills are punctuated by hemlock stands. Riders find more kickers and can challenge their skills in the trees. If for no other reason, Tincan may be preferable to Sunburst because the approach to the mountain is shorter than that of Sunburst.
The Sunburst parking lot provides a direct route for snowshoers and Nordic skiers to access the long valley between Tincan and Sunburst. There is ample Nordic skiing along Tincan as well.
Due in part to snow conditions, exposure, avalanche conditions and the approach, Magnum is the least used of the three mountains.
All three peaks are highly susceptible to avalanches. The safest of these is Tincan, for the high route from top to bottom is generally safe. I've never seen it slide, but where snow and slopes combine, there is potential for avalanche. The flanks of Tincan are far more perilous. Many people have been trapped, injured or killed riding those routes.
The north (left) spine of Sunburst is relatively stable, but its face cannot be fully trusted, regardless of the numerous tracks saying otherwise.
On Tincan, in particular, there exists a symbiotic relationship benefiting snowboarders. Skiers lead the way, packing a trail as they skin up the mountain. Naturally, boarders use that trail rather than breaking another. Consequently, it becomes unsuitable to skiers and they break another. As the skiers kindly broke one trail for the boarders, please recognize the second trail as “skiers only.” It promotes harmony (this coming from a boarder who's never heard an ill word from a skier in Turnagain Pass).
Knowledge is key to your safe adventure. All snow riders, regardless of the route they plan, should be equipped with a shovel, avalanche beacon, probe, and even extra clothing, food and water. Someone else may need it.
And before you venture out, visit the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center web site (www.cnfaic.org).
Carl Skustad is considered the Chugach Forest Service's avalanche authority for areas from Anchorage through Turnagain Pass. Particularly Turnagain Pass.
Regular or daily updates on snow and avalanche conditions provide valuable information for snow riders of every medium. The avalanche threat is rated from “LOW” to “EXTREMELY HIGH”. Depending on advancing weather and regional variations, hazards and ratings may change dramatically in a matter of hours.
Other information available per CNFAIC includes open areas for snowmachining, snowpack depths, and detailed records of natural and human caused avalanches and any subsequent casualties.
Be safe and have fun!