Words: Roger Strong
Photos: Joe Stock
Without a doubt, winter is easily my favorite time of year… Honestly, I can’t single it down to just one reason. It’s a medium that doesn’t allow long periods of complacency, constantly challenging the human ability to deal with discomfort and learn to indulge in its beauty. Despite living in the Pacific Northwest where we are blessed with relatively long snow laden winters in the mountains, It still feels temporary; as if the hourglass of winter is always hanging over my head and the need to get out and squeeze every ski turn, the kick of a crampon and swing of an ice tool as much as possible.
It’s hard for me to believe, but this is the 29th year I’ve had the fortune of climbing, skiing and working in Alaska…my favorite place on the planet for any form of true, unrestrained adventure. A 20-year career in commercial crab fishing gave me huge chunks of time to pursue mountain adventures all over the globe and probably influenced my love of being outside the comfort zone. It eventually was a segway into my current job in the wonderful specialty outdoor industry with Waypoint Outdoor. Every spring, the job entails a much-anticipated visit to the territory to visit our retailers, talk about product knowledge, sales approaches, business strategies and sharing a common bond of serving the activities that we provide the gear for. This means that getting out with as many staff friends as an integral part of the business and use the gear that we sell.
Every once in a great while, a blend of conditions, weather, patience, a little luck and the right partner all fall into place. Enter the legendary and indelible Joe Stock. A truly great guy who epitomizes the soul of mountain stoke and passion. If you haven’t had the honor of meeting, climbing or skiing with him and his equally badass wife Cathy, his positively humble demeanor and mad mountain skills will only increase the fuel of your own adventurous appetite.
Usually my clinics are an early to mid morning affair. This means scheduling around any mountain objectives that entail an early start or making the objective a ‘Dusk Patrol’ and hope to be done and back before dark. Joe has a hit list that would fill multiple lifetimes of unlimited exploring deep into Alaska’s burly hidden ranges, to the relatively quick access of the beautiful Western Chugach. For a working stiff like me, the Chugach makes the most sense for quick laps on the Front Range to thinking outside the box on more involved objectives.
One such objective is the steep looming N. Face of O’Malley Peak on the Front Range of the Chugach; Anchorage’s quickest access to every facet of mountain recreation possible. Joe shared the desire for this line last spring when he and I skied the NW Face of Silvertip Peak in the Kenai’s, marking the second time that we had ski mountaineered a big line together.
Given the only day that I had to spend with Joe and a forecast that was less than stellar, we geared up to give this north face a go, Joe’s 3rd time in the 12 years of living below O’Malley’s solicitation. Joe’s last attempt was 2 weeks prior of my arrival and wasn’t quite in the shape it needed to be in yet. Will I be the lucky chosen one for this mission? Instead of stressing on the iconic and dreaded ‘US tax day’ of April 15th, we set out from the car at 7:30 am in less than stellar weather for the 2+hr approach via the Powerline Trail of Campbell Valley…skinning the first few miles through an overcast and lightly snowing sky gave us a feeling that we could be just going for another hike.
As the slope of the S. Face steepened making the skinning difficult, we holstered the skis on our packs for what turned out to be pleasant hiking over variable snow and frozen tundra for a few thousand feet to O’Malley’s summit. I must admit that I spent the prior 2 nights on Google Earth studying the line, trying not to scare myself and questioning how we’re going to send this rig safely, in good style and have a truly rewarding experience together. The anticipation the last few steps is a feeling I revere as much as successfully completing any alpine objective…
With a few more feet to the summit, Joe bellows ”You are going to shit yourself when you look down this thing Roj!!” was all that I needed to feel like a child that is being rewarded at the end of the week for good behavior on her sticker chart. I’m a new father who’s deeply in love with his wife and daughter and rewarding good behavior is a huge part of our parenting…I try to use the same attitude with my own luck in the mountains.
One of the many things I love and am learning about Joe is beyond his skills as a guide and a mountaineer; his humility and respect for gut feeling and well-being. It was evident that we were going to need the rope for rappels and possible ski belays depending on the conditions and Joe was prepared to descend every bit of this rowdy face with commitment and protection. Since Joe was super familiar with this spot and first rappel, he went first then handed the next one over to me, hoping it would be an easy transition to the huge couloir. It turned out that there was one more steep rocky outcropping that I needed to stop mid pitch and put the skis back on the pack. Free hanging for 15 feet brought me to the entrance of this gigantic and steep couloir that you could see all the way from the NE part of Anchorage. After giving a few meters of slack but staying on belay so Joe could get started down, I dug out a ledge in the 45 degree slope to make our transition and perform a pit profile to make sure this section is stable… rock solid, no funky layers and another reason why I’m so in love with Alaska in the spring.
We were so impressed with the snow pack, agreeing that we wouldn’t need to take the rope out for a while. Or at least hopefully not until the unknown exit below this 2,000ft sticker chart reward! I don’t know if it was the result of a Ro, Sham, Bo or Joe just being his courteous self, but I get the ski cut and the first turns…it’s always a battle between stomach butterflies and the anticipation of what we all love about the pull of the turn…thankfully it was perfect, 4-8 inches of medium density powder glued to it’s chalky base…every turn just kept getting better and the position more beautiful…. The view was remarkable as on our skiers left was the colorful undulating wall of Chugach granite, mimicking a big wave surfer’s dream, but motionless in time.
The landscape was starting to change, evidence that the fall line of the couloir was ending and would require us to find a safe exit off the face. Joe positioned himself in a good spot that looked at both options, while I dug another small platform to switch to crampons, ice axe and holster the skis back on the pack.
An airy traverse started with a rocky down climb, looming over a 400ft cliff, reminding us of why this rig probably hasn’t been skied before. The 100m traverse brought us to the top of a moderate pitch of ice. We were able to quickly build an anchor for our last rappel and put our minds at ease. This gained us the remaining 800ft of blissful Chugach turns down to Black Lake with grinning smiles of satiation. 300 meters of boot packing gained O’Malley’s West ridge getting us to the long low angled turns of the hanging valley known as the Super Bowl…an amazing day indeed!