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Guide to Southcentral Alaska Ice

     Ahh Alaska! For the ice climber, Alaska is paradise. Like everything in Alaska, the ice climbing is on a huge scale. From the numerous waterfall ice climbs to alpine ice climbs with summertime skiing close to town; Alaska is second to none.

Geographic Location

     Anchorage is located in Southcentral Alaska at the head of Cook Inlet, elevation 144'. The Anchorage Bowl is nested between both mountains and ocean water. The Chugach Mountains rise to the east, the Kenai Mountains rise south, Cook Inlet boarders the West with the Talkeetna Mountains and the Alaska Range to the north. There are only two highways leading from Anchorage; the Seward Highway going south which deadends at the town of Seward, at about 130 miles. The Seward Highway splits off into the Sterling Highway, at about 100 miles from Anchorage and the Sterling Highway ends in the fishing town of Homer, about 270 miles. The Glenn Highway heads north and east until reaching the Alaska Highway at the bush town of Tok, which is the only road link to the outside. The George Parks and the Richardson Highways are intra-state highways connected to the Glenn Highway which access Fairbanks and Valdez. All the commodities of a major city can be found in Anchorage with prices similar to any large city but once you leave and arrive in the bush, the prices can bring sticker shock.

     The Anchorage bowl winter climate is mild compared to interior Alaska but don't let the official temperatures miss lead you. The official temperature is taken at the Anchorage Airport, next to the warm ocean current. Temperatures in parts of Anchorage can be 20F colder than the official temperature. South along the Seward Highway to Portage can be very windy with flesh freezing wind-chills or pleasantly warm on bright sunny windless days that will soften the ice even in January. Heading north into the valley, the mercury shrinks like the interior and it can be -40F in November-February. The deep canyons hold the cold and many have a constant wind blowing down between their banks and more than once, climbers have left the warmth of town dressed in light clothing to shiver in the dark coldness of these canyons.

     August brings termination dust, the first snow of the year on the local peaks signaling the end of summer. Once seen, it is about 6-weeks till the arrival of the first measurable snowfall in Anchorage. As termination dust creeps down the peaks in September, the ice starts forming in the north facing gullies and on the north faces at higher elevations. This early season ice brings out the local mixed masters. October 8 is the date of the average first measurable snowfall (1") in Anchorage and by mid October, the lower elevation cicles begin to freeze. By the end of the October, ice junkies seeking their ice fix will find climbable ice. November brings cold with all areas freezing up with thick ice. Thanksgiving weekend will find the Seward Highway lined with parked cars and brightly colored ice whackers, and the always gawking onlookers and passing horn blowers. December and January bring 18-20 hours of darkness and arctic cold. Everything is accomplished in the dark and it is wise to ascend your climb with at least one headlamp in the team. The ice is rock hard with turkey-severing-plater-sized plates exploding at every bulge. Late February and March are the best months for climbing so naturally these two months are the peak season of ice climbing. With 10-12 hours of daylight, there is plenty of time to enjoy climbing plus the long days bring smiles to most Alaskans. April means breakup but can also offer some of the best ice climbing in the world. The days are extra long with temperatures hovering around the freezing mark producing soft plastic ice. April is also the time for big alpine ice routes. But most local ice climbers have their tools collecting dust and are revved up for rock climbing after a brutal winter. Areas like Eklutna Glacier and the deep dark canyons of the valley can have ice well into May and have been ascended on June 1; it's the access that keeps the cicle slayers at bay.

     Mid-April brings break-up, a local term meaning the temperature stays above freezing and all the winter snow and ice starts to melt. This local weather change usually happens with-in a few days with winter snows melting faster that can run off creating huge water puddles everywhere. May brings rain with warm days and chilly nights. June has stable weather with the mid 2-weeks being almost perfect; 20+ hours of daylight and a chance of constant sunshine. July is the warmest month but the rains start again bringing termination dust in August. Winter conditions with snowfall can be encountered in any month of the year above 3500', which is the tree line in Southcentral Alaska.

      For an in town place to stay, Margriet at Earth B&B will treat you right and many climbers congegrate there. She is even known to drive "her climbers" around town for shopping. On the plus side, Earth B&B is located a short walk from Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, good local food (Humpy's) and entertainment.

     There are no backcountry climbing or camping permits to obtain but all trailheads that access Chugach State Park require a daily fee or an annual parking pass. If you plan to camp in developed areas, this requires a separate daily fee or an annual camping pass; parking and camping passes are two separate fees and permits. Also the privately owned Eagle River Nature Center requires a daily fee or their special annual pass which is not the same as the State Park permit, even though the Eagle River Nature Center parking fee area accesses Chugach State Park. Some parking areas and approaches involve private property so pay heed. Climbing at Candy Land along the Seward Highway requires an annual permit from the Alaska Rail Road which is currently free. The local climbing community has gone to great lengths to establish a report' with the RR, be wise and abide by their simple rules to keep access open.

     If you need to pick up gear, Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking has the best selection of true climbing gear and the most knowledgable climbing staff. AMH employs several guides, two who have climbed in this state since the 1960s and amaze those from outside looking for beta on remote climbing in Alaska. These guys have put up many first ascents, all un-reported and have climbed in areas that are now just getting recognized by the general climbing populace. Many egos have been squashed to find these guys can give detailed route beta and at times with old black and white photos to outside climbers trying to aquire simple beta on a climb or an area. If you require bulk food items, there is a Costco and Sams Club and the local food store Fred Meyer has the groceries. Anchorage even has a Wal-Mart since 1994/5 for those necessities.

     Driving on the roads of Alaska in winter can be more hazardous than climbing itself. From the first snows in October to break-up in April, the roads around Anchorage are covered in several inches of packed-down snow forming Alaskan road ice. All intersections have glare ice from the heat of vehicles melting a thin layer of snow to instantly refreeze once the vehicles drive off. Ice fog coats roads and bridges on a regular basis and can blanket the entire Anchorage Bowl. Shady patches around curves in September and May can contain black ice. Roads elsewhere in the state, primarly those at altitude like the Denali Highway, can receive several inches to a foot of snow all summer.

     Beware of moose along roadways to suddenly appear out of shadows and alder thickets along the roads. Most times they slither out of the shadows but if startled, they appear like a freight train. Over two-hundred moose are killed in the Anchorage Bowl every year so this is not an occassional happening. Moose weigh as much as small cars and their belly rides at windshield height; the car will lose in a collision, including you. Even full size 4X4 rigs take the worst in collisions with our state animal, Seymour the moose.

     Many lesser roads are not State maintained and can take several days to be plowed of snow after a snow fall, if plowed at all. Signs should be checked to see if the road is winter maintained before venturing too far. Very few pull-outs or parking areas are plowed and most that are, are local school district bus turn-arounds, be wise about where you park. While driving about in the state of Alaska, it's wise to have your vehicle stocked with extra clothing, food and water. During winter a sleeping bag, shovel and stove with fuel is a good idea. Another wise tip is to leave town with a full tank of gas and do not pass gas stations with less than a half tank of gas.

      Many outdoor persuers carry a cell phone. While many rescues have been initiated by cell phone in Alaska, most areas do not have cell phone service. A better option is to carry a hand-held VHF aircraft radio as there is rarely an hour that goes by without some sort of aircraft flying overhead, either a bush plane or commercial. While transmitting on them is illegal, calling MAYDAY on a gaurded frequency will be heard by a pilot. A few years ago, a group of climbers in the Saint Elias region transmitted MAYDAY on a hand-held VHF aircraft radio. An overflying North West Airlines commercial jet en-route from Anchorage to Minnesota heard their call and contacted Air Traffic Control, who contacted Anchorage Center who contacted the State Troopers and the Rescue Coordination Center on Fort Richardson Army Post in all of about 15 minutes. The Troopers contacted their bush plane operator who arrived at their base camp within an hour of their transmission. They got scolded but no charges or fines were issued and they got help, very quickly.

      There are other hazards to include while out-and-about in Alaska. While tourist dream of raging bears, these beasts are rarely encountered in the wild and most charges are bluffs. Of course a sow with cub is an extremely dangerous situation as is any bear protecting it's food cache. All bear encounters should be delt with extreme caution. But true Alaskans know that moose are encountered more frequently in the wilds than the tourist dreamed-up bear. Moose rarely slither into the brush, sight unseen or unheard and their charges are not bluffs like bears. When they decide to pin their ears back and charge, moose are coming at full speed. Their size and awkward appearance is very deceptive on how fast they can move. Moose are quicker than a bear or even a race horse at the track. Once a moose's charge knocks you down, they stomp and kick you until done. A cow with calf is a very dangerous situation indeed and a bull moose in full rut will charge anything that moves like an oncoming freight train.

     Alaska even has a few poisonous plants and those plants that should be avoided. There is no Poison Ivy or Oak but poisonous berries and mushrooms can be found. Cow Parsnip and Stinging Nettle are frequently encountered in the low wetlands during the warmer summer months. Contact with bare skin should be avoided. If skin contact is made, avoid sunlight and wash the effected areas as soon as possible in a stream or whatever water source is available. Devils Club is also found below tree line but in all seasons and some climbs there is no way to avoid this prickly stalk as they always seem to be the perfect hand hold. Remove the needles or as many of them as you can as soon as possible.

     While not thought of in Alaska, beware of Yellowjacket nests. Some nests are huge and summers after warm winters bring these stingers out in hoards.

      Another concern while out and about in Alaska are punks. The days of leaving your car open with the extra climbing gear stored in your car are gone. Cars are broken into frequently at trailheads and even one bold punk stopped along the Seward Highway, got out of his car, walked over to the climbers backpacks at the base of the climb and stole their packs while the climbers viewed the whole scene up on a cicle. A friend was standing in a pullout along the Seward after a long day in the backcountry when an old beat-up Ford pickup swerved into the pullout and actually struck him knocking him into the air and breaking bones gave him the California howdy and speed off. And yours truly was struck in the chest by a 32 ounce drink cup thrown with bags of breakfast trash from a passing SUV loaded with punks and snowboards strapped to the roof rack. Luckily the climber I was lowering had just reached the ground before I was struck.

Never under estimate any climb in Alaska no matter how small or close to town.

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