I took the picture above my first winter up here, while skiing Peterson Creek with Graham. Those spines, dropping from the flat ridge-line were immediately memorable, even from a couple miles away. When looking north from either the highway or ridges in Turnagain Pass it always caught my eye in the distance, standing just above the other ridgelines on the east side of 20 mile. It had long been at the top of my list of things to ski in the region, and seemed to be a topic of regular discussion amongst Graham and Wilson.
Eventually, we learned the area had been given the ridiculous name Spine Cell by CPG and the pro heli-skiing crowd (I love how they mention stumbling upon the area when its clearly visible from the road) and the occasional footage of skiing in the spines further increased my desire to explore the area. The problem was it was quite a long ways away, and south facing, making it only accessible in early winter when days are short and good light was at a premium. The 20 mile valley is only open to snowmobiles sparingly, and my only previous trip up the 20 mile valley involved lots of open water and a blown motor. I hadn’t even made an attempt to ski the lines in 5 years, and they were increasingly feeling inaccessible as time went by.
Yesterday, Graham, Wilson, Andy and I were getting an early start hoping to ski something in the Girdwood Valley, but amidst some discussion in the dark outside Tesoro the idea of skiing Spine Cell came up and despite our lack of snowmobiles it seemed like a decent idea. Everyone else agreed, and soon we were skiing along the snowmobile trail back into the valley.
The valley was long and without surprises or nasty creek crossings, but the slow progress made it harder and harder to believe we’d make it before dark. Nevertheless after years of waiting it felt necessary to push on and at least give it a try. After being forced to turn around in a ravine, we emerged from the trees in a valley with a little glacier and the beautiful lines we’d been after finally visible above us to our left. Andy took off at that point cutting trail at a speed that made it impossible for anyone else to relieve him. Wilson and I were lagging in the back trying to make jokes out of our water being frozen while enjoying the nice track he’d set.
It wasn’t till we switched to booting up the final part of the chute to gain the ridge that I became convinced we were actually going to ski the thing. Graham led the final pitches and punched through the cornice to gain the upper ridge. I was completely exhausted, and extremely cold, and really just wanted to get down to the bottom without any incidents. We dropped in, just as the sun was finally setting behind the mountains in the distance. The snow was fantastic, lightly sloughing and very soft and easy. I was too tired to really enjoy it however and dogged my way to the bottom. Graham had the shady incident of the day though, realizing his bindings weren’t adjusted on his first turn via some insta-tele and having to stop and hold his heels down with ski straps on top of a spine. From there the ski back to the 20 mile valley was dark but easily managed and we were on to the log flat slog home. It was cold, and dark, a couple hours of focusing on some lights in the distance, but we made it back to the cars a little after 9. The only casualties were Wilson’s toes, which got frostbitten but won’t need to be amputated or anything.