Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Cool summer — Skiers search for snow in every season

By Clark Fair
Redoubt Reporter

Tony Doyle had climbed to the top of Red Mountain, and now his skis began carving down the narrow lines of snow vertically striping the mountain’s northern flanks. Nearby, Dan Delmeisser of Homer and Jack Hughes of Crested Butte, Colo., were likewise employed, bending deep into telemark turns as they cut back and forth across the snow.

This scene, in general, was not unusual in backcountry-skiing circles, where the objectives are: find a big mountain, climb to the top, pick a favorable route, then, as Doyle likes to say, “ski the steeps” to the bottom.

In one specific detail, however, this scene was not ordinary: It occurred Aug. 4 — a time when most regular skiers, even those in love with the backcountry experience, have packed away their gear for the summer.

But not Doyle, and not several of his “hardcore skier” buddies. Doyle prefers to ski in the mountains every month of the year, even August and September, when finding, much less reaching, good slopes becomes a challenge.

On Aug. 4, Doyle, 49, packed up his climbing and skiing clothes, “fat” metal-edged Atomic 175 skis, collapsible Black Diamond FlickLock poles, and gray plastic Garmont tele boots, and headed across Kachemak Bay in a water taxi with Delmeisser and Hughes.

In Jakolof Bay, they met up with a Seldovia cabbie who, for a hundred bucks, drove them in his van up the Rocky River Road to an old chromium mine near the foot of Red Mountain. From there they hiked in their ski boots until they could clip into their skis, which had been affixed with climbing skins. They ascended to reach the best snow, then geared up and headed back down.

This is par for the course for Doyle, who seems to be willing to go to practically any lengths for a good ski. Next month, he’ll likely be 4,000 to 5,000 feet up in the mountains above Kenai Lake, skiing the corn snow in a north-facing bowl and dreaming of October powder.

The owner of Creative Designers in Kenai, Doyle is accompanied on the majority of his skiing adventures — he calls them “backcountry skiing with an emphasis on big mountain” — by Craig Barnard of Cooper Landing. Barnard is known affectionately by many as “Crazy Craig” for his athletic derring-do, but Doyle prefers to call him “Chunk,” for his stout, muscular physique.

Other times, Doyle is accompanied by the likes of “Poacher,” “Sky Pilot” or “Ripper Boy” — or several others who don’t have nicknames yet.

Nicknames are important on the backcountry circuit. Doyle and Barnard and friends like to name their favorite peaks — the ones not already named or given USGS designations — and their favorite routes. Among their more recent destinations are “Peak 5,000,” “Beluga,” “Fireball,” “Centerfold” and “Crater Peak.” Generally, each name is linked to a specific geologic trait or a metaphoric appearance, something akin to finding shapes among the clouds.

At Creative Designers, images of big snowy peaks dot the walls between photographs of interior and exterior design. One panorama, perhaps 5 feet long, shows a spread of mountains along the Mills Creek drainage between the Sterling and Seward highways near Tern and Summit lakes. Doyle fondly traces with an index finger the many routes he and his friends have taken, and those he hopes to take.

On his computer are dozens of folders containing photos from his trips into the mountains: hundreds of images depicting mountain landscapes, action shots of skiing and climbing, and numerous goofy or jovial candids. It is readily apparent, as Doyle takes a visitor on a tour of these images, that his enthusiasm for the slopes is strong.

He knows when he was there, who accompanied him, what routes they took up and down, what the snow was like and what the weather was like.

He realizes his enthusiasm is not shared by everyone. August skiing, he said, “is not everybody’s cup of tea.”

“There are probably a couple of dozen hardcore skiers on the peninsula, people who wanna go big, who wanna go high,” Doyle said. “There’s not a lot of people from around here that like to go and ski these chutes with me and Craig.”

Three things likely keep many avid skiers from being year-round passionate about the sport: the extra effort required, the possibility of danger and the expense.

Part of the effort involves all the climbing before the skiing begins, but another aspect involves snow conditions, which can be difficult, depending on the time of year.

“It’s not all just good snow,” Doyle said. “Some of it’s crusty, and some of it’s wind-blown, and some of it’s breakable crust, which is the worst. But then … you’ve got good powder. And it’s not hard to get away when the powder’s good.”

As for the dangers involved, Doyle is concerned without being alarmed. “We’re pretty savvy, pretty careful,” he said. “You know there’s an element of risk in all this stuff. You wanna definitely pay attention to what you’re doing.

“I don’t like to do it by myself, and, really, a guy shouldn’t do it,” he added.

Pointing to a series of photos showing him “dusting” — taking a spill and sending up plumes of snow — and then crashing over an outcropping of rocks and dirt, he admitted he occasionally gets a little dinged-up, but hasn’t experienced any serious injuries yet.

As for the expense involved, Doyle said an investment of about $3,000 would land an interested athlete a good pair of boots, poles and skis, in addition to the clothing required and other necessary gear, such as a shovel and avalanche probe and beacon.

In the end, though, the greatest obstacle to getting into the mountains is “just getting out the door,” Doyle said. “Once we get out the door and get on the trail, then all of a sudden all the worries of our daily grind kind of fall away.

“The natural world brings us peace and solace, and in the end of it, what do you have? You have good energy.”

Doyle said he is “probably on a two-year roll” as far as consecutive months of skiing are concerned, and he has no intention of letting up. In his home he built a large map of the entire Kenai Peninsula so he can mark where he has been and determine the best ways to get where he wants to go.

“It goes on and on and on,” he said. “Always, yeah. Constantly looking for new places to go.”
In the next year or two, he hopes to begin a skiing blog, in which he hopes to interest others in backcountry adventures of their own.

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