Ways to Town Mountain
Town Mountain has a colorful history. The steep narrow ridge that dances to the summit from the green water tank has always enticed trouble. It’s not a mountain to be taken lightly. The Town Mountain Traverse, the recently popular skin trail that strikes up from town to the east through the lower cliff band and across Crooked Creek is steep and south facing. It’s one of those slopes that is either avalanching or going to soon. It’s a unique route due to its accessibility from downtown and thus gets more use. Because of this, a ski incident on Town Mountain is inevitable, perhaps more so than on any of the more popular ski touring routes in the Valdez area. Once through the cliff band, the risk remains high for those booting or skinning under, then over, a steep concavity. Once above that issue, exposure is greatly reduced and bowls abound. But lower down, it’s a sluff and slab farm. The pits I have dug often showed a snow pack dotted with rotten snow and melt-freeze layers due to its steeper south aspect. When exposed to the rapid heating of the sun it becomes a 2,000’ south facing death trap.
I’m not the type backcountry skier who keeps crossing such a risky traverse or recommends it to others without trying to find a safer route. I believe this approach route called “Emergency Exit” , shown below, may provide an alternative to the Town Mountain Traverse. ( The avalanche that crossed my path occurred the following day.)
In the past, others have certainly tried to push their luck on Town Mountain. While we all may be familiar with last summer’s rescue of a wandering hiker, it has been the scene of numerous winter rescues and close calls since I’ve lived here. Each incident has its own story too long to tell here, so I’ll keep my descriptions brief.
The first Town Mountain incident I can recall was on April 11, 1982 when fellow Coast Guardsman Rolland Harris, looking for adventure, fell off the ridge and down the Mineral Creek side. He fell far enough to need a full-on rescue by our Police and Fire Department. The rescue took all day and, of course, the weather was poor. Eventually he was medevaced to Walter Reed Hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. He came out of his coma on May 18. The road to recovery was long and hard, but he survived.
Gary Minnish’s house once sat perched on the mountainside near today’s Visitor Center. He abandoned the house a few years before a dozen homes were removed from the base of the mountain just east of the High School on Porcupine Street around 2005. In the picture below, a large debris field reaches sea level in 1978, which is exactly where the Visitor Center exists today. Fortunately, the log building is shuttered and closed during the winter.
The mountain remained relatively untouched until two visiting Anchorage backcountry skiers came to town for the Ski Valdez Weekend in 1984. They were the first to traverse the slide area above a small hatchery that once stood on the site of the Visitor Center. They disappeared into the clouds for the day. I’m not sure who they were or how far they went but they were the last backcountry group back to the festivities that evening. As I researched for this article I was lucky to find in my file this photo featuring one of those two skiers walking through the parking lot of what it now the Best Western Harbor Inn.
When the ski world finally discovered our secret stash in the 1990’s, it was only a matter of time before puppets would try to imitate the extreme skiers. First there was the medevac of a young teen who was hucking rocks above the high school until he landed in a hole. He was back-boarded off the mountain by a horde of volunteers in another drenching night rescue on Town Mountain.
In the mid 90’s, two teen-aged boys with snowboards attempted the Town Mountain Traverse that is commonly used today. As they bandied up the hillside, an avalanche swept down the slope and caught and swept them down the mountain unburied, hurt and scared. As the drama unfolded, a hasty team struggled to get up the mountain to help. Fortunately an Army Blackhawk helicopter was in town and slung a couple of heli-guides to the scene to assist with evacuation. The daring rescue, visible from town, took place just as the sky darkened. Both boys were flown off the mountain to safety.
On the lighter side of Town Mountain history, the late Chuck Comstock parasailed off the summit ridge on a sunny day and, with a boom box dangling from his hip by a rope, landed on the Park Strip by the tennis courts. It was Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday and Chuck was playing the famous “I Have a Dream” speech on full volume. After barely missing the utility lines, he dropped to the ground safely and was swarmed by kids. It was Chuck’s third jump ever.
When I moved back into Valdez in 2009, I immediately focused on skiing from my door up Town Mountain along what appeared to be the quickest route—if I could solve the obvious avalanche issues of the Traverse. Over a number of solo trips that winter I eventually made it to the upper basins.
The last time I attempted the Traverse I triggered a shallow slab avalanche just beyond the traverse on the spine along a ravine-like feature that I had booted on an earlier ascent of the route. The next day a party of four backcountry skiers climbed right up the slope I had triggered. The snow was now stable and all evidence was masked by new snow fallen the night before. If I had not triggered that slope would the group have encountered the same issue and perhaps not turned around? Since last year, dozens of skiers have done the exact same route. I’ve abandoned this route as unsafe. After a few times on that route, I decided that I would not do it again and would try a safer way to access the upper basins along a lateral bench that I had eyed for years.
This February I skinned up “Emergency Exit” which accesses the upper basins more safely and with less avalanche exposure. It takes a bit longer than the more hazardous Town route. You may have to tough it through some Class I-III brush for thirty minutes and cross a minor creek. If you wait until the snowpack reaches 55-60” in Valdez, it’s a doable route. It’s a big south aspect and you will still have to be wary of slopes above you. I was able to contour enough on the route to consistently reduce my exposure to a more acceptable level than what is encountered on the Town Traverse.
I tend to look for the safest route to access a ski run. Sometimes, these are not the fastest routes and sometimes they are not the easiest. Yet, with any route on Town Mountain, timing is everything.