EAGLE RIVER -- The crunch-crunch of crampons on snow assured me that we were not, in fact, going to slide off Mount Baldy in the early-morning hours of a recent Friday. With headlamps in place and trekking poles to help us balance, Roger Denny, Tom Devine and Brad Rud led the way up the mountain, chatting about the previous morning's hike, when they made it from the parking lot to the top of Eagle River's best-known peak in less than 30 minutes.
While most of us are still buried under the bed covers or perhaps waking up to our morning cup of coffee, this small cadre of Chugiak men is climbing mountains. Day in, day out, all winter long, they get up at anywhere from 4 to 5 a.m., meet at a trailhead and climb into the backcountry to greet their day.
Once on top, their reward is laid out like a precious jewel.
"When we get on top of Blacktail and take in all of those cliffs and the view up Meadow Creek Valley, we've shared with one another that we could be in almost any remote destination place in the world. You have that wilderness feel right out our door," said Rud, the pastor at The Crossing at Birchwood Community Church.
Despite the morning's chilly start, it didn't take long for us to warm up. Mount Baldy's steep incline leaves little room for lollygagging, and we kick-stepped, one foot in front of the other, steadily up the mountain.
In the months since the group started their winter climbing, those steps have become progressively easier, Denny noted. When Devine, a longtime friend who instigated this daily morning routine, persuaded Denny to join him on the climbs back in November, Denny said he was skeptical. While athletic most of his life, the past few years he had let his health slip. He ate too much fast food. He spent too many hours at the computer. He is busy raising a young daughter and just let exercise and good health fall off his radar.
"I ballooned up to 207 pounds," he said. "I'm typically about 165 pounds."
Devine for Denny and Rud both was their wake-up call. A longtime climber himself, Devine has supported a Mount Everest expedition in Nepal, and climbed such well-known peaks as 17,000-foot Izta in Mexico, 20,320-foot Denali and 14,411-foot Mount Rainier in Washington.
"(Devine) just kind of asked me out of the blue, 'Hey, how about if we go climbing?' " Rud said. " I told him, 'Once the snow flies, I stop climbing,' and he said, 'No, no, it's better in the winter.'
"Well, Tom has a very magnetic and kind of dynamic personality, so I said, 'OK, I'll give it a shot."
That was back in October. Now both Rud and Denny are hooked on winter climbing. Not only did the climbing help Denny to shed those 40 pounds he weighed himself Monday and was down to 163 pounds but it improved Rud's health, too. He's down 40 pounds as well.
"We actually threw out a challenge to people (at the church) in January ... to really take a look at every aspect of life: spiritual physical, financial and family," Rud said. "And the physical part of it is very important." While the health benefits became quickly apparent to the men, people still questioned their crazy early-hours meet-ups.
But Devine would have it no other way. The father of three girls and a busy businessman, he wanted his passion to fit neatly within his family's life. And when Rud and Denny suggested they might not have time for these daily forays into the backcountry, Devine's response was, "Who doesn't have time at 5 a.m.?"
"It's the only time of the day that I can go, and we're back at 7:30, the kids are waking up and we are not losing any family time," Devine said. "Plus, we're bonding with the guys. ... It's such a great time of the day to be out in the beginning of the morning and see the lights of the city."
Rud and Denny quickly realized Devine was right, and now they feel lucky that they can go out each morning.
"I think we kind of agreed ... that we wanted to do this at a time of day that wasn't going to take away from time we spent with the family," Rud said. "We could win twice go with friends, and still have time for family."
The men have become so enamored with the beauty of the wintertime mountains that they are planning a trip to climb Mount Rainier in June a plan hatched by Devine.
"I choose people and invite people to go out with me that I really like," Devine said. "It's important to surround myself with quality guys. So what that they were a little overweight? They'll do it. They never make excuses as why they can't go.
"I almost feel honored to go with these guys. If you surround yourself with quality men, hopefully they'll rub off on you, too."
As we approached the final and most steep section of Baldy, the sun was just peeping over the horizon and the wind picked up. Fresh snow from the day before blew like fog from the edge of the mountaintop, and we stopped to take in the view.
It was just after 5:30 a.m.
Below lay Eagle River. From this view, the twinkling lights of town and the smattering of early-morning commuters on the Glenn Highway looked like a child's battery-operated play set. Surely there were others out here, on mountains scattered throughout the Chugach, doing the same thing.
But maybe not. Maybe at that moment we were the only ones looking down on Eagle River, thankful to be able to do such a thing, and feeling proud that this little place is where we call home.
It's what draws these men back, time and time again.
"Believe it or not, this got fun for me pretty early," Denny said. "I've lived in Eagle River-Chugiak for 35 years, and have gone up and down Baldy boatloads of times as a kid and young adult, but in all that time I never even considered climbing it in the winter."
"This is a fabulous place to live, and the solitude of the climbs is great," Rud said. "I just love spending time with friends outside and this is a way to do it, and do it very close to home."
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