Looking east, it was winter, with snowy peaks all around.
Looking west, it was spring, with brown tundra appearing to the tops of the highest peaks toward the Mystery Hills, a peculiar dry spot when storms sweep through the Kenai Mountains.
Gilpatrick Mountain near Summit Lake was among the few high peaks clear enough to climb without snowshoes on Memorial Day. At 4,990 feet, it is one of the tallest peaks on the northern Kenai Peninsula. The view from the top is awesome.
Snow dipped down the mountains nearly to Jerome and Tern lakes near the intersection of the Seward and Sterling highways. To the south, Crescent Lake sat locked in ice, surrounded by snowy peaks. Kenai Lake, which never froze, shown blue at the end of the Quartz Creek valley. Gleaming in the distance, we could see Sleeping Lady near Anchorage and the volcanoes across Cook Inlet -- Spurr, Redoubt and Iliamna. Far to the east were the magnum peaks by Prince William Sound.
Make no mistake, though. It's a steep hike to the 4,990-foot summit.
The starting point is a short dirt road that leaves the west side of the Seward Highway at about Mile 41.5, roughly four miles north of the Sterling Highway intersection. The road dead-ends by the banks of Quartz Creek at an elevation of about 1,100 feet.
We brought hip waders to cross Quartz Creek. Then, it was a short hike through hemlock, spruce and cottonwood trees to the foot of the ridge that leads to the top. Reaching the ridge required crossing a small creek in a deep ravine just beyond the top of the trees. Beyond that, there was nowhere to go but up.
A 4,604-foot peak on Gilpatrick Mountain yields views of the Devils Pass area and Kenai Lake.
Photo by Doug Loshbaugh
Strips of open meadow made a route through the alders on the lower slopes, but the climb was steep, and dead grass made for slippery footing. Several ptarmigan -- white bodies, black heads -- flushed from the alders. A hawk circled on updrafts off the mountain.
A thousand feet up the mountain, the grass and alders gave way to open tundra, rocks and patches of melting snow. The slope was thick with bearberries and crowberries left from fall. Low cushions of alpine azaleas bloomed pink against the ground. The first anemones sent up lone white flowers. Butterflies rode the breeze.
Each time we reached what we thought would be the summit, another hump rose behind it. With each step, though, the view grew more dazzling. We crossed broad snowfields.
The first real peak was a 4,800-foot hump deep in rumply wind-blown snow.
We stopped for lunch and to ponder.
The true summit, the real goal, was just 190 feet higher.
But there was a catch. The route required descending 300 feet, crossing a saddle, then climbing 500 feet -- and coming back. Was the 190-foot gain worth climbing an extra 800 feet?
Tough, steep hike yields rewarding vistas all around.
Photo by Doug Loshbaugh
We thought so.
There was deep snow on the west side of the final ridge and a steep rocky scree to the east. We dodged between them to pick the easiest route. Six hours, roughly 2.5 miles and 3,890 vertical feet from the highway, we reached the top and peered down toward the headwaters of Devil's Creek.
It took just three hours to climb back down.
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