A recent hiking experience reminded me for the second time since I moved here last December that many opportunities for death linger in Alaska. And although this most recent experience was not a life-flashing-before-my-eyes experience as when I rolled my truck just off the Sterling Highway last winter, it did flush my pores and cardiovascular system.
In late July I hiked the Summit Trial just off the Seward Highway with my brother, Dustin. We only hiked for about two or three hours before a series of small lakes drew us off trail and onto the alpine. As we walked from one lake to the next our appetite for off-trail miles grew, but eventually our chain of lakes ended in a bowl surrounded by a steep mountain ridge.
But instead of returning to the trail we decided to continue pushing forward and climb. Little did we know until we were halfway up the face of one of the ridge’s peaks that this was not a climb that should be done without ropes. Several times I lost my grip when the rock beneath my clawing hands and straining toes broke loose. With a jolt, I would loose a foot or so of elevation, catch myself and then hug the mountainside determined not to move another inch in any direction.
But having always prided myself in being an adventurous and brave member of the family, I couldn’t back down and lose face while my younger brother urged me onward.
Had he not been there, however, I would have likely turned around and left the peaks to the goats and sheep.
Looking up at the mountain ridge from below, neither of us would have guessed that the climb would prove to be so treacherous. But as we climbed closer and closer to the top the rock became so unstable that not even the plants could find suitable places to anchor and grow, leaving the top third of the ridge mostly bare.
When finally we reached the peak, panting with relief and happy not to be clinging to the side of a mountain like a bats, I stood on top of the narrow ridge with wobbly legs and soaked in the surrounding terrain with wide eyes.
From our humble perch we could see that our peak was just one of hundreds crowding the peninsula like so many heads in a subway station. As we began clamoring around the top of the peak, determined to find a decent route that would be safer than our ascent, Dustin stopped to inspect an unnaturally stacked pile of rocks.
Had some other fool clambered up this peak? We wondered as we took a closer look. From under the pile Dustin retrieved a vitamin E bottle containing a note.
On the note a pair of climbers had logged their climb to the peak. We eagerly unrolled the note, hoping it would reveal the safe decent route.
“2 years ago on the SE summit (4824’) of North Gilpatrick. I used a water bottle level and decided this summit was 10’ higher. Today I sighted in reverse, level is 10’ above 4824! Old Cairn but no register, so here it is! 25 June 06 11:45 A.M. Windy, partly overcast. This is the second M.C.A. Solstice climbing weekend,” the note said.
How about some helpful hints about how to get the hell off of this mountain without dying? I thought impatiently. Are there some clues in the elevation and water bottle gibberish?
The note continued on for a couple more sentences about other peaks and ended by naming the peak’s conquerors, “Tom (Grandpa Goat) Choote, Leader W/Deb Luper.”
As I sulked over the useless information Goat and Luper left us in their log I looked over the mountaintops and wondered how many vitamin bottles they held up to the heavens.
After Dustin added our journey to the log, minus the weather and water bottle update, we began pacing the top of the ridge like rats trapped on a sinking boat, desperately searching for an escape route.
Eventually we decided to ride a rock slide down and pray we would be able to move with the rocks at a steady, controlled pace.
We managed to dig in our heels and keep the slide from rumbling entirely out of control. But as we descended in our jumble of rocks I couldn’t help but utter a few panicked pleas to Mother Nature to let me keep all of my limbs intact, and kept envisioning our silhouettes tumbling down the mountain like broken-limbed starfish.
About halfway down we managed to grab hold of some stable boulders, stop and reassess our decent. After a taking a few moments to catch our breath we decided it would be safer to slide down a nearly vertical wall of snow and inched our way toward the leading edge of a snow shoot just a few yards to our right. The snow wall sloped upward slightly at the end and Dustin convinced me that we would be able to stop ourselves before crashing into the pile of rocks at the bottom, which we did in a sort of out-of-control-starfish-silhouette kind of way.
Covered in dirt and wet with snow, we stood up and glanced at the mountain ridge. Relieved to have reached the bottom without any broken bones, but feeling a little bigger inside, we strutted back toward camp, as if we had known all along that we would safely ascend and descend this humble little ridge.
Patrice Kohl is a reporter at the Clarion.
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