When I stepped onto a plane headed for Alaska I had no idea what to expect, nor did I know much of an impact it would have on me. It is undoubtedly the Last Frontier! My buddy Brendan has lived in Alaska for 4 years now while serving in the US Air force. In his off time he somehow found himself amongst the mountains and was soon honing his skills to become a darn good mountaineer! Ice climbing, snow climbing, rock climbing… you name it, he’s got the credentials. So I couldn’t resist when he invited me to visit and take on a few treks with him!
The wheels of the plane chirped on the runway as the plane touched down. I had finally reached Anchorage and would soon have my feet on dirt in this legend-(wait for it!)-dary place. Brendan met me at the gate all smiles and let me know that all the plans were set for the next day. We were to take on Eagle Peak of the Chugach State Park, just outside Anchorage, a sprawling range of approximately 495,000 acres of land and one of the four largest state parks in the United States. I was awe struck by the mountains surrounding the city, even on the flight in, and my first impression seeing the light dance off the peaks was “I have found the promise land!”
The next afternoon Brendan, Ryan (a local friend of his), and I let out, headed for Eagle Lake to set up base camp for the weekend ahead. My head was constantly on a swivel, looking left, right, up, and down, taking in all the views as my curiosity was raised by the snow-capped peaks in the distance. As we hiked the 4 miles approaching Eagle Lake, we strolled through beautiful creek ridden grassland until Eagle Peak finally came into view. What an intimidating beast! It stood tall and covered with snow on its north side, just daring us to make a summit bid. We met Nathan, another seasoned mountaineer, at a small shack at the head of Eagle and Symphony Lakes and chose a spot to bed down before the big push the next day. We all cooked up our freeze-dried meals, took in the 11:30pm sunset, and gazed up at the unknown adventure to come.
It was a bit early in the season to take on the peak, but with the mild winter conditions were favorable, although the unspoken threat of avalanche loomed over us. We woke early; the sun was still up due to the long 20 hour days in Alaska this time of year. We cooked breakfast, packed our gear, and were soon heading up the valley that would serve as the approach route to the “gully” eventually leading to the peak.
The valley was fed by snow runoff which was a nice crisp, cold temperature, undoubtedly in the 40s. I strapped my trail runners on, wanting to keep my waterproof boots dry for the push up the mountain. At our first creek crossing I plunged my foot in, pain immediately shot up my legs as they were submerged shin deep in the creek. The pain died as the cold water numbed my senses, but soon enough I was on the other side and the pain returned with a vengeance. Nathan was strapped up with mountaineering boots, Brendan with some Gore-Tex throw offs, and Ryan with some running shoes. I suddenly felt unprepared for 40 degree creek crossings, but I knew this would only last a short while. Before long we would be at the headwall of the waterfall feeding the valley where I would be strapping on my own dry, warm, waterproof boots (or at least that’s what I told myself).
We weaved in and out, across the creek, through bushwhack thickets, until finally reaching the last crossing where we decided to take a break. Relieved, I put on my boots, grabbed a quick snack, and rejoined the guys ready for the next challenge. We finally reached some good gain and I was thrilled as I went to work against it. My original plan was to avoid the snow all together up the headwall to the valley to the canyon above, but soon found that Brendan and the other guys had different plans.
Ice axes in hand (using them as an anchor stuck in the snow), I watched as the guys kicked in steps across a large angled snow patch, making the traverse look easy as pie. Never having to deal with snow of this magnitude myself (hard to come by in the Arizona desert), looking down the snowy 40 degree slope ending abruptly in sharp rocks admittedly made me a bit nervous. I plunged the axe into the snow and kicked my first steps. One after another, I tried to take it slow and easy so as not to go skating down to certain injury. I kept my eyes on the snow, and slowly but surely made it to the other side. Whew, safety of the rocks never felt so good!
We pressed on up the headwall into the snow covered bowl above where the large sub-surface creek flowed, feeding the valley below. We pushed across the snow pack, plunging our ice axes in to search for weaknesses in the pack, before finally coming to a thin snow bridge that traversed the creek. Brendan cautiously probed the bridge for strength. Encouraged by the lack of collapse, he took the first step across . . . success! The bridge held and Ryan and Nathan followed suit, stepping over like it was solid ground. Soon we were all across, now debating the route up the bowl which would lead us the base of the southern gully, the path we planned to utilize for our summit bid.
Pushing up yet another snow-covered slope, we finally found ourselves looking up the southern chute which had some small avalanche sign. This was anything but confidence building, so we decided to push up the snow on the edge for safety. As we made our way up the aggressive incline, we decided to split up to check out two different routes. Brendan and I would take to the cliffs on the left while Nathan and Ryan would look at a snow pinch, putting them just below a cascading waterfall that ran down the gully. Brendan and I quickly found ourselves pushing class 4 moves and gaining some traction up the steep beast. Meanwhile Nathan and Ryan found themselves dangerously close to a slip crack, an early sign of a large avalanche that could spell utter disaster for our entire group. In the interest of safety, they returned to the cliffs find their own route past the pinch and back into the safety of the gully.
After they caught up, we started poking away at what seemed to be never ending cliff bands. Obstacle after obstacle we would attempt to circumvent either via a class 4 low class 5 climb or getting in the snow chute traveling towards the edge hoping for the best. This was slow work but soon we found ourselves pinched down in the final snow/scree chute just before the summit. Brendan and I pushed up first and Ryan and Nathan followed suit. Nathan accidentally pushed into the fresh snow with a boot. As it began to give way, he hollered up “Watch out!” We looked down and just below his seemingly innocent footstep the snow began to move, gaining momentum and girth as it flowed down the mountain. The snow picked up rocked and dirt, flinging them downwards to the chute below. We were all quiet for a moment before Nathan stated what we were all thinking: “Yeah, I think we should stick to the rocks as much as possible.”
Back into the scree we went, pushing on and up until finally meeting the col and the final ridge to the peak! The sights were incredible; we could see all the way back to camp and many miles further into the snow covered Chugach Park. All smiles, we scaled the homestretch and summited together! Breaking out snacks and taking pictures, we took time to enjoy our hard work. From the peak we heard numerous avalanches in the distance crashing down the steep faces of the surrounding mountains. Every once in a while we could spot them from a far and nervously watched as they covered the base of the routes below. Knowing the day was only half complete, we packed up and headed back down.
We had learned our lesson and stuck to the rocks, challenging the cliff bands to keep us safe. Ryan took the lead, and soon gained the nickname “3up5down”. His seemingly nervousness on some of the up climbs was nowhere in sight as he lead us down some easily class 5 routes. As slowly and safely as possible we scrambled down the rock faces, which always had some large penalty for failure. Once or twice we broke out a 60 ft piece of 7mm rope which came in handy down some of 3up5down’s route selections!
Finally we reached the snow chute near the bottom of the gully. Brendan looked at me and said “you may have to come dig me out” just before plopping on his butt above a good 50 yard slope. He slid with ease, looking as giddy as a kid on a sled in the first snowfall of winter. We all followed suit and were soon safely down at the base of the chute. At the bottom of the gully, the angle of the slope decreased and cradled the glissade which was a lot safer than attempting this move on the higher, steeper slopes. After this little bit of fun we gathered back together and crossed the snow bowl, the headwall, the flooded valley, and the edge of Eagle Lake before finally making it back to camp. What a long but glorious day!
Proud of our accomplishments, we all plopped down, made food, and began to get ready to rest for the night. That is, all but Nathan. Nathan, the trooper that he was after taking on a huge mountain, had to pack up camp and walk the 4 miles out to his truck, drive home, and get in bed so he could be at work the next morning. What a guy! Alaska is truly a wild land, untamed and raw, and nothing was easy about the day’s trek, but after all that we encountered you realize that its what makes it so beautiful and fulfilling.
- Weather: Hi 60s, Low in the lower 40s, Sunny
- Water: 6 liters (3 days)
- Food: 6 protein bars, 2 Clif Bars, 2 granola bars, 2 via starbucks instant coffee, 2 Oatmeal Medly cups, 2 Mountain House, 1 bag instant mashed potatoes, 1 bag gummy worms, 1 bags of trailmix, bag of Salt and Vinegar chips, 2 Avocado, 1 pear, 2 plums
- Time: 3 Days (Hiking time – 2 hours, Day 1; 15 hours, Day 2; 2 hours Day 3)
- Distance: 4 miles Day 1; 16 miles Day 2; 4 miles Day 3
- Accumulated Gain: Approx 6000 feet
- 58 liter exos osprey backpack
- Sawyer Squeeze Water Filter
- Big Anges Copper Spur UL2 tent
- Flash REI sleeping pad
- Cosmic Down Kelty Sleeping Bag (rated to 20 deg F)
- Jet Boil – Sol
- 7mm Rope – 60 feet
- Smart wool 195 long sleeve shirt
- Smart wool beanie
- Smart wool glove liners
- Arc’teryx hoody
- Cloth bandana
- Patagonia Pants
- Merrell Mid Moab Hiking Boots – Waterproof
- Nike Running Shoes (used for water crossings)
- Darn Tough wool medium weight socks
- Threadless hoody
- Black Diamond Half Dome Helmet
- Black Daimond Raven Pro Ice Axe