By Bill Sherwonit
The day after Christmas, Denali and I headed toward Wolverine Peak in the Chugach Front Range. Conditions weren’t ideal for a hike into high country, with nearly a foot of fresh powder and the possibility of strong winds at higher elevations. Still, all things considered, this day appeared to be my last, best opportunity to do a hill climb the final full week of 2019. Deep cold, approaching zero degrees and perhaps dropping below it, were forecast for succeeding days and I didn’t want to ascend into open terrain in such frigid weather.
Early in the year, I’d set a goal of doing at least one hill climb every week and so far I’d been successful. I can’t say for sure when this became a new ambition, but it likely was sparked by my late-in-life passion for year-round hill climbing in the mountains east of Anchorage.
This new passion was made possible by several factors, among them Southcentral Alaska’s milder winters and diminished snowpack plus the evolution of ice grippers that make winter hiking so much easier—and also the discovery that winter hill climbs can not only be challenging, but delightfully enriching. And magical at times.
And so what had become a regular activity evolved into a more formal goal. And, to be honest, a bit of an obsession.
I should confess here that my sights are not set nearly as high as hard-core mountaineers. What some would consider mere bumps—say, Little O’Malley or Flattop—are fair game for me. I choose “walk up” mountains that don’t require technical expertise. And given the conditions, sometimes smaller is better. Or at least more realistic for this hill climber, now on the cusp of 70 (a milestone I’ll reach January 4, wow).
Nor do I consider it necessary to reach the summit to complete a hill climb. A good example of that is Wolverine, one of my favorite mountains and the peak I climb most often.
Rather than take the standard route that most hikers and hill runners follow to Wolverine’s top, I’m more likely to head off across the tundra and either ascend to Rusty Point or Rusty Ridge, the east-west spine that connects Rusty Point to Wolverine’s summit. Both destinations take me to high places and require substantial elevation gain—and also afford me the solitude I so love and sometimes crave, especially when the mania of city life has become too much.
And there are still other times when my Wolverine hill climbs end in the tundra bowl below Rusty Ridge, for instance when I’m hunting blueberries in the fall. There’s no question I’ve gained a thousand feet or more while ascending out of the forest into subalpine and then alpine terrain, into high country. That’s a hill climb in my book, though modest it may be.
My collie mix and I were among the few travelers taking the trail out of Prospect Heights the morning of Dec. 26. Only one went as far as the turn toward Wolverine, but his footsteps made for easier walking through the new snow and I was happy for that.
The forest air was absolutely still when we began and I stopped now and then to savor the silence, deepened by the fresh powder that covered the ground and draped the trees and bushes. Snow was falling lightly from the sky and it was so quiet that when I stood in place I could hear the flakes gently tapping on my jacket.
The stillness somehow seemed to magnify my awareness of the presence—and sentience--of the many life forms around me. I felt embraced by the woods, a part of the forest.
For much of our passage, everything was muffled: the rush of Campbell Creek’s South Fork, the crunch of boots on dry snow when stepping. Yet now and then, welcome voices spoke crisply, if briefly, through the silence: the sweet warble of a pine grosbeak, the raspy call of a black-capped chickadee, the playful caw of raven.
As we moved higher, I saw and heard the first traces of a breeze: swaying trees, the gentle whoosh of wind. Gradually the breeze turned into a stiff wind that pushed at my body.
Even at the start, I figured it unlikely that I’d go beyond what I call the tundra cairn and others have named “the rock pile,” where the trail leads upward into more open terrain, more or less halfway to the summit in effort if not steps.
Now I wondered if I might have to stop at “turnaround rock,” another landmark lower on Wolverine’s flanks, in subalpine habitat. I reckoned even that could count for a hill climb, though a humble one for sure. But by the time I reached that large granitic boulder, I felt energized enough to push on. And we still had steps to follow.
“Let’s keep going,” I called to Denali. She grinned in agreement, then bounded ahead.
Not long after turnaround rock, we met the only person ahead of us that day.
“Thanks for breaking trail,” I smiled.
“You’re welcome,” he replied. “I had a hard time knowing exactly where the trail was at times (because of drifting), so my path wanders around a bit.”
It turned out that he’d gone all the way to Wolverine’s summit despite ferocious gales up high. Now that impressed me greatly—and made me more motivated to reach my more modest goal.
Above the hemlock stands, fierce winds pushed snow across the landscape, already filling in many of the other hiker’s boot tracks. In places I postholed into soft powder; elsewhere, despite my grippers, I slipped and slid on angled ice hidden by more shallow snow. The hike had become hard work and the wintry landscape and weather far more demanding that below. A challenge, for sure.
Well, we made it to the rock pile and stayed only long enough for me to take a few iPhone pictures. Then back to the sheltering hemlocks for some hot tea and snacks; and after that, back into the forest, where winds remained light.
Looking toward Denali, I couldn’t help but smile at my mountain-loving dog. Once more she grinned back, a happy dog. And I a happy human. Pleased with ourselves and another memorable journey up into the hills, we bounded down the mountain.
Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.” Readers wishing to send comments or questions directly to Bill may do so at firstname.lastname@example.org.