McHugh Peak




A year ago, on a mid-April hike to the top of McHugh Peak, I had a vision of sorts. Or I at least experienced a visual phenomenon unlike anything I’ve witnessed—or ever heard described—in nearly seven decades of moving about this planet. In the months since then, I still haven’t found anyone, or any writings, to fully explain what I saw while ascending McHugh’s north-south spine.

Shortly after noon, I reached a place along the ridgeline where thick, layered slabs of wind-drifted and hard-packed snow covered the ground. Atop those slabs, legions of snow or ice crystals sparkled in the bright sunshine. Their presence was stunning enough that I stopped to take a closer look. And when I did, the glittering crystals suddenly appeared to lift into the air and “float” or hover around me.

It was as if I’d somehow become surrounded by a galaxy of tiny, dazzling points of light.

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The lights winked on and off as I rotated my head to the left or right, reflecting (I assume) their changed orientation to the sun and me. It’s important to emphasize that the individual lights gleamed brightly but didn’t flicker, yet the overall effect was one of shimmering snow crystals—or tiny, floating sparkles. (And it immediately ended when I looked away from the snow.)

The “3D experience” occurred with my sunglasses on or off. And once I noticed the shining crystals “in space,” it proved difficult—and at times, impossible—to again see them as part of the snowpack’s surface.

The effect was mesmerizing—an optical illusion, I suppose, but absolutely “real.” Thinking about it later, I was reminded of certain drawings or paintings that I’d seen, which if you stare through them in a certain way, take on a 3D appearance. Yet this was different. I wasn’t staring at or through the snow layers, simply looking at them. And as mentioned above, once immersed in the 3D effect of floating points of light, it was difficult to reverse it.

I’m sure that my vision had something to do with the direction and angle of the early afternoon sun, relative to my position and that of the snow slabs. And though it was hard for me to tell, I think there had likely been some slight melting of the snow surface—but not enough to dissolve the snow (or ice) crystal structure.

It was almost as if the crystals occurred within a thin, filmy layer atop the snow. The way I think about it now is that the slabs had a kind of glazed surface, with the crystals embedded in that slowly melting glaze; and that too somehow contributed to their “floating” appearance.

I realize this is all very unscientific, but it’s the best this naturalist untrained in snow science can do. I even took some photos and videos with my iPhone, hoping to visually document the phenomenon, but they failed to capture what I saw.

After descending from McHugh, I described the experience to my girlfriend, Jan. Later, we searched the Internet for explanations, but didn’t find anything that described what I’d witnessed.

April then turned into May and then summer arrived and for a while I forgot about McHugh’s floating, sparkling crystals, my attention drawn elsewhere: to morels and singing frogs and songbirds, to awakened bears and alpine wildflowers and later to tundra blueberries. But I knew I’d write about my crystal vision some day. And as the circle of seasons brought us back around to April, I decided to do reach out for help.

I began with Ned Rozell, a science writer for UAF’s Geophysical Institute, whose columns regularly appear in local newspapers. I figured Ned could either track down some leads or connect me with a colleague who might give me some answers.

It didn’t take long for a response. Ned forwarded some initial impressions from UAF physicist and snow researcher Matthew Sturm, who wrote in an email, “My first thought was diamond dust . . . but that doesn’t quite fit the description. I am having a little trouble understanding what Bill saw. Perhaps it was diamond dust (very small snow crystals) that had deposited out on the wind slab layer, but were easily lofted by Bill’s movement and/or light winds.”

No that wasn’t it.

“Alternately,” he added, “the crystals reflected such minute sparks of light, they appeared to float, yet were actually still lying on the snow surface.”

That seems much closer to what I witnessed.

“Poor answer,” Matthew concluded, “as the phenomenon is hard to visualize.”

And perhaps hard to imagine, if you’ve never seen anything like it before.

I’ll add that the appearance of floating crystals had ended by the time I descended McHugh that day. Not coincidentally, the snowpack’s shimmering crystals also had largely dimmed—or melted?—in the afternoon’s warming air temperatures and with the sun’s movement across the sky.

This year I again ascended McHugh Peak in April, though earlier in the month. Along the same section of ridgeline, I again found hardened snow slabs with sparkling crystals on their surfaces. And when I stared into the slabs for a while, some of the crystals again “jumped out” and appeared to hover in the air.

The sensation of floating crystals wasn’t nearly as vivid or long lasting or compelling, and I had to concentrate harder to experience the three-dimensional image. And yet it happened again—at the same place and approximately the same time of day and year, and with similar snow and weather conditions. Whatever the scientific explanation for such a visual phenomenon, I find it perfectly enchanting.

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 akgriz@hotmail.com.

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