On a late January day, in the last hours of a coastal storm that brought high winds, warm temperatures, and rain to the Anchorage area, I headed up into the Chugach Front Range accompanied by my faithful hiking companions, Jan, Denali, and Guido. Our tentative destination: the alpine flanks of Wolverine Peak.
That morning, a friend who lives on the Hillside, and who knew I planned to be in the mountains, had sent a text that cautioned, “Bill, it’s raining, the wind is bad, roads are slick, and it’s 40 at my house. If you hike, I’m sure it will be lovely.”
By the time Jan and I and our dogs left the trailhead in early afternoon, the rain had stopped (with the sun occasionally peeking through the dark gray clouds still massed over Anchorage) and the wind had eased at lower elevations. But we couldn’t tell if gale-force winds were continuing to buffet the upper mountain slopes; and we didn’t know if the storm system might drop more rain—or snow—in the Chugach Mountains before moving on.
Still, we agreed it was worth a try. The hiking was good in our boots and ice-grippers and we slowly moved toward Wolverine, meeting few people along the way.
Two hours later, the four of us stood beside the gigantic “tundra cairn” that greets hill climbers when they reach Wolverine’s open alpine heights (still a good distance from the top). The temperature had dropped into the low 30s, made chillier by moist, rushing air. The wind was erratic. Sometimes it was merely breezy, but other times it howled fiercely and whipped powdery snow along the tundra.
Jan decided she’d climbed high enough and would slowly descend, to rendezvous with us later. The dogs and I set our sights on the high ridge that connects Wolverine’s summit with a spot 1½ miles to the west, called Rusty Point. Now we’d give that a try.
Scouring gales and warm temperatures had removed most of the snowpack from the alpine basin that we crossed en route to the ridge, which made for reasonably easy walking despite the high winds. With two happy dogs for company and plenty of clothing to keep me warm, I reveled in the raw mountain weather, the occasional blasts of wind-driven snow, the familiar landscape of a place that I love, and the bountiful alpine solitude.
As far as I could tell, the dogs and I were the only visitors exploring Wolverine’s upper reaches that blustery afternoon. That realization, plus the wintry conditions, was likely what sent a thought flashing through my mind: in my seventh decade, my long-running relationship with Anchorage’s “backyard wilderness,” Chugach State Park, (and northern mountains generally) has changed in a significant way. I’ve become way more of a winter hill climber than I ever was before. That’s especially true of the past six winters.
I didn’t think much more about my winter-hill-climbing history while crunching my way upward across frozen—and in places, snow-drifted—ground to Wolverine Peak’s western spine. There and then, I largely stayed in the enthralling present moment. But I’ve given it more thought since my return to town.
Before sharing some of those musings, I should emphasize that I present the perspective of a hiker and hill scrambler, not a technical climber. I love mountaintops and ridges that can be reached without any special expertise, whatever the season. I also continue to avoid hill climbing when snows are deep. Besides the fact that I don’t enjoy postholing, the terrain can become more dangerous, more prone to slides.
Those points duly noted, here goes.
First, more than ever I’ve become a dedicated year-round walker. I think partly that comes with having a dog who also loves to go for walks, whatever the weather. I understand that some people ski or skijor or even bike with dogs. I happen to prefer walking with my canine companion and exploring the world together. And the ease of simply putting on boots (and if necessary, ice grippers) makes it more likely I’ll actually leave the house and go for strolls, hikes, or hill climbs with Denali.
Something else feeds this walking habit: in slowing down, I notice considerably more than people who move quickly through the wilds of Anchorage and the neighboring Chugach Mountains.
Observing and celebrating wild nature has been important to me for a long time. But perhaps as I’ve aged it’s become easier to slow down and pay increased attention to the smaller details of the wild world that even we urban humans inhabit. In the process, I’ve been rewarded by all sorts of unexpected pleasures and mysteries, from snow spiders to alpine wood frogs, woodland morels, “hidden” berry patches, wolverines, and plenty more (the specific discoveries of course depending on the season). That becomes a positive feedback loop of sorts, further encouraging me to walk and watch and listen.
Never much of a snowshoer, I’ve largely given up skiing too. And I haven’t been pulled into the fat bike revolution. (Jan, it should be noted, likes to both bike and ski and to her great credit she seems to have adapted to my walking ways; in fact she says I’ve made a hill climber out of her, much to her surprise. So far she seems to hold no great resentment about the lopsided recreational aspect of our relationship. I give thanks for both her gracious, generous nature and the fact that she has several friends who happily join her in skiing and biking.)
Two interrelated and less personal factors have also come into play: climate change and ice grippers. As any outdoor-oriented Anchorage resident knows, Alaska’s shifting climate has significantly affected local weather patterns and the snowpack. Winters have become warmer and rainier. I think it’s fair to say that for much of the winter, the Chugach Front Range nowadays often has less snow cover and more icy ground than it did not so long ago.
Enter Kahtoola microspikes. I’m not sure how long these metal-toothed ice grippers have been around, but it seems their local popularity has exploded over the past few years. And for good reason: easily pulled onto boots or other footwear and durable, they make it much easier to navigate ice-covered ground, including many hillsides. (They are not intended for technical ice climbing, mountaineering, or serious glacial travel; crampons are still the way to go for those activities.)
I received a pair of Kahtoolas as a Christmas gift several years ago, about the same time I got more serious about winter hill climbing in the Chugach. Hardly a coincidence, I’d say.
One recent winter, while ascending the backside of Flattop in slick wintry conditions, I crossed paths with another hill-climbing old-timer, also wearing Kahtoolas. Pointing toward mine, he grinned and commented, “What did we used to do when we didn’t have these?”
I know what I did: not much hill climbing in winter.
There’s one other thing that’s made me more of a winter hill climber: personal experience.
As I’ve gone about exploring some of the Chugach Front Range’s higher slopes in winter, I’ve discovered several peaks that I can safely ascend in a variety of weather conditions. My “first winter ascents” of recent years include Peak 2, McHugh Peak, Rainbow Peak, Little O’Malley, Rusty Point, Near Point, and yes, Wolverine.
Add Flattop (which I first climbed in winter many years ago) to the mix and there are several local mountains and hills that I now climb regularly in winter. None are exceptionally tall or challenging. But they get me into the high country that I so love and give me new perspectives on a favorite place, Chugach State Park’s front range. Frequently they also present me with surprises or a touch of mystery, for instance that raven encounter I described in a recent City Wilds column. Other hill-climbing “discoveries” I’ll share in future essays.
Even that recent wind-blown ascent to Wolverine’s western spine had what I’d call a magical moment, when a single Dall sheep suddenly appeared on the ridgeline above us. The sheep watched us intently a short while before it disappeared back into the blowing snow, something of a ghostly presence, yet marvelously real.
In truth that entire afternoon in the mountains was a great delight, sometimes stormy and other times calmly benign, always beautiful, and spent in the company of adventurous and high-spirited hiking companions who, like me, seemed to fully embrace the wintry conditions on a day that few people ventured into the high alpine country along Anchorage’s eastern edge.
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 email@example.com.