Friday, August 31, 2012

Interlude: Pioneer Peak Ridge

     Just took an extended day hike up one of the more popular trails in the Chugach State Park: Pioneer Peak is an iconic presence in the Mat-Su valley, that probably one of the most photographed landmarks around los Anchorage. It was "extended" in the sense that I was dropped off at the trailhead late  in the evening (8pm), making it up past the treeline and pitching camp on the moonlit tundra by midnite.
    Some photos and random notes after the jump...

     The murderously muddy trail ran a gauntlet of my favorite foliage: Devil's club & stinging nettles, often tunneling through eight-foot-high walls of lush, luxuriant vegetation and alder thickets. [Note : I'm convinced the paradoxical maxim "irresistible force meets immovable object" is best represented in nature by anyone attempting to navigate past alder with a full pack on.] The rapid rise in elevation - an overall gain of more than 5k in less than 5 miles - meant for an ever-opening vista, which given that the sun was already down behind the mountains, translated into on of the most achingly gorgeous sunsets, with pinks and purples contrasting against the snow-capped ranges which were rising into view behind the foothills.
     While following fresh moose tracks for over a mile it dawned on me all the criticism directed towards the solo hiker who just got eaten in Denali (I'll have more on that in an upcoming essay: sans flashlight in the near-dark following game isn't the smartest thing either. At that point one debates the relative merits of either A) loudly announcing your presence, or B) prudently shutting the hell up so as to not attract any attention. It was tiresome toiling in the narrow and darkening trail, but the funny thing about "hitting the wall" is that there's really no such thing when you're on a solo hike, as there's simply no other option but to keep on going until it's time to stop for the night.
     Upon breaking out of the lowlands onto the open tundra about four miles later, I scoured around until finding a slight hollow somewhat out of the direct wind. Not the best time to remember it's been over a decade since setting up the bivy-shelter (an awesome "Unishelter" ultralight setup from Integral Designs), much less in the dark and with numb fingers. Also discovered I forgot a few stakes, but after stuffing in a foam pad, pulling on the warm fuzzies and zipping up tight inside the mummy sack, both survival and slumber was a foregone conclusion. The far-off lights of Palmer flickered in the distance, mirrored by a field of stars that were emerging up above, and I lay exhausted, nestled in on a bed of moss and cradled by the sound of wind from off the ridge up above. So yeah, one of the best nights of sleep by far this year.

     That same clear sky made for a heavy frost in the morning, with all the streams iced up along their edges for the final mile up to the ridge. Crimson berries and flaming yellow and orange leaves dotted the ground where a a carpet of alpine flowers lay only a month ago. Still, after toiling uphill for a half-hour, it was back to shorts and tshirt, sweatrag in one hand and my trusy Yoda-stick in the other. The only person I met on their way down was a woman who had survived spending the night out in the open after putting down her pack for a summit, then losing her way in the dark and failing to relocate her gear. Fighting off hypothermia without any shelter is on hell of a scary, lonely way to go, staring down the muzzle of slow death - I know because I've been there. All it takes is one minute of oversight, just a few seconds of not paying attention 100% to where you are and what you are doing... out here it might just mean another headline where everybody wonders how on earth could anyone be so damn stupid. A hard lesson to learn, and this was one grateful survivor that now has a laundry list of what not to do next time, and humbled that there will be a next time too.

     After cresting the main ridge, there are two primary views: one to the north of the entire Knick River valley, spanning from past Palmer and the Matanuska River drainage, up to the Talkeetnas and Hatcher Pass, then up the other way to the massive Knik Glacier and beyond to the icefields and some seriously high peaks (Bonus Trivia: the scene in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country where Kirk & Spock are escaping from the penal colony on Rura Penthe was filmed on the Knik Glacier).
     The other vista to the south is of much of the range across the rest of Chugach State Park, encompassing The Sleeping Lady across the Knik Arm of Cook Inlet. On a rare, clear day supposedly even Denali is visible from the summit of Pioneer Peak proper, but for me, I was more than happy taking in the view right where I was. After checking in with The Significant Otter and discovering I had a full-strength signal, I even took a snapshot for a status update as I took a long lunch break on a small outcropping that overlooked the surrounding slopes. Meanwhile a pair of magnificent Golden Eagles were soaring about a thousand feet underneath where I was perched, bringing home the fact that even within sight of civilization the solitude and wilderness is absolute and within reach of a day's hike away.
     In a similar - but much closer - incident,  right before descending back into the wooded lowland while picking my way across a steep incline, a couple Sharp-shinned Hawks (or possibly a Cooper Hawk - notoriously difficult to distinguish between the two species) flew a few passes directly in front of me. Even after tracking them with binoculars I still couldn't positively identify these spectacular raptors, as unfortunately most all all the bird guides show patterns and markings from underneath, where they are normally observed in flight 99% of time. It's all a matter of perspective, and this was another example of the many wonderful and different ways of looking at things afforded by such a hike. I was even rewarded with some fantastic angles back up the Hatcher Pass valley, including the cliff edge at the base whereabouts we live, all the way up to Independence Mine and the surrounding peaks, a few of which I've already explored and could pick out from memory.

     Stunning views notwithstanding, this was by far the noisiest damn hike ever, with the steady drone of ATVs and riverboats on the Knik and omnipresent buzz of bush planes up and down the length of the valley keeping a near-constant backdrop of annoyance. Fortunately I had Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (Second movement) cued up on perpetual loop in my head. I also chatted up a few other parties of people en route to the summit, some of whom made the round-trip in under 12 hours as we met up again back at the trailhead by 6pm... man do I ever I miss my knees of twenty years ago. And once again I definitely stood out from the rest of the pack what with an obvious overkill on gear, but after looking at a couple folks with no backpacks, sneakers & jeans etc. I'd personally much rather go the slow & steady route and be prepared for any emergency.
     No worries... and in no hurry. As the season ramps down I've experienced more than enough reminders as to why living here is so special, and the mountains aren't going anywhere - they'll always be there when you're ready for more.

(And as usual, a few more snapshots uploaded here.)

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