Aiming for the last of winter on Gunsight mountain
Note to readers: It’s great to be back after about a six-month hiatus. I’ll continue with these alpine journeys as regularly as I can, and I hope you will join me. And please, don’t ever hesitate to contact me to comment on a column or offer a suggestion for one in the future.
Following snow machine tracks up a mountain seems like cheating, but it’s probably one of the more efficient ways to get up 6,441-foot Gunsight Mountain during winter, whether you prefer skis or snowshoes.
So there I was again, this time in mid-April of this year, slogging up the gradual slope behind a considerably younger climbing buddy named Radu Girbacea, a native Romanian who compared to me, is a cheetah. I spent most of the day looking upslope toward Radu, some 300 yards above me.
I’m beginning to think there are only two kinds of hikers and climbers -- the “dashers,” who are under 50 years old, who are basically in a race; and the “plodders,” who like me, are over 65, and view each trip as more of a “campaign.” Most of the “dashers” have full-time jobs and are reluctant to go out much longer than six hours. As a semi-retiree, I don’t mind stretching such a trip to 9 or 10 hours, or even longer.
We started about 10:30 a.m. from the pull out at Mile 118 on the Glenn Highway, which is at about 2,800 feet. A week later this place would be invaded by bird watchers during their annual pilgrimage to observe hawks, eagles and other birds that migrate through the area.
I’ve climbed Gunsight Mountain (in the Talkeetna Mountains) in summer and Fall from every direction except the north side, from Squaw Creek. In winter, however, I prefer the more gradual east side. Snow in this area does not settle and consolidate very well like it does in Turnagain Pass, to the south of Anchorage. I think it’s because of colder temperatures. This contributes to a very unpredictable surface that makes skiing difficult. You might get a nice glide going and then at an unforeseen moment, you break through. Thus, my choice for winter is snowshoes with cleats; and crampons at the ready if needed.
The temperature was in the low 40s, but it felt warmer. Radu and I kept shedding clothing as we hiked upward. The last time I sweated so much was bicycling in Houston, Texas during the summer! When we started out it was cloudy and the light was flat, offering no horizon in the snowy whiteness. But the weather improved as we ascended, and soon there were patches of blue sky.
It was that time of the year when even the snow machine trails were beginning to soften, so it was good we had snowshoes. The trails petered out at about 5,500 feet. It took about 5 hours for Radu to reach the summit, with me about 25 minutes behind. By that time the skies had brightened dramatically, and there was very little wind.
We enjoyed a brief lunch on top, relishing the 360-degree views. To the southwest, we took in Matanuska Glacier and its long, winding river of ice that flows from deep in the Chugach Mountains. But some clouds were obscuring the Chugach granddaddy, Mt. Marcus Baker, at 13,176 feet. Directly to the south we could clearly see the East Fork of Matanuska River, and to the north, Squaw Creek as it bent around toward Caribou Creek.
While on top, a couple of snowmachiners tracked their way to within about 800 feet of us. They were far enough away, Radu observed, so that we weren’t forced to smell their machine’s exhaust. They paused for a few moments and were gone and off the mountain before we began our descent. It only took about 2 ½ hours to shuffle back to the car, interrupting a few ptarmigan along the way.
It was my 14th summit of Gunsight Mountain. Friends have asked me why I keep going back. I guess my best answer is that it is something I can do. I never seen an avalanche in winter and I don’t need ropes and other pro in summer. And mostly, I like the view.
Per usual, I was stiff and sore the next day while Radu was out bicycling 30 miles or more. But then, he’s 45 years old. I’ve gone many miles in my time, but the distance from age 45 to 69 is by far the greatest. With every year that passes, it just doesn’t seem to get any easier. But somehow, I just keep going.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. Contact him at [email protected].