PEPPER PEAK, BIRD RIDGE, SOUTH FORK ARE RITES OF SPRING
Photo of Frank Baker atop Pepper Peak, 5,450 feet, above Eklutna Lake.
Courtesy Frank Baker
Climbing south-facing slopes like 5,450-foot Pepper Peak above Eklutna Lake, 3,600-foot Bird Ridge overlooking Turnagain Arm and 5,001-foot Harp Mountain in South Fork have become annual rites of Spring for Southcentral Alaska scramblers. In April and May these mountains provide a nice sun break after the long winter and serve as good conditioning hikes for future summer outings.
When I headed up the Twin Peaks trail April 19 about 10 a.m., the trail was frozen but punched with deep holes that three hikers had made a week earlier. On that day my hiking buddy Pete Panarese and I had climbed up on the ridge leading to Pepper Peak, but didn’t summit. We couldn’t believe that this trio would go all the way up the trail and back down, post holing up to their thighs.
So on this sunny day, a week later, I returned on a solo trip. I skirted around the frozen holes as I worked my way up to the first wooden bench. From there I left the trail and headed straight up the mountain, seeking as many snow-free areas as I could find. I carried snowshoes with me, but dreaded the return trip on Twin Peaks trail because I knew it would be soft in the heat of afternoon. My snowshoes would be falling into all those holes!
It wasn’t difficult to avoid snow as I worked my way up the west ridge, sometimes dropping a little to the south. A couple of times the snow was firm enough to walk on. At about 4,000 feet I stashed the cleated snowshoes, but I still had crampons if needed. On some years if the snow bas been firm enough, I’ve followed the edge of the ridge all the way to the summit, using crampons and ice axe. But even up higher, the snow was soft, so I skirted to climber’s right (south) to avoid it.
It took me about five hours to reach the top from the parking lot. I didn’t think that I had slowed down much over the years, but at home I looked over my climbing log and about 20 years ago, I made it up there in about half the time! Even when my daughter climbed it with me 16 years ago at the age of 10, I was quite a bit faster.
There was snow everywhere as I took in the 360-degree views that included Bold and Bashful Peaks to the south, the Mitre and all the big “B” peaks to the south and southwest of Eklutna Lake; and looming in front of me, West and East Twin Peaks. To the north, beyond Pioneer Peak, I see a faint outline of Mt. Marcus Baker and other big mountains caked in glacier white.
There had been a lot of sheep sign on the way up, but the only ones I spotted were way over to the northwest on the flanks of MIA-POW mountain. I spotted a goshawk as well as a Golden eagle, wondering what they might be eating considering there were no parka squirrels out and about.
On the descent it took me about an hour to reach the wooden bench on Twin Peaks Trail, put on my snowshoes and begin the dreaded thrashing. Just as I anticipated, the snow was soft and all of the deep post holes wanted to swallow the front of my snowshoes. Not good for a guy with a bad knee! I admit to blurting out a few expletive deletes to the three who post-holed the trail into oblivion. From the top it took me about 2-1/2 hours to reach the parking lot, when it should have taken about half that time.
Reaching high on Bird Ridge: A week later I ventured up Bird Ridge on yet another gloriously sunny day. I began this hike about 10 a.m. and it wasn’t long – perhaps about 800 feet above the highway—that I began running into a lot of snow. Fortunately, there was a hard-packed trail through increasingly large stretches of deep snow. I asked three hikers, young women, if they thought the trail would hold up until mid-afternoon. They didn’t know. Another thousand feet up the ridge I asked a couple of other hikers the same question. They didn’t know either. I dreaded the idea of post holing down the mountain with a knee that HATES slamming straight down!
Luckily, the hard-packed trail through all of the snowfields remained firm in the afternoon as I made my descent back down the ridge wearing shorts and a short-sleeved shirt. It was one of those Bluebird days that we all treasure.
On the way back down, outdoor racing veteran Barney Griffith zoomed past me on the way up the mountain. He was apparently on a training run for a host of competitions this summer – including Seward’s Mt. Marathon, Crow Pass Crossing and the Matanuska challenge.
Strumming the Harp: On May 5, Pete Panarese and I climbed up Harp Mountain in South Fork. It was a rather gray, chilly day, but roughly 10 other people were on the mountain – all skiers – and it was good to get out to stretch the legs. Snow was still deep on the north and east slopes of the mountain, but firm enough to walk upon. We spotted a large Golden eagle riding the wind currents far below us, and it gradually spiralled up toward us, then sped quickly over the ridge.
These hikes, coupled with an ascent of 6,441-foot Gunsight Mountain in early April, might get me prepared for some bigger ventures this summer. At the very least, they diverted me from snow removal, yard work and other “honey-do” chores.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.