Snowmachine trails provide backcountry access
I don’t get into arguments over trail use by outdoor recreationists, because I feel there is room in Alaska for everyone — snowmachiners, cross-country skiers, snowshoers, dog sledders, hikers, mountain bikers, etc.
It’s not that I believe we shouldn’t have designated areas for non-motorized recreation. I think the multiple-use plan we have in Chugach State Park, for example, works quite well.
I’m generally a non-motorized recreationist, but in some instances the motorized crowd actually benefits me. I refer here to snow machine trails. Without them I would have extreme difficulty getting to places I like to go, such as Gunsight Mountain in the Talkeetna Mountain Range.
In winter I generally approach the 6,441-foot mountain from the more gradual east side, accessing snow machine trails from about Mile 120 on the Glenn Highway. On my recent snowshoe trip on St. Patrick’s Day, the snow machine trails reached about three-fourths up the mountain. With all the trails so high, I was quite positive avalanche danger was low. In fact, I’ve summited the mountain five times during winter and never seen an avalanche on the more gradual, eastern side.
I followed one of the main snow machine trails for about half a mile before strapping into snowshoes. Three snow machines came into view and quickly ascended to about half way up the mountain. I could tell immediately that these were powerful machines that, with skillful drivers, would have no difficulty going higher if they wanted to. They stopped on a gradual plateau and sat for awhile, apparently admiring the sweeping view. Then in just minutes, they were tracking their way back down the mountain, waving as they droned past me. I waved back and issued a thankful thumbs up, because momentarily, I would be on their trails.
On this beautiful, sunny day with the temperature in the 20s, I would be out for about seven hours, and their jaunt lasted less than an hour. They were the last machines I saw that day, despite the fact the mountain was crisscrossed by numerous snow machine trails. On really packed trails, I didn’t need snowshoes at all, but after breaking through unexpectedly several times, I put them back on and kept them on.
When I finally reached the 5,000-foot level, the snow machine trails ended abruptly at a broad plateau where someone had apparently camped. The site offered great views to the south toward Matanuska Glacier as well as east toward the Nelchina Basin. From this point, however, I would be on my own, working my way to the mountain’s east ridge without the aid of a snow machine trail.
At about 6,000 feet, more than three hours into the hike, I ditched my snowshoes and put crampons on my boots. Sitting down, I realized I was upon a very old, faded snow machine trail — only 400 feet from the summit! I had seen snow machine tracks up this high before, marveling at the power of today’s machines and the ability of their drivers.
I know better than to be a big fan of high marking, however, in view of the lives lost to avalanches in Alaska and lower 48 states. But as I mentioned, I’d never seen an avalanche on the gradual east side of Gunsight Mountain. Judging from the traditional, more gradual route selected by most of the snowmachiners, I concluded they were savvy to the safest approach.
A few minutes after I ditched the snowshoes I regretted it, as I began sinking to my knees in soft snow. Windblown, rocky areas were a welcome relief as I slowly made my way up the last few hundred feet to the summit. I stopped at least six feet back from the top because it was now a huge snow cornice hanging out over an incredibly steep, 2,000 foot drop into Glacier Fan Creek canyon. I sat down in the snow and quickly wolfed down part of a sandwich, drank some water, snapped a few photos and prepared to descend. Weather was closing in all around and it was telling me to get off the mountain.
After again post holing up to my knees, it was a relief to get my snowshoes back on for the rest of the descent. In about an hour I was back to where the new snowmachine tracks ended, and in another hour I made it to the main snow machine trail where I could walk without the aid of snowshoes. The top of Gunsight Mountain was now obscured by thin, wispy clouds.
I reached my truck at 6 p.m. tired, but not exhausted. For me, it had been a good way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. I didn’t think I was sporting any holiday color, but as I took my snowshoes off for the last time, I noticed part of the webbing was green.
This was my 10th summit of Gunsight Mountain — five in winter and five in summer/fall. The winter climbs, as well as other trips in the Alaska Range near Hurricane Valley and Chulitna Pass, would have been difficult, if not impossible, without the well-packed trails made by snow machines. It doesn’t bother me to see and hear them and smell those gasoline engines because quite often, I like to go where they go. And sometimes, they allow me to go farther.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.