Fortunately, there are those who venture farther
I discovered quite a while ago that no matter how far I hike in Chugach State Park or other areas, there are those who will venture farther.
On a Nov. 28 hike from South Fork over into Ship Creek Valley, I followed the tracks of two people for quite a few miles. With only about 3-4 inches of snow, the going was relatively easy. I stopped following the tracks when they began descending deeper into Ship Creek Valley. I didn’t relish the uphill trudge back out, and by the time I got back to the parking lot it would already be roughly an eight-mile day.
At first I thought they might be ptarmigan hunting, but that wouldn’t explain why instead of staying high in ptarmigan habitat, they were dropping down toward the treeline.
“Maybe they wanted to go down where they could find wood for a fire,” I thought. “A fire would feel good on this kind of day.”
The spot where I stopped was in the sunshine and I plunked down in front of a lone, three-foot-high fir tree. The tree’s darkness helped raise the temperature a few degrees. With no wind it was quite pleasant. It felt like about 15 degrees Fahrenheit. A thermos of hot coffee was sheer luxury. The ridge behind me was illuminated in the sun, and that’s where I intended to go for my return hike back to the trailhead.
Most of the time when I’m following human tracks in the snow, they end before I’m done hiking. And I go farther. But there have been times when the tracks continued, and it always leaves me wondering: “Who was the hiker, or hikers, and how far did they go? And where?”
On rare occasions the question is answered. Several years ago atop South Pioneer Peak, which is about 100 feet lower than the north peak that overlooks Palmer, I saw tracks in the snow continuing north along the steep col that separates the two. I’ve only been about one-fourth across this steep ridge and retreated — as it gets quite gnarly and beyond my ability. I’ve been told even technical climbers do not prefer this route to the north peak.
The following Monday at work, I mentioned seeing the tracks to a friend, who is a very accomplished mountaineer.
“I can’t believe where those tracks were going,” I said. “It looked really nasty that way.”
“If you were up there Sunday, those were my tracks from the day before,” he said.
Knowing his ability, which includes ascents of Denali, Moose’s Tooth and Mt. Huntington in the Alaska Range, I had no reason to doubt him.
One summer I asked the same individual what he planned to do on an upcoming Saturday.
“Crow Pass,” he answered.
“Which way?” I questioned.
“Both ways,” he said, with that ‘aw-shucks’ tone reminiscent of outdoor legend Dick Griffith. “I’m starting from Girdwood and when I get to the Eagle River Nature Center, I’ll turn around and head back to Girdwood. That way my ride will be there.”
That’s 52 miles. But then, he participated in Alaska Wilderness Races with distances that stretched 150 miles and longer.
I once bicycled behind this guy along the Eklutna Lakeside Trail. What normally takes about an hour — from the parking lot to Mile 10 — took us about half that time.
And then every year during the 4th of July Mt. Marathon Race in Seward, I see scores of athletes who dash up and down the mountain in an hour or less — a journey that on a good day takes me about three times that long.
Some people not only go farther, they go faster. But this is all good. We might be humbled by such people, but we shouldn’t feel inadequate or inferior in light of their abilities and accomplishments. We need them to inspire us and make us stretch ourselves.
My dear friend Dave Gahm, who died four years ago, was one of those people who help us reach for more distant horizons. For a decade he was more than a hiking partner and friend. He was a mentor who knew how to draw out the best of those around him. His daughter Abby, an extraordinary athlete and skilled hockey player, is a shining example. Like Dave’s family and friends, I felt very privileged to know him.
During those years if I was hiking alone and saw tracks that continued far and high, I would suspect them to be his. And sometimes, I confirmed, they were.
I really believe in mentors, not only in hiking and climbing, but in every aspect of life. I’ve had at least seven strong mentors over time. I’m not sure how things would have turned out for me without them. One was Dave; two were job supervisors, two were college professors, and the other two were my parents.
To this day, if I write something that results in some positive feedback; if I do some kind of task around the house and get the nod of approval from my wife; if I learn how to play something new on the piano; or if I scale a challenging mountain, I’ll think back to at least one of these folks and thank them, in my heart, for implanting the idea that I could reach farther than I thought was possible.
During this scarcity of snow I’ve been hiking and climbing a lot. I always look forward to seeing tracks that go farther, because they make me want to go farther. I’m reminded of a T.S. Eliot quote: “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”
Postscript: Speaking of those who “go farther,” I must enter my condolences to the family of Jim Crockett, director of Bean’s Café, who passed away recently. A humanitarian of the highest order, Jim Crockett journeyed very far in his tireless support of people in need. Already he is deeply missed.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected]