Gunsight climb includes lesson in preparation

Thursday, October 3, 2013 - 08:19
Dall sheep are seen on Gunsight Mountain on Sept. 20.

With a few inches of new snow above 3,000 feet, my annual autumn climb up Gunsight Mountain on Sept. 20 quickly became more of a winter climb, as I paused to take some photos of Dall sheep that browsed on grass just below the snowline. I’ve seen them at nearly the same location on other hikes and in typical fashion, they grew nervous by my presence and made a quick disappearing act into Glacier Fan Creek Canyon.

For the past several years, I’ve been making an annual autumn ridge hike up Gunsight Mountain on a route from the south and west that takes you up one ridge and over to the Gunsight notch, up to the 6,441-foot summit and then down another ridge to almost exactly where the hike starts: From the large gravel pit just past Glacier Fan Creek at Mile 114 of the Glenn Highway.

But because of the new snow and the steepness of that hike, I opted for the direct route that follows the ridge straight up from the gravel pit that provides access the mountain’s gradual east side. The trail is steep at first but after about 1,000 feet, it opens to a large tundra plateau leading up to the mountain. With a gradual traverse to the north and east, you skirt to climber’s right around the mountain’s steep section at left and gradually arc back around to gain its south ridge.

I’ve been out hiking a lot recently and quite happy with new Vasque boots I bought at REI. But on this trip, I didn’t wear very heavy socks and climbing for several hours in snow made my feet cold. Also, I forgot to bring sunblock, and by mid-day, I could feel the ultraviolet rays off the sun-reflected snow doing their work. I had a ski mask, so for protection, I wore it over my face for half the day — and it was very hot!

I did remember my Kahtoola spikes and they worked rather well in the snow, even in areas with loose rocks beneath the snow. I took them off later in the day on the descent, however, as wet, sticky snow began forming into big clods beneath my feet.

No wind on top: I reached the summit in less than four hours, which is good for me. I was relieved there was only a slight breeze, and the temperature was somewhere between 30-35 degrees Fahrenheit. The register, which I installed two years ago for the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA), was frozen shut — so I couldn’t add my name for posterity. I placed it back amidst the rocks and then ate lunch while taking in the 360-degree view.

The 3,000-foot snowline was quite uniform throughout the Talkeetna and Chugach Mountains, and with binoculars, I followed Matanuska Glacier all the way up to the base of the Chugach’s granddaddy, Mount Marcus Baker, at 13,176 feet. It was also clear enough to see the 16,390-foot Mount Blackburn in the Wrangell Mountains far to the east.

I glanced out to the north and west into the Caribou Creek drainage, wondering how many people were out there hunting. A raven flew over, either curious about my presence atop the peak or interested in the ham sandwich I was eating.

I would have lingered longer and enjoyed the beautiful sunny day, but without sunblock, I felt quite exposed — so made a quick retreat back down the mountain the way I came.

The sheep were still out of sight, but I was sure that after I had passed by they would resume browsing on the grassy slopes to gain weight in preparation for winter. And I knew that on my next hikes in our swiftly changing season I, too, would be prepared.


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer and columnist who lives in Eagle River. To contact Frank: [email protected].

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