Finding winter on Fiddlehead

Wednesday, November 13, 2013 - 19:00
Steve Gruhn descends a ridge off Fiddlehead Mountain in the Kenai Mountains on Oct. 23.

Note to readers: Because of other commitments, I will be unable to continue this column for the Chugiak-Eagle River Star. Over the years, I have felt honored and privileged to relate some of my outdoor adventure, and comment on other subjects. I do hope that you have enjoyed those adventures as much as I have chronicling them. Maybe I’ll see you out on the trail. And remember: The best trails are those we make ourselves.

At roughly 4,000 feet, the ridge narrowed and steepened on both sides. It was loaded with wind-driven snow — much more than we had anticipated. It was time for a decision — do we keep going, or turn around and call it “good” for the day?

At roughly 9 a.m. on Oct. 23, we’d started up the 4,940-foot Fiddlehead Mountain from about Mile 66 of the Seward Highway near Granite Creek. But Fiddlehead wasn’t our final objective. My climbing partner, Steve Gruhn, wanted to reach a peak about a mile and a half to the northwest of Fiddlehead, called only by number — peak 4650.

Gruhn is a longstanding member of the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) and is editor of its monthly newsletter, the Scree. He has considerable experience in the mountains and took the lead as we crossed over the top of Fiddlehead and began traversing the long ridge that connects to 4650.

It was a crystal clear day and throughout the climb a thick layer of clouds stretched out below us, creating a perception that we were on a much higher mountain such as Denali or Kilimanjaro. We kept thinking that the cloudbank would burn off, but it lingered all day at about the 500-foot level. Above those clouds, visibility was unlimited in all directions as we peered out to the snow-caked summits of the Kenai Mountains, now illuminated in the rising sun.

The first 2,500 feet of the climb was through grass and alder bushes, and would have been much more difficult in summer. We managed to skirt around most of that thick alder and tromped over grass that was now flat against the ground.

Reaching 4650 is optional: As we progressed over Fiddlehead at 4,940 feet and across the ridge, we spotted three goats grazing far below. I noticed that Steve was now moving more slowly, carefully picking his way around a couple of steep sections.

“Wait until I cross this,” he said. “I don’t want to have too much weight on this slope.”

We only moved about one-fourth mile on the ridge and it became much steeper. We both knew it was possible to create an avalanche and started thinking about another route to 4650. One option was to retrace our steps, drop down about 1,500 feet and go up a gentler slope to re-connect with the ridge. By this time it was about 2 p.m., and it would be dark at 7 p.m.

“It’s a long way,” I said. “I’d probably slow you down and we’d be really pushing darkness to get back.”

Like me, Steve is goal-oriented. I was surprised by how easily he agreed to turn around and call it a day.

“That’s okay,” he said. “We summited Fiddlehead, and now I’m more determined than ever to get back here for 4650. I think in summer it would be a piece of cake, except for the brush down below.”

Turning around is hard to do when short of an objective, but I’ve done it many times and in retrospect, glad I did.

We descended from winter back to autumn in about two and a half hours and found rime ice on the trees and bushes from the clouds that had hung over the valley all day. We arrived back at my truck about 4:30 p.m., both glad to have gotten out on such a beautiful day during the “extended” autumn.

As we drove up into Turnagain Pass on the way home, Steve said, “Thanks for getting me off the couch today.”


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

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