Proper gear choices are essential for a successful Alaska winter hike

Tuesday, January 21, 2020 - 11:11
  • Sun peeks over the mountains of the South Fork Eagle River Valley in winter. (Frank Baker photo)
  • The author poses for a photo in the South Fork Eagle River Valley. (Frank Baker photo)

The sky was crystal clear Jan. 16 and the loud crunch in the snow underfoot was a telltale indicator of the cold — about minus 10 degrees Fahrenheit when I left my house. I had Kahtoola micro-spikes on my boots and hiked the first two miles of the hard-packed South Fork trail with my 35-inch snowshoes attached to my pack.

The plan was to snowshoe to Eagle Lake and my friend Pete Panarese would follow my trail on skis. Since skis are faster, he started about an hour behind me. We’d planned to rendezvous somewhere along the five-mile route. It was cold, but not the kind of deep cold that keeps one at home on the couch.

We ventured outdoors a lot in December and January, and gearing up had been the rule. We both have the right gear for extreme cold, but with a mild form of Raynaud’s disease for many years, keeping my hands warm is a persistent challenge.

Raynaud’s is a disorder of the blood vessels, usually in extremities such as the fingers and toes. It causes the blood vessels to narrow when you are cold or feeling stressed. When this happens, blood can’t get to the surface of the skin and the affected areas turn’s a yellowish-white and eventually blue. It’s been said the disorder is rare, but I’ve met quite a few people with the affliction.

From what I’ve learned so far, there doesn’t seem to be any cure. Vitamin B-3 (Niacin) is recommended to help blood flow. Unfortunately, coffee reduces blood flow, and I’m addicted.

Gearing up

I wear the very warmest down mittens available and use a polypropylene glove liner. I leave a chemical warmer inside the mittens until my hands are warm, then place them in jacket pockets where I can get to them if needed. The salesman at Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH) told me that the aforementioned mittens are used by Denali climbers — no exaggeration.

I know some folks who have heated (battery-powered) gloves, and those who have purchased the highest-end products available are happy with them. The batteries are re-chargeable.

I have insulated winter boots large enough for two pairs of socks; and on the inner sock I attach an adhesive, chemical toe warmer. So far this winter in temperatures down to minus 15 (ambient) I’ve had no feet problems.

There is nothing exotic about my other winter gear. In dry, cold weather I wear 100 percent Merino wool pants over smart wool long underwear. For upper body I layer: First, with a polyester base, a smart wool or polypropylene shirt over that, a lightweight down coat; and over all of that, a Gortex jacket.

Head gear includes a wool balaclava and over that a 100-percent wool hat. Stuffed inside my pack is a 700-weight goose-down coat in case I’m out longer than planned. I also carry a space blanket, first aid kit and matches.

Another important item: photochromic (transition) eyeglasses. My eyes are sensitive to light, and when out in snow, the glasses quickly darken to minimize glare.

Vision reduced

An ongoing nemesis is keeping my nose warm. If I pull the balaclava up over my nose, my eyeglasses fog. My vision is somewhat adequate without glasses, so my remedy so far has been to remove my glasses. I’ve tried odd-looking vented nose gear, and for me it just doesn’t work. My next step is to talk to my optometrist about tight-fitting, prescription goggles.

Moving up South Fork Valley past the bridge at Mile 2 and now breaking trail, I was delighted to see the sun edge over the horizon. I didn’t expect to see it at all throughout the day. It might have added a degree or two to what felt like about minus eight degrees, with only a very slight breeze. But more importantly, the sun elevated my mood.

On the eastern side of the valley I spotted a couple of moose indolently browsing on willows. At a distance of about 500 yards, they were unconcerned by my presence. I saw a lot of different wildlife tracks in the snow, including vole, snowshoe hare, coyote, moose, ptarmigan and even wolf. Since there was no evidence people had travelled in there, I assumed the large prints to be wolf rather than dog.

Because I wasn’t wearing glasses and left binoculars at home, I didn’t see my buddy Pete following less than a mile behind. I kept stopping and looking, but because of the cold, didn’t pause very long. Consequently, throughout the day we didn’t see each other.

I reached Eagle Lake a little after 1 p.m., about 3-and-a-half hours from the trailhead. The snow on the lake was smooth and untracked. It was eerily silent and the mountains, now so near, seemed to close in around me. That’s one of the things I like about this area — its closeness to the mountains. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Seward that I like to be near them.

After popping a few photos and having a brief lunch at the lake, I followed my (and Pete’s) tracks back through the valley. Hardened by his ski tracks, the trail was now much better. Reaching the packed trail at the bridge, before hiking up what I call “heartbreak hill,” I removed the snowshoes and attached them to my pack.

Pete and I later compared notes and although we separately had good trips, we agreed it would have been more fun had we met up as planned. But despite the fact the day didn’t go according to plan, we achieved the main thing: we both got out.

And there was now a trail punched through to Eagle Lake … at least until the next big snowfall.


From Eagle River Loop Road turn onto Hiland Road and drive 7.2 miles into South Fork Valley, then turn right on South Creek Road where there is a Chugach State Park sign. Follow South Creek Road 0.3 mile across the river and turn right on West River Drive. The park entrance and trailhead are on the left. After hiking about two miles and down to the bridge crossing South Fork, hike another ¼ mile where you will find the Hanging Valley trail cutoff, to the left.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with is wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.

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