With the large snow dumps we received in January and February, access to the ridges, say in South Fork Valley, sometimes gets a bit difficult.
Avalanche danger can remain high for quite some time. But when wind combines with sun on the valley’s south-facing slopes in March and April, snow-free areas offer clear and safe pathways to the upper ridges.
And so it was a couple of years ago in early April when I joined three friends on hike that began from the South Fork trailhead. A week earlier while snowshoeing, I noticed exposed tundra that began near the second pass, at about Mile 2 on the main trail. The bare ground extended at least 2,000 feet up to the ridge, which is due west and overlooking South Fork valley.
My friends – Al Beck, Pete Panarese and Jeff Worrell – were all game to return with me to check out this early-Spring hiking opportunity.
It was mostly cloudy – one of those gray “gun metal” days – but there was little wind and the temperature felt like it was about 25-30 degrees Fahrenheit. Departing the main trail to hiker’s right, we immediately encountered some expected post-holing – sometimes up to our thighs. With the snow-free ground only a couple of hundred yards away, we spiritedly trudged on.
(Next to alder bush bashing, post-holing in deep snow is one of my least-favorite outdoor activities – thus my possession of old-style 50-inch wooden snowshoes.)
Once on the bare ground, it was an easy ascent to the ridge at about 3,800 feet, where we worked around drifted snow to find a nice lunch spot. Visibility deep into Ship Creek Valley toward Indian Pass wasn’t the greatest, but the view into Eagle and Symphony Lakes was a treat, as always.
I’ve spotted Dall sheep from this location in the past, but on this day – even with binoculars – we were skunked.
After lunch, we set our sights on peak 4219 to the south. But after crossing the ridge about a quarter of a mile, or half way, we came to a section that was really wind-loaded with snow. It looked extremely unstable and we all agreed that we’d save that summit for another day.
I’ve been out to that peak several times. It is mainly in summer when there is much less snow. It is a really nice continuation of a long ridge – roughly 12 miles one-way – hike that can begin with Rendezvous peak, above Arctic Valley Ski area; or starting from the south, above Symphony Lake.
From 4219 as one continues on the ridge, it makes a big and gradual downward dip. From the bottom of that dip one can angle down about 1,500 feet toward South Fork and reach a beautiful alpine tarn. From there it is not difficult to hike down to the valley bottom and over to South Fork creek. But one has to cross the stream to get on the main South Fork trail. I prefer keeping dry feet, so I remove boots and suffer the pain of stones and cold water on my bare feet. If a person didn’t mind packing another three pounds, they could take along some Neos waders for such a crossing.
The ridges that parallel South Fork Valley on both sides are great hiking and snowshoeing destinations. But with all of the snow we have accumulated this winter, I suspect avalanche danger will remain high for some time going into spring. The hike we made in April 2015 might not be possible.
Heading back down our snow-free stretch of tundra to the main trail, I could tell my friends were pleased with the day’s outing – even though we didn’t reach peak 4219.
I think we all have a collective, unspoken philosophy:
The mountain will always be there for another day.
Author’s Update: I was told that as of March 15, the snow in the Chugach Mountains near Eagle River was packed down by wind and easy to hike over without sinking in, aided by Kahtoola microspikes.)
Editor’s Note: Frank E. Baker is a member of the Echo News staff, a freelance writer and avid outdoorsman who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired Anchorage School District teacher. He welcomes comments and suggestions for columns.