Wind strums South Fork’s Harp, turning Spring into Winter
The snow on the lower slopes of the mountain had been packed hard by previous hikers and made the hiking easy, but the southeast wind was bone-chilling.
I started the climb about 12:30 p.m. on April 30th, thinking this would be a nice Spring jaunt and another chance to test out my left knee that was replaced last year.
Harp Mountain had other plans. By the time I reached the first big hump, at about 2,500 feet, the wind was gusting to about 40 miles per hour (mph). I checked my thermometer and it read 40 degrees F., so the chill factor was somewhere below freezing. The good news: I had good winter footgear, Kahtoola micro-spikes, several body layers, a warm hat and balaclava. The bad news: I’d left my wind pants at home and only brought lightweight gloves.
Harp Mountain in South Fork Valley is a ridge hike that is shaped like a backwards “C.”
I really like it for several reasons. It’s entirely in alpine terrain, so in summer no brush bashing is involved; the route follows a ridge and in winter is generally devoid of avalanches; it’s close to home; and the view from its 5,001-foot summit is spectacular.
Wind has turned me around on Harp before, sometimes so strong it was difficult to stand. This was shaping up to be one of those days. By the time I reached the second hump, at about 3,000 feet, the wind was steady at about 30 mph and still gusting to about 40.
“This wind is not going to quit,” I breathed heavily. “Well, neither am I.”
A young Bald eagle suddenly rose up from behind the ridge, catapulted by the strong headwinds.
It hovered a few hundred feet above me for a couple of seconds, as if were showing off. “Try doing this,” he seemed to imply.
Only a minute later I came upon two ptarmigan on a snow slope that was sheltered from the wind. I wondered if that was why the eagle was hanging around. Perhaps sensing danger, the white ptarmigan seemed to be deliberately seeking cover by staying on the white snow.
I geared up and continued upward. I knew that when I reached the flat ridge (the middle of the backward “C”) at about 3,500 feet, I’d receive the full brunt of the wind. Moving upward, I continually turned my body away from the wind, or north, and found that my hands would quickly begin to warm. So far, my legs seemed to be doing okay.
Harp’s fourth big hump is quite steep, and it was here that the wind was unleashing its full fury. Fortunately, snow had melted from this south-facing area and footing was good. When the wind tried to knock me over I was able to firmly brace myself.
The summit was now about 800 feet above me. Soaring high above, seemingly without effort, was what appeared to be the same eagle.
I felt like he was taunting me, as if he were saying: “I belong here, you don’t.” Huffing and puffing up the mountain, crouched over my hiking sticks to catch my breath, compared to the eagle I was indeed a basket case. But my stubborn streak had already kicked in. I was now fully engaged.
On those last few hundred feet to the top the wind occasionally subsided, and warmth quickly returned to my hands and legs. Once at the summit, I immediately hiked over the ridge to the north side, away from the wind. I plunked down on a patch of dry tundra and caught my breath. In summer it usually takes me about two hours to make this ascent. On this day it was two hours, 40 minutes.
Escaping the wind: Being out of the wind was a pure luxury. For several moments I didn’t even bother to take in the awesome view. I opened my thermos and gulped some hot coffee. From where I sat I was looking east into Eagle River Valley, with a good view of the houses in and around Prudhoe Bay Road—just below Ram Valley. To the southeast were the mountain giants, Cumulus, Nantina Point, Kiliak and Yukla. Due south, Eagle Glacier was obscured by clouds, as were Eagle and Polar Bear peaks.
There was a completely different panorama on the other side of the ridge from where I was sitting, comprised mainly of Hanging Valley and South Fork Valley; but that was back in the wind and I would have enough of that on my return. My thermometer still read about 40 degrees, but now it felt so warm.
I wolfed down a ham and cheese sandwich that was hastily made at home—it seems everything tastes good on these trips—and gulped more coffee.
It was a rather gray day so I didn’t bother to take many photos before heading back down, returning to the wind, which at 3:30 p.m. actually felt somewhat warmer.
I’m always more careful when hiking alone, thus I descended cautiously-–always prepared for a wind gust that might throw me off balance. The return was much faster, and when I crested over the hump at about 3,000 feet, the same eagle again flew up right in front of me. I believe he was definitely interested in those ptarmigan. I wish I could develop a gunslinger-like, quick camera draw in these situations—the eagle had been about 10 feet away!
Looking north I could see the faint outlines of Denali and Foraker in the Alaska Range. “It’s climbing season up there,” I thought. “They’ll face wind and cold that make what I experienced today child’s play. I guess it’s all relative.”
The rest of the hike was uneventful, but it confirmed something my father told me long ago about reaching mountain objectives: “Getting there involves about 35 percent legs,” he would say. “About 65 percent is up here, (pointing) in the head.”
That southeast wind was pushing hard April 30th, but at least 65 percent of my alleged brain was pushing harder.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.