Hiking Flattop Mountain 6/12/11
Since I moved to Anchorage, I had heard about the hike up Flattop Mountain. It was on my Alaska list. Last summer i intended to hike it but continuing rain stopped me. I think it rained over 30 days in a row last summer, including numerous weekends.
While prolonged rain is not an unfamiliar summer season for New England either, I did find that weather very disappointing and I know I was not alone in feeling that way. Alaskans did tell me it wasn’t like this last summer. Anchorage has a generally temperate climate. Unlike Fairbanks which features weather extremes, Anchorage is neither excessively cold nor hot. It is mostly in the 50’s in the summer without the stifling humidity now so much a staple in the northeast.
Anyway, getting back to Flattop, my friend Cliff and I hiked it a couple weeks ago on what started out as a sunny day. For those unfamiliar with the mountain, it is in Chugach State Park very near Anchorage. It is probably the most popular hike in Alaska and there were no shortage of hikers along with us.
You do not have to go far to start with wide views of Cook Inlet. As you head up, there are ever increasing spectacular panoramas. It is not a difficult hike for the first two-thirds of the hike, There are a couple ledges that are a little hairy. The hike gets harder for the last part which is over rocks and more vertical.
Getting up higher, there was no one marked trail. People headed up on a variety of paths. There were the teenagers easily running up and down (no sweat!), the family hikers with a baby in a backpack and the rest of us. The last stretch was somewhat steep. The climb to the top reminded me a little of Mt. Lafayette. Flattop is not as tall as Lafayette but the rocks on top were similar.
Not having climbed it before, i was unclear about when we would be getting to the summit. It is always a pleasant surprise to get to the top. Flattop lived up to its name. The summit is a wide expanse with great views in all directions.
It was very windy on top and it had gotten overcast and started to rain a little. I imagine on a clear day you could have seen Denali. You could see the whole Anchorage area, Cook Inlet and far beyond.
Coming down proved more difficult for me. I took it slow (it was wet) and used my hands for balance. I had to do some scrambling and I will say my legs were sore for a couple days after.
Being a history buff, I do find the history of the area quite fascinating. Supposedly, between 15,000 and 40,000 years ago, humans migrated from Siberia to Alaska. At the time, ice sheets spread across North America, although apparently not in interior Alaska. As the ice sheets receded, early Eskimos migrated to areas in Alaska including what is now Chugach State Park. Most of the early Eskimos stayed in seasonal settlements. They were mostly here for the summer but left for more hospitable climate south as winter approached.
It is estimated that around 1,000 years ago the Dena’ina Athabascans migrated from Alaska’s interior to Cook Inlet. They hunted beluga whales, bear, caribou, mountain goats, sheep and moose and they fished for salmon. The Dena’inas lived off the land and had respect for all living creatures.
According to the Dena’ina tradition, animals and humans lived together and shared a common language. The raven was seen as the creator of the ancient world and raven was known as a mischief-loving deity with a penchant for pranks. The Dena’ina believed plants and animals went through transformations taking their present shape but retaining human-like spirits. The Dena’ina think that everything in nature possesses its own spirituality. According to tradition, either you respect nature or you run the risk of punishment such as bad luck in hunting, illness or death.
In 1959, when Alaska became the 49th state, the federal government granted the new state huge tracts of land. There were fears among Anchorage residents that private interests would try and get their hands on timber. A movement developed to protect the wilderness. In 1970, the Alaska Legislature created Chugach State Park, protecting the environment.
As a pretty new observer of the state, I would say what sets Alaska apart is wilderness. In so much of the rest of America we have set ourselves utterly apart from the natural world. Now it is not just living in concrete urban landscapes or boring isolated suburbias. It is living on screens, always plugged in, doubly removed from a living world.
Alaska is the fantasy of primeval America. If there is a a defining best quality of Alaskans , it is the spunk and indomitable spirit which has allowed them to survive a relentless and unforgiving Mother Nature. I read an Alaskan story in the last week that is illustrative. I don’t think this story got play outside of Alaska so I want to share it.
A father and four young girls, including two of his daughters, age 15 and 12, set off at about 9:30 pm to cross Tustumena Lake. The lake is on the Kenai peninsula. It is a glacier-fed lake, about 25 miles long and 6 miles wide. The group planned to stay in a public use cabin on the far side of the lake.
When they set off, the lake was calm. They embarked in an 18 foot aluminum skiff. Given the long daylight in Alaska, there was still plenty of light when they left.
After they got part way across, the weather suddenly and drastically changed. Big winds whipped up off Tustumena Glacier and the skiff had to contend with 9 foot waves. The skiff swamped and sank. Lake Tustumena water temperature was in the low 40’s.
All had portable flotation devices (PFD) but they were two miles from shore. One of the girls had a problem with an ill-fitting PFD and the dad tried to assist her. They all started to swim to shore. The 15 year old daughter led the way and rallied the others.
Unfortunately, the father and one of the girls became hypothermic and eventually unresponsive. Having to leave their father and friend behind, the 15 year old continued on and led the other two on the swim to shore. Amazingly, they swam the 2 miles to shore through the waves and freezing water temperature. They reached land at 3 am. The 15 year old knew knew where the public use cabins were and she then led a hike on the beach which went on for 6-7 hours. Two of the girls had lost shoes on the swim and they had to walk the rocky beach shoeless. They found the cabin, changed clothes, started a fire and warmed up.
No help arrived til the next night almost a day after they set out. The girls put on brightly colored clothing and waved flags to attract attention from air searchers. As one on line comment remarked in the Anchorage Daily News, this story was a miracle inside a tragedy.
The will to survive, the ability to think and act in a desperate situation, and the sheer survival skills displayed are so admirable. I would never have thought anyone could have survived in that water at those temperatures, let alone swim 2 miles. And then to do what it took to stay alive after. With so much to despair about in the world, it is heartening and hopeful that there are young people out there like those girls.