“We’re going on a hike, you want to come?”
“Of course!” Who wouldn’t want to go for a hike in the middle of the Alaskan wilderness on a warm, sunny summer day?
We’re packed and ready to go in a matter of minutes, bringing along minimal camera gear, some extra layers just in case, a ziploc bag of snacks, and a couple bottles of water.
“How long is this hike?”
“Oh, maybe 4-5 hours.”
Famous last words. I fill another water bottle and suppose I’m as ready as I can be.
We boat downriver to the small mountain that towers over one of the fishwheels. On the river side of the mountain, it’s a steep, rocky sheered-off cliff. The backside of it, however, is slightly more gently sloped, and heavily vegetated with willows, alder, and birch. A grassy avalanche path from last winter has cleared a big swath of the side of the ridge, and a roaring stream of snowmelt cascades down the crook of the mountain.
“It’s just a wee bit of bushwhacking in this first part,” says one of the guys.
More famous last words.
The two crew members with us hiked this ridge twice before in the springtime before everything was grown in. Now, all those willows, alder, and birch are as thick as can be, and impossible traverse through without a machete to clear the way (which fortunately, we had one that they took turns with, clearing our path ahead).
I cannot accurately express how dense the bush is, nor how vertical our ascent. Trust me, it is dense, and it is vertical. It is also hot and swarming with mosquitoes and flies. Delightful!
Nonetheless, morale is pretty high for the first couple hours, though I begin to realize that “a wee bit of bushwhacking” was an astronomical understatement. The dense brush never lets up.
And then we get to the snowpack. Despite how hot it is, there are these big fields of slippery snow to cross as we gain altitude. Not only that, meltwater is gushing under this snow, so we’re essentially walking over hollow ground. It’s so steep that every step you have to kick your boot into the ice so as not to slide down into the melt waterfalls below. Forget the bugs, brush, treacherous terrain, and heat — THIS is the part of the hike that freaks me out the most.
It’s at this point that I realize it’s a mental fight. Physically, I know I’m unprepared for this level of strenuousness to begin with, but if I can battle it out in my head, I can make it to the top. I can make it across the snow if I focus on what’s ahead of me, but as soon as I hesitate and let me knees start shaking, that’s when I lose my footing. And every time I lose my footing, I lose confidence in my own strength.
I keep telling myself to just give it a little more time, just go a little further.
“At least once we get to the top, there will be a breeze and less mosquitoes,” someone says.
You guessed it: more famous last words.
The final push to the top is the hardest yet. We finally get above treeline, but the old avalanche path has smoothed the grasses slick, so there’s nothing to hold onto to pull yourself up the nearly vertical terrain, and your boots slip and slide helplessly with nothing to grip onto. All 5 of us (plus Tenzi the dog) make it up this past part on our hands and feet or knees, literally crawling. We’ve made it this far, we’re not turning back now.
I want to cry when I finally make it to horizontal ground at the top of the ridge saddle. As you may have guessed, there is no breeze after all to relieve the relentless mosquitoes, but I don’t even care. The view is beyond spectacular. The air is so clear, you can see for miles and miles vistas of glaciers, more mountains, lakes, and rivers converging.
We’ve been climbing for over 3 hours by this point, so the relatively horizontal route across the ridgeline is a welcome relief. We walk for another half hour or 45 minutes, until we finally make it to the overlook.
We name the ridge “Hands and Knees Ridge,” but the mountain itself is dubbed “Tenzi Mountain,” because Tenzi is always the first to summit.
I feel as if I can barely move by the time we stop for lunch. We are out of freshwater, my muscles ache, and I am sunburnt, but feeling accomplished. I am so glad I kept going.
We eat and nap for about an hour before finally rallying to head back down. I try not to think about how we’re going to get down a mountain that was so nearly-impossible to get up. We pack our water bottles with snow, and begin picking our way down.
Just as we begin to come off the ridge back down to the steep side of the mountain, we are shushed by the two guys ahead. “A bear,” they hiss.
It’s far away, but it’s in exactly the spot we need to get down to make the rest of our descent. We watch it for a while, a big black bear foraging around the edge of the snow. It lumbers in our direction, and then disappears in the brush. We stay put and keep an eye out for it, and then all of a sudden it comes out of the bushes, much closer to us, coming our direction.
“Hey bear! Go away bear! Get out of here! Go away!”
We all group up as best we can on this steep, slippery slope, waving our arms and yelling loudly. The bear seems to hear us, but can’t seem to see us. It pauses, takes another few steps forward. I can see the outlines of its eyes, nose and mouth. It’s a beautiful animal. But adrenaline is pulsing through my body, and one hand lands on the bear spray at my hip, ready just in case.
Fortunately after about a minute, it turns and lopes away, heading up the other side of the ridge. We watch it for a long time, just to make sure it keeps going that direction and doesn’t come back. When we finally start making the rest of our way down the mountain, we find tons of bear scat, dens, and turned over ground; we are clearly in its territory.
When we get to the snowpack again, we conclude that the best way to get down is by sliding. The first few slides are a total blast:
As we get further down though, the snow gets much sketchier, and often ends with a dropoff into the rushing stream. The rest of the group continues sliding down the snow, but at this point I take my safety a little more seriously and bushwhack my way down the side. My knees protest painfully, seeming to give out every other step, fatigued beyond belief.
I can tell I’m starting to lose my mental battle. I keep telling myself it’s not that bad, it’s all in your head, look, everyone else is doing just fine (though we were all clearly struggling). When we get below the snow level, the bushwhacking becomes tough again, so we take to the streambed, wading shin-deep in the ice cold rushing water. It has carved a natural path for us, and at this point I don’t even care that my shoes and socks will be soaked for the rest of my time out here.
By the time we make it back to the boat, we have been hiking nearly 9 hours total. Whew! Covered in bug bites, sunburned, dehydrated, sore, cut, and bruised, I couldn’t be happier or more proud to have made it through all that. And thank goodness for such great hiking buddies who all helped each other make it out safe. What a trip!