Monday, April 12, 2010

Leaving spring behind

My first two days in Anchorage were an exercise in overcoming disorientation. On my bike, in my car, standing in line at Starbucks - if I drifted off into daydreamland for even a few seconds, I'd be rattled awake by sensory overload. Smog! Traffic! Moose! Strip mall! Traffic! Where am I? Smog! I thought I'd have a lot to do, but since I knew I was traveling to Salt Lake City soon, there wasn't much I could do. I admit I wandered aimlessly. After two hours of bike wandering on Friday afternoon, my knee started to bug me again. At the same time, the weather was amazing, low-40s and sunny, and I was feeling stir crazy to get out, even though I was already out. "I'll go for a walk instead," I decided.

I don't really know where to go walking in Anchorage. I Googled the name of the one mountain I could remember, just because it happens to be the most-hiked mountain in all of Alaska - Flattop. "At least there will be a good trail to the top," I thought. Google gave me directions to the trailhead, and didn't pack much gear because, you know, popular hike, good trail ...

Most of the hike on foot-packed snow was a piece of cake, but near the top there was a near-vertical step that had been packed slick by other (often spike-wearing, pole-wielding) walkers. I wasn't too keen on downclimbing it, and wasn't even going to go up for that reason when another hiker told me it was possible to descend the other side of the mountain.

I traversed across Flattop, dropped down into the back gully and decided to climb the next peak on the ridge (which I later learned is called Peak 2). Below that peak, the ridge narrowed with fun scrambling along the edge of the knife. I dropped a bit until things started to get gnarly, but the place afforded me a great view of other accessible areas in the front range - Powerline Pass and so many other places I have yet to learn about. It was an exciting moment of discovery for me, even on what has to be one of the most-traveled mountain ridges in Alaska.

After that I started dropping, down, down, down, and beginning to notice that the trail showed no signs of looping back around the mountain that I was on the wrong side of. I finally stopped a snowboarder and asked him where the tracks I was following led to.

"Um, the parking lot," he said.

"Is it the main parking lot?" I asked.

He looked confused. "Which parking lot?"

"I don't know, the state park parking lot. I think it had Alps in its name?"

"Glen Alps?" he asked.

"Yeah, that's the one."

A strained look swept across his face, like he didn't want to be the one to deliver the bad news. "That parking lot is nowhere near this one," he said.

A frown crept into my own face. "Oh, crap."

I turned and started running back up the mountain, because I had a barbecue I wanted to go to at 7:30, and it was already 6:45. I didn't follow the tracks; I went straight up the mountain, ascending a 50-degree slope in shin-deep snow as fast as physically could. A waterfall of sweat poured down my cheeks and neck, my lungs burned and my vision blurred. It felt amazing to be working so hard, and I completely forgot about that step I had to downclimb.

Until I reached it. It was about 100 vertical feet of sheer terror, because I'm really not a climber and I felt like every tentative step was going to sweep me down the face, into the rocks or off the edge of the shadow side of the mountain. And I admit I watched two guys wearing sneakers purposefully sit and careen down the slope on their butts, spinning out of control in a cloud of powder. I watched them not only live through it, but get up at the bottom and walk out. I still couldn't coax my body to move any faster. I kicked steps and dug my bare fingers deep into the hard snow. It got me down, but it was so slow that by the time I returned to my comfort zone, I really had to run. I felt pretty wasted, because my mellow afternoon walk had turned into something close to 3,500 feet of vertical on snow with 20 minutes of all-out effort and a terror downclimb thrown in.

By the time I reached the barbecue, the party had moved inside due to cold (it may be spring, but temperatures still drop into the teens during the night.) By midnight, I was at the airport, and by 1:55 a.m., I was in the air, jetting south.

Utah has been great so far. I met my 7-week-old nephew, visited all of my grandparents, and went to church with my parents, which allowed me to see a lot of familiar faces from my childhood, from my former piano teacher to a woman whose journalist daughter followed a similar path to mine and pulled it off successfully.

I borrowed my dad's Trek 820 to ride to the top of South Mountain and check out the trail conditions. Yeah, lots of snow and mud (don't worry, Draperites, I did not ride my bike on the muddy trails.) It was crazy windy, with Juneau-esque gusts (probably 40 mph), and brought with it a thick and ominous-looking storm that is forecast to drop snow at fairly low elevations. So much for spring. Today, however, it was on the overly warm side today for my Alaska blood - high 60s.

I learned a bit too late that the Trek's cantilever brakes on wet rims don't work, well, at all - not a super fun thing to find out when you are trying to descend 2,000 feet of elevation on pavement. The bike works fine for what my dad uses it for - exercising and to commute to trails where he can hike - but it's a bit rough for me. I put out a Facebook appeal for a loaner bicycle, and within an hour had an offer from a guy who recently moved to Sandy who had a mountain bike for me to borrow. I drove the two miles to his house and we talked for an hour about Utah, Alaska and snow biking. He lent me a DVD of "The Flying Scotsman" and gave me maps to some nearby trails in Lehi that he thought I would enjoy. If the weather somehow doesn't turn to snow, we may meet up to ride them on Wednesday. People can say what they will about blogs and Facebook and the deterioration of society, but my experience has been just the opposite. Social media has put me in touch with more great people than I can even count anymore, many of whom I have since become friends with in "real life." I'm really grateful for that. And all y'all, those of you who have made it this far in what have recently been pretty rambling blog posts, I am grateful for you, too. :-)


  1. Enjoy Utah!You are right-on about social media. Keep up the great writing.

  2. Just a note that I love your bog pictures. Never been to your state but someday I'll get there. I'm a bicycle enthusiast from the flatlands of South Dakota --

  3. Friends don't let friends drink Starbucks! Kaladi Bros makes a fine cup of jo. One located not far from you next to New Sagaya's Midtown market, 3700 Old Seward Highway.

    Anchorage is a zoo for sure, when coming from Alaska, but south central is the playground of the world when it comes to getting outdoors. Enjoy!

  4. It's awesome that some from CL let you borrow bike. How cool!

    I love reading your blog. It's nice to relate to someone else out there who loves biking and the outdoors and who also feels a bit lost sometimes.

    If you're ever in Michigan, please let me know!

  5. We're all grateful for you Jill and the inspiration and reading pleasure you provide us with. Enjoy your stay with your family and friends :)

  6. Nah, you don't appreciate us. When was they last time we got dressed up and went anywhere nice?

  7. I say this because I care. You really, really, really need to learn some navigation and avalanche terrain travel skills before going anywhere near the mountains, especially the ones in Anchorage. That goes for everyone, but this story is so full of rookie mistakes that I'm really appalled. There have been several recent rescues of people doing the EXACT thing you describe on the EXACT route you describe in this post, and many deaths and severe injuries on Flattop mountain involving inexperienced and unprepared people. It's not really something that thrills me as a volunteer rescuer to see in an "aren't I silly" blog post. Get some decent gear and take an avalanche class before going up again.

    You also have a nasty habit of making dumb rookie mistakes, getting frostbite, hypothermia, running out of food, and finding yourself unprepared for the conditions. This isn't hardcore, this is dumb. I've been wondering why you don't change your habits - can you provide some insight?

  8. I couldn't say, Anchoragite. Care to say why this particular hike was so dangerous? Following the tracks of what were probably hundreds of people before me, many days after the last storm, with no signs of recent slides.

    Really, I'd love to be enlightened.

    I know avalanches can happen at any time, but I know enough about them to avoid the worst of the conditions. So if Flattop is really that bad, I'd love to know why.

    I've taken a day-long avalanche class, and have had more instruction from friends regarding danger signs to look for. As far as navigation, I always knew where I was and where I was going, because I have eyes, I was just hoping that the neighborhood I was heading for was closer to Glen Alps, which became more obvious as I neared the bottom that that was not the case. So I turned around.

    Also, I did have crampons, a bivy sack, and food and water. I'm just a scardy cat when it comes to steep terrain.

    Anyway, I just wanted to point out that the blanket lectures don't actually help us "rookies." We all have to start somewhere, and that's usally why we start on well-trodden paths. But actual useful tips and insights are always welcome.

  9. I have been the bearer of the "you're nowhere near the Glen Alps trailhead" news at least a half-dozen times on the back side of Flat Top. I'm impressed, though -- most people head down to the road and beg a ride back up!

  10. Hey Jill,

    That steep glissade off the top of Flattop still scares me even though I've done it a bunch of times. I usually shuffle down off the top digging my feet in and then let it go down below where it's less steep. Having an ice axe makes it much more enjoyable.

    You are going to have fun exploring all of the peaks in this area. One of my goals this summer is to knock off some more of the peaks over 5000 feet in the front range.

    Welcome to Anchorage!

  11. Ah, Anchorageite ... yet another too-cool-for-school AK volunteer wilderness first responder stands ready to lecture "everyone" with his/her superior wilderness know-how, "appalled" by those of lesser coolness. Nothing like a bunch of unsolicited advice based on incomplete information. I'm sure Kobuk your black lab rescue dog is barking in agreement from the back of your Subaru. Maybe when you're done rescuing the rest of Anchorage from certain doom you can come back and answer Jill's retort. I say this because I care.

  12. Such sanctimony is like nails on a chalkboard.

  13. It seems to me Jill Juneau,that you are quite an adventurer yourself.Nice pictorial View of Alaska Scenic spots.Flattop Mountain is really a place to visit.No doubt about it.Compliments from Pay Per Click Services

  14. And we're grateful to you :-) Be safe and enjoy yourself.

  15. Watch out for grizz up there. Link to website that tracks the grizz around Anchorage...

    - Joe

  16. jill, welcome to a-town. my first time seeing that backside trail i did the same thing. however i went all the way to the canyon road parking lot before pulling out a map. it was in the summer and i ended up following an overgrown game trail back up off of one of the 'driveways' on canyon road.

    great response to anchoragite. he/she came up with some pretty wild assumptions...

    i typically approach peak 1 (flattop)from that other parking lot you were headed towards (canyon road). connect peak 1, 2, and 3 for a great loop back to the parking lot. it's a great run, year-round.

    if interested, point your browser to i've got a couple posts with peak 1, 2 and pics. shoot me an email if you want some ideas for outings, be they biking, running, or ski/snowboarding.

  17. as we are grateful for oyu. don't know a thing about biking or hiking. But you make it interesting.

    Great that you're enjoying Utah.

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  19. I think you should go back to screening the comments to your blog (see above)


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