An Awful Hike…
A Wonderful, Awful Hike.
May 12, 2017 / By Katie Hnatik
The weather had turned cold and rain was starting to fall. We had brought provisions for making sandwiches and had planned on taking a bit of a rest to enjoy our hard earned view and load up on calories before making the difficult journey back to the car, but with the cold and the rain, we decided to just keep hiking, with hunger, wobbly legs, and all. Now, I was sure I was not going to make it back to the car.
I had a jacket, a rain coat, rain pants, hat and gloves. You learn to take those things with you on any hike into the mountains in Alaska, even in the middle of summer. We even carried extra food and water. We try to be prepared for unexpected things. The weather in the mountains is unpredictable and can change quickly from warm to cold, wet, and rainy (or snowy come September). Even with my layers and rain gear, I was cold, shivering, and starting to panic.
It was mid-August and the day had started off very warm and sunny.
I was overweight and not in the best shape for this hike. Chris and I had started hiking the summer before and I had started to lose some of the weight that I’d been gaining in the years since high school, but during the winter in Alaska, most of us tend to hibernate and gain mass so I still had a ways to go.
I was ambitious in planning this hike. Chris had been on a portion of the trail the summer before with his step-brother. They had gone the 1.5 miles to the old ruins of Monarch Mine. Because he’d gone on the hike without me, I had a bit of a jealousy issue and wanted to out-do his first hike there. I also have an all-or-nothing attitude issue which means I tend to bite off more than I can chew (I’m working on that).
Because of the length, beauty, and difficulty of this trail, most people drop a car at the far end in Eagle river and hike it in one direction, making a two to four-day trip of the twenty-three-mile trail. It starts in the town of Girdwood where it climbs steadily, and then steeply in sections, in the first few miles up over a mountain pass.
It’s a beautiful and dramatic trail that puts you into the wilderness quickly. It starts as a moderate climb along a mountain side surrounded by forest. Gradually, as you reach the tree line, it opens up to mountain views on all sides, jagged peaks with large veins of quartz running through them. After a mile or so, the trail forks and you have the option to go right and continue a gradual ascent to the pass, or go left through the ruins of Monarch Mine, a gold mine operated from 1909-1938.
Past the ruins, the trail gets steep and passes along Crow Creek Cascade, a rushing waterfall that cuts deep into the mountain rock. Keep going and the two trails rejoin and you’ll cross a stream before reaching Crystal Lake at the summit, a small, turquoise lake nestled among the mountain peaks with an A-frame cabin. You can rent the cabin, but it usually books up months in advance. Moose, and wolves, as well as smaller critters like ptarmigans, and marmots can be seen here on occasion, with ground squirrels, mountain goats, Dall sheep, and bears frequenting the area.
Raven Glacier greets you on the other side of the pass along with a Chugach National Forest sign marking the peak elevation of the trail at 3500 ft as you start your descent into the valley. A little more than seven miles from the trailhead in Girdwood (a couple of miles down the valley from the bottom of the pass) is Raven Gorge.
My plan was to hike up and over the pass, down the valley at least to the gorge, and then make the return trip up and over the pass and back down to the parking lot for a total of 14.5 miles.
Chris and I had been on many outings into the woods. I’d been camping in Alaska’s wilderness with my family since I was a baby. Bears are big talk in Alaska, but you rarely catch a glimpse of them. It was during this trip that we saw our first bears while hiking. There were two of them and they started as little black dots breezing across the mountain side. They moved surprisingly fast and at first, we weren’t even sure they were bears. As we descended into the valley, they gradually moved lower. We kept our eyes on the dots, keeping track of them as we moved. They seemed to be hunting the ground squirrels that live in these alpine areas, but they stayed rather high on the hillside so we weren’t concerned.
We reached the valley floor. Raven creek runs through the valley, but when you first climb down from the pass, it’s still forming. On one side of the valley, water runs in many small streams from Raven Glacier and on the other, a stream flows through the mountains. There is a larger river crossing further down valley where the trail crosses Eagle River. That crossing requires careful consideration and safety precautions since it can swell and be swift and dangerous. Here though, the water is narrow and more shallow, all the smaller streams having not yet converged. The water, nevertheless, is glacier water and is numbingly cold. We rolled up our pants, donned sandals that we brought for the occasion, unbuckled our backpacks for safety, and trudged through the stream, hooting, hollering, and laughing at the cold, then bursting out of the water onto the rocky shore on the other side.
It was getting close to our turn-around time. It was almost the half-way mark between the time we had set off and sunset. We had given ourselves the day to hike, but wanted to be back at the car before the sun went down. We were pretty-well prepared for the day hike, but hadn’t packed flashlights. During the summer months, this wouldn’t have been an issue since the sun stays so close to the horizon after sundown, leaving a faint glow in the sky even during the darkest hour of the night. By August, however, the sun does set solidly below the horizon. Bears can’t be counted on to leave the trails after dark, and this particular trail has its fair share of rugged terrain that threatened to twist ankles.
We trudged on through the trees for another couple of miles and suddenly, as we turned a corner on the trail, a thunderous, wooshing-roar sound sprang up. It was the strangest thing. Just feet before, the trail was hushed and quiet. Now there was a very loud sound of rushing water. We were coming up to Raven Gorge, a deep gorge carved into grey stone. The creek, which had grown by this point in the trail, flushed through the gorge dramatically. The gorge contains the sound of the rushing water and you don’t hear it until you’re practically on the bridge that crosses it.
I was feeling good when we reached the gorge. I still felt like I had the energy to go more and I was a little disappointed that we had to turn around but Chris called it. I think I would hike myself into trouble if it weren’t for his sound reasoning. By this time, we had stayed out longer than we meant to. I’m short, so my hiking pace is slow. Also, as I mentioned, I had a good amount of extra flab on me that didn’t help my speed one bit, but, I have trouble turning around on a new trail, when there is still something new to see around the next bend. Chris was right though. We had hiked more than our allotted half of the day’s sunlight hours. The sun would be setting at 9:45. Now we would have to keep up the pace in order to get back before sunset.
It was a fitting place to end our exploration for the day and turn around. It was beautiful and thrilling to look down at the water and the smooth stone, worm away by hundreds or thousands of years of relentless rushing water.
We trudged back through the valley, thinking about the beautiful gorge, the trail ahead, and forgetting about the bears. After some time, a couple of other hikers caught up to us, going in the same direction. As we made small talk, movement on the mountain side caught our eyes. One of the bears had made its way down the mountain. The black dot was now clearly bear shaped and meandering across the mountain side, but it was still far away. We stopped, watched for a minute or two, then started walking again. The other hikers were faster than Chris and I and we wished them a good hike as they took off ahead of us. A little nervous now, we kept tabs on the bear as best we could. Trees got in the way for a time and as we came around a bend, there he was, sitting in a clearing about 200 feet straight up the side of the mountain. He was just sitting there, watching us. Had he been more in front of us, I think we may have tried to wait for him to move before going forward, but given our position, we paused, watched him watching us for several long moments, then slowly made our way down the trail, looking over our shoulders until we reached the stream crossing. To our relief, he stayed put. We had bear spray, but much preferred not to need it.
We decided that we’d stop at the base of the pass, eat our sandwiches, and refill our energy stores with calories before embarking on the long climb ahead…this is when the weather changed. It started to drizzle and a cold breeze picked up.
We crossed back to the other side of the stream, reached the base of the pass, and hunkered down under some shrubby trees to make our sandwiches but quickly got too cold sitting still. We abandoned our plan to eat, instead donning the rest of our layers, rain pants, rain jackets, hats and all, deciding to just keep moving.
In hind-site, I should have eaten. We had been eating trail snacks, but it had been many, many hours since I had eaten anything substantial. As we started on the steep climb from the valley floor, my legs quickly turned to rubber. I was moving much slower than I wanted to and much slower than we needed to in order to get to the car by sundown. I drank water and ate some Cliff Shot-Blocks, but it was no use. I had depleted my energy stores and the voice in my head was negative and disparaging. I lashed out at Chris a little because I was angry and frustrated with myself (something I’m not proud of). He understood and tried to encourage me but I was convinced that I’d never make it to the top of the pass and I was on the verge of tears. All I wanted was to rest, to be at home, to curl up in my warm cozy bed.
The top of the pass was impossibly far away. I was wondering how we would stay warm if I couldn’t keep climbing and we had to spend the night here. It was already cold and would get colder after the sun set. There was no shelter from the frigid wind and rain on the climb to the pass. I was panicking.
We moved one step at a time. One small section at a time. This boulder to that boulder then rest. Then the next boulder and rest. Our progress was painfully slow. We had told my brother we’d be off the trail by sun-down and I would text him to let him know when we were on our way home. Now he was going to worry when he didn’t hear from us, a good thing if we needed help, but my mind was racing with what-if’s. We hiked in silence aside from Chris periodically asking if I was doing alright and reminding me to eat a little something and drink water.
After a while, I looked back at the valley behind us where we had come from. It looked surprisingly far away. We had gained quite a bit of ground and were higher than I thought I’d be able to climb. The valley floor already looked so far away. This lifted my spirits, just a bit, and I became enthralled with this process. Hike, rest, assess our progress.
We moved steadily with short breaks. This kept us from sweating as much and helped us to stay warm. When you’re cold, too much sweating can put you at higher risk for hypothermia, so you want to keep an even pace.
From the valley, Raven Glacier isn’t visible. It’s pretty far away, around a curve in the trail and blocked by the mountain. When it finally came into view, it was a big turning point for me. We still had a long way to go, and some elevation gain still ahead, but there was something significant about this moment. I became optimistic and energized. We were going to make it to the car, maybe even just after sunset rather than hours past as I had feared. There would be no cold, uncomfortable night out in the Alaska wilderness.
When we were finally on our descent, fog had rolled in, adding a mystical ambiance to the trail. After passing the cabin, the trail breaks into the two paths mentioned earlier. One descends rather steeply down to the ruins of Monarch Mine. The other gradually descends along the mountain side which is a vast sloping field of basketball sized rocks with a trail cut in the middle. It passes just below two wispy waterfalls and through their streams. We took this trail down to avoid the strain of the steep descent on our tired legs. There are mine shafts high up on the steep mountain side and thick, rope-like cables running down, crossing the trail, and continuing below. These cables are roughly 2 inches in diameter. They materialized out of the fog above and disappeared into the thick fog below. I couldn’t help but think of science fiction movies like King Kong, where huge beasts dwell in isolated places like this, with large chains or cables acting as a symbol of foreboding or a clue to what’s hidden in the fog. Luckily, any beasts that may have been watching our progress had the decency to stay hidden.
From here on our spirits were much brighter. Our speed picked up, though our feet were beyond sore. It was still cold a drizzling, but this side of the pass was much less windy. We talked and joked about the awful weather. Chris sang random, silly songs as walked, making me laugh and acting as a warning to any critters that might be on the trail that we were coming. We finally reached the parking lot around 11:00 pm, just over an hour past sundown. Relieved and happy, we turned the car on, turned the heat up high, and texted my brother to let him know we were safe.
It was a cold and miserable hike full of emotion and in my case, some bouts of panic, but after 8 years, it remains a vivid and favored memory.
Emotions cue our brains to create memories, as if placing a flag in the moment so we can easily recall it for reference. I believe we have particularly strong memories when we experience stress because we associate discomfort with danger and it’s a matter of survival that we learn from the things that make us uncomfortable or afraid. We also use more of our senses more acutely when we’re feeling stress. In situations where we feel some sort of threat, the brain makes use of all the tools at its disposal (our five senses) in order to have as much information available for making quick decisions should the need arise. In this way, memories created in stressful situations will have more sensory input than those created at most other times and will be more vivid.
Listening to and reading stories from other hikers, this is stated time and time again. The hikes, the outings where something goes wrong, weather turns bad, the strap on your backpack breaks, your feet develop huge blisters, these are the trips we remember most, and for some reason, we remember them fondly.
Why do we remember them fondly? Is it simply because we survived and we can look back and say proudly ‘I did that’? Is it because our memories associated with it are so strong that we instantly remember the smell of the air or a conversation we had? I don’t know for sure, but I think it’s a combination of these things.
I refer back to this trip when I have doubts about what I’m capable of or am feeling overwhelmed by some task in front of me. I remember that ‘I did that.’ I remember how daunting that mountain pass was and how overwhelmed it made me feel. I remember that all I need to do is move forward, however slowly. I remember to stop and look at my progress, to celebrate how far those little steps get me along the way.
Doing big things teaches us so much about ourselves. Obviously you should be safe, don’t jump into things that put you in danger, but remember to challenge yourself to see what you can do. I was afraid during this hike that I wouldn’t be able to finish it. I’d never gone on such a long or strenuous hike and so I didn’t know if I could. We all have that voice in our head that fills us with doubt. I was not in danger on this trip. I was tired and I longed to be comfy and warm at home, but I was not in real danger. I just needed to keep moving. It was that mean-spirited, negative voice that caused my panic. By finishing this hike, I changed my perception of what I’m capable of. I gave myself a new point of reference for my endurance and I forever changed my dialogue with that miserly voice.
Have you done something big that changed your perspective on what you thought you were capable of? Please share your story in the comments!
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