Write the list, Sasha. Write it because if you don’t, you’ll forget something, like the ice ax David reminded you to take. Clean out the backpack and set it by the boots. Read the last emails. Turn off the phone and hope your body lets you sleep in. Dream good dreams. Tomorrow you hike alone.
Roll out of bed and turn on the kettle. Make oatmeal and put some in the steel canister. Prepare the tea thermos and don’t forget the sugar because you know how your body craves it when you’re cold. Pack the stove and fuel for the sake of practice. Throw in a hot chocolate packet. Pull on your favorite woolens. Wrap the gaiters over the rain pants because you will be out in the snow. Stuff the fleece in the backpack. Leave the rain jacket but take the micro-spikes. Grab the trekking poles. Take the skis, because you just discovered that the bindings don’t match the boots and you might have a chance to swing by the shop after the hike, if you’re in the mood for shopping. Probably not, though.
Pack the Jeep. Head up Toilsome Hill, along the snow-crusted streets. Watch the city spread out beneath the hillside, see the big white mountains across the grey-blue inlet, so crumpled and crisp-edged today under a bluebird sky. Park. Take out your pack. Lock up. Begin.
Flattop is everybody’s mountain. Its slopes, well-worn in all seasons, feel the tread of children and trail runners, tourists, grandparents and hikers. There’s always somebody with a dog or two on the trail. When I first moved to Anchorage, I used to accompany a friend every Friday morning in August for a five o’clock trail run up to the summit. We’d leave her house in the dark, start the run with just enough light to see and reach the top in time to catch a view of the sunrise breaking over the city She loved to say that she had climbed a mountain before most people had made their coffee on Fridays. I always remember her when I go there.
Sunshine sparkled off snow crystals and gave a false sense of warmth as a nipping wind stole along my neck. I followed foot-and-pawprints up through the rocks, jamming my boots into the wind-packed snow. My thoughts wandered away from the familiar tracks of the week’s obligations and spread out along the sensory data filtering in through color and scent, temperature, heft and balance. The northern wind had left its mark on the snow surface, and in the way in which ice had formed only on the south side of the grass stalks. The swirling blue-grey patterns in Cook Inlet looked similar when I flew over them last Sunday in a small plane. The snow felt fresh under my boots, the tiny crystals snapping under each step. Today I would push myself to follow the ridge line behind Flattop to the next peak and further, taking my time to look and feel and think, until I was finished. Wherever I ended up by 1:00 or 2:00 would be where I would turn around, as sunset starts around 4:30 this time of year.
Flattop opens up at the summit with a wide, rock-strewn surface, and slopes gently down to a pass before rising up again to a mountain called Peak 2. After that is a ridge line which slopes down again and then rises to almost 4000 feet, the summit of Peak 3. I had never ventured along the route before, and had always been curious about this ridge line, having followed it with my gaze from Powerline Pass Trail, which lies in the northside valley. I stepped slowly over black rocks, finding footing along the bootprints in the snow until they disappeared suddenly and mine were the only ones to continue.
I crossed a wide snowfield after Peak 2 and made my way up a steeper and steeper slope. Occasionally I would glance down as the avalanche wash spread out beneath me, a long treeless gully, and still the grade increased. I tried to dig in my boots and move from one clump of bushes to another, which only barely protruded above the snow’s surface. Finally I gained the perspective to see that I should have crossed over the gully to the southwestern side, which had a much thinner covering of snow and a gentler slope, which would have made the approach to the summit more manageable. As it was, I was heading into steeper, wind-packed snow. I had poles, but no ice ax to self-arrest, though I kicked my toes into the snowpack, I could feel them skid out from underneath me on the hard crust as I made each step. Feeling the rush of adrenaline accompanied by the first swellings of fear, I decided to make my way as quickly as I dared to the boulders about forty feet above me. I planned to find enough handholds to clamber through the rocks towards the southwestern side and get above the wash, since its smooth white surface gave no indication of depth, and I didn’t want to trigger a slide.
There were other hikers on that mountain, both above and below me. Those above me, accompanied by a couple of dogs, had already disappeared, and those below me were heading towards the snow-dusted scree on the southwestern side. I reached the boulders, and clung to a handhold while I scraped snow off with my glove to find footing. I climbed up through them perhaps twelve feet before I realized that that this was no better approach. I needed an ice ax to grip the rock in ways my gloved hands couldn’t and wondered if crampons would have been a better choice than the micro-spikes I still had in my pack. I glanced back into the dizzying distance below me and the pull of the wind, which blew sand-sized bits of snow into my eyes, mouth and ears. Again the biochemical surge flooded my veins and I felt the clench of fear like a hand squeezing my heart. I remembered my climbing partners and heard their encouraging words in my head: “Just a bit further. You’re almost there. Don’t give up.” But my own inexperience and nervous tension battered them away, and they fell silent as an empty page, while the mountain loomed heavy and stern above me. Other voices entered in, mocking, haughty: “You always give in right before the finish. You can’t be trusted. You don’t follow through.” I imagined losing my grip, falling down the slope, grappling with the air.
I breathed and waited for the rush inside me to subside. I reasoned with myself. If I doubled back, I could go around to find a better approach. I considered the possibilities. It was 1:30. I didn’t know how best to estimate the time it would take to attempt a different route. Scrambling down off the boulders and back to wind-packed slope, I caught a glimpse of three hikers far below me in the wash. One hauled an orange plastic sled behind him. It looked empty and I wondered if he planned to use it to expedite his descent. The others were so small I could barely make out whether they were coming or going. I looked up again and imagined how I might place the tip of an ice ax here or there among the rocks. But perhaps even that wasn’t the way to do it. I just didn’t feel the intuition. With no clear idea of how to proceed, I decided I should scramble back down the boulders into the snow and work my way down to a gentler slope.
Cautiously, carefully, I re-traced my steps down through the snow, following the clumps of bushes and rocks, and finally back into the rocky snowfield which stretches between the two peaks. Once or twice I looked back along the southern slope and tried to estimate how much time it would take to re-route and hike back out. I continued to a vantage point up on the west side of Peak 2, sat down on a flat rock, and poured a cup of hot tea to sip while I watched the hikers move slowly up the more advantageous southwestern slope of Peak 3. I watched them until they disappeared, wondered if they were aiming for the summit or further towards Ptarmigan Peak. I wondered if they would set up tents spend the night and keep hiking the next day. The light was perfect. I packed up and started west towards Flattop.
I passed four or five other people on my way back to the summit of Flattop, and once I reached the descent, I looked down to see at least twenty people scrambling among the rocks. Complete normalcy returned in that moment, and any last vestiges of trepidation vanished as people went past me both upwards and downwards along the rocks. Within a few hundred feet I regained the well-worn trail, which by now was trampled flat and wide, and within twenty minutes I was back at the parking lot, which by 3:18 in the afternoon was filled with cars.
It seems strange even now to find myself writing about an experience which began and ended with the mundane and familiar, but there was such tension in the middle. I always struggle with my own limitations, seeking ways to identify them and stretch them. I hate my fear and how it wrecks my sense of purpose, my inner critic whose pessimism poisons my ambition. There is always a bit of a war going on inside me, and going solo sharpens my sense of what’s at stake for both sides. One thing is settled: I’m going back to that mountain and I will find a way up.