MOUNTAIN ECHOES: Annual Gunsight Mountain trek never seems to be routine

Wednesday, August 31, 2016 - 14:57
  • On a previous hike, Frank Baker at 6,000 feet on the way to the Gunsight notch, in background. Gunsight’s south summit, at right, is shrouded in clouds. Its north summit is at left. Photo by Brent Voorhees
  • Iron-mineralized slopes on the north side of the Sheep Mountain complex, with Caribou Creek in background. Photo by Frank E. Baker for the Star

After more than three hours of steady climbing, I crested the ridge at 6,000 feet and looked over the other side, to the north. The iron-mineralized mountain slopes, composed of what geologists call gypsiferous rock, were bright orange in the mid-afternoon sun. 

The gray, rocky ground ahead of me seemed to be moving. Then I realized the motion came from a family of five Rock ptarmigan, all perfectly camouflaged. Still breathing heavily from the uphill push, I told them in my own brand of ptarmigan-English that I was not a hunter and they had no worries.

I then began hiking east across the relatively flat ridge that would connect me with the most prominent natural feature in the area — the notch between Gunsight Mountain’s north and south peaks.

Gunsight Mountain lies in the Tahneta Pass between the Chugach and Talkeetna Mountain ranges, 120 miles northeast of Anchorage along the Glenn Highway. 

Volcanic in origin, heavily mineralized and faulted, the area is a magnet for geologists. With prime habitat for hawks and eagles, It’s also a haven for bird watchers.

I began my solo hike at about 9:30 a.m. on Aug. 17 of this year, with the area forecast partly cloudy. I moved quickly in an effort to stay ahead of some threatening weather coming in from the northwest, which was not forecast. 

But traversing the high ridge, I couldn’t help but pause and take in the view. In addition to what I call the “painted hills,” I could see Caribou Creek winding far into the Talkeetna Mountains. To the northeast lay Squaw Creek and beyond, the Syncline Mountains.

The most spectacular view, however, was to the south and southwest — where the Matanuska Glacier snaked deep into the Chugach Mountains to the base of towering, snow-capped giants, including Mt. Marcus Baker at 13,176 feet.

It was cloudy far to the east. But on exceptionally clear days, which I’ve seen only a few times in this area, Mt. Blackburn, Mt. Drum and some of the other Wrangell Mountain and St. Elias giants are visible.

Finding new in the familiar

After summiting the 6,441-foot mountain 17 times over the last 25 years; about half of the time in winter, one would expect the journey would become rather blasé. Yet it seems that every trip, whether solo or with others, has been an interesting adventure.

My first forays on Gunsight were in the early 1990s with cross-country skis. From a distance on the Glenn Highway I noticed the broad and gradual slopes of the mountain’s eastern flanks and thought to myself: “Even as a poor skier, I could do that.”

A failed skier

I skied the mountain quite a few times in the 1990s and early 2000s and clumsily, I might add. No neat telemark curly-cue tracks for me. The only way I could get down from Gunsight’s lofty summit without serious injury was to use most of the mountain’s wide, eastern slope to perform long, diagonal maneuvers: Traverse across and down, stop, switch direction; traverse across and down, stop, switch direction.

Perhaps because of relatively cold winter temperatures in this region, the snow never seems to consolidate on Gunsight Mountain like it does in Turnagain Pass and other areas to the south.

So, adding to my plethora of skiing challenges was snow that randomly, frequently and unexpectedly gave way — leaving me buried and flailing until I could figure out a way of getting back up.

Thus I eventually abandoned skis and went to snowshoes, often following snow machine trails.  Then I pretty much abandoned snowshoes in winter and opted for spring, summer and autumn climbs.

The “Teardrop” route

As reported here several years ago, my annual hike up the mountain usually begins in late August or early September before the first snow hits up high. I start at a large gravel pit at Mile 114 of the Glenn Highway, at Glacier Fan Creek. A prominent landmark is Meekins Flying Service, which is directly across the highway.

This route approaches Gunsight mountain from the south and west sides.  I ascend via the ridge just to the west of Glacier Fan Creek, (Sheep Mountain Lodge side) and follow it north (using sheep trails whenever possible).

I stay on this ridge all the way to an elevation of about 6,000 feet, where I reach what I call the “connector ridge.”  From there I turn east and hike less than two miles (again, mostly following sheep trails) to reach the Gunsight notch. From there it’s a relatively easy, 20-minute ascent to the south summit on a well-worn trail.

From the south summit it is a straightforward descent looping east and then south to a wide, grassy plateau on the east side of Glacier Fan Creek. An established trail, somewhat steep in places, leads all the way down to a large gravel pit where I begin the hike.

The route — about 6½ miles in all — is basically a circumnavigation of Glacier Fan Creek Canyon.

I mention this route in detail because it is a terrific way for a non-technical hiker/climber to see a lot of country and reach a relatively high mountain summit. And in alluding to this trip so often, I might risk becoming over-repetitive to readers.

But over a space of seven years I’ve never seen anyone on this route and I think many folks would enjoy all or even part of it.

Some scrambling skill is necessary to skirt around gendarmes, or cliff faces; but as I mentioned, the sheep trails generally offer good route alternatives.

I’ve always seen wildlife on this route; most recently, a Golden eagle; about 25 Dall sheep, a large hawk that I couldn’t identify and most always, ptarmigan.

Years ago my dog chased a red fox lower down on Gunsight’s eastern slope, but the critter deftly made a quick escape. One winter during a ski approach from the eastern side, I was surrounded by a small group of caribou — an offshoot of the Nelchina herd.

No summit register

 On this recent trip I couldn’t find the summit register I had placed for the Mountaineering Club of Alaska  quite a few years ago. I’m not sure who absconds with these things, or why. 

Taking a break on the summit and finishing a late lunch, I reflected on folks who had joined me at this aerie over the years: my son David when he was 14, a friend Dudley Cheal from the U.K.; Eagle River friends Brent Voorhees, Pete Panarese, Jeff Worrell and Dave Gahm (deceased); Anchorage co-worker Shawn Aspelund; New Zealander Judith Terpstra and Romanian friend Radu Girbacea. It was the same summit every time, but we always shared new experiences.

Staying ahead of stormy-looking skies, I quickly descended to the wide grassy plateau at about 4,500 feet, picked a few blueberries, then followed the ridge trail down to the gravel pit and back to my car. It was a strenuous 8½ hour outing, but to me it was time well spent.

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