Lack of preparation: A cautionary tale on Harp Mountain climb

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 13:45
  • View of the Chugach Mountains to the southwest from the 5,001-foot summit of Harp Mountain on October 6, 2019, above South Fork (Eagle River) Valley. (Frank Baker photo)
  • South Fork valley from summit of 5,001-foot Harp Mountain. (Frank Baker photo)

Cold gusts of wind swept across the mountain, numbing my fingers and cutting through my nylon pants. What I believed was going to be an enjoyable autumn outing on Harp Mountain in South Fork Valley was quickly becoming a winter siege.

Three days earlier I was on the Kenai Peninsula, peacefully basking in warm sun along the shore of Lost Lake, admiring the alpine tundra’s brilliant fall colors.

About one degree of latitude to the north of Lost Lake and at an elevation of roughly 2,000 feet, South Fork Valley (Eagle River) was covered in a thin veneer of snow. It was October 6, and winter’s sudden arrival wasn’t going to spoil my hike, I thought. I drove to the end of the road to the base of Harp Mountain, across the valley from the main South Fork Trailhead.

Even with the light snow cover, the ground was mostly unfrozen and traction was good as I made my way uphill. At this point there was no wind and with the temperature in the high 30s or low 40s Fahrenheit, it was plenty comfortable.

There were fresh footprints in the snow, so I knew there were people ahead of me. It turned out to be two runners who had quickly dashed to the summit and back. A woman and a dog eventually caught up with me on the second big hump.

“There isn’t anyone in the Greater Milky Way Galaxy slower than me,” I muttered, as she climbed past me.

It wasn’t until after crossing over the second big hump that I noticed the wind from the northeast. About this time I saw that the woman had turned around and commented as she passed by: “I didn’t dress for this.”

“I didn’t either,” I felt like telling her, turning up the hood on my Gortex jacket and donning my wool hat. I continued upward, but with really skimpy gloves, the 15-20 MPH wind was quickly numbing my hands. Without long underwear or wind pants, my legs were cold. I angled to my right on the mountain, or south, temporarily escaping the wind.

Summit fever

At this point, about two-thirds of the way up the mountain, common sense succumbed to stubbornness. I wanted to get to the top, cold or not, so I quickened my pace.

About two hours from the car I reached the top of the 5,001-foot peak, which is fast for me. I found a spot out of the wind, but instead of having lunch, I quickly gulped down two cups of hot coffee. And just as quickly, I snapped a few photos. I was surprised how quickly the feeling in my hands returned once I was out of the wind. In about five minutes I was somewhat warmer and briskly headed down. On the way I met a rugged-looking, white-bearded guy who exclaimed cheerfully: “Great day for an autumn hike!”

“Takes all kinds,” I thought to myself, scrambling downhill. “Sure feels like winter to me.”

The descent seemed to take me out of the wind more than the uphill climb. It began to sleet, or what weather forecasters call a “wintry mix.” I kept on moving and by the time I was halfway down my entire body, including hands, felt considerably warmer.

But for someone who should know better, the lesson was evident: Never go into Alaska’s mountains unprepared, no matter what time of year. I should have had thicker gloves and been wearing wind pants. I had a lightweight polar fleece jacket under my Gortex shell, but a heavier one would have been better. For winter outings, a balaclava (face mask) is something you should just leave in your pack.

Kahtoolas, or some kind of microspikes to attach to boots are good to have handy, even early in the winter. I left those at home too.

Watch the time

I had plenty of daylight for this hike, but at this time of the year as we lose about 5-1/2 minutes per day, we need to carefully calculate our time. Taking along a headlamp is a good idea during these days of waning daylight. I always tell my wife where I’m going, and leave a note detailing the location.

And of course, as I’ve mentioned before in other columns, common sense is the most valuable asset we can take along on hikes. By all rights I should have turned around. The Chugach’s Harp Mountain, named long ago after a musical instrument as several of its neighboring peaks, will always be there.

Getting there

Follow Hiland Road for several miles, cross a bridge over South Fork Eagle River and continue on this road (on the east side of the valley) to its end. Turn around at the cul-de-sac and park ahead, or north, of the fire lane signs. Keep noise down in consideration of neighbors.

Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River with his wife Rebekah, a retired elementary school teacher.

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