Light, But Not So Fast, in Alaska’s Chugach Mountains

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The summer backpacking season in Southcentral Alaska is akin to an on-again, off-again relationship. Just earlier this month we experienced weeks of cold, rainy weather where the mercury barely broke 50 degrees at noon.

This was suddenly (and thankfully) interrupted by a ridge of high pressure that sat over the state for nearly two weeks, bringing splitter blue days and temps in the 80s. Then it was gone just as soon as it arrived, leaving us again in the doldrums of drizzle and gray skies. This repeated cycle can induce a sort of anxiety on the locals. All of us keep our gear ready and a handful of “must-dos” in the forefront of our minds, ready to be executed at a moment’s notice.

Chugach Front Range

Even though there’s a trail leading up Snowhawk Valley in Chugach State Park, it’s so overgrown you need to follow GPS waypoints.

It was a sudden change in the weather that spurred us into action on a trek that we’d been wanting to try. Our plan was to traverse the series of mountains known locally as the Chugach Front Range, from end to end, bagging as many summits as possible. These peaks are literally out our backdoor and make an obvious option for a last-minute trek. Knowing that we’d be doing a lot of scrambling up and down ridgelines, we kept our kit light, about 15 pounds each. That included food and gas for four days. That was the length of our forecasted weather window and we planned on using every bit of it. Even though the length of our traverse, about 30 miles, could be banged out as a reasonable overnighter, we wanted to linger in these mountains for awhile. Hopefully we would emerge right as the high pressure began to collapse.

Chugach Front Range

Snowhawk Valley opens up to a handful of high peaks perfect for scrambling. Agnes is tempted by Temptation Peak.

The trail up Snowhawk Valley is so overgrown that you feel like you’re taking a new way each time you hike it. But the thick brush and deep mud is a small price to pay for the reasonable access to the upper valley. Craggy Chugach peaks tower overhead, every one of them perfect for bagging. On day one we tackled the pointy summits of Temptation, Tikishla and Tanaina peaks before crossing over to the next valley.

Chugach Front Range

Agnes nears the summit of Tikishla Peak, one of the dozen 5,000-foot peaks in the Chugach Front Range.

Chugach Front Range

Agnes signs the summit register on top of Tikishla Peak, one of the dozen 5,000-foot peaks in the Chugach Front Range.

We set up camp the first night in the luxurious tundra above Long Lake. The midnight sun lit up tomorrow’s objective, Mount Williwaw, as we turned in.

Chugach Front Range

We set up camp on the soft tundra above Long Lake in the North Fork Campbell Creek Valley. Starting with a climb up Williwaw Peak, the next day was going to be a long one.

The next day, from the backside of Williwaw, steep terrain forced us nearly down to Ship Lake before we were able to regain the ridge just below the pyramid peak of The Ramp. A sheep trail took us along The Wedge to end our second day at Green Lake just below the popular Powerline Pass. And that’s all the good weather we got.

Chugach Front Range

Agnes hikes to the northeast ridge of Mount Williwaw. At 5,445 feet, Williwaw is highest peak in the front range of the Chugach Mountains.

Chugach Front Range

Some exposed class-three scrambling guards the summit of Mount Williwaw.

Morning came with a cold wind that signaled the end of our high pressure and a change in the weather. We were determined to continue on with our little mission, even though we were down to navigating by GPS a couple hours after breaking camp. The storm began in earnest by the time we were deep into a delightful pair of mountains named Suicide and Homicide.

Chugach Front Range

Strong wind and rain finally forced us to retreat off the ridge that makes up the Suicide Peaks in Chugach State Park. Agnes carefully picks her way down a scree gully to Rabbit Lake and the trail home.

Rain made traversing the Chugach rock a slick proposition, especially while traversing the ridgeline. The storm intensified as we progressed, bringing more wind and more rain. Finally we decided to bail just a couple miles short of our intended trailhead. It wasn’t easy to find a way off the ridge in the limited visibility, but we picked our way down to Rabbit Lake and a trail that lead nearly to our home. In a couple hours we were back indoors, wet gear and clothes hanging in the drying room and a fire crackling in the living room. It was just another summer day in coastal Alaska.

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