With a name like that, I should have known this hike would get cold. I was forewarned about a storm system pushing through Alaska, but I chose to follow some advice that sounded good at the time. As it happens, there is such a thing as bad weather.
I later read National Weather Service observations of record-setting rainfall and wind gusting to 85 mph. Lucky for me, the squall hit as I approached the emergency shelter, but getting there required hiking over big patches of snow. The simplicity of trail-running shoes suddenly seemed pretty silly.
Surprisingly, my feet never felt cold, despite being thoroughly soaked in meltwater and walking on long stretches of the white stuff. (Credit good wool socks.) My hands, however, were a different story. The wind howling over the Harding Icefield was predictably frigid, as was the rain that blew in sideways. I stuffed my fists deep into my old raincoat’s “hard-warmer” pockets, which felt about the same as reaching into a cooler of iced-down beer. (How did I forget to bring gloves?)
I kept moving—hopping and jogging in place—while taking refuge inside the dark, dank emergency shelter. Overriding my lack of thirst, I drank as much water as I could force down. The peanut butter Clif-Bar I ate was rock hard. I watched for other hikers through a crack in the doorway but saw only shades of white and grey.
At a lull in the storm, I prepared to fast-hike down to the windbreak of trees a few miles below. I tried texting the plan to my hosts in Seward, but as expected, there was no signal. I scrawled a simple note and tucked it into a bundle of trail flags on the floor. Fingers still numb, I fisted the pen and wrote like a kindergardener: “Andy Fairbanks. Arrived 3:45 pm September 4. Nasty weather! Heading back. Staying with _____ at Stoney Creek.” Just in case.
I went as fast as I dared over the snow, jogged and bounded where possible on the mountain’s gravel, but had to go slowly where the park service had placed stair-shaped rocks on the trail. (Easier to climb up, but much slower to scramble down.) I passed a trio of smiling young European women on their way up. When asked how much farther, I attempted to explain the exposure to gale-force winds, but they seemed confident and well-equipped (including boots and gloves that I coveted). Their response: “OK, sank you very much! …Oh, and vee pass a lee-til bear on zee trail below. Sooo cute!”
More often than not, people I meet on the trails here are visiting from another country. It’s interesting how such a remote place, steeped in American Frontier lore and sometimes proud of Sarah Palin, can also be so cosmopolitan. But I digress…
Suffice to say, I made it home — thoroughly soaked and pretty damned cold, but safely inside to watch the trees bend in the breeze. After a long, hot shower I built a fire in the woodstove and laid out my wet clothes and backpack to dry. I put on my long-johns (which I should have worn on the hike), jeans, thick socks and a sweater. After I warmed up with a cup of hot cocoa, a cold Alaskan IPA really hit the spot.