This morning we woke to three additional inches of snow and an updated story in the news about Lonnie Dupre who is attempting the first solo summit of Mt. McKinley in January. Only 16 men have stood atop the tallest mountain in North America in the dead of winter. Three have died in the attempt. This is Dupre’s second try. Last year he was holed up in a snow cave at 17,200 feet for a full week before the weather let up. By then he was so weak he had to descend. In spite of the perils, the mountain beckons this 50-year-old adventurer from Grand Marais, Minnesota.
Our little mountain closer to home beckons too. Baldy Mountain is a training hill really, a quick 1,000-foot climb that gives lungs, heart, and quads a good workout. Standing on the summit of our local peak on a clear day, you can see McKinley looming majestic on the horizon.
For years Baldy was a summer hike for me. From the time my kids were old enough to pick berries, we delighted in being able to see features of our town in miniature as we overlooked Eagle River from the mountain’s flanks. The boys were just four and six years old the first time we stood on the summit – what an exhilarating achievement for those two little guys. Every year, I looked forward to springtime for the trail to dry up. Later in the fall, with the arrival of snow, I reluctantly put away my hiking boots.
Awhile back, I introduced a friend to Baldy and he has been charging up the hill several times a week ever since. I may have slowed down my pace in the beginning, but before long it was all I could do to keep up with him. Bill liked the climb so much that when winter came, he just kept on climbing. He bought spikes for our shoes and thus opened the door to a whole new world of wintertime hiking.
Winter climbing can be especially challenging – and rewarding. The wind and snow sculpt the landscape daily. Summer’s pre-determined and predictable path now grows steeper as snow fills in the gullies and clings to the angled face of the mountain. We are always grateful for the first hardy souls that kick-step their way up after a heavy snowfall. They leave behind a staircase that makes our climb easier. There are other days when we create our own steps – days when our lungs and legs require an extra measure of stamina.
At the top, we sometimes have the pleasure of watching the orange ball of the winter sun sinking into Cook Inlet. And if we’re really lucky, we see the Fata Morgana; mirages on the horizon that create striking images of inverted mountains, shimmering canyons, and towering spires. This optical illusion happens when rays of light bend as they pass through air layers of different temperatures.
There are other days when the wind is so strong that it is almost possible to imagine McKinley in a storm. Blowing snow stings our eyes and freezes our eyelashes. It steals our breath away; several times the wind has ripped the hats from our heads and lifted our bodies like sails. It’s best to stay low on such days. The last few yards to the summit of Baldy have, on occasion, been climbed on hands and knees. The amazing thing on those stormy days is that invariable on our way up or down, we will see someone else doing the same crazy thing. And above the roar of the wind, we greet one another.
“Nice day, huh?” We shout to be heard above the roaring wind.
“Couldn’t be better!”
Then we hurry along to a place on the mountain where the pitch of the storm is less intense.
There is an entire community of Baldy climbers who make the trek almost daily. There’s the man who sometimes rides his bike from the bottom of Skyline Drive to the trailhead and then climbs to the top and back. There’s the woman with a Carr’s grocery bag who picks up litter on her way up and down. And there’s Tim, my former neighbor, whose grinning Labrador, Aspen, is the progeny of my dog, LC. People and dogs on the trail are perennially friendly – but no one pauses to visit very long – we’re all on the go, eager to achieve our goal for the day. These Baldy climbers have all begun to feel like old friends.
Meanwhile, I am watching and hoping the best for Dupre’s exponentially more challenging attempt on McKinley. An hour or so after beginning our hike up Baldy, we are back in our vehicles heading for a warm home and a hot meal. Dupre may still have weeks on a perilous trail. The storms he contends with could be deadly. And while we may not understand fully what compels him to his goal, I can understand the yearning to be in Alaska’s wilderness whatever the season or challenge. And Baldy is a reminder that the quest to test our personal limits can come in climbing small summits too.