I don ‘t want to sound wimpy, but this was probably the most challenging hike I’ve ever done. I have done plenty of physical pursuits that equaled the exhaustion and cardiovascular output plenty of times in my life. I’ve slogged out miles and carried heavy loads. I’ve been drenched in sweat as the sun beat down on me. I’ve hiked with less water than I should have. But this hike up Falls Mountain gave me a challenge I’ve yet to master: route finding. Couple that with all of the above and throw in 28 miles from civilization with no phone or safety net and clinging to loose scree in grizzly bear territory, and I was definitely at my extreme limits of comfort.
The quick growing vegetation made the trail conditions a bit interesting as we snaked between down spruce trees, low brush, and intermittent rocks. There was no particular direction of choice; it seemed as if the best way through had originally been predicated by the moose and wildlife paths. We connected with Dick Pronekke path up the valley from the lake and continued steeper up the spruce forest until we broke out at the tundra line and found ourselves looking into the Falls. We enjoyed the view of the towering valley and thin waterfall for a while, turning around to capture Twin Lakes in all its glory. This was the perfect vantage point to take in Dick’s home of over 30 years. You could clearly see the valley Hope Creek cut through, with Teetering Rock on one side and the Cowgill Benches on the other. Spike’s cabin and the forest service cabins just barely poked out of the forest and Hope Creek rolled into the lake and sent up a fury of whitewater. To the right was the face of the grizzly bear etched into the hillside by the connector stream and to the left, the majestic snow laced peaks at the stately head of the lake. They stacked and layered high above the region and invited your mind’s eye to imagine wilderness beyond its reaches.
But the hike REALLY began when Gary told us the story of the time he was mauled by a grizzly bear at the exact spot we were standing in and then sent us on our way. The sound of the falls had evidently drowned out their approach and the wind was at their backs so the grizzly had attacked out of protection of its cub and drug Gary and his girlfriend down the mountain out of its territory. With that light story, he had sent us on our way!
Our basic directions had been to follow a zigzag of vegetation around 3 sections of rocky outcropping and then walk the relatively low angled top all the way to the peak. When we asked how long it should take, Gary joked that everything in Alaska is estimated in a “that’ll take about 15 more minutes” increments. In reality, there are so many variables when hiking, it is nearly impossible to predict what one’s ability level is, conditions are, etc. We had read in some of Gary’s writings that he had done it in around 2 hours in his prime. Only later did we also learn that Gary could hike people into the ground in his prime and had quite a reputation as a beast of a hiking partner. At one point Gary had stated, that’s not the way I take, but you two should be just fine. I’m not sure what kind of impression we gave him, but maybe we should have been more clear about our lack of mountains in Southern Indiana, or any of the Midwest for that matter. The lack of exact directions, in my mind, is what made the hike so challenging. After leaving the falls and ascending the next section, the constant uncertainty as to our exact place, direction, and best path made every step feel unsure and a blanket of insecurity felt draped over me.
The next 2 hours consisted of a vicious cycle of about 10 steps of vertical effort followed by rest, exhaling, fear, and scouting a route for the next 10 steps. I felt like I was climbing a ladder with one hand reaching up for something to hold. I would make sure I placed a foot or hand solidly before letting go with the other so that I always had a point of contact since so much of what I grabbed or tried to hold on to was loose and would go sliding beneath my weight. Hiking behind my husband, seemed to be a true test in love, as he continually sent debris and small boulders hurtling toward my face. If we hiked up in the vegetation, the overgrowth meant we were hiking in waist high willows that could best be described as trying to walk through a mini forest of wooden octopus arms. Not to mention that is the perfect habitat for bears- of the black and brown kind.
We finally reached the knoll above the falls that leveled out. To the right was a long staircase of mini peaks to the top, behind us was the high sloping sheep pasture. Before us I have to admit was a view worthy of the effort. I was content to take in all of Twin Lakes, bask in the sun, and then return to the cabin knowing and respecting my limits. I didn’t feel I had to prove anything to anyone. I was satisfied, proud of the effort, and comfortable in my limitations. But my husband had been overtaken by peak fever. He said we’d just rest, snack and hydrate for 15 minutes before deciding if we wanted to press onward and upward. I should have known that would be my downfall. After getting my blood sugar back on track, his insistence to “just hike for 15 more minute” and see what it was like drew me up the mountain. I suppose I knew then how important it was to him that we peak out and I suppose my love for him is why I followed. Don’t your wedding vows say something about following a souse to he ends of the earth? I guess we were headed for the top end.
The hiking was much improved, I must admit. It as mostly a gentle climb and the terrain was much more stable, which allowed my cortisol levels to stabilize. However, it was remarkable how close the peak appeared, but how long it still took to reach it. Three times I set my phone to record the final moment when we’d be standing on to of the Twin Lakes world, and three times, my heart fell as another ridge appeared out of no where. We were so close, too close, to just walk away, forever having to say we “almost” got to the top. So on we trudged until I found no where else to go and spun around for a new 360 degree view of all Lake Clark.
It was as if someone had just unzipped a whole new world. Layers and layers of mountains appeared. Lakes and valleys opened up as I sat straddling the peak. The expanse was dizzying- the wind reminding me I was alive. The enormity of Lake Clark appeared so small and focused from up there. I felt like a map had been laid out before me and the lay of the land and orientation of the region finally fit together like a completed puzzle. I knew the hike down was tremendous, I had already feared it, but I could sit there for so long, feeling accomplished and in control. We had made it. We had conquered our fears.
The biggest surprise of all on top of the mountain was the absolutely active wildlife on top. Fields of the most intricate, colorful wildflowers blanketed the floor. Butterflies fluttered around us and landed on our shoulders out of curiosity. Scat showed evidence that even the sheep had stood in this spot and overlooked their kingdom. Even an Alaskan mosquito drew blood from me as I admired the view. It was funny how such a seemingly inaccessible place was home to a host of creatures and life.
From the top we clearly saw a much better way down than the one we had trudged up. My tired knees braced for the steep descent, but we barreled down the long green tundra of the backside of the mountain, the side we had been unaware of as we trudged up and down the loose rocky outcropping of before. When we reached the flat sheep pasture linking the mountain peaks and offering its shelter, we rested and listened to the Arctic squirrels chirp at us and lift up on their hind legs for a better view of these strange new visitors. Across the valley we saw an enormous grizzly den dug out of the high hillside.
After resting, we deliberated on where to go next. We essentially had to hug the mountain side and round the blind corner back to the falls. The question before us remained- how could we ensure that we were lined up correctly to return to the lake side of the falls without leading ourselves into a sheer drop off? We both agreed on what appeared to be the safest of routes, a route that kept us moving down the mountain while avoiding the scree and drop offs that had been so harrowing not he way up. We noticed a sheep trail that offered the tiniest of ledges around the mountain and decided it looked the most established of routes before us. We slowly descended, watching for each other’s footholds and tackling 10-12 feet at a time until we were at an impasse.
Before us was the clutch decision. Do we commit and go for the route we were on and risk a roadblock or travel back up to the last known spot we had a ended before? Together we agreed to move forward. I led the way, eager to just get “home”to the cabin. It had been over 5 hours on a planned 4 hour hike. We still faced dangerous descents and bear territory. I just wanted it to be over. So with shorter in mind, we went for it. As I rounded the last corner, I exhaled a huge sigh of relief that the valley floor did not drop off and plunge to the falls before us, but instead offered a tricky, but doable climb down a rock face.
Exhausted and ready to be done, I muddled through a treacherous climb. I think my body was overloaded from the stress and just couldn’t process any more worry. That’s probably a dangerous headspace to operate in, but I was just worn down from the pressure or desensitized to my surroundings after battling all day.
All I remember of the last hour was a repeated mantra of “I want to get home. I want to get home.” We retraced our steps and muddled on in a trance. I turned into a machine, just powering through each section from the morning. Finally after 6 1/2 hours, the top of the cabin poked through the forest and I could see blue skies above the lake.
I know I was beyond my skill set and comfort zone. Perhaps we had been lucky and avoided a disastrously unfortunate demise by an accidental misstep. Maybe I was in no danger at all, but just way outside anything I had experience before. But we did it. I hope my husband loves me.
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