Call 911? What else was I going to do? We had made it up the steepest part of the Race Trail and while the first few minutes were all about pictures and the magnificent scenery of Chilkat Peninsula, things quickly took a change for the worse.
It’s early morning in the Southeast Panhandle and all is quiet. Quiet? I sit up to make sure I am awake and not dreaming; the wind has stopped. Looking out the window I could see a clear sky, and stars scattered miles down the inlet glowing brightly against a backdrop of black. It was going to be a beautiful day here in Southeast Alaska, and a day like this is what many of us endure the long winters for. We deserve a day of sunshine; after all we had over thirty feet of snow so far and there was still more to come.
The sun would soon be bursting its rays over the mountains, and I was busting at the seems to get out and spend the day taking it all in.
It was just after eight o’clock, and I wanted to get a head start on the day and couldn’t wait any longer. I picked up the phone and called my favorite hiking buddy and friend, Holly. After all by the time we figured out where we were going and prepared our backpacks for the day, it would be well past mid-morning. Although the sun was shining, the days were still short and by late afternoon it would be dark again.
Holly answered with that soft still in bed sound, “Good morning, Angie.” She knew it was me calling when she opened her eyes and saw the beautiful morning on the horizon.
After only a couple of minutes on the phone, we were preparing for a hike somewhere. I was going to be at her house in thirty minutes, and we would figure the rest out from there.
After considering all of our options, we decided on the Race Trail. It begins where Second Avenue and Young Road merge together at the foot of Mt. Ripinsky, which makes it ideal for a day hike, being that it’s close to town.
Upon arriving at the trail head I can see that it begins an immediate ascent on the mountain. Stepping off of the road and onto the trail I could see tracks left by someone who had climbed up the day before. The snowpack was perfect for hiking so, we decided against snowshoes; and with Jake (my lab) leading the way, we started out on one of the most memorable journeys of our lives.
Meandering up the windy steep trail we stopped every so often to catch our breath and stare through the dense forest that surrounded us. Looking deep into the trees there was a darkness that loomed over the forest floor, that even the sun could not penetrate.
We soon came to the first look out on the trail and although our intentions were to stop here; the view convinced us otherwise. So, after taking a picture and having a quick drink of water, we were off again.
Continuing up the trail there were openings in the trees that showed views of town, the mountains and inlets to the south and west. The further we climbed, the further we wanted to go; the view from the top would have to be the ultimate.
Eventually we reached a critical point in the trail; the tracks we had stepped over all the way up, lead over an area in the trail that was covered with heavy snow and was as close to vertical as we had seen. We stood at the bottom of the steep incline and discussed what we were going to do.
After considering it for just a few minutes, we decided I would go first and Holly could follow in my steps after I reached the top. The incline was steep but, only for ten feet or so. I began by kicking my toes into the snow until I was deep enough horizontally, then packed it down with a couple of hard taps with my boot.
The first couple of steps went smoothly, as I tested each step for a solid strong hold but, the third step collapsed and I was back to where I had started from. However, with some perseverance and a few willow limbs I was soon at the top.
It was Holly’s turn and she seemed to be a bit hesitant; however, willing to give it a good try. I could see the concern on her face as she began digging her feet into the steps I had made and grasping at the snow for some leverage. She managed to grab ahold of a tree branch for extra support and as she began pulling down against it, it snapped and sent her back down. I yelled down and warned her that, if she was going to use a branch, to pull it straight toward her and test it for durability.
Again, she began digging in with everything she had, but she was not going to use any branches, she didn’t trust them. Meanwhile, I am standing above her looking down, shouting words of encouragement and directing her on what to do.
This time she was making it, when she reached the halfway point I stretched out on my belly and using the toes of my boots I dug into the snow behind me for extra support. I reached down as far as I could with my ski pole for her to grab hold of.
“Come on Holly, one more step!” Finally, she had a grasp on the pole and with that I was able to give her added security and a pull her upwards.
We crawled up to where we could safely relax and enjoy the view. I dropped my backpack in the snow and dug until I found my water bottle. Sitting down with Jake beside me, I simply sat there quietly enjoying the moment while Holly was busy taking pictures. After a couple of minutes, I stood up and pulled my camera out and between the two of us we had pictures from every angle and of each other.
The excitement soon ended when I began scooting back down toward the steep incline we had conquered just minutes ago. I looked back at Holly and her face had a serious glow to it as she said, “Angie, I am not going back down that way!” She was truly frightened and I did not try to change her mind. I could see the frame of mind she was leading herself into and so, I decided to reach her in a different way. After all this is not the place to have someone go into a full-blown panic.I crawled back up the trail and with an ease to my voice I asked her, “What do you want to do, Holly?” She replied; I want to continue on this trail until we meet up with the Skyline Trail at the cell phone tower and we can follow it down. I asked her if she had used that part of the trail before; she stated that she had, and at that point I had no reason to doubt her.
We started on the trail following the pink ribbons that led us toward the cell tower. A few hundred yards later we came to an opening in the trees and I could see the sheer rock face straight below us; I now had an idea where we were at in comparison to the tower. The rock face I was looking down on can be seen from town. We were a long way from the cell tower, the snow was getting deeper, and we didn’t have our snowshoes. I suddenly was beginning to lose patience and knew I had to stop this life threatening danger we were in.
“Holly!” I spoke with a firm voice; “We do not have enough time to get off of the mountain before dark if we go this way; the snow is getting deeper and without snow shoes we won’t make it.” I was wet from the snow dropping off of the trees onto my shoulders and scared if we continued this way and the sun went down that I would be looking at hypothermia setting in. I thought I had her convinced at this point; we had turned and started back to where we had come from.
Twenty minutes later we were back facing the steep trail she was so terrified of. Again, she refused to go down and said, “You go down the trail Ang, I am going the other way.” I could not let her go by herself, so once again I found myself following her out the trail. Again I let her take the lead as my mind was working overtime trying to come up with another plan.
As we continued on my anxiety was starting to hit hard, knowing the danger we were putting ourselves in. I knew this could turn into a life and death situation in just a few more hours.
We were soon beyond where we had turned around on our first trip out the trail. The pink ribbons that we were following were getting harder to find; we were gaining a bit of altitude and the snow was getting deeper and covering up the ribbons.
I watched her as she lead the way acting confident that she could get us off of the mountain. As I watched I began to notice she was having difficulty following the pink ribbons, or finding them. It was then that I came to the realization that she really did not know how to find the tower without the trail, and knowing how far we were from the tower I was now beginning to realize I would have to demand that we turn around. After all, I was not going to die on that mountain.
“Holly!” “We can’t do this.” I said. I could see the determination in her face, she can be very stubborn but, I could also see she knew I was right. Are we going to have a fight right here on the mountain?” My determination was stronger because I knew what kind of situation we were in and she did not. I did not want to upset a good friend, but I had no choice. I stuck to my guns!
After a short, but heated conversation I convinced her to call her husband, Joe.
She began by explaining to him where we were and what was happening. I could hear both ends of the conversation, and I could tell Joe was joking around with her at first. Then I heard her say, “I am going to the tower and then down the Skyline Trail!” I heard a stern voice come from the phone, which I will remember for the rest of my life; “No Holly, don’t go that way!” I could see Holly’s face turning red, as she began to cry, and she pulled the phone away from her ear and tossed it to me.
“Hello Joe.” I said. “I need you to get up here now! I can’t get her down by myself.” Joe did not realize exactly how serious the situation was, he was not hearing what I was saying until I got mad and said a few words I normally would never say to a good friend. However, I still remained calm so, I wouldn’t panic Holly any more than she already was. When Joe realized I was desperate he quickly responded that he was going to go get crampons, a rope and that he would call when he was starting up the trail.
When the phone call ended, I explained to Holly what we were going to do, and she reluctantly followed me back to where our hike had turned bad.
When we reached the area we were to meet Joe, I slipped on my snow pants to keep the chill off and then sat down. As I sat there eating an apple, I talked about life in general trying to calm some of the fears that I knew were racing through her mind. After all she still had to go down.
An hour went by before we heard from Joe. When he called, he was at the trail head and starting up. Much to my relief he was with us in less than an hour.
Joe quickly went to work getting Holly securely fastened to the rope, while she worked on getting her crampons tightly strapped to her boots. When she was ready he slowly began lowering her a little at a time until she was safely at the bottom. A few minutes later we were all standing together, and ready to start down the trail.
For the climb down I switched back over to my rain pants. The idea of making a sliding board out of the last thousand feet of the trail seemed to dissolve some of the anxiety I had been feeling. I sat down on the first steep section of trail and pushed off. As I headed into each corner I used my feet and legs to steer my body, bouncing off of jagged rocks and trees until I reached the bottom.
A few days later we decided to snow shoe on the golf course where it’s flat. As we neared the west side of the course we stopped to take a break and face the mountain. I showed Holly where we had been in comparison to the tower. Then I said, “If you are ever having a bad day, look up there and try to remember how you felt and things won’t seem so bad.”
Alaska Mountain Guides: for a guided snowshoe tour call 1-800-766-3396 or 1-907-766-3369 or visit their website @ www.alaskamountainguides.com.
Alaska Back Country Outfitter Store: for quality outdoor clothing, snowshoe and cross-country ski rentals: www.alaskabackcountryoutfitter.com or call 1-907-766-2876.
Lynn View Lodge & Cabins: For more information www.lynnviewlodge.com or call 907-766-3713. Pick up at the Airport & Ferry Terminal. SUV Rentals.