One Step at a Time up Mt. Alice
By Troy Henkels
Before I even set out, I wasn’t sure it could be done. My goal was to get to the summit of Mt. Alice. Looking at this mountain from across the bay in Seward, Alaska, it is a daunting sight to say the least. Mt. Alice rises 5,265 feet above Resurrection Bay. It is the highest peak in the area. I was well aware of this fact, as I had attempted to get up Alice before and had been defeated every time. I had studied Mt. Alice from just about every other mountain within eyesight that I had already climbed.
No one I had talked to had ever been up Mt. Alice in the summer. I managed to find one person who had been to the top in winter, by climbing near vertical snow chutes on the west face. Even historical records listed people that had tried over the years, and only mentioned those that died trying, not one listing of anyone making it to the top. Mt. Alice is named after one of the Lowell daughters, an early settler in the area. My aspirations to climb this mountain had not been for lack of effort. Six years ago a climbing friend (aptly nicknamed Danimal) and I set out to make an attempt. Danimal is about the only person I would trust in such dangerous conditions. He was experienced and willing to take some calculated risks to reach our goal. In sunny weather we made our approach and even got part way across the long knife ridge that leads to the real climbing and the summit. But the weather deteriorated quickly and a heavy drizzle coupled with dense fog put us scrambling on slick rock to get back to safety. The hike down took hours as we navigated through ridge lines and dense woods in a heavy fog, getting disoriented and lost more than a few times. It was very much like hiking in the dark, without a flashlight.
One must understand the difficulties and dangers of this climb before we go any further. Mt. Alice is a mass of vertical rock that rises abruptly and is surrounded by the ocean (Resurrection Bay) on one side and glaciers on all other sides. The rock is not granite, but shale and therefore very poor for climbing safely. This “rotten rock” is despised in the climbing world, as it does not provide good hand holds, but breaks off and crumbles when you grab onto it to climb. It offers no secure placement of anchors to arrest a fall. In addition, Kenai Fjords and Resurrection Bay experience very few sunny days and usually the weather changes rapidly into rain, fog, and wind. These factors combined offer very little in the way of success in getting up this peak.
Nonetheless, to my good fortune I set out on a rare crystal clear day with no wind. My friend Dave would accompany me for the approach hike until the real climbing started. He was content to soak up the sun and wait for my return, in a large field of alpine flowers. The approach hike is an Alaskan classic. The trail traverses through dense spruce forests choked with alders and a particularly nasty plant called “devils club”. Hiking up from sea level through this strata of vegetation I’m quaintly reminded of the dense rainforests of Australia and Central America. Certainly this part of Alaska boasts some of the densest forest vegetation anywhere in the state. Once above tree line, the trail continues upward along a rocky spine that offers spectacular views of Resurrection Bay, the surrounding mountains, and the crevasse filled glacier below. Dave and I make the final climb up extremely large boulders to a wide-open expanse that abruptly ends in a cascade of rock that plummets down to the spectacular Godwin Glacier, several thousand feet below. This is where Dave stops and the real climbing begins.
With no ropes or protective climbing gear I plan to move quickly and be back in 3 hours. Dave wishes me luck and lays down to take a nap in the sun. I begin a long traverse across a knife ridge that will lead me to more vertical rock that will eventually lead me to the summit. This ridge gets narrower and more daunting the further I go. It is bad enough that one slip or mistake will send me plummeting down either side of the ridge to the glaciers below, but the rock offers no sense of safety on the continuous ups and downs of the ridge line. Finally, sweating and breathing heavy I manage my way to a small saddle between the ridge and the main wall of rock that rises near vertically above me. Along the ridge I had stopped several times to study this mass of rock to see if I could find a reasonable way up it. I could find none and nearly turned back several times. But, I had to at least give it a go and have a look. If I didn’t try, I would never know.
Looking up from the saddle, I wasn’t sure where to go. Everything was up and in bad shape. I decided a route to the right and set out, thinking if I can just get past this, I ought to be able to make the top. Several precarious moves later and I was above the worst of it and continued climbing upward. Before long I came across another spot that seemed impossible. I found a way through this section as well. After one more tricky section, I thought I would be on the top. No such luck. I continued on and on through an endless array of vertical rock.
After the fourth false summit and another difficult pitch, it dawned on me what was happening. Looking at Mt. Alice from across the Bay, reaching the summit seemed impossible. But, taking each pitch individually, I was getting up the mountain, one step at a time. And it dawned on me that, climbing mountains was no different than accomplishing any other goal in life. Smaller steps must precede each goal in order to accomplish a successful outcome. Rarely can anyone reach an outcome without going through these smaller steps that lead to that particular goal. And it seems to me now, that this is applicable to almost everything in life, be it raising kids, climbing the corporate ladder, buying a house, getting through college, or scaling mountains.
Two more pitches and some questionable moves with thoughts of what would happen if I fell, I stood on the top. It was a euphoric feeling that I only feel after accomplishing an extremely challenging task. It had been hours since I had left Dave. I took in the view of endless mountains, glaciers, and ocean, all in one sweeping view. With sunny weather, this is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I savored the time I was on top and thought long and hard about how to get down safely. Climbing up had been difficult, yet I knew I was only halfway finished with this mountain. The real challenge would be getting down. After 15 minutes, I started to descend. Oddly, the same concept applied. Each pitch presented a puzzle of how to get down. Once that was solved I could move onto the next pitch. Before long, I was back at the saddle looking up at what I had come down. I stood in wonder at how I had been able to get up and down that wall of rock without a mishap. But I had. The traverse back across the long knife ridge line was uneventful, yet challenging after being exhausted from hours of climbing. I met up with Dave who was a bit apprehensive, as he had heard rock falls coming off the mountain as I was going up and down, but he could not see me on the rock face. He had spotted me on the summit so he knew I had made it up without mishap. A few hours later and we were back at sea level looking up at Mt. Alice, which still looked impossible to climb.
In the end, I made it to the top, and climbing mountains is no different than living life. You take it one step at a time to get to where you want to be. Everyone has their own mountains to climb, everyday. Be it raising kids, getting through college, or climbing the corporate ladder, it all works the same. But, for me, for now, I’ll stick to the easy stuff, and keep climbing mountains in Alaska.
Troy Henkels lives in Eagle River, where he writes about his adventures and experiences in Alaska and from around the world. Copyright 2002 Troy Henkels