As we worked our way up the south-facing ridge of 5,450-foot Pepper Peak in the Chugach Mountains, about 25 miles northeast of Anchorage, it was easy to skirt around patches of winter’s residual snow. It was May 2nd and still what Alaskans call “early spring.” At this time of the year, area hikers and climbers are drawn to south-facing slopes that are first to lose their snow as the sun rises higher in the sky.
The trail climbs high above six-mile-long Eklutna Lake, which is a prime recreation area for southcentral Alaska residents and is Anchorage’s principal water supply. Some of the mountains to the south of the lake rise 7,000 feet and higher. In many Rocky Mountain locales this might not seem like much elevation, but most of Alaska’s mountains rise abruptly from sea level rather than high plateaus. Eklutna Lake, for example, sits at an elevation of 800 feet.
So with about 4,800 feet of elevation to gain over four miles, my two friends and I estimated the round trip would be about eight hours. The gradual Twin Peaks trail that connects with Pepper Peak ridge winds east around the mountain into a small valley, more like a bowl, in which Dall sheep can usually be spotted. We saw about five resting on a bluff on the other side of the bowl at the base of the steep “Twin Peaks” mountains. These mountains have no connection to the popular television mystery series from years past.
It was a sunny, bluebird morning with the temperature between 45 and 50 degrees F., and very little wind. The fastest of our trio, Radu Girbacea, moved briskly ahead 100 yards as the ridge became steeper and we began encountering more snow. My friend Pete and I, about 20 years Radu’s senior, kept up our slow, plodding pace. High above and to the south, a pair of Bald eagles gradually gained elevation in a slow, circular soar.
Refreshed after a brief rest stop and snack at about 3,500 feet, we set out again and soon came across a young hiker who asked if he could join us. We learned he was a U.S. Air Force F-22 pilot stationed at Anchorage Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson, or JBER. He stayed with us for about half an hour and as the ridge steepened he finally said that it was time for him to turn around.
“We’re only about 500 feet from the top,” I said. “Why not go all the way with us?”
“You won’t believe this,” he said with a sheepish grin. “But I’m really afraid of heights.”
“I can understand that,” Pete said after a brief pause. “Being in an enclosed cockpit is a whole lot different than hanging out on the ledge of a mountain!”
As the pilot turned to head back down the mountain, we wished him luck, and thanked him for his service.
Because there was snow covering part of the climb’s last 500 feet, we attached Kahtoola microspikes to our boots. On some years, when the snow is harder, crampons are required. Climbing through ice and snow, Pete and I generally carry an ice axe, or a whippet with an ice-axe head.
Radu, who I’ve nicknamed the “Cheetah,” was first to reach the summit in early afternoon. About five minutes later Pete and I crested over. We were surprised by a sudden southerly wind that made the balmy 45 degrees feel like winter’s return. We enjoyed a brief lunch, taking in the view of surrounding peaks as far as the eye could see. Due south and slightly lower than Pepper Peak was Salt Peak, which we had planned to reach on this trip. But there was still too much snow to make the traverse practical. “Let’s try it later this summer,” we concurred.
To the west and sparkling in the sun was a major water body called Knik Arm, part of Cook Inlet; and stretching farther to the west was the broad Matanuska Valley, Alaska’s main agricultural area. Below us and brilliant blue in the sun, lay Eklutna Lake, which only two weeks earlier, was still covered by ice.
Were it not for the wind, we would have lingered longer to enjoy the grand vista. The descent was uneventful as we back-tracked our route, arriving at the parking lot about 5 p.m. We agreed that it had been a good outing to help condition ourselves for bigger things this summer.
GGG storyteller Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River, Alaska, about 15 miles north of Anchorage.