Rocks. We had entered a kingdom of rocks – rocks the size of refrigerators, some as big as microwave ovens, and tucked in between, boulders the size of basketballs. As we slowly moved upward, we encountered rocks with unending surprises. Every so often, without warning and at the slightest touch, they wanted to move, eager to yield to gravity.
“Don’t trust any of these rocks, and definitely verify,” I yelled to my hiking buddies Pete Panarese and Jeff Worrell as we ascended the last 500 feet of 6,119-foot Matanuska Peak, about 40 miles northeast of Anchorage, Alaska.
“They’re getting my attention,” Jeff yelled back.
It was a beautiful sunny day, and we had hiked the 4 miles to the base of the mountain in about five hours via the McRoberts Creek Trail. The trail meanders through old-growth forest —a mixture of cottonwood, spruce, birch and aspen trees. At about 1,500 feet in elevation, the trail opens into the alpine and skirts the better-known Lazy Mountain, where each summer mountain runners compete in the Matanuska Peak Challenge. That grueling event involves a 14-mile ascent and descent over two mountains — Lazy Mountain and Matanuska Peak — and requires about 9,000 feet of elevation gain.
While somewhat steep, our route to Matanuska Peak on the McRoberts Creek Trail was quite tame compared to the physical demands of the annual Challenge event. The trail was surprisingly well maintained and it was early enough in the year that it wasn’t overgrown with brush. In fact, the trail was so good that it spoiled us before we reached Matanuska Peak’s north ridge, where we soon encountered loose scree.
I climbed this mountain back in 2007 and was suddenly reminded why this part of the trip —about one-half mile — was so tiring. It was the poor footing.
“The loose gravel and rock forces you to take larger steps,” I told my friend Pete. “It really works the legs.”
Our pace was definitely slower as we methodically worked our way upward, testing and re-testing rocks to see if they were solid, all the while following brown metallic markers that were tucked into rocks of ever-increasing size.
By mid-afternoon we had devolved into the “are we there yet?” mood. But we finally ran out of mountain and stood amidst the jumble of rocks that comprised the summit. It was warm —probably in the 60s —and we took in the 360-degree view, snapped some photos and enjoyed a late lunch. To our north were the snow-clad Talkeetna Mountains. Looking southward we could see the big peaks of the Chugach Range that lie behind Eklutna and Peters Creek drainages. To the west was the community of Palmer and stretching far to the southwest, Knik Arm shimmered in the bright, mid-day sun.
It seemed like our rest wasn’t long enough, however, as we began packing up for the descent, which proved harder than coming up. Each step onto rocks of unknown stability required supreme concentration. But after only a few minor slips and no injuries, we were down from the ridge and once again onto the established trail. A bright yellow tent was pitched on one of the grassy knolls at the base of the ridge. We waved to the couple who were camping. We were somewhat envious because it was shaping up to be a beautiful night, with a full moon.
In about two more hours we were back at the trailhead and more than ready to return to the land of hot showers and cold beverages.
I’d rate this hike “strenuous,” but one of my main take-a-ways is that difficulty doesn’t always depend upon the angle of ascent, elevation gain or distance covered. Footing matters a lot. I’ve been on longer hikes with more distance and elevation gain that actually seemed easier than Matanuska Peak.
With all of the rocks on Matanuska Peak on its top 700 feet, I recommend good boots. On this particular mountain, footing is everything.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River, Alaska, about 15 miles north of Anchorage.