Incident 232

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I’m always bummed when adventure buddies leave Alaska, but there is a silver lining. Homesickness builds up until it’s almost explosive, and as soon as wayward friends return stateside they’re often up for the most outlandish, ambitious, and half-conceived plans. So when Brett Frazier told me he was returning from a few bookish months of law school and couldn’t wait to get outside, I thought it’d be a perfect chance to pitch something different.

Winter camping. In Alaska. The day after winter solstice. And while we’re at it, why not on the top of a mountain? Last fall I’d found a potential campsite on the west summit of McHugh Peak that seemed almost too good to be true: unobstructed views from the Talkeetna Mountains to the north all the way up Turnagain Arm to the south, on a level site, and just a short(ish) scramble up an unofficial trail from Anchorage’s hillside neighborhoods. The forecast called for clear skies and a strong chance of aurora. Brett was in, and we were off.

Accessing McHugh from the Hillside neighborhoods requires navigating a mess of fuzzy property lines, tiny “official” parking lots, old right-of-ways, and hazy statutes. All I can say about our route is that–I’d been told–the city confirmed in writing it was legal. At least one property owner might disagree. In any case, we climbed up out of treeline and up McHugh’s western spine, into Chugach State Park, and headed into the snow-streaked tundra. The wind roused up little spinning clouds of spindrift snow, and the sun sank toward the Aleutians in a blaze of magenta.

The volcano Mt. Iliamna rests below a swirl of sunset, as seen from a couple hundred feet below the west summit of McHugh Peak.

We reached the site right after dark. It was windswept and as flat as remembered, and we quickly set up the tent into the wind. First new winter camping lesson: aluminum stakes don’t play well with frozen ground. We shattered four stakes before giving up and anchoring the tent with large rocks. It was dark, windy, and cold: by my new thermometer, around -8 degrees F. After setting up the tent, we jammed numb fingers back into our gloves, inflated our sleeping pads, and dove into the shelter.

Map of McHugh Peak; our campsite is marked with a black X.

After warming up we decided that since we were camping and all, we should probably try to brave the elements. I’d brought so many layers I looked like someone trying to escape airport baggage charges by wearing their entire wardrobe through security: collar inside collar inside collar, hood inside hood inside hood. It might have looked goofy but goofy often works, and we quickly found that as long as we faced away from the wind when it really came up, we could both stay outside–and warm–indefinitely.

Anchorage at night.

We broke blocks of snow off of a nearby drift and boiled hot water for cider. Winter camping in fairly serious cold has obvious disadvantages, like the necessity of carrying an absurd mass of clothing to stay warm. And it has some less obvious disadvantages, like the way spilled water instantly works its way into zippers and freezes them shut. But it has some advantages too, and one is that the easy availability of snow means that we have a limitless supply of water right outside our tent. In the summer, the nearest water at this campsite might be a quarter mile away.

And then, finally, the lights came out.

Northern lights!

The lights were often dim, struggling to compete with the light pouring off of Anchorage below us. But occasionally they would whip out in a big arc of green, or shoot upward in a row of moving columns.

Long after midnight, we climbed back into the tent and sealed it up for the night.

Morning clouds over Turnagain Arm. This weather pattern over the Arm is common in winter, especially on cold days.

The morning dawned clear and cold, and we watched as low clouds far below us peeled off of Cook Inlet and up Turnagain Arm.

Time lapse video of clouds rolling up Turnagain Arm.

Shortly before we headed out, I turned on my phone and got hit with a flurry of texts and messages. A homeowner on the Hillside had spotted my car and when we didn’t return for the night, called the Anchorage Police Department to make sure we were OK. The dispatcher I called back re: “Incident 232” sounded pretty disinterested, but took down my information and assured me that yes, everything was fine, it was just a courtesy safety checkup. It’s a little strange to be on the top of a 4,155-ft peak in the winter while on the phone with the Anchorage police, but I have to give them (and the person who called it in) credit. Making sure strangers are safe during this kind of cold really exemplifies the best of Alaska. In addition to the landscapes and lifestyle in Alaska, it’s that kind of community that keeps Alaskans homesick, and keeps us coming back.