Monday, November 5, 2007
Battle with the Chugach wind
You would have never known it if you spent the day in Anchorage on Sunday, but the wind coming over the front range of the Chugach was 50 to 60 mph. Unsuspecting Kim and I decided to do a hike to Near Point. On a normal day, it's a pretty easy hike. About 8 miles total distance, and only 2000 feet of elevation gain. It sounded like the perfect leisurely hike. The kind that we needed after Kim's dinner party extended into the wee hours Saturday night, as we drank away the extra hour and drowned our sorrows at the thought that the next day the sun would set at 5pm.
The wind started to pick up midway through the hike, but it was tolerable. It was slowly getting more intense, but when weather comes on slowly and you are nearing your destination you don't really notice it. We got to about 500 feet below the summit and saw some people running down who yelled to us, "Be careful. It gets really windy up there." But we kept going. How bad could it be?
Kim was behind me as we were climbing the final ridge to the summit. The wind really picked up. And then it picked up more. The wind was pounding at my side, my gortex jacket flapping in the wind, and the snow was whipping through the air and stinging my face. I could lean into the wind at a 60 degree angle with the ground and still stay standing. Niko huddled up close to me and I grabbed his collar as we tried to push our way up the final 200 feet. I kept falling to the ground. The wind was so strong it was knocking us over.
Why did I keep going? Did I really need to summit Near Point this day? The wind became a challenge and I was pushing against it. About 50 feet below the summit, I looked back at Kim and saw that she was struggling. As I was facing down hill, a strong gust came through and knocked Kim down to the ground. Niko and I ran down to Kim and we all huddled together. The snow was swirling and twisting around us as we were being pushed to the ground, when we realized we could not get up and walk. The three of us sat their paralyzed trying to figure out what to do.
Since we couldn't stand up, we actually considered rolling down the side of the mountain to get to a place out of the wind. Picturing this in my head now makes me laugh. Kim, my dog and I barrel rolling down the side of Near Point. We tried to move but we couldn't. The wind was literally holding us down on the ground. I looked at Kim and for a moment I saw the look of panic in her eyes. I'm sure I had a similar look. Here we were, just outside of town, on a day hike, but in sort of a dangerous situation. How did we get here? Why didn't we just turn around when the wind picked up? Did the cold and wind really have the power to sway our judgement? Even when the wind got really bad, we kept pushing on with our minds on the summit.
Finally the wind died down a bit and we knew we had to make a run for it. We started running down the side of the mountain getting tossed by the wind. While I was waiting for Kim I tried to take my backpack off, but had lost the ability to use my fingers. I didn't feel cold at all, but my body was definitely affected by the wind.
We never did reach Near Point. It's amazing that just a few miles out of town on foot, and you can be at the mercy of the Alaskan wilderness. But our decision on just this short day hike makes me think about all of the accidents that happen in the mountains of Alaska. When you have your mind set on a destination, you will push through anything to get to it. Your ego steps in and you think if you turn around it makes you a weak person. Or you think you've come this far, you might as well bear the weather and finish it. But being able to make that decision to turn around is probably the most important survival skill you can obtain. Where is that fine line between pushing yourself to finish and knowing when to turn back?