The Lure of a Mountain Peak
I fell in love with my house immediately, thanks to the 6,398-foot-tall Pioneer Peak jutting into the sky behind it. Pioneer looked like Alaska incarnate to me. It dominated my view, rising abruptly from the flat valley floor as the kind of peak you might see if you look up “mountain” in the dictionary. Over nearly five years of living in my home, I tried once, twice, five times to make it to the top of the mountain that loomed above my house. Each time, I fell short.
Then, one bright morning in September 2021 after a full summer of strenuous hikes and runs, my husband and I set out for a hike on the Pioneer Trail. We started early, with cool temps leaving dew on leaves underfoot. We climbed at an unhurried but steady pace, gaining elevation as the sun rose higher into the sky.
It had occurred to me that maybe I’d finally summit. I didn’t consider this directly, like an animal I don’t make eye contact with for fear of scaring it away. My husband, a mountain runner whose capacity for strenuous outdoor activity dwarfs mine, knew better than to ask.
I had a massive sandwich in my pack just in case. I need bait to motivate me through a long-haul hike, and few things taste better than a fully loaded sandwich on the trail.
The hike to the north peak requires technical gear. The south peak is where most day climbers summit. At 7,000 feet cumulative elevation gain and loss over a 14-mile round trip, it’s not what I’d call a walk in the park.
We passed by the first picnic bench where I’d turned around many times before, rewarded with the stunning view of blue Knik Glacier.
The trail skirted a broad, steep slope covered in vegetation, heading west and always up.
After a second picnic bench, we almost immediately punched out of the humid vegetation into wide-open tundra. Alpine bright yellows and brilliant reds of September illuminated the ground, contrasting with the electric blue sky. Maybe that, coupled with wispy clouds skidding across the ridgelines ahead of us, was what distracted me from the 1,000 feet of elevation we were then gaining with every mile, plodding steadily uphill.
I hadn’t yet eaten my sandwich.
By the time we reached the ridge, I was farther than I’d ever been on the trail. I still had power in my legs. There was plenty of daylight left. I knew then that I needed to give the summit a go.
The ridgeline was spectacular and, for a while, a reward and reprieve from climbing. We trekked along a faint route with a dramatic drop on either side. The ridge was broad enough for me to feel safe, but I am afraid of heights and wouldn’t want to be up there on a windy day.
As the trail became supple underfoot nearing the south peak, I ditched my trekking poles and maneuvered so I wasn’t climbing directly under my husband. Loose scree heaved, stones bouncing downhill beneath us. I tried not to think about how far it had to go.
Am I being dramatic? Yes and no. I am strong, but just your average hiker when it comes to technical skill. And I’m a scaredy-cat when it comes to tricky terrain because I lack balance. Even the “non-technical” south peak is a nose jutting straight into the sky that felt like a pile of rocks very sloppily bound together, and constantly shifting under my hands and boots. For me, climbing it was, frankly, terrifying.
Finally at the top, I sat on a little perch beholding the dizzying view from my rock in the sky. The trail was impossibly far below me and faint now. My heart pounded in my throat. I let it sink in that I was finally at that tippity-top point I’d witnessed so many times from my driveway.
I vowed never to do it again.
As I carefully made my way down from the spire, my husband was his usual relaxed self, if a bit irritatingly chipper and amused by my ordeal. He stopped and waited for me at regular intervals, smiling as he watched me approach.
We finally ate lunch back at the decision point where the ridgeline began, before descending back to familiar territory. That view was still stunning, but I felt safer there than at the top.
I was right about the sandwich: It was one of the best things I’ve ever consumed. And I think I was also right about Pioneer Peak—that being the first and last time I will summit. Who knows, though. Life is long, mountains are alluring. I could forget everything I just wrote, and try again.