A Winner of a Trip to the Kern Country
Berry Peaks, Western Chugach Mountains
A vacationing couple from Pennsylvania had turned back from their trip to Winner Creek Gorge because they were afraid of bears. They met me as I was hiking up the Winner Creek Trail from the Alyeska Prince Hotel on Saturday morning, July 3, 2004.
After assuring them that they had little to worry about and that they would be fortunate to see a bear, they asked if I would accompany them to the gorge. Since I had planned to go battle hostile brush in the upper Winner Creek area, I agreed to escort them to the trail junction where the Upper Winner Creek trail departs from the Winner Creek Gorge Trail.
I led them a mile or so until we reached the trail junction overlooking Winner Creek. Having successfully planted the thought of a possible bear encounter in my mind, the couple thanked me and headed downstream, toward the gorge. I continued upstream, following the Upper Winner Creek Trail. Shortly after the cabin ruins, I noticed that the U.S. Forest Service has cut a new trail uphill from the old one. The trail had been brushed out and flagged, but not grubbed. Even so, it made for relatively quick travel until I reached the stream flowing from the Winner Creek Glacier. Here the trail and flagging stopped. I turned right and headed up the valley toward the Winner Creek Glacier, battling alders, devil’s club, hidden boulders, mosquitoes, black flies, rushing streams, and thoughts of an imminent bear encounter. It was a truly wonderful Alaskan experience.
After a couple hours of bushwhacking, I emerged from the alders and tall grass to find myself at the base of a hemlock forest overlooking a high basin west of the Winner Creek Glacier. From here, the travel became easier until I reached timberline. Upon emerging from the trees, I was greeted with steep slopes of sharp, loose shale. I avoided some of the scree slopes by walking on remnant snow patches, but, eventually, I was found myself scrambling up the steep scree toward a low ridge that descended north from just east of the saddle between Hibbs Peak (el. 4423, Section 23, T10N, R2E, S.M.) and Berg Peak (el. 3917, Section 24, T10N, R2E, S.M.).
I walked the ridge south toward the summit of Berg Peak. After looking at a few gendarmes, though, I decided to descend into the Kern Creek drainage, cross a small pocket glacier, and ascend Berg Peak from the southwest ridge. Things were pretty uneventful until a squall blew through when I was on the ridge just east of the summit. The wet rock became slippery and caused me to slow my pace. I reached the summit in a rainstorm and signed the register left by Wayne Todd. I enjoyed the views of Turnagain Arm and I was pleased that I had now reached the summits of all three peaks in the Kern Creek drainage (Highbush Peak [el. 4669, Section 19, T10N, R3E, S.M.] and Bramble Knoll [el. 3264, Section 2, T9N, R2E, S.M.] are the other two). I didn’t linger very long because I was concerned that the wet rocks might delay my return.
The gendarmes didn’t look that bad from the summit, so I headed down the west ridge. Eventually, though, the exposed wet rocks pushed me to the gravel southwest face of the peak and I descended to the pass and headed up the steep grassy slope toward Hibbs Peak. At the summit, I found the register left by Wayne and signed it. I had visited this peak before, coming up from the Kern Creek drainage, but the ridge toward Mount Alyeska (el. 3939, Section 14, T10N, R2E, S.M.) would be new ground for me. A surprising number of people had signed the register since I had last climbed the peak in early August 1998.
I hurriedly continued north along the ridge toward Virgin Point (el. 4226, Section 14, T10N, R2E, S.M.). The ridge was exposed on both sides, but afforded ample footholds and handholds where necessary. Continuing northwest of Virgin Point, however, the ridge became narrower and more exposed and the rocks looser and wetter. This little ridge, just southeast of Mount Alyeska, was becoming quite challenging. There were a couple times that I was forced to drop down onto the Winner Creek side of the ridge to avoid gendarmes. Eventually, I was at the summit of Mount Alyeska. I had visited this point in August 1986 and was happy that I was returning to a route I knew I would be able to travel quickly. It was now after 10:00 p.m. and I was racing to catch the last tram down the mountain at 11:00 p.m.
On the descent down the north ridge, I encountered an unexploded mortar shell from the avalanche control work on Mount Alyeska. I made a note of its location on the ridge crest and did not touch it. I jogged down the ridge and reached the tram with about five minutes to spare. On the ride down I told the tram operator where I found the unexploded shell and he had me mark its location on a map of the ski area.
And then the trip was over. I strolled back to my truck and, before driving home, sat for a bit, thinking of the events of the day – the newly cut trail, the bushwhack, the steep scree, the ridge walk, crossing the pocket glacier, the views of Turnagain Arm, the sound of the wind, and the smell of the rain. It was definitely a Winner of a trip.