There are rules to follow for “Day Hikes” in Alaska, or anywhere for that matter:
1) Never go alone.
2) Tell someone where you are going, and when you expect to be back.
3) Bring survival gear for at least one overnight.
4) Make sure you understand the terrain, weather, and path.
5) Don’t do anything stupid.
The rest of this article shows that I didn’t follow any of the rules. Not a single one. I was just lucky.
When ever we ported in Alaska, I got my backpack (2 liters of water, dry socks, trail mix, flashlight, and a couple of candy bars) and headed to the nearest trail, State Park, or Mountain. This particular time I was hiking a trail in Whittier Alaska just a few miles outside of town. It was May, the snow was still down to sea level, and it was cold and windy. The Wind in Whittier can be ferocious and builds some strange formations up at altitude. Snow shelves might stick out fifty feet over a thousand foot drop. You think you are walking on ground, but no…you are walking on snow pack.
Did I have cleats or an Ice hammer? No. I had a walking stick. Did I go with anyone? No. Nobody wanted to hike with a fifty five year old Autistic Comedian who would chatter the entire way. Most of the young and healthy folks hit the Internet Cafe to contact family or friends. Most folks my age just walked into town - surprisingly most of them went to eat in one of the fish shops by the bay, or the one restaurant above the only motel in town. So off I went. A sole solitary hiker. Cell phones hadn’t been invented yet- or they were but were huge clunky expensive things that looked like the old PRC-77 Radios of my Military career.
When I hit the hills, I was by myself. (Remember Rule #1? Never hike alone.) I had hiked this particular trail many times, in fact, it has one of the most spectacular views of any Day Hike you could go on if you worked on a ship. In better weather I was often able to convince people to go with me. I promised them that they would have a moment of “Oh.My. God.” when I showed them something on the trail. (The Vista comes just thirty feet up a steep ridge line about 1,500 feet up the mountain. Nothing you see on the mile and half trail up, gives you any clue of what you are about to see. That is why I called that spot: “Oh. My. God. Ridge.”
But this wasn’t nice weather. It was the earliest a Cruise Ship had ever come to Whittier, and it was right after their worst winter in decades- hence the deep snow and ice up in the Valleys and Mountains. For the first time ever, I was hiking that trail when it was covered with snowpack, Ice, and with freezing temperatures to boot. At this point in my story I had already broken the first four rules.
I had walked out on the snowpack, only to find out it was too slippery to walk on. So I went farther out. Then a bit farther out. I used my walking stick as an Ice Pick to pull me along. Only when I stopped for a few minutes to rest, because it took me a lot of work to get just two hundred yards up the side of the snowpack - did I realize that the cliff wall that runs along one side of the trail was more than fifty meters away.
I almost had a heart attack. I wasn’t on the trail. I was more than a 100 feet from it! Yep. I was walking on a snow shelf. The drop beneath the snow pack was more than a thousand feet. I spread out like a snow angel and “Swam” back to the trail. How that Snowpack held up under my weight…God only knows. I had just broken rule number Five. I wasn’t even up to the ridge line yet.
Finally, I was almost there. The photo shows what it looks like in Summer. And where I almost died.
OMG Ridge is rather steep these last fifty meters, and folks often got winded. But when they got to that ridge- this is what they saw - and it did take their breath away:
Now take note of that lake, because it figures into my story later on.
Now picture me walking back out of the box canyon on my way back to OMG ridge to head down the trail. Remember that lake? Well it was UNDER me now. Covered with ice and snow. And I was about to break Rule #5…in a big way.
I fell through the snowpack. Yep. No warning. No noise. I just dropped. Two lucky things happened in quick succession. I flung my arms out and the snow pack on either side stayed solid. My walking stick fell across the hole I was hanging from. Yep. I was hanging there in space like a gymnast doing the Iron Cross. My walking stick just inches away from my face, and well within reach.
I could hear running water under me. My body had made enough of a hole that I could look down. I was dangling about four feet above a torrent of water running under the snowpack. Water from the overfilled lake you saw just beyond the ridge line. The water was pouring over the ridge and down the trail. If I fell through, I would be in ice cold water that would have pushed me under the ice shelf. There to die of either hypothermia, drowning, or my own stupidity.
I was scared. I couldn’t pull myself up. Try it someday- suspend your whole body from your arms out straight to either side- on ice- and pull yourself. It isn’t easy. My walking stick was a good seven feet long. Thank God. I was able to put it across the hole, pull myself forward (not out or up) until I was literally up to my waist in water, but with my upper body still above the Snowpack. By pushing and breaking the snow in front of me, using my walking stick to distribute my weight across a larger area, I managed to shimmy to a place where I could climb out.
I laid on the snowpack with my arms and legs akimbo - exhausted, wet, and grateful to all the known Gods. (I know, because I prayed to them all.) I started laughing at my near miss. My stupidity. And my luck. Until…
I ate a soggy candy bar. I drank some water. I got my walking stick, gave it a big kiss, and started to hike down the path (next to the Cliff- I wasn’t wandering onto a snow shelf again!). My legs felt funny. I couldn’t really get a good stride going. I looked down. And froze. Literally.
My pants and jacket had frozen. They were soaked, sopping wet, when I got out of the hole. I must have laid on the snowpack munching away on my candy bar too long, and the cold did the rest. I was a solid sheet of ice from my belly to my shoes. I broke some of the ice with my walking stick.
I knew I was in trouble. I am an idiot, but I am not stupid. (Ha!) It was two miles back to the ship. The temperature was below freezing, the wind howling, and I was in trouble. Hypothermia wasn’t something that could happen, it was something already happening. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, I got to the bottom of the trail, less than half a mile from the road back to the ship - it started snowing.
I started crying. Those tears of frustration froze almost as soon as I shed them. I had two miles to go. The wind had decided to up the ante. Winds in the fjord where Whittier is often hit sixty knots - or more. I was in a white out, wet, cold, and the wind was in my face.
There was nothing I could do now, but keep walking. And walking. And walking. So I did. I don’t know how long it took me, or how I made it back. I only remember a few things about my arrival back at the port. Where passengers get back on the ship is inside a building to keep them safe and dry from the usual rain or blustery winds. The Security is provided partially by our onboard Security and by Locals from Whittier. Among the folks from Whittier were a Nurse, and two ParaMedics.
They took one look at me when I came through the doors and yelled: “Get a stretcher and some blankets!” I must have been a sight. My stocking cap iced to my head, frozen snot covering my face, moving like I was in shiny ice covered stove pipes instead of pants. My backpack frozen to my coat (they cut both the backpack and coat off of me to cover me with wool blankets).
One guy was rubbing my legs and feet (they took the boots off to check my toes), the other guy was checking my hands, but they couldn’t pry my walking stick out of my grip. Partially because I didn’t want to let go, and partly because my hand was frozen to it.
The last thing I remember was the Nurse asking me what seven times seven was.