Anchorage was hidden behind a veil of blue-gray smoke Friday morning as George Wooliver took in the view of a lifetime from atop Flattop Mountain.
Rather than gazing toward the smoke-shrouded city, the 90-year-old birthday boy was instead staring proudly at the three generations of Woolivers who accompanied him on the arduous climb to the top of the 3,510-foot peak.
“To all my support team,” Wooliver said, lifting a clear plastic cup of champagne to the 17 people who hiked with him to the top.
Everyone lifted a glass except the littlest member of the group, 8-year-old Kierstin Clark, who sat next to her great-grandfather chomping a sandwich instead. Moments earlier, Kierstin was waiting to greet Wooliver at the top as he finished the three-hour climb from the Glen Alps trailhead.
“Is this your best birthday?” she asked as he deliberately crested the edge of the high, rocky plateau overlooking the city.
“Oh yes,” he answered. “At my age every birthday’s the best.”
For the last dozen years, the Wooliver family has hiked to the top of the popular Chugach State
Park peak in celebration of the family patriarch, who came to Alaska in 1950 as a member of the U.S. Air Force and fell in love at first sight.
“I was discharged in ‘52 and I’ve been here ever since,” said the Springfield, Massachusetts, native, who went on to have a career as a flight engineer for Reeve Aleutian Airways.
In 1960, Wooliver and his wife, Joan, built the family home on the mid-Hillside, where they raised three children at the edge of the Alaska wilderness. The family spent much of its free time outdoors, and daughter Jane McVeigh said she and her brothers, Doug and Steve, would roam the wilderness for hours on end.
“Our mom used to just drop us off and we’d show up at home later,” she recalled.
As the family grew (George and Joan now have five grandchildren and three great-grandchildren) and moved out of the house, the trips into the backcountry became less frequent. But Wooliver never forgot the thrill of summiting the iconic peak with its commanding views of Anchorage, Turnagain Arm and Denali.
“Just before my 78th birthday, Doug asked me if there was anything special I would like to do,” he recalled. “I said, ‘I hadn’t thought about it, but I would like to climb Flattop one more time.’”
So Doug arranged a family hike for Wooliver’s 78th birthday, and the family has been returning on July 5 ever since.
It hasn’t always been an easy tradition to uphold. Family friend Craig Rice recalled one trip where the wind was gusting to 100 MPH at the top of the mountain.
“We’re up here and rocks are flying, Doug is holding onto little kids…”
For George’s 85th birthday in 2014, his grandchildren surprised him with a banner at the top.
“I heard this big cheer, looked up and there’s all my grandkids up there with this big sheet -- ‘Happy 85th’ -- and I never felt a rush like that in my life,” Wooliver said.
Rice was hiking alongside George at the time.
“He had a tear in his eye and he said, ‘I’m the luckiest man in the world,” Rice remembered.
Overcome by emotion, Wooliver said he decided on the spot to shoot for another five years on the mountain.
“That was when I told Craig, ‘I’m going to have to keep doing this until I’m 90.’”
Completing the goal was no picnic. Though they left at just after 8 a.m. Friday morning, the four generations of family members had to hike through unseasonable heat in addition to the thin layer of smoke that thankfully dissipated higher up the slope.
George used two sturdy hiking poles to aid him on the 2-mile long, 1,300-foot climb, which slowed as the group reached the summit approach. From Glen Alps, Flattop’s rocky peak offers few “easy” ways up, which meant Wooliver had to take small, intentional steps to keep from falling on the rocky footing.
“It was tough this year,” he admitted. “That last little bit, I needed help. I guess that’s the end of doing this on my own.”
After hiking Flattop “one last time” one more time Friday, Wooliver said he’s content with the run he’s had.
“I won’t make any big promises like I did last time,” he joked at the top.
But he is proud of the legacy of love he’s left on the mountain that has become a family touchstone. Family and friends came from across Alaska and several states to join him Friday -- which Wooliver said was by far the highlight of the day.
“It’s a very humbling experience, actually, to see the support that comes,” he said.
As for why Flattop became the center of the family’s universe, Wooliver said that’s an easy one.
“Because it’s here.”