A hill-climbing challenge leads to some wild magic

Some years ago, I learned I have a form of OCD, obsessive-compulsive disorder. My understanding is that OCD varies from severe to mild. I’m lucky enough that mine seems to fall toward the mild end of the spectrum. I’ve also gotten a lot of help understanding its effects and learning to live with OCD in a pretty healthy way.

One of the things I’ve been able to do as I’ve grown older — and, I like to think, healthier and wiser — is to be playful with my OCD, sometimes even use it to my advantage.

Here’s an example: after learning that my iPhone’s “Health” app counts steps and calculates elevation gain (“flights climbed”), I made it a goal — one might even say a mission — to walk at least 10,000 steps every day. For me, that’s about three miles. At the same time, I decided I would “climb” at least 10 feet (one “flight” as defined by the app) daily and 1,000 vertical feet each week.

This is where the OCD element comes into play. Checking my iPhone’s day-by-day compilation of “health data,” I see that I have walked at least 10,000 steps every day since Dec. 29, 2019, when the flu kept me bedridden. During that span of more than four years, I’ve occasionally had to make an extra effort to “get in my steps,” for instance when traveling by air to a distant destination. Some might consider that compulsive behavior.

My daily climbing streak isn’t nearly that long, but well over a year has passed since my iPhone didn’t credit me with at least 10 feet of elevation gain. Again, I’ve had to go out of my way now and then to get those 10 feet.

A much bigger challenge is my weekly climbing goal. Most weeks I’m able to easily ascend a thousand or more feet in elevation because I spend a lot of time in the Chugach Front Range year-round. But heavy snowfall, of the sort Anchorage has received this winter, can make it extremely difficult, if not impossible (for someone of my age and abilities), to ascend even a thousand feet during a week.

Deep snow stopped me from gaining 1,000 vertical feet in the week or two following November’s record-setting snowstorms. And deep snow again presented a challenge after the 17-inch snowfall that buried Anchorage at the end of January.


This time, however, I was more determined to meet the thousand-foot challenge, in part because it was a new year and the OCD within me wouldn’t let me give up on my goal so early in the year.

After considering a range of options, I set my sights on the Turnagain Arm Trail, starting at the Rainbow Trailhead. Headed toward McHugh Creek, the trail rises steadily for more than a mile, gaining several hundred vertical feet over that distance. It seemed worth a try, especially since that area usually doesn’t get as much snow as the Anchorage Bowl. And it’s warmer, an important consideration on a day when temperatures reach 10 below (or colder) in Anchorage.

As it turned out, the conditions were even better than I hoped.

Joined by Denali, my mixed collie hiking companion, I quickly discovered that the new layer of snow was indeed considerably shallower at Rainbow than in town (and the snow beneath it was well-packed, providing a firm base), and someone had already hiked there since the most recent storm, helping to compact the snow, even if only a bit. So although Denali and I had to negotiate soft and “punchy” trail conditions, we didn’t have to plow through deep and untouched snow.

Besides that good fortune, the sun shined brilliantly in a deep blue sky, flooding the wooded hillside that we ascended in bright, warming light. And the air was almost perfectly still.

In short, the conditions for our hill climb were ideal.

The air was warm and calm enough, and the hiking strenuous enough, that I eventually removed my wool hat and outer wind-jacket layer while climbing — and, at times, even my wool mittens. Temperatures seemed a balmy 15 to 20 degrees warmer than what I’d experienced that morning in Anchorage.

In contrast with our idyllic woodland weather, only a mile or so away as the raven flies, fierce gales blew huge snow plumes off the alpine tops of Chugach peaks, a completely different — and much more intimidating — world. It seemed an amazing thing, that I could marvel at those gigantic wind-driven snow plumes while standing in such warm and serene surroundings.

And still, another world, the fog-shrouded and ice-packed waters of Turnagain Arm moved darkly and ominously below us.

Those adjacent worlds, so near and yet so starkly dissimilar, added pleasure and a kind of intrigue to our passage through the forest. But there was something else at play.

As the sun edged toward the horizon, the snow-draped forest seemed to glow in a deepening, golden light. And when I looked in the sun’s direction, I could see multitudes of tiny, glittering ice crystals floating through the air. They were so tiny that when I turned away from the sun, those sparkling lights vanished, as though the ice crystals themselves had disappeared.

The interplay of air and light and crystals appeared to hold a kind of magic. Yet it was more than that. For a short while it seemed the forest itself had somehow been transformed from ordinary woodlands into something magical. Or maybe the magic, the mystery, these woods always hold had somehow been revealed.

In those moments, my entire being filled with joy. I realized — and felt — what a blessing it is to be alive and part of such a glorious place while getting glimpses of what I sometimes call “the wondrous wild.”

The experience was so enthralling, I whispered to myself: remember all of this, imprint the beauty, magic, and joy of this day into your being, so that you’ll remember them in darker, harder times.

Then I returned to the more mundane yet still delightful act of ascending the trail.

By the time Denali and I stopped climbing, we’d gained more than 700 vertical feet, putting me within easy reach of my weekly goal. That was satisfying, certainly, but only a small portion of what had become a larger and grander experience.

Part of me has wanted to make sense of all that happened along the Turnagain Arm Trail that day. But another part—a wiser part, I’d say—understands that everything I experienced, from the OCD impulses to my enchantment by the forest’s “magic,” are simply different aspects of myself. There’s no need to figure things out.


What’s more important is that my experience of both the world and myself continues to deepen and expand as I grow older. Emphasis on grow.

Anchorage nature writer and wildlife-wildlands advocate Bill Sherwonit is a widely published essayist and the author of more than a dozen books, including “Living with Wildness: An Alaskan Odyssey” and “Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska’s Wildlife.”

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Bill Sherwonit

Anchorage nature writer Bill Sherwonit is the author of more than a dozen books, including "Alaska's Bears" and "Animal Stories: Encounters with Alaska's Wildlife."