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On hikes, never trust a wet rock. In the Chugach, never trust a rock.

  • Author: Vicky Ho
  • Updated: December 2, 2017
  • Published June 30, 2017

The ridge to Cantata Peak is riddled with loose, crumbling rock many describe as “Chugach crud.” (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

Editor's note: This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.

Some days, I swear the Chugach Mountains are trying to kill me.

I'm not paranoid. Who told you that?

If the bears and moose don't get me, if swirling glacial waters leave me unharmed, if I manage to keep my tent from sliding downhill in the snow, if I don't get lost, if I keep my head on straight and I manage to start on time, there's one thing that will trip me up in more ways than one.

Rocks.

Horror stories involving rocks in the Chugach Mountains are legion. I have some particularly fond memories of crawling up rocky waterfalls at Crow Pass and Stivers Gully, as well as boulder-covered Bomber Pass in the rain. Slick rocks are not to be trifled with.

But beyond the natural hazards of slippery rocks, ankle-breaking boulder fields and shifting scree, we have what's affectionately known as "Chugach crud": the crumbling, unstable rock that prevails across much of the range.

Many a climber has been fooled by Chugach crud, reaching out with hand or foot only to feel the rock disintegrate along an invisible fault line.

One of my favorite Chugach crud memories happened last summer. I had a chance meeting on the trail with an experienced mountaineer who was also climbing 6,391-foot Cantata Peak, the dominant summit just southeast of Eagle and Symphony lakes in Eagle River.

As we scrambled up the ridge in the sunshine, she knocked down a particularly nasty-looking rock. We watched it tumble down the slope, and she half-shouted with a smile on her face, "I love the Chugach!"

Countless more rocks would meet the same fate on that climb.

Over time, and with guidance from various hiking partners like my acquaintance from Cantata, I've learned some best practices for maneuvering across rocky terrain.

For starters, I don't let myself get cocky on wet boulders. They might as well be coated in oil for all the traction I get. Gravity has a way of reminding me that I'm only made of (bruised) flesh and (brittle) bone.

If I'm hop-scotching in a boulder field or on loose talus, where medium-sized rocks are likely to shift underfoot, I'll keep some elasticity in my stride. Have you ever felt your knee lock on a teetering boulder? It's a literally stunning sensation.

Some people might find trekking poles useful here to maintain multiple points of contact. Once the slope gets steeper, I'll stash the poles and opt for a more earnest scramble with gloved hands. On the downhill where it's especially steep, my butt makes for a trusty, sometimes accidental, fifth point of contact.

If I kick down a rock where others may be, I'll yell, "ROCK!" Not doing so is an easy way to lose a hiking buddy for good. At any rate, it's standard trail etiquette.

I've been fooled by too many loose rocks to trust them. This is where paranoia helps. So, I'll go into a boulder field expecting that I need to continuously adjust my footing to keep my balance on teetering rocks, rather than being surprised when they wobble.

What right do I have to be shocked? The rocks were here first.

Nick Parker pauses for a break in Stivers Gully during an attempt of Bold Peak in August of 2016. (Vicky Ho / Alaska Dispatch News)

I've also had to duck as rocks rained down, seemingly spontaneously, from the steep walls of Stivers Gully leading to Bold Peak. The next time I went out there, my climbing helmet came with me.

When I'm scrambling at a higher elevation in the mountains, where rock seems to crumble with just a glance, I'm always thinking about tips that my Cantata summit partner gave me. She saw me struggling to find stable handholds and said it'd be much easier, and safer, if I pushed down on the rock to hoist myself up rather than reaching out to pull myself up (and coming away with a handful of rock fragments).

Of course, she was right.

There's no way to beat our beautiful Chugach crud. All we can do is offer up a truce and learn to live with it.

Vicky Ho is the night homepage editor at Alaska Dispatch News. An avid hiker and skier, she's also a mediocre runner, terrible biker and part-time employee at a local outdoor retailer. Contact her at vho@alaskadispatch.com, on Twitter @hovicky or Instagram @hovcky.

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