Outdoors/Adventure

The long, grueling hike up Pioneer Peak is worth the effort, but once is enough

When I pull into my driveway, Pioneer Peak looms large above my house. It’s the kind of awe-inspiring “mountain-y mountain,” as my sister would put it, that makes me feel sometimes like I’m living in a postcard or snow globe.

Part of the drama of Pioneer Peak is it rises steeply from the vast, flat, nearly sea-level landscape that characterizes the valley floor.

At 6,398 feet, it’s so tall it blocks the sun entirely for months at a time in the winter. Entire Palmer neighborhoods are located in what’s known locally as “the shadow,” and in the spring, the shadow lingers longest at houses located near the base of the mountain.

As often as I’ve gazed up at Pioneer Peak, I’ve never hiked to the top.

It’s a fabled hike, and it’s been cemented in my head that you only attempt it on the longest days of the year, because it’s so long and grueling. The trail to the south summit is about 14 miles round trip with 7,000 feet cumulative elevation gain and loss. Reaching the north summit requires mountaineering gear and experience.

When my husband and I set out on the trail a week ago, I was vaguely kicking around the notion that we might reach the top but I didn’t have my heart set on it. That’s how I like to hike, anyway. Not focusing on the summit relieves pressure, helping me stay in the moment and not get too locked into one outcome.

But both of us wanted a big day. I packed two giant water bottles, an elaborate sandwich, many snacks, layers and a headlamp so I could stay outside as long as I wanted.

We started uphill at 9:45 a.m. Not exactly an alpine start, but solid for our Saturdays.

Starting a hike and a day like this is daunting. I know it’s something I want to do, but it also involves work. I always think I’ll feel fresh and spry at the beginning. But because Mat-Su trails tend to take the most direct path up without wasting time on switchbacks, I was pretty quickly out of breath.

My backpack’s waist straps dug into my breakfast-filled stomach. It helped me to focus on the beautiful fall foliage around us and to take it one step at a time.

It also helped that there were hikers blasting Twenty One Pilots out of a portable speaker not too far behind us. There was no way in hell I was spending my time in the woods listening to that, so I did something I never do. I picked up my pace.

My mountain-runner husband was quietly delighted behind me. We quickly covered two miles.

I’ve covered the first two miles to the picnic bench too many times to count, but I’ve gone beyond that only a handful of times.

The trail has numerous, distinct phases.

The first two miles wind through thick, almost humid vegetation, breaking only for the occasional view of the Knik River below and, eventually, the glacier.

After the first picnic bench, the trail sidehills and switchbacks through mucky and rooty terrain until it reaches another picnic table, which to me signifies the beginning of the wide-open alpine. At this point, the view opens significantly, to take in a full panorama of the river, the valley and even the Talkeetna Mountains in the distance.

I’ve turned around plenty of times at this point, because that’s a solid effort and reward.

This time, we kept going.

The trail worked its way straight up a vast, alpine landscape, gaining about 1,000 feet of elevation per mile, with false summit after false summit.

Keeping my mind off the effort was the surreal beauty of red and yellow fall colors contrasting with the blues of the sky, glacier, and river. Wispy clouds threaded the trail, moving fast with the breeze and adding just the right amount of drama with little threat of actual rain.

When we reached the ridgeline, about a mile high, I told my husband that we’d hiked into thin air. I’d never been that far on the trail before.

We ate sandwiches to celebrate. As I ate, I gawked at the incredible view to either side of me. It was my favorite kind of ridgeline, the kind where I don’t have to pick a side to gaze at, so I can take in both.

I also started to contemplate more seriously the summit of Pioneer Peak, which was suddenly dominating my view with its rocky nose defiantly thrust into the sky.

It didn’t exactly look welcoming. But after a summer filled with hiking, running and jump squats, I still had life left in my legs to keep going. I didn’t want to hike back down without having reached the top.

My husband was neutral — he had done this before. I decided to keep going.

Setting out on the ridgeline, the view was dizzying on either side. To my left was a deep valley with Eklutna Lake on the other side and Cook Inlet out ahead; to my right was a wide, low basin at the foot of Pioneer Peak, filled with fall foliage and moving cloud shadows interspersed with sun.

I tried to focus on planting my feet in front of me instead of getting distracted by the view, which was stunning but also slightly vertigo-inducing.

As the bouldering toward the summit became steeper and the rocks and scree got looser underfoot, I reminded myself I could turn at around at any point if I wanted to. I continued to take it a step at a time until finally I pulled myself by the last boulder up to the top. Looking over and all around, I was so dizzyingly high and feeling so precarious that I was on the verge of tears.

Often what looks like a sharp, pointy summit from below will have a little flat shelf once you reach the top. But this was spiky and jagged to the very end. I could barely find a place to sit down and brace my foot. My arm was slung over the other edge of the mountain; I had nearly a 360-degree view, with the north summit still in front of me.

I told myself to keep it together and take in the view. I had the presence of mind to take a few photos, because even in my heightened, anxious state I could see it was breathtakingly beautiful.

As I started to focus on the scary idea of going down, I reminded myself I could do it. I took some breaths, took some photos, and then slowly — very slowly — started my descent.

I have never been more grateful to have a big butt that I could use to brace myself between skinny rock crevices to slow myself down in very steep places where only scree was underfoot. I took it almost comically slow, looking only at my next step, not at the dizzying views far below.

One step at a time, I made it to familiar territory. The rest was some work, but there was solid land underfoot with views that were spectacular without being terrifying.

My review? Pioneer Peak is as dramatic at the top as it looks from the bottom. I am glad I made a push for the summit.

I also don’t feel the need to ever do it again. The summit looks quite beautiful from the safety of my driveway.

Alli Harvey lives in Palmer and plays in Southcentral Alaska.

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