Climb a mountain once, and one retains a static picture of it. Climb the same mountain repeatedly, and see the changes: The new chill of an early autumn day, the melting of the last snow in spring.
Climb a mountain a thousand times and one notices not only these changes, but also subtle ones: A fresh set of animal tracks in the snow, the first spring buds on a branch overhanging the trail, the first autumn frost fringing a mud hole.
Having now climbed 3,215-foot Near Point in the Chugach Mountains 1,000 times as of May 23, Steve Hufford of Anchorage has noticed all this and more.
Not surprisingly, Near Point rises in the vicinity of Hufford's home in Stuckagain Heights. One can even look up its face from numerous windows in the Hufford home. A short walk or drive takes Hufford to a trail head on a neighbor's property that weaves up the front face of Near Point. Living in such close proximity to the mountain made it readily available as the site of a workout he'd repeat over and over and over.
Some might consider such a feat obsessive. Yet other people run, bike, or walk the same route every day -- or every weekend. Many of us consider these routine acts of discipline. Hufford's discipline, however, had more interesting variables.
Two hours roundtrip
Hufford didn't originally set out to climb Near Point so many times. What began as an alternative to an Alaska Club workout evolved into a routine. After making perhaps 10 climbs of the mountain in 2003. Steve's wife, Gwen, documented each of these climbs by the phone call Steve made to her upon reaching the summit.
Slowly, the appeal of using the climb as his workout increased. In 2009, he reached the summit of Near Point 168 times -- almost every other day. Most other years, he made more than 100 climbs.
He swiftly developed a routine. First, Hufford would hydrate before leaving the house. Second, he carried little more than a snack in a pocket and an extra jacket around the waist, which allowed him to move faster. Then he'd drive the short distance to the trail head.
Once on the summit, he called Gwen, who recorded the date and time in a diary she kept. Typically less than two hours after starting, he was back home.
He usually made these treks up the mountain in the morning or mid-day, meaning he often climbed the peak without seeing another human. Some of the hikes stand out in Steve's memory more than others. Once, with visibility of but a few feet, Steve took a wrong side trail down the wrong side of the mountain. Fresh deep snow kept him from the summit on a number of other occasions. Pelting rain made other climbs more acts of fortitude than enjoyment.
Animals also made many climbs memorable. He said he's seen 11 bears, including one grizzly, and two wolverines.
Over the years, the number of completed climbs grew until the millennium climb was imminent. He could have made the thousandth climb in early April, but he put it off for a spring day after the snow was gone and green had begun to color the Anchorage Bowl. That day arrived May 23.
Two dozen fellow climbers
Besides marking his thousandth climb, this Near Point ascent included far more people than have ever accompanied with Steve. All in all, 23 people joined Steve's landmark climb -- including Gwen and their five children, including daughter Kia who flew in from Boston and son Paul who flew in from Nashville.
All this made the landmark hike memorable -- which the cloudy and windy weather decidedly did not. Any bears or wolverines in the area no doubt skedaddled before the approaching mass of humanity. From the back of the pack one could look up a long thread of people strung out at times as far as a half-mile on the mountain's open face along the very trail Steve helped maintain by hiking it 1,000 times.
With Gwen by his side, Steve arrived last. By that time, some of the group had spread a banner and handed out poppers. Cheers and colored confetti filled the air as Steve broke through banner. After some snacks and a festive snapping of pictures, the group began dropping off the summit.
Will he climb it again? "Of course," he answers.
So will he try to climb it 2,000 times? "We'll see," he answers with a laugh.
Later, while driving home, I stopped to look up at the mountain that Steve has now climbed 1,000 times, silhouetted by the gray, late afternoon sky. Despite falling snow and rain, blowing wind, and the occasional rumbling of the earth, it did not look like the mountain would go anywhere soon. It may be only a matter of time before the next milestone falls.
Shawn Lyons is an Anchorage freelance writer and the author of several "Walk About Guides to Alaska", detailing hikes in various parts of the state.