On April 30 of this year, Richard Baranow took his last steps onto the 6,390-foot summit of Whitecrown Peak near the southeast corner of Chugach State Park. It was a peak he had thought about a lot in past years, especially recently since it was the last summit of a three-decade-long climbing odyssey: to climb all 166 “true” peaks in the Western Chugach Mountains -- unassisted by aircraft, four-wheelers or snowmachines in the approach to the mountains.
The Western Chugach is that area south of the Knik River drainage and west of the Lake George and West Fork of the Twentymile River drainage. In mountaineering vernacular, "true peaks" are those with prominences of at least 500 feet, which means they rise to a minimum of 500 feet from all sides above the surrounding terrain.
Baranow and climbing partner Ross Noffsinger tromped over Whitecrown's summit and set out for a nearby point of roughly the same elevation. They returned to the first summit, checking and rechecking their altimeters to confirm which was higher. The duo was joined on most of the trip by Anchorage climber Max Neale and Baranow's two sturdy dogs, Kaupo and NeNe. The two dogs were strategically left lower on the face due to hazardous snow conditions for unroped canines.
"It was a warm and sunny afternoon and we felt the need to get back down the face as soon as possible, before the snowpack got any warmer," Baranow recalls. "But after all the effort in just getting to the mountain, we wanted to make sure we were definitely on the highest summit."
A day earlier he and Noffsinger had climbed a nearby lesser peak known only by its elevation in feet -- 4,380. They were Baranow's last two of the Western Chugach's 166 peaks.
Challenge of the Chugach
Like many of his Chugach Mountains expeditions, the journey to Whitecrown was not easy. It included a 15-mile trek lasting three days, mostly on snowshoes, wearing 50-pound packs (Kaupo and NeNe each carried 15-pound packs, as well), fighting through nearly impenetrable brush, fording streams, and crossing avalanche zones and crevassed glaciers.
"In late April, the afternoon temperatures were getting warm and we had to cross several avalanche areas on the way to Whitecrown," Baranow mentions. "We minimized the potential danger by traveling through these zones during the early morning hours."
Peaks of the Western Chugach are not excessively high, with 8,005-foot Bashful Peak in the Eklutna drainage the loftiest summit. But climbers often begin at or near sea level, making for significant gains in elevation. And, by not flying in with a helicopter or fixed-wing plane, the challenges can be formidable.
"In addition to the oftentimes nasty terrain with its devil's club, alder thickets and cow parsnip, a guy has to contend with the wildlife that doesn't always have the same 'game plan' as you," says Baranow. "Bears and moose are territorial and protect their young; salt-loving pikas and marmots love to chew holes in gear; ravenous and crafty ravens will dig for buried food caches; goats that refuse to relinquish ridge lines … and, of course, the pesky 'Draculas' of the family Insectivora … the Alaskan mosquitoes.
"But it's this vibrant spectrum of life and spirit that I love about exploring and climbing in this area. When at high elevations, say above 10,000 feet, there is very little perceptible life. And it gets progressively harder to breathe comfortably as you move higher. Here in the Western Chugach, there is a flow of energy that you can sense everywhere, from the cascading rivers and streams to the slow movements of the aging glaciers and the subtle changes in vegetation as you progress."
The final adventure, which began in Girdwood, followed the Upper Winner Creek Trail through Berry Pass into the Twentymile River drainage, and up to the Bagg Pass area. Baranow says it offered elevation gain, distance, beautiful flora and fauna and good companionship with his partners.
"Getting to the summits of these last two peaks was simply an extra bonus," he says. "It was a wonderfully rejuvenating experience."
Another challenge for mountaineers like Baranow is the oftentimes unstable, crumbling rock known as "Chugach crud." The Chugach Mountains lie at the intersection of two tectonic plates -- the Pacific plate and the North American plate. The range's relatively young geology and abrupt uplift created these crumbly rocks, which, as Baranow points out, "makes climbing a bit more tricky than the relatively solid granite of … parts of the Alaska Range and the Yosemite Valley in California."
Ross Noffsinger, who has been climbing in Alaska the past 14 years and has climbed all of the major peaks in Chugach State Park save one -- Polar Bear Peak -- said: "Richard Baranow's achievement in the Western Chugach is impressive for many reasons -- the very rugged terrain and lack of trails; the Chugach's crumbly, unstable rock; difficult snow conditions; unpredictable weather and very long approaches.
"And what is truly significant, he made those approaches without the use of aircraft or other motorized support."
Richard Baranow and his family came to Anchorage from Wisconsin via the Alcan Highway in 1960 when he was 9 months old. The summer after the 1964 earthquake, they settled in Eagle River. Baranow was quickly drawn to the mountains.
"In 1968, when I was 9 years old, my father took me on a hike from Eagle River Road up into Ram Valley, which lies above and to the north of what is now the Eagle River Nature Center," he recalls. "It was a turning point for me. We topped out on a ridge and looked down into this beautiful verdant valley, and I saw dozens of sheep grazing peacefully down below. I looked at the rugged mountains towering above me and remember thinking: 'I wonder if anyone ever climbs them? How would they get up there?' To this day Ram Valley remains my spiritual refuge. For me, it is a magical place."
At first, Baranow explored the relatively tame mountains near his family's home in Eagle River, such as Mount Baldy, Mile High Peak, Mount Magnificent and Vista Peak. But even as a teenager, the formidable-looking peaks deeper in the Eagle River Valley caught his eye -- mountains with names like Korohusk Peak; Mount Kiliak; Organ Mountain; Polar Bear Peak; Mount Yukla; and Eagle, Cantata and Roost Peaks. Later he would become acquainted with the more remote peaks south of Eklutna Lake and at the headwaters of Peters Creek such as Bold Peak, Baleful Peak, Bashful Peak, Boisterous Peak, Benign Peak, Mount Beelzebub, Bellicose Peak, The Mitre and Mount Rumble, all within 495,000-acre Chugach State Park, formed in 1970 at the behest of Anchorage citizens.
Baranow sustained serious injuries in an airplane crash on Matanuska Glacier in January 1994 -- a tragic accident that took the life of his friend and pilot, Dr. Kevin Park. But after his recovery, instead of retreating from the mountains, he pushed more strongly into them. Not long after, while hiking the Bird Ridge Trail near Turnagain Arm, he met new-to-the-state climber Wendy Sanem. For the next four years they teamed up on a Chugach mountain-climbing odyssey comparable to the early feats of Vin Hoeman and his wife, Grace -- both noted pioneers in the local mountaineering community.
"Wendy was one of the strongest and most enthusiastic 'technical hikers' I had ever met," Baranow says. "As a duo, we were able to really get out there and accomplish a lot. In large part, I owe this recent milestone to her and her companionship."
In 1997, Baranow and Sanem became the third and fourth people to summit all 21 of the Western Chugach Mountains with an elevation of 7,000 feet or higher. The first and second to achieve this feat were Alaskans Willy Hersman and Jim Sayler. Then, in the fall of 2006, Baranow became the third person to reach the top of all 120 peaks in Chugach State Park, following in the footsteps of Sayler and Sanem. But it wasn't until April 30 of this year that he finished his goal of standing on top of all 166 true Western Chugach peaks.
"I never really pursued these mountain summits like I was claiming trophies," he explains. "Exploring and climbing them has been a deep passion of mine since I was a kid, and it's remained at the center of my life."
Eventually, Baranow and Sanem started a small, local guiding service, Eagle River Alpine Guides, taking like-minded people out to their favorite haunts and sharing the beauty of the Chugach Mountains with them. The couple eventually went their separate ways, but have remained friends.
Richard Baranow lives today in one of five small cabins at the end of Eagle River Road near the Eagle River Nature Center, snuggled up against Chugach State Park, which he manages for friend and owner Mark Helmericks. But his real home today, as it has been for the past 40 years, is in the mountains.
In his storehouse of memories from countless hikes and climbs in the Chugach Mountains, Baranow has always been awed by nature's artistry. He recalls snowy bivouacs high on ridges, bathed in the eerie glow of a full moon. He remembers how sunrises and sunsets gently cast their golden and crimson hues across the distant peaks and glaciers. He pictures the aurora sweeping across the skies in its mystical dance while he burrowed deeper into his sleeping bag.
He's watched mountain goats on seemingly impossible rock faces and sometimes felt as if he somehow partnered with them in their unbounded existence. And he cherishes many outings with friends that became unforgettable experiences. Mostly, he revels in the peace and solitude always to be found in the wilderness.
Baranow recounts a trip in June 1997 to climb Baleful Peak -- at the time one of five 7,000-footers remaining on his agenda. The peak is deep in the Hunter Creek drainage on the extreme eastern side of Chugach State Park.
"It took us three days to get back to the base of the mountain, having ridden our bikes 10 miles up the Eklutna Lakeside Trail to the East Fork Bridge, then hoofing it 13 miles up the East Fork Valley, up and over a ridge near Brittle Peak, and then back down the Hunter Creek drainage to Blissful Lake," he recalls. "And then, the next day, the mountain gods being with us, we were up and down the northeast ridge of Baleful in seven hours."
With six more days of food remaining, the pair decided to head out and attempt other peaks in the area. They left their tent standing and stashed part of their food on a little outcrop of rock out in the lake, and headed out with bold aspirations.
"Not only did we finish the remaining four 7,000-footers, we also managed to climb three other notable true summits in the vicinity," Baranow says. "It was a fantastic stroke of luck!
"However, upon returning back to our camp on Day 9 of our journey, hungry and tired, we found the sad remains of our tent … apparently marauded by one of the many black bears in the area. It seemed like he had been on a mission to chew and bite the fabric and poles into as many pieces as possible!"
Not only did the bear destroy the tent, but he also made off with a stuffed compression sack with an estimated $1,500 worth of gear inside. Unfortunately, this included the climbers' bike locks and truck keys. They searched for the bag for two days to no avail. Their only luck was finding someone else's duffel bag that the bear, or one of his furry compatriots, had absconded with previously.
Needless to say, it was a long hike out back to the Eklutna Lake Trailhead. Without truck keys they couldn't even drive home, but Baranow's brother drove up to Eklutna Lake and gave them a lift.
"What a fantastic trip that was," Baranow reflects. "I've never been able to find that compression sack either. I wouldn't doubt if there is a black bear out there somewhere wearing an expensive Gore-Tex jacket with jangling keys in the right-hand pocket."
For people living in the Anchorage Bowl, the 4,000- and 5,000-foot Chugach Mountains that border Anchorage on the east conceal views of bigger, more rugged mountains -- the kind of mountains Richard Baranow has spent a lifetime engaging with. He has sometimes traveled farther afield to climb higher peaks in the Alaska, Brooks, St. Elias and Revelation ranges, but he always returns to his Chugach home.
More than 40 years ago as a child in Eagle River, Richard Baranow heard the call of the mountains. At age 55, the call is as loud as ever.
Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River. An Alaska resident since 1946, he has been hiking and climbing in the Chugach Mountains for about 50 years.