Anchorage is one of those beautiful cities that is surrounded by the natural borders of ocean, streams, and mountains. Yesterday, I awoke bright and early (probably because the extra sunlight is playing with my circadian rhythm and I’m still a little jet-lagged) determined to explore one of those mountains.
A friend of mine who lived in Anchorage for years suggested hiking Flattop, but I wasn’t too sure if it was a hike that my father could do safely and comfortably. In an effort to be diligent, I ended up asking the lady at the front desk of our hotel if Flattop would be an appropriate place for a “mature” hiker.
“Oh, it’s a great hike. Very beautiful. Very popular.”
“And you’re sure it’s accessible? I don’t want anyone to get hurt.”
The lady looked me up and down, squinting her eyes. (Now, as I am reflecting back on this detail, I realize that the lady thought that I was the “mature” hiker, and not my father.)
“Oh, there are stairs and everything. You will have a great time.”
At first, yes, Flattop was everything that was promised. You have to drive to the suburbs of Anchorage and journey through the foothills and survive a hairpin turn. The park site is clearly marked and for a 5$ parking fee, but there are bathrooms and park rangers. The view from the parking lot alone is gorgeous.
After consulting the park map, the three of us decided that we would hike towards the top of Flattop. The beginning of the walk starts with a bit of incline and it took me a bit to get my heart rate up, but it was do-able and enjoyable. Journeying further into the park did not disappoint. My brother compared the landscape to the mountains of Norway and my Dad insisted that it looked just like the Swiss Alps. In fact, one of them (I can’t remember who because I shocked by the character break!) broke into a rendition of the opening scene from The Sound of Music. The hills were alive with the sound of (mediocre) music!
The first mile or so of Flattop was just lovely, but once we got past the blueberry field, the second chapter of our journey began and we were faced with a much more rugged terrain. Despite the change in incline, the path was still well maintained, the weather was perfect, and in the back of my head, I assumed that a beautiful staircase to the top of the mountain (as promised by the lady at the front-desk) would appear momentarily.
I think this is a good time to circle back for a moment to the notion of “stairs” because this, I feel, is where my conflict lies. Stairs, as defined by me, are usually (but not limited to) wood and it has some sort of rise followed by a flat surface so that you can get your footing and move onto the next step. Is there a separate Alaskan definition of stairs that I’m not aware of? I ask because what we encountered at the side of Flattop was not what I would consider stairs. Yes, there were railroad ties strung together in some sort of formation – but if anything they functioned more like ladders attached to the ground.
At any rate, we progressed, like good pilgrims always do. Slowly, safely, step-by-step, we journeyed forth and standing at the top of the staircase section felt pretty amazing.
Now we move onto chapter four, in which we realized that the top of Flattop was still another section. My dad and I both decided to sit the summit out, but my brother was determined to give it a go. (He made this decision after seeing a man fly by us with two golden retrievers by his side and a baby strapped to his back in one of those contraptions.) My dad and I gave him our blessings and said some prayers while we watched him attempt the summit.
And this is the part of the story where my brother learns a new word: scramble. Scramble, as it turns out, is not just something that you do to eggs. It is, actually a hiking term and it means that you have to use your hands and legs to find a grip that will help you push or crawl up the side of a mountain. And that is what my brother did… he scrambled. As the man with the baby and golden retrievers floated past him again, my brother slipped and slid up, and then down the side of Flattop without reaching the summit. In truth, not many climbers that day reached the top because of the conditions. My Dad and I watched from the side and I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad so happy to have my brother back at his side safely.
“Yeah, I realized that even if I could make it to the top, I probably couldn’t make it back to the bottom,” my brother later said.
And that brings us to the last chapter in which I suddenly realize the laws of physics: what goes up, must indeed go down.
Let’s be honest, I’m a rookie hiker. It never occurred to me that walking up a mountain, with all that sweat and exertion, was actually the easy part. Walking down is actually much more dangerous. Remember those “stairs”? Well, imagine having to walk down a ladder attached to the side of a mountain. Yep, that’s what we did. Slowly, carefully, sometimes on our butts, we made our way down. Somehow it worked out.
I know my mother’s going to ask — no, no one got hurt. I do have some sore muscles, but it’s really not bad. In fact, there was something infectious about the experience, to the point that I really would like to do another hike soon. There’s something about moving towards a goal, step by step, conquering each section and moving onto the next that is incredibly satisfying. Even if we didn’t make it to the summit, the three of us took in some mighty views and felt like true adventurers for the day.
Side note — Other highlights of the day:
We went to the Fish Hatchery in Anchorage and saw how the salmon run up-stream and spawn. Dinner was at Bear Tooth Grille. An A+ experience!