‘Peaking’ my interest

I can’t exactly tell you how many peaks I’ve climbed on the Kenai Peninsula. It doesn’t have anything to do with my memory — rather, it’s not really clear how many prominences actually count as peaks.

Defining a peak is tough, anyway. Is it the highest point on a mountain range, or does a point in which all the land around it falls count as a peak? What exactly is a mountain, anyway, when they flow together connected by the glinting blue of glaciers and the rolling shoulders of other mountains?

My first was actually a relatively obscure one — Ward Peak, in the foothills of the Chugach Mountains on the eastern side of Resurrection Bay. Climbing from below 500 feet to 2,256 feet in about a mile is quite a challenge, and I remember the brutal ache in my quads upon scrambling up the hard-to-find trail toward Mount Alice, a dizzying 5,265-foot snowcapped pinnacle high above Seward. I didn’t make it to the top that day, courtesy of a deep mantle of snow still clinging on in late April, but I’ll make it back one day.

I didn’t even know that I’d climbed a technical peak until much later, when I was consulting a U.S. Geological Service topographic map for some information for future ill-advised adventures. To my surprise, many of the hills I’d climbed on my way to the towering heights actually bore individual names — Silver Peak, Left Peak, Divide Peak. Small indicators marked prominences with elevations I didn’t realize were distinguished from the mountains around them.

The Kenai Peninsula’s eastern half, laden generously with mountains of both the Kenai and Chugach ranges as well as a number of lesser ranges, is home to some well-known summits — Mount Marathon, Cooper Peak and Hope Point, among others. However, off the most beaten paths, there are some obscure heights it takes some research to dig into.

This summer, I twice completed the Cecil Rhode Mountain traverse, an 11-mile trek around the collar of a mountain ridge. Any visitor to Cooper Landing would recognize the rugged face of the mountain, which forms the backdrop of the little river town between Snug Harbor Road and Cooper Creek.

The death-defying initial ascent leads you up to the sharp nose of Cooper Peak, 4,400 feet above Cooper Landing, and the trail leaves you there. However, intrepid hikers can follow the natural curve of the ridgeline back to a second, higher point bearing the official name of Stetson Peak. Both bear official USGS bronze buttons, designating them as recorded summits.

Beyond that, the ridges range off into the distance. Some have names, according to my topographic maps, and some don’t. I want to climb as many as I can.

Interestingly, other mountains I’ve climbed don’t have names at all. Wending my way up a weedy mining road this August, I scrambled along a ribbon of ridge to reach the highest point near the Oracle Mines on Gilpatrick Mountain, just south of the Summit Lake Lodge on the Seward Highway.

As best we could tell, that was the true peak on the ridge, and we ticked it off our hiking list. However, upon poring over my topographic maps later, I couldn’t spot an official peak designation on the ridge. I found the elevation marker — 4,630 feet, whew! — on the map, but no triangular peak tag. Huh.

The same is true for some of my other favorite mountain hikes. Skyline Trail, my favorite old trusty standby, jogs a mile and a half straight up a mountain at the edge of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge for spectacular views over Skilak Lake and some of the best fall colors around.

Guess what? None of the several peaks on that glorious ridge, which I can intimately describe from experience, have names, except two. Ironically, one is called No Name Peak, and it’s not even the highest on the ridge. At about 2,900 feet, it is significantly shorter than the 3,295-foot summit for which I usually head. (That is all according to a 2002 USGS topographic map.) The other one doesn’t appear on the topographic map that I have but a USGS metal marker names it Jeanet Peak.

The process to formally name peaks is fairly arduous, as it should be — after all, you don’t want your favorite mountain being sized up by a gold prospector and suddenly finding out that it’s officially called Mount McKinley. To name a mountain, you have to establish that it doesn’t have a name, that the locals all call it something, write a petition to the Alaska Historical Commission, which can approve or reject it before sending it on to the U.S. Board on Geographic Names, which has the final say.

There are lots of rules accompanying it, too — for instance, you can’t name a geographic feature after a person unless that person has been dead for at least five years, according to the Alaska Historical Commission. (In the case of Denali, the Alaska Board of Geographic Names tried to reverse the imposition of the name Mount McKinley, but politics delayed the process for about 40 years.)

But you know what? I kind of like my wilderness without names.

The point of getting up beyond the tree line is to step away from the speeding carousel of my daily life, to feel breezes that sometimes carry the scent of the sea and to share sweat and smiles with people I love. Who cares if I have a formal name to check off a list when I descend into the forest again?

I’ll choose to carry the accomplishments in mental photographs. They may not come with accolades or medals, but they’re more mine than anything else I could truly have.

Reach Clarion reporter Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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