September 8, 2010

USA: Mount Vista unveils for a spectacular view

EAGLE RIVER, Alaska / Alaska Star / Stories / September 8,  2010

By Frank E. Baker

It was a rare sunny Friday with rain forecast for the weekend, so I bailed from work and by noon was headed up Mile Hi gap toward Meadow Creek Valley. That's the most direct route to 5,070-foot Mount Vista – the flat-topped peak between Blacktail Rocks and Mount Magnificent.

Besides, after a recent column expressing my stark opposition to aging, I thought I'd better walk my talk and get out into the mountains to validate such claims.

Mount Vista is visible from the Glenn Highway as you approach Eagle River from Anchorage, but not within Eagle River itself. Baldy blocks the view of it.

Mount Vista is easily accessible and has been scaled countless times. I've climbed it about five times myself, including a bivouac on the summit a couple of summers ago. But no matter how often you return to a familiar place, each time is a different adventure. This mountain isn't technical, and does not even have to involve much rock scrambling if you pick the correct route.

Over the years I've seen a lot of wildlife in Meadow Creek Valley, including grizzly and black bears, moose, a coyote, porcupine, Golden and Bald eagles, a goshawk, and of course, the ubiquitous parka squirrels.

On this day the valley seemed empty and quiet, but the silence was soon interrupted by a flock of Canada geese winging overhead, eastward bound. People always talk about the geese "flying south," but my observations lead me to believe they track east from Southcentral Alaska before eventually turning south – perhaps following the mountain ranges that provide a thermal lift.

Getting closer to the base of Mount Vista, I could see two white specks about halfway up. Binoculars revealed a Dall ewe and lamb—small enough to be this year's lamb. As I began my ascent up a grassy ridge that is like a spine in the middle of the mountain, the two white specks moved out of sight around a rocky ridge.

The only blueberries I could find were on very low bushes that hugged the ground, but they were as tasty as any I've found. They were a welcome distraction from the long ascent that kept me angling to my left to avoid the steep ridge. By avoiding the temptation to go to the right and access the ridge, I headed directly up the mountain's face and remained in grass almost all the way—reaching the summit four hours from the parking lot.

A gentle but cool wind greeted me at the top, and then the clouds closed in.

"Vista," I thought, "is not going to grant me a Vista today." I made a brief search for a summit register, and finding none, edged over the top out of the wind for a spot to enjoy a late lunch.

The expression: "If you don't like the weather, wait for five minutes," definitely applied on this day. In no time at all the clouds parted, the sunburst out and blue sky reigned. To the northwest was Meadow Creek Valley sprawled out in front of me, leading my eye directly to Cook Inlet, shimmering silver in the afternoon sun.

But the best view – the one I savor on the climb up Mount Vista – was to the southeast into the headwaters of Peters Creek. It's such a long hike to get there if you follow the Peter's Creek trail—about 12 miles. But from here, I could peer back into valley's upper reaches…it felt as if I were cheating.

By the time I finished my lunch and took some photos, it was about 5 p.m., and I knew it was time to head home. I knew it would take less time than going in. Then came the affliction, my affliction. It happens almost every time I venture into the mountains. I didn't want to leave. Maybe it's why I hike alone as often as I do. It drives other people crazy. They have jobs and lives and destinations and people to see and things to do. So do I, but nevertheless, it seizes me. I have to force myself to leave.

For a long time places like this have helped me see inside myself. Even enveloped by clouds, they foster an inner view – a special kind of vista. One must inevitably come down, but in a strange way it seems like you owe the mountain something, that you must give something back. So you stay a little longer, then try to leave a small part of yourself—nothing physical, perhaps only a memory—an artifact that you'll look for on your next visit.

Frank E. Baker is a lifelong Alaskan and member of Eagle River Rotary.

Also read: Baker's column an inspiration to older people

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