© 2011 jemma

Flattop & 26 Glaciers

Climbing Flattop Mountain

So after camping Jess and I headed back to Anchorage as part of the package. We woke on Sunday to a spectacular Anchorage day (there aren’t that many) where the sun was shining and it was warm. We decided that today would be a good day to climb Flattop Mountain.

There is only one company that takes you there from down town. Initially we wanted to do the hike/bike where you hike to the top of the mountain and then ride back into town, but that was full and we were lucky to get the last two seats on the bus.

Flattop as the name suggests has a flat top. It looks as though it has had the top ‘peak’ chopped off, so the aim of the hike is to get to the flat bit…the peak. Behind the flat bit is the second peak and then the third peak – these are not flat. The man on the phone – Pete – said that Jess sounded fit so we should be able to make it to the second peak and back in the allocated time of 2.5 hours. This was then Jess’ goal. Mine was to not have an asthma attack – tick!

We arrived at the car park to find that almost the whole city was climbing the mountain that day also. This was ok, the track was never that full and it scared away any potential bears because only the cyclists were given bear spray.

The track began steep, got steeper and then even steeper. As we found out I’m the up hill specialist and Jess is the down hill specialist, which is good because he is in front to catch me if I fall…on him. As we rounded Blueberry Hill the view of Anchorage, Cook Inlet, Turnagain Arm and Knik Arm was fantastic. You are literary on top of it all. This was also the place where the stairs started.

There were hundreds of them, but it was ok. Not only was it a good butt workout, they also kept you from sliding backwards on the scree, which was very helpful. We were making pretty good time as we bounded up the stairs – not really – and made it to the bottom of the head wall in 45 min.

The head wall is a wall of rocks that you have to climb hand over hand like a ladder. I heard one girl – who obviously fell – ask her dad if they could sue the government because of the rocks (only in America!) and her dad said no you climbed at your own risk (sensible dad). There are marks on the rocks to show you the safe path up, but lucky for me Jess couldn’t see the colour and so we made our own way up around all the slow people who were freaking out at having to rock climb. My theory is, the quicker the better.

After the head wall you are at the top, and the view from the top was amazing! You could see all the way up and down the coast, as well as all the spectacular mountains behind. We stood right on the edge and looked down at all the tiny people making their way up. Another couple from the bus were up there too – we were the only four who made it to the top – and we chatted about the view and where they were from – LA it turns out.

Because we had time, Jess and I decided to try for the second peak, the couple from LA opted out due to injury and so Jess and I half ran down the saddle in order to make it the 20 allocated minutes up to the next peak. It was that time constraint that got us there. It was steep and slippery due to mud and snow, but we struggled through and got to the top of the next peak. We were buggered but we were proud! We had time to eat a muesli bar in celebration, take a few photos and then head quickly down then back up onto flattop, ready to now climb down the head – which was even more fun then climbing up.

We pretty much quick marched the descent in 45min or so and arrived breathless to find all the people who coped out of the hike and the LA couple waiting for the bus and a guy who had started riding up to Flattop when we had left down town in the bus, arriving at the base. Now HE looked buggered, but was getting ready to climb up the mountain. Go you other guy from LA!

On the way back in the bus we chatted to our new friends Bryan and Jamie from LA and even met them later that evening at the brewery for some beers. It was great to meet some really nice people and get the low down on LA and the things we should and shouldn’t do there from a fireman and a law enforcement officer, i.e Do not catch public transport if you don’t want to be murdered.

Thanks guys for the heads up!

26 Glacier tour

Because we weren’t going to Valdez, Jess and I thought our Alaska adventure wouldn’t be complete without a visit to Prince William Sound, so we booked a glacier tour out of Whittier to complete the journey around the Kenai Peninsula.

We caught the Alaska railway to Whittier on a bright sunny Saturday. We were missing the summer solstice celebrations in town, so we were a little upset (we later found out it was a little crap) but it was a great sunny day in Whittier and that is rare, news that made us a little happier.

To get to Whittier – the weirdest town in the world – the train had to travel through two tunnels, the second of which is opened to cars and trains but not at the same time. It is a pretty journey that takes you through marshes, past rivers, hanging glaciers and we finally saw Turnagain arm at high tide.

We arrived in Whittier at lunchtime ready to get onto our tour boat. Whittier was developed during the Second World War as a port to supply Anchorage and hide ships because it always rains and is foggy. There is an old derelict army building where the solders lived and another army barracks that has been converted into condos where 99% of the town lives – there are only 177 people. Yeah weird.

We were put at a table with a mother and daughter from Virginia and our 5 hour tour began. We set out across Passage Canal viewing Whittier glacier, the first of many glaciers as we set out toward Esther Island.

We saw our first wildlife before lunch, a pod of Dall porpoises who were playing in front of the boat. We were all let out on the bow of the boat – we were only allowed out at certain times…like gaol (jail) – to take photos and check them out. Learning from our previous encounter with the porpoises we took photos and a video of them because photos are just to hard, which you will see if you check them out, it’s like where’s Wally, only with black and white porpoises.

Lunch was served and I was glad I chose the vegetarian soup which came with coleslaw and crisps because Jess got the deep fried cod also with coleslaw and crisps and it didn’t look crash hot. As Jess said it wasn’t the ‘gourmet meal’ that was advertised, but when is it ever. As we were eating the captain crept the boat up to a lone stellar sea lion on a rock, it was a nice lunchtime view.

After lunch we entered the Esther Channel and ran into the Alaska commercial fishing fleet laying gill nets to catch the salmon heading through the channel. We even got to see one of the boats bringing in their catch. Jess was excited to see the salmon being caught but I felt sorry for them. The forestry lady on board explained that only 3% make it to the spawning grounds and it really doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out why.

Out of the channel we were in Port Wells heading towards College Fjord. There are many glaciers here including hanging glaciers, valley glaciers and tidal glaciers, and all are named after Ivy league universities. The biggest in this fjord is Harvard which is a combination of over 10 smaller glaciers into one big mouth reaching the sea. The slightly smaller Yale Glacier is to the right. It is an incredible sight to see all the medial moraines (black lines of dirt) that run through the glaciers where two glaciers meet. Harvard certainly had plenty of those.

Heading out of the fjord on the way to Barry Arm, we ran into a raft of sea otters. Lots of the mums had pups hanging out on their bellies. One had quite a large pup on her belly that we all thought was big enough to look after itself, but it certainly loved playing with its mum. At this point Jess and I were wishing for a better camera, but we took the best pictures we could with what we had. There were so many otters in Port Wells!!

On our way into Barry Arm to see Cascade, Barry and Surprise Glacier, Jess received kudos from everyone for spotting the only whales of the day. They weren’t Orca, but we think they were Minke whales splashing and spouting and showing us their dorsal fins and tails.

In Surprise Arm off Barry Arm (so many Arms) the captain took us very close to Surprise glacier, where we floated through the pack ice and got to see the wonderful blue colour of the glacier up close. As I said to Jess, if there was massive calving I would rather be in this boat than in a kayak. Alas however it only calved a little and Jess and I spent most of our time looking for seals and otters and admiring the massive waterfalls and what seemed like thousands of other glaciers surrounding us. Look up Harriman Fjord Ak and College Fjord Ak on google maps to really appreciate just how many there are. It is incredible and certainly worth protecting.

On our way back to Whittier we visited the Kittiwake that nest in a rookery across the bay from Whittier. Kittiwake are pretty much a seagull that has black legs instead of the usual red ones. They apparently like to nest under and near waterfalls and are eaten by eagles. Luckily for us, small children and the Kittiwake there was only one eagle spying on them that day from a nearby tree.

As we headed back into port we ducked around a big cruise ship and docked into port at exactly 5:30pm. Only an hour and quarter wait for our train back to Anchorage. Our new Virginia friends told us that we could probably walk 5 times around Whittier in that time, so we set off on an adventure. We saw the derelict building and the apartment building everyone lives in. We also saw the teenie tiny grocery/post office/liquor/tourist store and walked through the 3 other tourist shops. I even bought an ice cream to boost the economy.

For all my bagging of the town it does have character though and lots of tourists come here to see how beautiful this place really is – or just to catch a cruise ship or a ferry to Valdez. I’m sure those people enjoy the scenery also.

On the train back we were seated with two older sisters – like in their 60’s? – from Yorkshire who were on a 5 week holiday. They had been to a lot of places, hated cruise ships, mobile phones and were VERY self sufficient. It was nice to have a chat and as Jess said we have met so many different people so far and it’s nice to hear a different story everyday.

Lets just hope all the stories and fantastic memories keep on coming.

Ciao for now!