A heat wave arrived in Interior Alaska last week, so I decided to find cooler temperatures in the Alaska Range. I wanted to explore the interesting rock spires and colorful cliffs above Whistler Creek, intending to visit them before heading to higher elevation, perhaps all the way to the Jarvis Glacier headwall if conditions permitted. I planned to break up the hike by camping overnight, sacrificing my tent to keep my pack light.
Whistler Creek was a raging torrent when I arrived, fueled by rapidly melting snow and ice. I started hiking up the creek, hoping to avoid wading through the ice-cold water as it narrowed into a canyon about a mile ahead. The creek eventually pinched against a small cliff, so I started scrambling up the steep slope on the north side of the creek to bypass it. The loose rock beneath my feet was tenuously glued together by mud, and it held well enough for me to gain some exposure, then promptly started giving out under my weight. I found myself clinging to the side of the slope with my camera still dangling around my neck, unable to find a decent foothold by digging in with the edges of my boots. I resorted to scraping footholds and handholds with a rock, cutting perpendicular into the slope as deep as possible and trying to keep my weight evenly distributed as I desperately reached for some vegetation and safety a few yards away. I was almost there when my lens brushed against the slope, detaching the lens cap. I watched helplessly as the lens cap tumbled down to the creek. For a brief moment, I saw it lying against a rock in shallow water, but the current quickly swept it away.
I finally made it to the brush above the cliff, sweating profusely. From there, I followed a steep scree slope toward the first cluster of rock spires above, stepping in sheep tracks and steadying myself with the branches along the edge of the slope. When I reached the rock spires, I initially tried to weave my way through them, but hard rock under loose scree made for dangerous footing, and the rotten rock composing the spires themselves didn't offer any security. I circumvented the spires, eventually reaching a ridge where I could finally climb on stable ground. The ridge wasn't without its own difficulties, though. I had to backtrack a couple times when I found myself with no safe route forward, staring down over rocky drops with barely enough room to turn around. I passed a few more interesting columns of rock, but I knew there was a better one waiting higher up.
Finally, the biggest of all the rock spires came into view, guarded on all sides by steep terrain. I carefully hiked along an exposed section of the ridge to the base of the spire, but it was impassable. To continue going up, I would have had to climb down 500 feet and cut over to the ridge on the south edge of Boulder Creek. Instead, I set up camp in a protected spot on the ridge where a rock outcropping had split in half, forming the perfect spot for a bed.
I settled in and waited for sunset, observing nature as I ate the last half of the sub sandwich I bought earlier at the IGA in Delta Junction. Dall sheep grazed on the hills below. An eagle circled overhead. A bumblebee buzzed between the tiny purple mountain saxifrage flowers blooming in the alpine rocks alongside vividly colored lichen. Wolf spiders scurried from crevice to crevice. And, of course, the mosquitoes harassed me constantly. A few lights along the highway reminded me I was still within a few miles of other people, but it didn't ruin the mountain wilderness vibe.
Sunset arrived just before midnight. After the color started to fade, I slipped into my lightweight sleeping bag, pulling it tight over my head to keep out the mosquitoes. For the first time ever I found my sleeping bag too warm, and I wasn't even using a sleeping pad. (So much for escaping the heat.) I woke up to check on the sunrise at 3:45 a.m., but I wasn't impressed and went back to sleep without taking any pictures.
I woke up again around 9 a.m. With my head still wrapped inside my sleeping bag, I heard a few birds land on the rocks next to me, only to immediately fly away when they noticed me lying there. The sound of mosquitoes buzzing around my head had faded now that the sun was beating down on the ridge. Beginning to feel uncomfortably warm, I crawled out of my sleeping bag and sat in the shade, eating some Life cereal and Colby Jack cheese for breakfast. I could tell it was going to be even hotter than the day before.
I packed up my gear and surveyed my hiking options. A large bowl below the rock spire descended uninterrupted to Whistler Creek below, and while the bowl was steep, I could see the entire route was easily manageable, so I chose to start hiking down it. Half-way down, I heard the sound of rushing water coming from a stream running beneath the cliffs to my left. I was completely out of water and quickly becoming dehydrated in the hot sun, so I veered toward the stream, which dropped over a series of waterfalls as it flowed toward Whistler Creek below. I hopped down to the first waterfall to collect water and ran my head underneath the stream to cool off.
I followed the stream the rest of the way to Whistler Creek. Naturally, there was a crux: the stream took a dive into a tunnel it had carved beneath old avalanche debris, and I had to make a risky hop over the hole. When I reached Whistler Creek I started hiking downstream, staying close to the rushing water because it cooled the surrounding air. I hadn't gone far before I was forced to cross the creek. The freezing water stung my calves as I shuffled across, and the current was so strong that it felt like it might sweep me off my feet if I wasn't careful, though it was only knee-high. After crossing, I hugged the south edge of the creek as it wound through a lengthy narrow section, scrambling over boulders and side-hilling over steep terrain where a misstep would have meant sliding directly into the turbulent water below.
I finally reached the spot where I left the creek the day before and crossed to the other side. I stopped to dry my socks and boots while I ate a partially-melted Snickers bar, lying against a rock in the afternoon sun thinking it was about as hot as lying on the beach in Florida. As I readied to start walking the final mile or so to my car, an acquaintance from the Lodge at Black Rapids came hiking up the creek with his dog. We talked about hiking in the area like we usually do, and I left him to decide if he would try going any further with his dog. I began walking the easy home stretch, keeping alert for moose and bears even though I expected them all to be napping in the shade. When I arrived at my car, I glanced back at the ridge above Whistler Creek through binoculars one more time, feeling like I missed a chance to experience T-shirt weather at 7000 feet elevation in the Alaska Range. Oh well, maybe next time. I turned the A/C on full blast and started driving home.