Flattop – Up, Around, & Down


The most summited mountain in Alaska had beaten me once; and it turns out that it is only once.  Today, I reached the top of Flattop and looked out onto the whole of the Anchorage Basin feeding on that simple victory; happy I was able to do so before beaten by the snows of winter.  As to prove how close I came to being beaten again, I raised my phone to take a picture and as I was centering the first shot of the city from up high … a snow flake landed on my hand.

I blogged about a failure in the past … and it was more me being an idiot than anything:


To be honest, I didn’t plan on Flattop today.  I was expecting rain from sunup to sundown, and joked with a co-worker who thought about hiking today in the rain.  We actually planned on going together, but when she opted for a gym workout, nap, and a garden burger … I made a run at my nemesis.

Flattop is a rocky, but lower, mountain along the eastern edge of Anchorage.  It’s easy access, from the Glen Alps trailhead, and is part of a great trail system right there in Glen Alps.  Where the parking is, the elevation is 2000ft, impressive since downtown Anchorage is 50ft. While families hike these trails every day, they encourage younger kids and less fit people from summitting .. I’ll get to why in a bit.

As almost an advance warning the trail begins with a monster of a stairway climb, followed by a steep incline.  Both times I attempted Flattop, I noticed a major wakeup call by the time I got over this … just the first 5 minutes of the climb.  My body was telling me, you ain’t in Kansas, and your definitely ain’t at sea level.  Less than a quarter-mile you crest a flat area above the trees where the weather will hit you fully.  There you reach a split where the trail map is laid out for you, and if you hit this point you are ready to assess if you really really have what you need for the day ahead.  This is the beginning of “Blueberry Loop”, a 2 mile circle around the lowest knoll on the hike known for the wild berries free for the picking.

Blueberry Loop isn’t that bad, the views are nice, and it’s a pretty steady trail.  At its apex, though, is the First Saddle (a dip in the hills, sort of like the saddle for a horse), and here the real climb begins; and you are only one mile in.  It took me 20 minutes to get to this point.

Two routes exist, and I took the “easier” stairs version.  Wooden stairs start almost immediately, and there are loads.  Step after step takes you up six inches at a time, and by the time you reach the first resting area your legs are screaming.  This time, I brought my trekking poles, which saved the legs hugely.  I passed some families on their way up, surprisingly because the last time, I was the one being passed nearly constantly.  There is a grind to the steps, because it seems they come about 20 at a time.  When you reach the end of one level, satisfied you have some solid ground for a while, the hill turns a little and there is another set of steps.  Finally when you come around the bend to the second saddle, the stairs end … but that last bit to the saddle seems to be flat and quick, but it ends up going on forever and straight up.  By the time I hit this point, I am nearly 50 minutes in, and gone just short of 2 miles.

When I failed the first time, this second saddle is where I turned around.  And for good reason.  This picture doesn’t do it justice, but the last leg of this thing is a real beast.  Here, you are just over a tenth of a mile as the crow flies.  You have already come up 1000ft from the parking lot, but the summit is at 3500ft.  Let’s go the math here kids … started at 2000ft, gone now to 3000ft, and you have 500ft to go to the summit … and its about 500ft as the crow flies … so you have a 45% Gradient!

The trail zig zags until you get into the rocks.  From there you start scrambling.  There is a third saddle, kinda.  It’s more of a place where one set of rocks sticks up over the rest, and you have to go over that rock to get to the rest.  Past that third saddle, the trail … well … just isn’t a trial anymore.  You are on full on scramble.  Some points, I was pushing up rocks 2 ft per step.  I tried not looking over my shoulder because I was sure a fall back in behind me would lead to a tumble.  It was work, full body work.

But it leads to one of those great moments in climbing.

Just as you push up over a rock … there in front of you is flat, minus a single pole stuck in the ground.

Near the end, I was climbing with a couple of guys a little younger than me.  I crested first and was up there long enough to catch my breath.  When those two came over the top they they went wided eye.  “This is it,” one said almost dismissively.  But I realized that I was like him … it wasn’t that you downplayed the accomplishment of reaching this peak, it just came to you so quickly that you didn’t even have a chance to suffer that last leg.  The last quarter mile, this last push up from the second saddle, took me nearly 30 minutes, but it seemed like it flew by.  That’s when you realize its not so bad getting here.

Getting back though ….

Of course when I was up there, I wanted to geocache.  Three caches up there, didn’t find a one … seems they are all missing.  One though had me heading down a path a good quarter mile that took me part down the backside of Flattop.  If I followed that, I was looking at a taxi rid to get me the 7 or 8 miles to get me from one trail head to the other, so I backtracked … but not in the smart way.  I literally rolled around the flattop summit, stomping through the high vegetation and crawling over rock falls.  I went so far I added a good half mile to the hike.  By the time I reached the Second Saddle, I topped up to three miles, knowing I had a good two at least to go.  My phone ap that maps my hike (the obviously named MapMyHike), was clocking me at the slowest hike I ever thought I could do … just over 1.5 miles an hour.

I stomped down the stairs, really using those trekking poles now to save my knees, and cruised my way home.  5.2 miles in total, nearly 3 hours of hiking (and a couple of geocaches near the bottom, so you cachers wouldn’t think it was a total loss) and I got back to my car.

Looking back up, I scanned the hills and saw that Flattop is the only peak these days without snow on it.

The dusting at higher elevations that comes with the autumn began with the storms that blew through the past week.  Chances to make these trips will come fewer and further apart.  I realize now the desperation in everyone to get in the best of the summer while what can still be summer still is here.  But with this attack on Flattop I see I am no different.  I jumped on this big rock that beat me once before and beat it this time.  More importantly, I beat it so well I know I can beat it again.

Tomorrow should be sunny again, so I may get in another grand hike … or it could be my turn for a nap and a garden burger.


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