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Story Last modified at 9:13 p.m. on Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Harp Mountain climb includes a surprise at the summit

Frank E. Baker

On a recent climb up Rendezvous Peak, I looked east across South Fork Valley and noticed that the ridge leading up to Harp Mountain's summit looked quite wind blown, offering a relatively easy ascent. I made a mental note to give it a try before the next snowfall.


A summit surprise -- a weather station atop 5,001-foot Harp mountain.
Photo by Frank E. Baker

A few days later, Jan. 6, I started my climb on Harp about 11 a.m. I wasn't sure if I was up to it after a long rehabilitation following an October knee surgery. I had brought lightweight snowshoes with cleats, but some footprints and old snowboard tracks allowed me to ascend the first few hundred feet without them. When I started sinking into the snow, I donned the snowshoes for the next few hundred feet, and then switched to crampons.

I ditched the snowshoes on a flat spot that was easy to see from above, and placed several rocks on top of them.

Harp Mountain is a relatively easy ridge climb shaped like a crescent that rises about 3,000 feet in about a mile, topping out at 5,001 feet. Like many of the mountains in South Fork Valley, it's named after a musical instrument. Vin and Grace Hoeman, legendary Alaska mountaineers who completed numerous first ascents, were the first to reach this peak's summit, on Oct. 15, 1968.

I've climbed Harp numerous times, but only a few times in the winter because of avalanche danger. With moss and other vegetation sticking out of the snow, the ridge looked quite safe as I made my way slowly up over the first couple of humps. The crampons made it easy in places where the snow was windblown and hardened.

There was a light wind from the north, but with the temperature about 20 degrees and the sun peeking out over the mountains to the south, it was quite pleasant. I didn't apply sun block, hoping for a little color on my winter-whitened face.

While I 'm sure there are local athletes who are able to reach Harp's summit in less than an hour, my fastest time in summer is about 90 minutes. But then, I'm no spring chicken. Today, it would take me about an hour longer, as I stopped on the upper ridge to take photos, drink some water and have a snack.

Looking back down toward where I'd parked my truck, I saw a person with a dog moving fairly quickly up the ridge. I figured they'd catch up with me in half an hour.

Starting out again for the final push, I spotted a thin structure up at the top. Reaching the summit about 30 minutes later, I saw that it was some kind of weather station. Its small propeller was spinning rapidly, even with a very light wind.

"Must have been installed recently, because it wasn't up here last fall," I thought to myself.

I found a place out of the wind and enjoyed a quick lunch, which included a thermos of hot coffee. I would have stayed longer, but my hands were getting cold. The view from Harp is one of the best in the Eagle River area. To the east were Blacktail Rocks, Mount Magnificent and Significant. To the southeast I could see Ram Valley and Korohusk peak, then Mount Kiliak and Yukla peaks. To the right of that was upper Eagle River Valley and Eagle Glacier. To the right of that, more directly south, was Polar Bear and Eagle peaks; and farther to the right, swinging west to the back of South Fork valley were Cantata and Calliope and Triangle peaks. Farther to the west was the city of Anchorage, Rendezvous mountain, Mount Gordon Lyon and Hiland Mountain, and in the distance, to the north, was the Alaska Range, capped by the twin giants, Mount McKinley (Denali) and Foraker.

On the way down the mountain I noticed that the person with the dog only had only gone about half way and turned around. I retrieved the snowshoes and found that I didn't need them on the lower portion of the mountain, making the return trip in an hour less than going up.

About six ravens swooped across the slopes, apparently on their way back to nesting sites deep in the mountains. They seemed indifferent to my presence, but I really think they were checking me out in hopes that I might leave some food behind.

I was curious about the new weather station, so the next day I phoned the National Weather Service. One of their officials said the station was installed recently by the Friends of the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center, or F-CNFAIC. The station measures wind speed, wind direction and gusts; ambient air temperature and relative humidity.

F-CNFAIC is a nonprofit, organized in 2003 to support and contribute to the educational and scientific activities provided for the public by the Chugach National Forest Avalanche Information Center. I didn't know that CNFAIC includes locations in Chugach State park, but I welcome any monitoring efforts that provide information to make it safer for backcountry travelers.

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

This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, January 12, 2011.