Take on big chunks of terrain with this adventurous hiking style
There is a term out there for the things my friends and I do on a relatively frequent basis – and we’re not the only ones out there doing it.
It’s called fast-hiking. Fast hiking means covering mega distance: 20, 30, or even 40 miles in one day. It’s not about running, or masochism. Rather it’s about continuous movement, at a regular walking pace, for hours and hours. The key to fast hiking is to not stop. You eat while you walk. You add a layer while you walk. And read the map while you walk. If you don’t stop, you will cover huge distances.
Anchorage lies on the edge of a fast hiker’s dream. Chugach State Park is the nation’s third largest state park, covering a half million acres with glaciers, rocky summits and vast tundra-coated ridges and valleys. The tundra is often a spongy carpet of bright lichen and moss – ideal for moving fast, cross-country, through the alpine.
And it’s so close to home. A recent fast hike of mine was the Thunderbird Traverse with my buddy Maddog. At 8 a.m. we started walking up Bear Point from the Peters Ctreek trailhead. The unofficial T-Bird Traverse continues across open tundra ridges to the remote summit of Thunder Bird Peak and finishes at the Eklutna trailhead.
We’d been hiking for five furious hours when Maddog said, “Uh Joe, I don’t think I’ll make it to Eklutna.”
I ignored him – this is key tactic of fast hiking: do not acknowledge the discomfort – and kept talking about moose burgers and local beer. Maddog had been working on the Cook Inlet oil and gas platforms – a job better known for thickening the midsection than building fast hiking fitness. But Maddog is a physical mutant. He climbs El Capitan, Yosemite’s biggest cliff, in a day, and he pumps laps on Patagonia’s notorious Mount Fitzroy.
We kept going, and Maddog kept it together. We arrived at the Eklutna parking lot after 13 hours of full-tilt hiking and talking. We were crushed, smiling and relieved to finally stop walking – one of the results of this crazy pursuit, where the accomplishment is the ultimate reward.
The first step to fast hiking is to get a small pack for survival gear: food, water, space blanket, medical tape, raincoat and the Imus Geographics Chugach State Park map. Running shoes work best. Avoid Gore-Tex shoes, which hold water inside the shoes. Wet feet are part of fast hiking. An ultra-light trekking pole helps incorporate your upper body on the lung-ripping hills.
With your fast-hiking pack, learn the limited network of trails in Chugach State Park. These trails give access through the impenetrable alder forest below 2,000 feet, to the alpine above. The Ballfield Traverse, for example, is a breathtaking alpine trail. It’s like hiking a table of tundra between Glen Alps to Middle Fork Campbell Creek. Another trail system is connecting Rabbit Creek to McHugh Creek. Graduate from trails by fast hiking the Crow Pass marathon with a stopwatch going.
After a summer of Chugach trails under your belt, it’s time to get off-trail. Kick start your creativity for routes by posting a second copy of the Imus Geographics map in a prominent location in your house. On the map, pick two trailheads, anywhere on the map. Your fast hike is between those two trailheads; say, Glen Alps to Bird Ridge. The rounded ridgelines around Eagle River and Eklutna are like tundra highways, with views of the glaciated massifs of Denali and the Tordrillo Mountains.
Fast hiking becomes a game with a theme. One summer my theme was finding the best sheep trail in Chugach State Park. One popular sheep trail is the improbable path traversing the north face of the Wedge near Glen Alps. Another is a narrow route winding across the shear south-face above Falls Creek. My all-time favorite sheep trail twists through the rock towers on the ridge between Mount Williwaw and Koktoya Peak.
Find a theme, and give it a try. You’ll never have reason to hike the same place twice.