Purcell crouches down to admire Tincan Mountain,
a.k.a. Kickstep Mountain, while scouting for a
thought of visiting Alaska in the winter may fill you with
shivers and a longing to hibernate, but for
adventure-seekers, it is prime playtime.
mountains laden with snow create stunning backdrops, and
the outdoor options are limitless. You can strap on
snowshoes, grab a snowboard or skis, get a taste of dog
mushing or cruise the backcountry on a snowmobile —
stubbornly called a snowmachine by locals.
visited in late January and early February and was
smitten. I declared myself a future Alaskan. I vowed to
buy Alaskan slippers, which are actually heavy-duty boots
— XtraTufs — worn by many in the Last Frontier. I
scoffed at the biting cold even as I slipped along icy
streets in downtown Anchorage and wished for a thicker
in the Pacific Northwest, I’m accustomed to the cold and
congratulated myself on braving Alaska’s winter
temperatures. What I didn’t know at the time was that my
trip coincided with the fourth warmest January ever
recorded in the city.
was simultaneously relieved and disappointed.
may have escaped the worst of winter, but the warmer
weather (we’re talking temperatures in the 20s here)
dashed my hopes of ice climbing or checking out Alyeska
Resort, which shut down because piles of fresh powder were
in short order on its ski runs.
in Alaska may be downright cold, but this trip was an
escape from the dreary rain back in the South Sound. I was
enraptured with winter skies that were crisp and blue
rather than bleak and gray.
I set out to explore the winter wonderland around
Anchorage, I bundled up but my Gore-Tex gear stayed shoved
in the bottom of my pack.
about appreciating the small things, right? Except
sunshine in the winter for a Northwesterner is no small
brings me to my one grievance with taking a winter break
in Alaska: longer hours of darkness. The sun did not deign
to come out until 9 a.m., which ruled out early alpine
again, it’s a rare chance to sleep in.
are some of the places I visited:
Chugach State Park, about 25 miles south of Anchorage
along Seward Highway.
hike has it all: steepness, breathtaking views and wild
weather. It offers sweeping views of a waterway and
countless snow-capped peaks with only a swivel of the
started in a cool mist at sea level, peeking out over
Turnagain Arm as we wound upward through a forest to an
exposed ridge. That’s where the wind picked up and
repeatedly knocked me over, forcing me to tromp through
the snow just below the ridge.
we scuttled up a rocky point to Bird Ridge, the mist
turned to snow, even though the sun was still peeking
people stop there, which clocks in at five miles and 3,400
feet of elevation gain. Others push on for the overlook,
which is 12 miles and 5,500 feet gain.
On the threshold of the Alaska Range north of Cantwell.
routes are an exhilarating way to dress up a climb.
Getting into a couloir in Washington usually requires a
long drive and a long approach; apparently in Alaska you
just pull over on the side of the highway and get going.
It was another reminder of how accessible and limitless
the possibilities are.
gully didn’t look intimidating from the bottom, but the
steepness of the 60-degree couloir became apparent as we
moved higher. It was a tedious process to kick our
crampons into the mix of ice and snow and then plunge in
our ice axes before moving up. A quarter or so of the way
up the 3,500-foot couloir, we crossed a rocky area and
paused momentarily to scarf down lunch. It was the only
place on the route where it was safe enough to sit down.
trio of mountain goats kept an eye on us but kept their
distance as we kept climbing up, up, up. We were treated
to some stunning views of some of the biggest mountains in
About 120 miles north of Anchorage, in the shadow of
buffs and climbers should carve out time to visit this
tiny, spunky town off the beaten path. It has evolved from
a gold mining town at the turn of the 20th century to the
place where mountaineers ascending Denali catch an air
taxi to the 7,200-foot Kahiltna Glacier.
charm is said to have been the inspiration behind the
community of Cicely on the TV show "Northern
downtown area is a National Historic Site with buildings
dating back to the early 1900s, including the Talkeetna
Roadhouse and Nagley’s General Store. Wander into the
funky shops or skip rocks down on the river. Talkeetna is
at the confluence of the Susitna, Chulitna and Talkeetna
rivers and draws salmon fishermen in the summer.
arrived after dinnertime, hungry from a climb, and found
our pub of choice was no longer serving grub. The friendly
bartender, however, invited us to partake of the town
potluck and hang out as long as we wished.
Chugach State Park, about 15 miles from downtown
couldn’t pass up a chance to sit atop the "most
often climbed peak in Alaska" — or so says the
state Department of Natural Resources.
a relatively easy hike through some hemlocks and above
timberline to a talus field. Scramble up to the aptly
named flat summit, which is about the size of a football
trail climbs 1,300 feet in 1.7 miles. In typical Alaska
style, it offers gorgeous 360-degree views of Cook Inlet,
Anchorage and the Alaska Range, where Denali dominates the
Highest point of Seward Highway (900 feet) at the gateway
to the Kenai Peninsula, 30 miles south of Girdwood.
is a free-for-all winter recreation area where you can do
just about any snow activity you can dream up. It’s
known for its endless snow because it collects powder
blown over the ridgelines but manages to avoid the winds.
strapped on snowshoes and tied on sleds before we ventured
into a back bowl between Tincan and Sunburst mountains to
set up camp and properly enjoy a wintry Alaskan evening.
There was a hot meal, cold feet and a quiet stillness you
can’t find anywhere but the outdoors.
camping in Alaska isn’t too different from Washington
but it was the chance to do the main thing I wanted:
engage in the elements.