By Rose Lundy
If the American Midwest is home to subtle beauty, Alaska boasts overwhelming natural landforms—the water is bluer, the sky clearer and the terrain rougher. As a Minnesotan city-girl, that kind of dramatic scenery has never been a part of my life, so it came as a shock to spend a summer in Alaska, constantly surrounded by mountains. During my 10 weeks as an intern at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, I woke up in the shadow of Mount St. Elias, cleared hiking trails on Skookum Mountain and drove through the Richardson Highway mountain range to Valdez. Living in a one-stop-sign town nestled in dramatic landscapes, it was impossible to ignore my own insignificance.
Nothing is more humbling than attempting to conquer the wilderness. My last weekend in Alaska, I climbed Gunsight Mountain with Tessa, a fellow intern. The 9,000- foot mountain is named for the dipped notch in the peak that resembles a rifle. Gunsight is a couple hours out from the National Park Headquarters in Copper Center, so Tessa and I borrowed a Park Ranger’s car and left as early in the morning as we could manage. We drove for two hours toward Anchorage and pulled into an empty parking lot as the hazy dawn began to lift. There was no need for ceremony, so Tessa and I put on our packs, shrugged at each other and started toward the mountain.
It is important to note that rules don’t apply in Alaska. As the last remnant of frontier life, Alaskan hikers have free reign on public land: no trails and no markings. In Wrangell-St. Elias, it is common to drop hikers off deep in the mountains and wait for them to hike their way out again. This independence and self-sufficiency is foreign yet freeing for a city-dweller.
After wandering around the base of Gunsight in search of the best way up, Tessa and I eventually settled on a thin, twisting animal path to follow. Hours drifted by as the terrain rolled from sparse and rocky to overgrown and ragged. Shoulder-high shrubs pulled at our backpacks as we shoved our way through tiny openings in the branches. The dull gray skies had kept the morning cool, but by midday the sun had melted through the gloom, and I began to peel off layers of clothing.
Even as we stumbled on through mud and thistles, the peak of Gunsight never felt any closer. Mountains stretched in every direction, piercing the sky and blocking the horizon.
Just as our cause began to feel hopeless, the overgrowth fell away, first to soft, grassy inclines and then suddenly into steep rocky cliffs. Soon after, I was scrambling on my hands and knees upwards as rocks scattered with every movement. The clouds had finally dissipated, and sun glinted off the rocky cliffs as wind whipped around the mountain. Tessa and I finally pulled ourselves up to the peak, wobbling on the thin ledge.
And yet, after hours of effort, I was struck by how mediocre the view was. The other mountains felt just as tall, just as far away and just as intimidating as they had when I stood at the base of Gunsight. What we thought was the “peak” stretched out before us, eventually connecting to another peak of a different mountaintop. I realized, swiftly and achingly, that I could hike forever and never truly feel like I had reached the summit.
I stood on that mountain ledge as the realization that humans can never really conquer nature seeped into my bones, and for a moment I felt incredibly small. But then I came to an even more important realization: we don’t hike mountains or travel to distant places in order to conquer them. We seek adventure for adventure’s sake. To learn something new, to meet someone different, to see the world in a different way.
I did not conquer Gunsight Mountain. Instead, I caught a glimpse of myself and who I am in the face of the rough Alaskan terrain.
This piece will be featured in our 2016 spring print issue.