By Mike Edgington
Special to the Glacier City Gazette
King, Rockhopper, Adelie, Emperor, Crested, Chinstrap and Gentoo: fans of wildlife documentaries and trivia nerds recognize this as a list of 7 species of penguins. To those who have completed the Penguin Ridge Traverse above Turnagain Arm and Girdwood Valley, those same names also evoke memories of a spectacular hike, grand vistas and possibly a shudder or two.
Penguin Ridge is a 16-mile-long, high-traverse named after Penguin Peak which rises 4,305 ft. immediately east of Bird Creek. The mountain is unmissable when travelling the Seward Highway from Anchorage, hulking above the settlement of Bird Creek and easily identifiable by the microwave tower perched on its southern flank.
A clear, sunny late-July morning saw the author staring up towards Penguin with a mixture of excitement and apprehension at the coming hike. I have experience with shorter hikes in the Chugach and have hiked many narrow ridge routes elsewhere in the world like the classic Aonoch Eagach in Glencoe, Scotland.
As I’d already discovered over the past few years, Alaska is in a different league from trips in the Eastern U.S. and Europe. While I am moderately fit, I am not yet Alaska fit. Glenda Kerry and Betsy Haines, the other members of our small party, were familiar with the first part of the route having summitted Penguin Peak a few weeks earlier. I had also climbed Gentoo above California Creek and explored a little of the ridge the month before.
One of the features which makes Penguin Ridge a formidable hike is that there is no safe descent from the middle of the ridge. Between us we knew the way onto and off of the ridge at either end – so how hard could the bit in the middle be?
The path to Penguin Peak starts at the Bird Valley Trailhead, follows the ATV trail beside the creek a short distance then turns to the right onto a well-marked hiking trail up to the peak. The trail climbs steadily through tall grass and alder until the higher elevations support only the shorter grasses and heather of the sub-tundra. At this point, the views open up back across the valley towards Bird Ridge and the Western Chugach.
Remnants of winter cornices still clung to the northwest ridgeline, safely away from the trail as it continues through a bowl up towards the microwave tower. Beside the tower we caught glimpses directly down to the steady traffic on the Seward Highway almost 3,500 feet below, although foreshortening makes it seem so much closer. A short, steep climb gained the first peak with an ammo-can register.
However, the true Penguin Peak is topped with a weather station and actually lies 1/8 mile further and 200 feet higher along a rocky ridge. This ascent gave the first taste of what become our experience’s main theme – everything on the traverse seemed a bit further and a bit harder than it first appeared.
One of the repeated warnings about this hike is that there is no source of water on the ridge itself once the snow has melted. There are two lakes below the ridge, one at either end of the traverse. While the emerald water of the lake below Penguin looked inviting, it was 1,500 feet of steep, loose scree down.
The ridge proper narrows considerably as it drops down several hundred feet from Penguin Peak then back up via a small prominence to King Point at 4,050 ft. This section is described in several trip reports as grade 3 scrambling and is definitely not for anyone with a fear of heights or who is uncomfortable with very steep drops on both sides.
At this point I was reminded of an article I recently read: “never trust a rock in the Chugach.” This warning proved to be 100% accurate as several tentative handholds moved and even occasionally dislodged completely, skittering down the cliffs and gullies to either side. Rounding a small cliff I was startled to see the first of several ptarmigan on the ridge. Its camouflage was so effective I did not notice it at all until it started moving just a few yards away from me. The bird led us along a section of the ridge before descending to one side, presumably back to the nest it was guarding.
This section was slow going, and as we reached King Point’s summit, it was a relief to see that the ridge widened below us. However, there was also a some frustration that the path dropped down fairly steep scree before climbing up to the next hill then down and up again to Adelie Point.
We had seen various estimates of the total elevation gain ranging somewhere between 9,500 feet to 12,000 feet, and we were beginning to appreciate how much up and down the route actually had. It looks so flat from the Highway! As we sat atop King Point looking down at the outgoing tide of the Arm, we noticed a pod of Beluga feeding in one of the deeper channels. At first they were almost indistinguishable from whitecaps above the shoals, but looking carefully it became clear that the shapes were moving in slow circles occasionally becoming brighter white patches as they surfaced.
Consulting the map, it became clear that we had only covered about a third of the route. At this point, hikers fitter than I would run the easier portions of the trail. But it was becoming obvious that we were not carrying quite enough water, so we continued to make steady progress along the ridge.
The incoming waters of the Arm brought the bore tide, which was spectacular from our vantage point. The main wave would form and dissipate as it travelled around Bird Point then got stronger again as it met the tiny specs of color that we knew were likely friends and neighbors surfing on paddleboards.
In this section, the trail is mostly clear and even where the ridge is wide it hews close to the edge above the Seward Highway. But from time to time it splits into multiple goat trails. In poor visibility this could be a problem, but on a clear day it is very easy to orient towards the next peak and continue in the right direction.
After several easier hiking peaks there is one last sting as the ridge narrows again into almost a mile of rocky scrambling. If you find the correct path this is no more difficult than the earlier parts of the hike. But taking the wrong goat trail can lead to some difficult moves above sheer drops. We mostly found the correct path.
Finally at Crested Peak, the ridge turns north into Girdwood Valley. The trail here is somewhat flatter, gently undulating between small prominences before reaching the broad peak of Chinstrap at 3,635 ft. Here you can clearly see the final two miles of descending then climbing ridgeline to the northern end of the high section at the 4,193 ft. Gentoo Peak. A beautiful and relatively accessible alpine lake sits below the craggy summit of Gentoo, the only practical source of water on the whole route aside from snowmelt.
As it was getting close to sunset, and we knew from experience that the descent from Gentoo itself would take a couple of hours, we made a group decision that the safest course would be to find a sheltered spot above the lake, get some rest and complete the hike in the early morning light.
Although we didn’t originally plan to camp, we did have warm clothing and foil blankets. It was bittersweet to see the glowing lights of home just below us. After a chilly but dry night, we continued at first light to finish the last climb to the summit of Gentoo, then follow the ridge a little further before reaching the long green chute that goes directly down to the flagged extension above Abe’s Trail. We reached the trailhead at California Creek at the end of a long, exhausting but rewarding and spectacular hike.
Penguin Ridge is neither the longest, highest nor hardest route around the Girdwood Valley. With 16 miles of hiking and scrambling mostly through alpine terrain, it has reasonably been described as “The Best Route in the Chugach.” While I have learned several lessons from our trip, Penguin Ridge is still a bit further and a bit harder than you expect.