Rock Climbing Along Turnagain Arm – the Good, the Bad and the Ugly
By Jeannine Stafford-Jabaay
Driving along the Turnagain Arm between Anchorage and Girdwood is likely the single most beautiful road trip in the entire state and quite possibly the nation. (Dare I say the world?)
Every journey includes epic views of terrifying and seemingly endless ocean, untamed and up-close wildlife, gloriously painted skies, and boundless rock and ice.
It is this time of year, our “three-week spring,” that the bordering mountains of the Chugach Range are dotted not only with the occasional blooming tree, bald eagle and mountain sheep, but also with daring rock climbers roped just yards from high speed, single-lane traffic.
One of the most significant risks of climbing so close to traffic, however, is not the vehicles themselves. It’s the lack of being able to communicate with the climber high above you, an aspect of climbing that is critical for safety.
“With so many cars passing by so closely, it can be very loud,” says Spenser Brown, an outdoor enthusiast who has been climbing the highway for nearly five years. “You often can’t see or hear your climber when you’re belaying below, so you really have to work out your systems. Two tugs on the rope means this; things like that.”
Many climbers improvise with hands-free walkie talkies and even good old texting at the anchors. But these tactics aren’t without issue.
“Often the bolts and anchors are old, quickly placed, and not reliable. Many routes have [bolts] that spin,” shares Brown. “You have to be really careful to have good gear when climbing. Some areas have better, newer hardware placed.”
While rock climbing along the Seward Highway may provide some of the most gorgeous scenery, it certainly isn’t without its safety and logistical issues.
“It’s really important to know the area,” shares Brown. “Because the rock along the Seward Highway can be so cruddy, going with someone who has been there and knows where to climb and where not to can make the difference between a good day of climbing and a sketchy bad one.”
Where the Chugach Range plunges into the Turnagain Arm is just minutes from South Anchorage. Its accessibility and unparalleled majesty makes it too tempting to resist. There are also some pretty great areas for both new climbers and experienced mountain-folk alike. Kelsey Gray, author of “Alaska Rock Climbing Guide” and “Alaska Bouldering Guide,” is often found scrambling around the Seward Highway.
“The best climb along the Seward Highway is Sunshine Ridge. A two-star pile in many areas of the United States that just happens to sit in one of the most beautiful views one can have,” shares Gray. “It’s five star when you add it all up.”
The Chugach Mountains are unquestionably scenic, yet the climbing itself can often be found wanting.
“The rock quality is not great in many of the crags,” says Gray. “Even when we say it is amazing rock, it’s really just more solid than what’s next to it. It’s the scrapings of the edge of an ocean trench that fell into a big pile and lifted.”
Unlike gym climbing, the great outdoors is uncontrolled and often unpredictable. Weather, wind, ice and snow, even wildlife can and often do play a part in the equation of outdoor climbing. “Climbing in the gym can be fun, and it can be great training. But I think heading outside with gym climbing in mind can be dangerous,” explains Gray, who also teaches rock and ice climbing at the University of Alaska. “Knowing what a good anchor looks like, are the bolts dangerous, can the rock come down and hit you? If you’re not constantly thinking about these things, you’re probably not thinking enough when climbing outside.”
Being well educated in outdoor climbing is critical to the safety, enjoyment and “leave no trace” elements of the sport. The unfortunate reality, however, is that there is very little opportunity for structured education.
“You really just have to go with more experienced climbers, people you maybe met at the gym,” says Brown. “Places like REI and AMH, even the Alaska Rock Gym, they don’t do much with teaching people how to climb outside safely.”
The lack of formal training is likely due to liability concerns and consumer demand. But as awareness grows, organized mentorship is increasing, as well.
Being suspended by a thin rope, clipped into an anchor and bolts likely placed by someone else who knows when, on rock that is often referred to as “Chugach Crud,” one has to ask, “Why do it at all?”
“The Seward Highway may sound like a scrap pile,” says Gray, “but we have a dedicated base. We love it for its gritty climbing, closeness to home, and it’s like running through mud. Dirty, but somehow addictive.”
Turnagain Arm climbing may not be the best in the world, but it’s ours. It’s truly Alaskan, and we love it.