Our main objective on our way to Seward last summer was to climb Mount Marathon. After numerous trips to Seward throughout the years, we decided it was time to tackle the famous route of the annual 4th of July, Mount Marathon Race. The mountain has some horror stories associated with it—steep inclines and loose scree that can make your stomach drop and leave your behind in want of skin. As Alaskans we felt like we were missing out on a rite of sorts, an experience that every Alaskan should enjoy or endure (depending on who you are) not only for the beauty of the climb, but to gain an idea of what one of the most popular races in Alaska is all about.
We arrived in Seward a few days before the Fourth of July. For the United States—Independence Day, for Seward, Alaska—Independence Day & Race Day. Last year the race celebrated its 100th anniversary—it’s thought to be the oldest mountain climbing race in the country. Needless to say, it’s a big deal here in Alaska. Our plan was to camp one night, climb the mountain the next morning and head home to Palmer that same day.
Although we knew that Seward’s population of around 3,000 increases to approximately 30,000 during the holiday, we didn’t realize the masses came so soon, and discovered camping in the city wouldn’t be an option. Fully expecting we’d have to turn around and find a wide spot in the road a half hour out of town, we made some calls to the local hotels and chanced upon one room miraculously available at the historic Hotel Seward. We felt fortunate to stay in a place with a long-standing history in Seward. With a lobby full of charming Alaskana artifacts, and comfortable rooms, it was a much better night before our trip up the mountain than what we had planned.
Up the Mountain
Mount Marathon is a challenging hike, especially when you don’t know for sure where you should be going. At the beginning of the trail there are cliffs that you avoid via a switchback trail to the left. Once above the cliffs you are supposed to cross the creek and follow the trail as it runs to the right of the creek through the trees and brush. We were unaware of the need to cross to the other trail, so we continued in the creek bed up what is known as the “gut.” The narrow gully eventually opens up into the “chute” which continues till it connects with the “up trail” at the tree line. Through the gut and the chute is the route people typically choose to come down the mountain. Early on we figured out we’d taken the less desirable way up, but it was too late to go the other way. The gut was steep and tiring, but our energy was more focused on maneuvering over slippery rocks than the discomfort of climbing uphill. Once we reached the chute the error of our way was even more apparent when every step turned into a half step as our feet slipped down through the unavoidable loose rock.
We trudged upward, smiling at the many people making their way down the mountain via the chute—obvious veterans of the mountain who were no doubt pitying us in our folly. Finally, we made it to the end of the treeline at the halfway mark and continued up the “correct” way, the ridgeline.
The wind was blowing steadily that day and we felt it most on this narrow ridgeline that leads to the top. At certain points I found myself in a bear crawl, trying to keep from being blown over and to make the steep climb a bit easier.
We kept a steady pace and were glad to leave the narrow rocky ridge as it widens near the last approach to the top—the turnaround point for the race—elevation 3022 feet. The actual peak of Mount Marathon sits at just over 4600 feet. At the “top” we found a spot to rest, have a snack, and take in the mountains around us. Although smoke from wildfires made the air a bit hazy we still had a grand view of Seward and Resurrection Bay.
Down the Mountain
Before making our way down we watched as people on their descent took a path to the side of the ridge. We were told this was the way to go down and followed to a very steep “trail.” A map I found later described the area as “Very steep slopes. Poor footing. Loose rock over hard bedrock. Danger!” The description is very apt. We made our way in what felt like controlled sliding, running, and falling down the scree slopes. There were maybe half a dozen other hikers adopting the same method.
At one moment, a rock the size of a bowling ball became dislodged either by us, or by a couple behind us. I stopped, watching as if entranced as the rock quickly gained speed down the mountain in the direction of a man and woman sitting in the middle of the scree field taking a break. I thankfully found my voice and yelled, “Watch out! Rock!” Alerted, the man turned and saw what was coming and a mere second before the rock would have collided with the woman, the man pulled her out of the way. Without a doubt, at the speed the rock was traveling, the women could have been seriously injured, or worse. It was a narrow miss and at that moment I wanted to be off that mountain as soon as possible.
Fortunately, the best way to descend is quickly, so after a few more minutes of our slide-run-fall, we were out of the scree and side-hilling to the halfway point. We were familiar with the chute and the gut, and happy to be traversing them on our way down. The loose rock in the chute was less treacherous than the scree slope and we made it to the gut in no time. Certainly not at race speed though. The top racers can make it down the mountain in the span of ten minutes. Although we went down at a more comfortable pace, we still made it to the bottom in less than half the time it had taken us to ascend.
At our vehicle the first thing we did was take off our shoes to relieve our feet, which were overheated from the friction of our rapid descent. The parking area was now full—likely there were a lot of contestants doing a last training run, or, people like us, enjoying some good mountain climbing on the popular slopes of Mount Marathon.
By Anne Sanders