Lang Van Dommelen
It’s late February in Alaska, and unlike the rest of the country, temps have soared to an unseasonable 44 degrees. I feel the sun baking on my back while I sit at my desk at work, I’ve been stoked on ice climbing this year, and just returned from the Valdez Ice climbing fest, but I have the itch for rock climbing. The clock chimes five and I’m off! 15 minutes later I hop out of the car with climbing shoes and chalk bag, and I walk 2 minutes to the base of “Sunshine Ridge,” a beautiful 400ft prow of 5.4 to 5.7 face climbing. I put on my shoes, and reach out and touch the warm orange and yellow patinaed stone. I take my time enjoying every movement on rock for first time since winter came to Alaska, 20 minutes later I summit and sit and watch the sun dip below the horizon, a perfect end to my workday.
In the February 2003 issue of Climbing Magazine, the Seward Highway was named one of the worst crags in America, so bad in fact, they didn’t even put a photo in the article. While the Seward Highway is undeniably choss filled, and by no means a classic American crag, I feel obligated to defend this crag as among the most beautiful roadside crags in America.
The highway has been the playground of many climbers, from Mugs Stump who bolted “Bermuda Triangle” an 5.11c R, whose rusty wire hangers scare even the bravest climber, to the helmet lacking gym rats of Anchorage who seem to have an affinity for the chossiest, scarefest moderates of the highway. The unique climbing of the highway offers excellent routes from 5.5 to 5.14, with everything from slopers, pockets and crimps, and both long slab routes, to steep, dynamic, sport routes. For the visionary and/or the choss connoisseur, there is potential for literally hundreds of new routes from boulder problems to long committing multi-pitch climbs on the surrounding peaks and with southern exposure, you can climb many routes even in winter! Beyond hidden classics, it is the location itself, which is this crag’s greatest feature.
The common belief is that all of the climbs are on road cuts, and that cars whip by only inches from your belayer, but in reality most climbs loved by the community here are off the road set high on the bluffs far above the noise of the highway, and here is where the beauty of this miles long crag unfolds.
The Seward Highway hugs the steep Chugach Mountains on one side, and skirts the glacially carved Turnagain Arm on the other. The road stretches from Anchorage to Seward, and is considered one of the most scenic byways in the United States. At the head of the arm you can see glaciers clinging to the perfectly shaped Carpathian Peak and at mouth of the arm is Cook Inlet. Across the Inlet volcanic steam plumes lazily drift off Mt. Spur, and beyond that the majestic peaks of the Alaska Range tower into the sky. As you drive down the arm, mountain sheep perch crazily on the sides of the cliffs and sometimes peek out at you while you’re climbing. In the wooded mountain slopes, bears search for berries, and small critters, sometimes in the spring you’re lucky to see a sow and her cubs from a distance. The waters are also an attraction, Cook Inlet has the fourth highest tidal range in the world, and it forces water up Turnagain arm creating a bore tide, a wall of water that is loved by the Alaskan surfing community. In these waters, Beluga whales and seals chase salmon headed home to the pristine blue rivers and streams that flow into the shimmering arm of water as eagles soar overhead. Beauty unfolds everywhere. In the land of the midnight sun, the daylight hours stretch onwards towards morning during the summer leaving countless hours to climb and explore. In the spring and fall you can climb for several hours on sun warmed rock, and then catch amazing sunsets as day turns to night.
As climbers, we often forget that part of the reason that we climb is spending time with our friends, enjoy the beauty around us, and maybe climb a bit. A crag is only as bad as you make it and some of my most memorable experiences as a climber have been on the Seward Highway, a place that I will always hold dear to my heart as my earliest stomping grounds where I fell in love with climbing outside.