Heney Range Traverse - AlpenScapes Photography

The Heney Range rises from the sea like a great wall towering over the small Alaskan fishing community of Cordova.  Stretching only about 10 miles, it's one of the shorter mountain ranges out there.  There is no shortage of complex terrain, however, and I'd been exploring its nooks and crannies for a couple of years by the time I envisioned a full traverse.

Initially proposed as a ski traverse, I would start at the western edge and make my way up and over the 5 main named peaks, snowboarding iconic lines like the Bob Korn couloir and Heney's northwest couloir as I went.  However, when winter failed to provide desired conditions, I started to get impatient.

It was a sunny, hot summer in Cordova and euphoria swept the town.  We skied glorious corn runs, swam in the ocean, and scrambled like goats on rocky ridges.  On the back porch of the Reluctant, gazing up at the Heney Range glowing in the late-evening Alaskan sun, Kevin and I made a plan.  Utilizing the Heney Ridge Trail to access the alpine at the western edge of the range, we'd pick our way over the craggy summits and through hanging basins to the eastern terminus above Eyak Lake.

After winding its way through the towering spruce forest, the trail gave way to a series of meadows, flush with brilliant wildflowers.  Waterfalls poured from the snow-capped mountains.  We made our way to the alpine under the warm summer sun and could hear the faint hum of fishing boats heading out for another opportunity to load their hulls with world-famous Copper River salmon.

We gained the rocky ridge that forms the main spine of the Heney Range and continued our ascent towards Mt. Bob Korn, the first of several significant summits.  A small blue lake just below the top provided us with an opportunity to cool our faces.  As we crested the craggy knob, a pair of ptarmigan, mottled in their summer plumage, watched us, unsure of what to make of these strange creatures.  They flew several yards out of view, but their strange guttural sounds let us know they weren't far.

We continued northeast, down the narrow rocky spine, passing through a patch of dwarf lupine en route to our next peak, Mt. Baldy.  To our right, a few thousand feet below, stretched the vast Copper River Delta.  Spanning 700,000 acres, this is the largest contiguous wetland on North America's Pacific coast.  Moose, bear, porcupine, dozens of species of birds, and the five species of pacific salmon all call the Delta home.  To our left lay a large cirque, or alpine basin, that is a favorite backcountry skiing destination for many Cordova locals.

Mt. Baldy's summit is a very exposed, knife-edged ridge.  Standing atop this peak, a climber is rewarded with 360 degree views of magnificent alpine terrain.  Mt. Heney, the tallest peak in the range, looks deceivingly close, and Baldy's broad western slopes fall away down to the silty waters of Orca Inlet.  Kevin studied the route ahead while I scrambled around capturing photos of wildflowers and the distant summits of the eastern Chugach Range.

As we pressed on towards Mt. Heney scattered clouds began to form, providing us some very welcomed respite from a hot summer sun.  After the seemingly endless climb up its steep east face, we rewarded ourselves with a long break atop Heney amid colorful patches of monkshood and dwarf lupine.  

North of Heney, the range makes a 90 degree turn to the east, terminating at the far end of Wolverine Ridge.  To get there, we first had to descend 1,500 feet, cross the grand meadow, and then climb back up 1,000 feet.  Mt. Eccles, perhaps the most dramatic peak visible from town, lies inconveniently west of Wolverine Ridge.  We had intentions of including this mountain in our traverse until we saw the bear.

North of Heney, the range makes a 90 degree turn to the east, terminating at the far end of Wolverine Ridge.  To get there, we first had to descend 1,500 feet, cross the grand meadow, and then climb back up 1,000 feet.  Mt. Eccles, perhaps the most dramatic peak visible from town, lies inconveniently west of Wolverine Ridge.  We had intentions of including this mountain in our traverse until we saw the bear.

Descending from Heney, we followed a cascading stream lined with shooting stars and lousewort.  We picked our way through terraced cliffs and crossed the meadow, scouting the final climb we'd have to endure as we went.  Using copperbush and salmonberry like fixed ropes we ascended the steep southern slopes of Mt. Shiels and at last found ourselves back in the alpine.  We had just begun our westward traverse towards Mt. Eccles when Kevin pointed out a black bear hanging out on Eccles, right where we needed to go.  The lone, care free bear wasn't going anywhere, it appeared, so we made the quick decision to abandon Eccles and just push on to Mt. Shiels and the Wolverine Ridge.

I'd been up Mt. Shiels and Wolverine Ridge many times.  The western slopes of the ridge roll down to the shore of Eyak Lake, 2,000 feet below, and hold feet of snow well into July.  This was my post-work spring skiing playground, and reaching that point in the traverse felt like we'd made it.  All that was left was a beautiful, familiar ridge walk and the final descent down to the road.

We took our time along the ridge, soaking up the views of the Copper River Delta and the massive peaks of the eastern Chugach.  The blue tongues of the Sheridan and Sherman Glaciers stretched from the peaks down to the Delta, and the high summits above the Scott Glacier had a dusting of fresh snow.  Cordova lay far below us, tucked into the mountains like the hidden gem that it is, and we could see someone on a jet ski playing around on Eyak Lake.

At last we reached the end of the ridge, and our final descent.  The route was obvious, though humblingly steep.  We cautiously made our way down the chute, into yet another beautiful alpine basin, and followed the stream down, down, down.  The alder got thick a few hundred feet up from the road, and the bugs discovered us.  No-see-ums so thick and fierce that you could hardly breathe without inhaling a dozen of them and every time you blinked they would crawl into the corners of your eyes.

Fortunately we didn't have far to go, and we knew what awaited us at the bottom: cheeseburgers and beer.  If ever there was a day for cheeseburgers and beer, this was it.  I thrashed my way through the last few feet of alder and salmonberry, and came crashing down to the road.  Kevin was right behind me and we took a minute to look back up what we had just descended.  

A friend graciously picked us up and a few minutes later we clinked celebratory beers.  In all, we had spent 12 hours traversing the range, climbing 8,000 vertical feet over 13 miles and summiting 5 major peaks.  After a few years of playing around in those mountains, it was rewarding to see them as a whole, to cross the range in one big trip.  I loved every minute of it, and can't wait to do it in the winter.  Perhaps this year...

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