Chugach peaks get Dena’ina names: ‘A huge statement to all that we value life’

A pair of steep, treeless Chugach peaks, smeared with snow.
North (left) and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex. (Dave Bass)

A pair of peaks in Chugach State Park are getting a name change, with help from a local Dena’ina elder.

North and South Yuyanq’ Ch’ex peaks, as they’ll be known from here on out, tower 5,000 feet above Turnagain Arm and are popular spots for Southcentral hikers.

For decades, those mountains have been called North and South Suicide — names that are said to have come from railroad workers who were remarking on the steepness of the slopes. The names were codified by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1951.

Soldotna Sen. Peter Micciche, who served on the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council, said he’s happy to see those names go away. He said it’s important to be respectful to the many Alaskans who have been impacted by suicide.

“It’s painful, particularly in our state,” he said Friday. “We’re number two in the U.S. We had 204 suicide fatalities in 2020 — that’s 27.5 per 100,000.

The Alaska Legislature sent a letter to the U.S. Geological Survey’s Board on Geographic Names in support of the name change earlier this week.

But the two-year push has largely come from William Pagaran, a Palmer man who runs faith-based non–profit called Carry the Cure, aimed at curtailing teen suicide in Alaska.

Pagaran could not be reached in time for this story. But in an online petition from 2020, he said the name change “makes a huge statement to all that we value life.” That same year, Pagaran led a hike up the south peak in the name of suicide awareness.

Pagaran’s initial renaming proposal was denied by the Alaska Historical Commission. That was as the commission was considering naming and renaming several other Alaska landmarks by their Indigenous names.

It wasn’t until this week that the U.S. Board on Geographic Names gave the change a green light.

Yuyanq’ Ch’ex — pronounced “you-yonk check” — means “Heaven’s Breath” in Dena’ina. Pagaran tapped Kenaitze elder Helen Dick, of Kenai, one of the few Dena’ina speakers who learned the language as a child, for help finding a new name.

Micciche credits Pagaran and Homer Republican Rep. Sarah Vance for leading the charge to find a better fit.

“And it’s a little step,” Micciche said. “We’ve taken many other steps in our state. But ‘Heaven’s Breath’ is a better name.”

Separately, the U.S. Board on Geographic Names will also consider a recommendation from the Alaska Legislature to name another mountain on Turnagain Arm after Gail Phillips, an legislator who represented the southern Kenai Peninsula for many years. Phillips died in 2021.

KDLL - Kenai

KDLL is our partner station in Kenai. KTOO collaborates with partners across the state to cover important news and to share stories with our audiences.

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