Saturday, September 22, 2012

Anniversary Adventure

There is a special place up on an alpine ridge above Granite Creek basin. When I sit there, I feel as if I am at the center of the world. I can look around and see two of my favorite ridge hikes – the Gastineau-Roberts-Sheep ridge and the Mt. Juneau ridge. I can look up at Mt. Olds on one side and Clark Peak on the other. Hardly anyone comes up here. It’s somewhere I can always go when I want to enjoy the mountains and have them all to myself.
Scott and I sat on this spot 32 years ago, after hiking up Clark Peak on a sunny day in July. The weather was so nice that we sat there and rested for a long time, soaking in the sun and talking about our upcoming marriage.  We’d just survived a three week climbing expedition to the Mt. St. Elias range earlier in the summer, involving terrifying avalanches, collapsing snow cornices, and a raging snowstorm that trapped us at 13,000’ for five days. Sitting in the sun on a quiet ridge filled with green fragrant heather with no one else around seemed like heaven on earth.

We decided to return to that very spot for the last hike of the summer and to celebrate our 32nd wedding anniversary. We were married on the autumnal equinox, so we were celebrating one day early on the last day of summer. But the forecast and our work schedule dictated that this was the day we needed to do it.
After all the miles we’d already hiked this summer, we had to add on a larger goal than just our little spot, so I threw out a suggestion for a place that I knew Scott had never been – Twin Summit Ridge.
I first hiked this little known route in 1975, when I was 22 years old. My journal entry read very simply “Twin Summit Ridge via Granite Creek”. I went alone with my dog in mid-July, probably wearing jeans and a t-shirt and my heavy, leather Galibier mountain boots (now on display at Foggy Mountain Shop along with wooden snowshoes and other antiques). My pack was an old red LaFuma rucksack, my “hydration system” was a nasty old plastic water bottle. I’m sure I didn’t eat much more than a peanut butter sandwich and an apple. My protection against the weather might have been a wool halibut shirt and a 60/40 jacket (who knows what either one of those garments are – raise your hand!). But off I went into the mountains, and I can remember parts of that hike as clearly as if it was last week. I’ve even had dreams over the years about one particularly steep section of the ridge that I had to help my dog across. The poor mutt was never as excited about traveling in high places as I was.
Scott was curious to visit a part of the local mountains that was new to him. Almost no one goes back in this area, as evidenced by the complete lack of any sort of trail or even the faintest of paths along the ridge. I’m not sure how or why I discovered it back when I did, other than the fact that I lived downtown, and spent much of my free time poring over USGS maps, then walking the trails and exploring the mountains that were accessible from my house at the top of Main Street.
After a fun mountain bike ride up Perseverance Trail and an easy hike into Granite Creek Basin, we reached our “spot” up on the ridge by way of free form scramble – Scott chose one route and I chose another close by – and we met up on the ridge. We quickly found our favorite place and took a short break, toasting our anniversary with sips from our Camelbaks and a bit of food. Then it was on to higher points.
As soon as we started, we knew it was going to be a special day. The sky was blue and cloudless, and there was almost no wind – a perfect end of summer day to be high in the mountains. As we crossed over the ridge below Clark Peak, we got our first view of Twin Summit Ridge, and it was breathtaking. It’s hard to imagine just how many mountains are hiding behind the ridges that circle downtown, but the possibilities to hike and explore are seemingly endless. We could already see some of the big peaks on the icefield on one side and could look all the way down to the waters of Taku Inlet on the other.
Here is where the memory of my first hike along the ridge in 1975 fails me a bit. I think I must have been dazed by all the mountainous country that opened up around me. But I can vividly recall one section of the ridge that might keep many people from going back there, the one that made my dog nervous. Luckily for us, the steep, almost vertical heather and rock slope was very dry, and we were able to find a few mountain goat steps to pick our way up. After our Observation Peak adventure last month, the steep section didn’t seem quite so intimidating, but it still took some careful maneuvering to safely gain the ridge.

Once we were on the ridge leading to the summit, we still had about three quarters of a mile to travel and 700’ elevation gain to climb. We moved steadily up, keeping quiet for the most part in case we could spot a mountain goat or two. A goat did appear ahead of us, poised on the edge of a snow cornice. He let us watch him for a short while, just enough time for Scott to get a photo of him, and then he jumped right off the edge of the cornice and down into Gold Fork drainage. He scrambled to join another goat and we could barely make them out across the valley, running together up to the next ridge.
We finally reached the high point on Twin Summit Ridge, which is only 3,780’. But we had traveled almost 7.5 miles, about half of which was up and down across unmarked mountain terrain. We took in the views, looking over into Taku Inlet and across to the entrance to Turner Lake. To the north was Thoroughfare Mountain, and beyond that were the peaks of the Juneau Icefield. We tried to identify and name as many of the mountains, valleys, and ridges as we could, but at some point it became overwhelming. If our favorite spot over by Granite Creek Basin was the center of the world, this area felt like the edge of the universe.
We were reluctant to leave, and stayed to soak in the view as long as we could, but we knew we still had a good hike to get back. A long walk down the ridge, a careful descent of the one steep spot, and a climb back up to the pass below Clark Peak brought us to the point where we had to say goodbye to Twin Summit Ridge. I actually turned and waved and called out “Good bye! – I’ll be back!” knowing that no one could hear me except Scott, who is pretty used to my craziness by now.
We paused again at our anniversary spot, and noticed that our perfect summer morning had turned into a fall afternoon. The clouds were gathering and the sky turned gray. By the time we rode our mountain bikes back down to Basin Road, we felt like we had traveled straight through from summer into fall. The whole day had been perfect timing and a memorable anniversary celebration.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Starting From Scratch

“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher
Even a short hike on a Sunday afternoon can be wonderful 

Six years and two months ago, I was out for a sunny afternoon bike ride when a car suddenly turned in front of me. I smashed straight into the passenger side, flew up over the roof, hit the trunk and landed flat on my back on the pavement. The damage total was a severely broken forearm that required two metal plates and twelve screws to repair, a broken collarbone and shoulder blade, and six broken ribs. Ouch.
And so I found myself at home a week later, carefully lying on the couch so as not to disturb my broken bones, and wanting more than anything to be able to go outside. My first attempt to get out was a walk around the perimeter of our little yard, which left me completely exhausted. Then over the next few weeks I slowly – oh, so slowly! – began taking short walks from home. A walk down to the end of the street was my next big adventure, followed by longer and longer excursions to the Mendenhall wetlands trail by the airport, which is only one half mile from our house. I spent the remainder of the summer and a good part of the fall going for short walks on flat trails, often having to take frequent rest breaks, and wondering if I was ever going to be able to get back to doing the things I love to do – hiking, bicycling, skiing, and generally being active outdoors.
Five days before I was hit by a car, and not a care in the world
Despite my doubts, fears, and painful rehab, I kept opening the door and stepping outside. When I was finally able to remove the sling that held my arm in place, I tried going for very slow runs. I was humbled by how out of shape I felt, and worried about my arm and shoulder. Before the accident I was cross country skiing regularly, and doing headstands and backbends at yoga. Was that all behind me now? Was I going to just get old and be one of those people who would talk about what they used to do when they were younger?
I’m not particularly talented. I’ve never won awards for anything outstanding and I’ve never accomplished any notable feats, other than my own little achievements (I am proud of my backbend and headstand skills). But I am persistent. If they ever give an award for persistence and perseverance, I would win hands-down. If getting back to doing the things I loved to do involved persistence and perseverance, then somehow I was going to get there, even if it killed me.
Winter came, and there were times when I thought I was going to keel right over while cross country skiing. As I pumped my arms back and forth classic skiing, the weakened and shriveled muscles of my right side protested and screamed with pain. The scar tissue in my forearm started to break up and caused so much pain at times that other skiers would find me doubled over on the ski track, clutching my arm to my middle and trying to catch my breath. “Are you o.k.?” they’d nervously ask. “Yeah, just taking a little break” I’d gasp out, trying to smile and look reassuring. When they had passed, I’d take up my poles again and push on, waiting for the next spasm to hit further down the track.
I had to work hard to get back the strength I needed to cross country ski
I very slowly got stronger, and the pain very slowly started to lessen. I was practicing yoga again, and the postures were coming back to me, one at a time, until one day I pushed up into my backbend with a huge grin on my face. And I found out that once you’ve learned how to do a headstand, you never really forget – kind of like riding a bike. Pretty soon I was back in the mountains, hiking and skiing and doing all the things that I loved to do. And with much more appreciation than I had before.
I guess what I’m trying to say is, that it’s possible for everyone and anyone to be active and enjoy the outdoors, no matter how old or out of shape you think you are. Anyone can start from scratch. As I write this, I am recovering from an extended bout of the Juneau crud and have been patiently waiting for the nagging cough, body aches, and tiredness to pass. I’ve missed a few weeks of hiking, but today I stepped outside and went up to Eaglecrest for an easy two hour hike. It felt wonderful, the fall colors on the mountain were brilliant, and as I headed home I started planning my next outdoor adventure. I haven’t decided exactly which trail I’ll take or which mountain I’ll climb, but one thing I do know is that on my next day off I will most certainly take that first step out the door to get started.