Monday, July 23, 2012

Hiking Mountains In The Fog - What's The Point?

After a little over three hours of steady hiking we were just below the summit of Mt. McGinnis, but the only way we knew that was from the elevation reading on my GPS watch. The fog was so thick that all we could do was focus on the steep dirt trail that winds up the final ridge. We kept hoping the fog and clouds would lift when we started out that morning, and for the most part they did, but only to about 2,000’. So, alas, there were to be no views from the summit for us today. Should we keep going anyway?

Once upon a very long time ago, I was hiking up a peak with someone I was involved with, and they asked me, “What’s the point of going all the way to the top?” I was so speechless at that question that I couldn’t think of a response. I dropped him soon after that and started doing things with Scott, who is more likely to ask “Why don’t we just keep going to the next peak?” He knows, as I do, that amazing things can always happen when you’re high in the mountains, even in a total whiteout.
I hadn’t been up Mt. McGinnis for a couple of years and I was itching to hike it this summer. No rain and a day off together seemed a good enough excuse to give it a go, so Scott and I started out mid-morning. No need to rush when the trail head is almost out your back door! We like to ride our mountain bikes a mile or so up the West Glacier trail to the first steep switchbacks, then cut up through the woods to the main trail. The approximately three mile trail is a great warm-up for the steep hike to the top of McGinnis, and something you don’t always get to do in Juneau, where many of our trails tend to start straight uphill.
Scrambling up the rocks where the maintained trail officially ends, we stopped to marvel at how the brush has grown thicker and taller over the years, and how much the glacier has receded. I can recall my first trip on the glacier in 1973 when we hiked up the trail to the then mostly bare rocks and were able to practically step right onto the ice and walk straight over to Stroller White. The only thing constant about glaciers seems to be that they are always changing.

The route up McGinnis was somewhat easy to follow, with a narrow foot path through the woods and flagging at critical spots. It’s steep, rocky and muddy most of the way, but we knew once we climbed out of the woods it would get better. We encountered snow pretty low on the trail, as expected, and two groups of backpackers. The first pair had spent the night on the mountain, and the second pair had also camped out, but surprisingly had scrambled up to the top of McGinnis from Montana Creek. We’re not sure exactly how they did that, but they told us it involved a fair amount of bushwhacking and route finding in the fog.
Once above tree line we traveled quickly up the snow to the final summit ridge, where as I mentioned earlier we could follow the dirt trail on the bare slope. I was in front of Scott, peering through the clouds to see if I could spot the top, when suddenly I stopped dead in my tracks. Not more than a hundred yards away were two large mountain goats, calmly standing right above the trail. My camera was hanging around my neck and I rushed to start taking pictures right away. These goats didn’t seem to care, however, and let us both take photos for a long time before they slowly moved away. We were downwind of them, and maybe that, in combination with the white mist moving in and out, made it seem like we were no threat to them. This was our reward for continuing on into the clouds!

Five minutes later we were on the top, and the view was – well, it wasn’t. We did see a marmot guarding the summit and a few birds here and there, including a lazy ptarmigan rolling in the dirt, but no magnificent views of the surrounding ice field peaks, the glacier below us, or inspiring vistas of Lynn Canal and the Chilkat Peninsula in the distance – only the white mist and fog.
No views from the summit today!

The hike out was uneventful, slipping and sliding quickly down the snow, stumbling through the steep, muddy brush and rocks to the West Glacier trail, then strolling out the trail like a couple of casual afternoon hikers until we reached our bikes. A quick blitz down the trail brought us to the end, and we engaged in our customary ritual of changing trail shoes for flip flops and pulling cold drinks from our little cooler to toast another great day of hiking. We gazed up at the summit from the parking lot. Although much of the surrounding sky had cleared and was partly cloudy, the summit was still shrouded in fog and mist. We will have to go back on a sunny day for the views, I guess, but I’m pretty sure we won’t see mountain goats if we do.
McGinnis Mountain, 4,228 ft., Var. Mount McGinnis. Local name reported in 1912 by the USFS and published by USGS (Knopf, The Eagle River region, southeastern Alaska: U.S. Geol. Survey Bulletin 502, 1912,)  (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 609)

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