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)

Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Solo Hiking Traverse of Mt. Gastineau - Roberts - Sheep

On the summit of Mt. Roberts, looking back at Mt. Gastineau

My favorite hiking partner, Scott (who also happens to be my husband), was going to be out of town for a week and the summer weather was finally looking like it might give me a break. I had a day off coming up fast and I had to make a quick decision. The hiking traverse starting from the Mt. Roberts trail head and up to Gastineau Peak, Mt. Roberts, Sheep Mountain, then out Sheep Creek valley trail was on my mind as I hadn’t done it in a few years. Scott and I had just hiked the Juneau ridge a couple of weeks earlier so I was physically ready. But it’s been a big snow year and I was slightly nervous about negotiating one or two of the steeper snow spots on my own. Plus there is always the added concern of heading out on your own and having no one else to rely on if there is a problem. There was only one way to find out if I was going to do this or not, and that was to head out the door and get started.
Starting out on these day long hikes alone is always a mental challenge for the first hour or so. Mostly I don’t think about anything, or sometimes I get a song stuck in my head. (Note: I NEVER wear an iPod when I’m outdoors!) I try not to think and if I can keep my mind clear then the trail goes by quickly, which is a blessing as I don’t start to really wake up until I’m above tree line. Today was no exception. There were very few people going up the trail that Friday morning, and one runner coming down, so I felt mostly alone all the way up past the tram and cross and to the top of Gold Ridge. I met one pair of hikers between the cross and Gold Ridge, and they asked me where I was headed. “Gastineau, Roberts, Sheep?” I said tentatively. It sounded more like a question than a firm answer. So much for my iron resolve!
Once I reached Gold Ridge and started over to Gastineau, I realized I had hit it just right. The snow stayed late in the mountains this year, and it was mostly snow all along the ridge and between the peaks. That might deter some hikers, but with a good pair of trail running shoes and my hiking poles I found I could cover ground in what seemed like half the time than if I were following the dirt trail. Scott and I had enjoyed the same conditions just two weeks earlier, when we hiked the Mt. Juneau ridge and glissaded off the top of the ridge and all the way down into Granite Creek Basin in what seemed like just minutes. Today’s hike was much the same, as I kick stepped up the snow to the summit of Gastineau, took a quick snack break, and then slid quickly down towards Roberts.
The last pitch of steep snow up to the summit of Roberts caused me to step a little more carefully, mindful that the snow was firmer in spots than others and that I was alone and not too keen about an uncontrolled slip down the wrong side of the mountain. I channeled Scott’s presence on the snow slope and pretended I was kick stepping behind him as he chose the best route to the top. Once I tried getting off the snow and onto the steep heather, but that never quite works out the way you hope it will. I like to tell people that Southeast Alaska is probably one of the few places where you can say that you almost died falling out of a meadow, as the grassy slopes here are so steep, slippery, and exposed.
Summit of Sheep Mt. looking back at Mt. Roberts and Mt. Gastineau
As I topped Roberts I really started to relax. Actually I’d been having a great time since the moment I reached Gold Ridge. I felt good, the temperature was just right, and now that I was up on the ridge everything seemed to be falling into place. The high overcast sky still gave me perfect views of all the mountains around me, looking up and down the Gastineau Channel, over to Douglas Island, and beyond to Admiralty Island. I knew as I went over to Sheep Mt. I would get awe inspiring views of the Juneau icefield and the peaks surrounding Taku Inlet. Another short snack break and a quick shot of the summit with my little point and shoot camera and I was on my way.
The snow carried me off Roberts and over to Sheep, and I scrambled up the final slope to the third summit. I wanted to linger there and absorb the views, but the wind was suddenly howling. I knew it was warm and calm lower down, but for some reason the wind was probably blowing a good 20-30 mph on the summit of Sheep. I covered up as best I could, ate the main part of my lunch, snapped some pictures and then quickly moved down.
Looking south from the summit of Sheep Mt. towards Hawthorne Peak
A long glissade on the snow took me all the way down to the Powerline Ridge. I hit a few icy spots in places and got a reality check once when I fell on my butt, so I started to pay more attention, realizing that I might be getting a bit tired and careless. I didn’t want to end up slipping down into the wrong drainage! Then I worked my way across the slopes of Powerline Ridge and over to the power line towers and the small cabin just above tree line. This is where the going gets tough. I always manage to lose the poorly marked path trying to work my way down from the power line cabin to the more clearly defined trail through the woods and down to the valley floor. Somehow I always end up with scratched legs and a handful of devil’s club despite my best efforts. Once I hit the woods it’s easy to follow the trail down, but that short little section down the brushy, rocky slopes is not my favorite part of the hike and probably wears me out more than the entire route across the peaks.
Leaving the high country and heading down the ridge off of Sheep Mt.
When I hit the valley floor, I did something that I’ve always wanted to do when I’ve been with other people, but couldn’t because of the group dynamics. I ran the rest of the way out! I have no idea where I got the energy or the bounce in my legs, but it was a beautiful, warm afternoon and I was so excited about completing the hike in good time with no problems that I just started jogging down the trail. I wouldn't have won any races with my slow pace, but I was moving faster than a fast hike, for sure. The trail was recently brushed, the footing was smooth, and the final section down through the woods to Thane Road was shorter than I remembered it. I also love the view of the ridge above, where I could see exactly where I’d been just a few hours earlier. It’s a bittersweet feeling – on the one hand I still want to be up there, hiking through the snow and heather slopes; but on the other hand I’m happy to be almost done and ready to exchange my wet, muddy shoes and socks for flip flops and my Camelbak for a cold brew.
I should mention here that when you start this traverse at the Mt. Roberts trail head on Basin Road, it's useful to have a friend on call when you finish who will pick you up at the other end on Thane Road and drive you back to your car. 
When I decide to go for a long hike alone, I’m never truly alone. In fact, I have more people with me when I’m by myself than when I am hiking with someone else. Sound confusing? It actually makes much more sense when you think about the fact that I’m usually hiking on trails that I’ve traveled for almost 40 years. When I go out by myself, it gives me a chance to think about all the times I’ve hiked those trails with friends over the years. The Gastineau-Roberts-Sheep traverse is one of the first good ridge hikes I did my first full summer in Juneau back in 1973. I've hiked, run, skied, and snow shoed it many times since then. As I travel over familiar ground, I think about the many friends I’ve shared this adventure with. By the time I’m done, I almost feel like I've attended some sort of big reunion with them. It’s a good feeling and I certainly don’t feel lonely, even though I've been alone all day.