Thursday, August 30, 2012

And Miles To Go Before I Sleep

It all started innocently enough. The weather forecast was perfect and Scott and I had the day off together, so we decided to go for a hike up Blackerby Ridge. If we started early enough, we could easily get up Cairn Peak and then over to Observation Peak, which I had never climbed. This was the plan – a good effort, a new peak for me, and a beautiful late summer day spent high in the mountains.
I’ve lived in Juneau almost forty years and have been hiking in the mountains since I first arrived, but somehow Observation Peak has managed to elude me. I often looked at it as I stood on one of the many peaks around it and wondered why I had never climbed it. I decided that this was the summer and this was the day. I was ready to check it off my list.
Blackerby Ridge with Cairn Peak  and Observation Peak in the distance

Cairn Peak on the left and Observation Peak behind it on the right
We left the house before 8 a.m., which counts as an early start in our family. The Blackerby trail went by quickly, and before we knew it we were up above tree line with a beautiful ridge in front of us and not a cloud in the sky. A short way down the ridge we ran into two deer hunters, the first of many people we would see that morning. We walked and chatted with them for a while and they told us about the wolf they spotted earlier on the ridge. They joked that it would probably be the only wildlife they would see on such a sunny day. A short while later, a group of experienced trail runners caught up to us and passed as we headed up Cairn Peak. With a line of people snaking up the narrow ridge to the summit, I felt like I was on a busy downtown street corner at lunch rather than a remote mountainside. But most were friends or acquaintances and it was fun to chat with them as they went by, sharing a few hugs and a little friendly trail gossip.
The “crowd” quickly dispersed over the summit, and the runners scampered away to Observation Peak. Many of them were going to do the full circuit over to Granite Creek. This route involves a steep descent off of Observation, with a little bit of exposed third class scrambling, followed by a traverse of the Salmon Ridge, and then a steep climb up to the ridge above Granite Creek basin. About ten runners were headed in that direction. Another couple was headed over to Thoroughfare Mountain above the Norris Glacier to camp for the evening. The outdoor community of Juneau certainly knows how to get out and enjoy the sun!
Scott and I often talked about doing the traverse from Observation over to Granite Creek, but first things first – I still had to climb Observation. The conversation (which had actually started the night before) went something like “Well, when we get to Observation we’ll just see how it goes. Maybe we’ll end up going over to Granite Creek.” Scott even went so far as to suggest before we started that we leave a second vehicle at the Perseverance trailhead, but I hesitated to commit to such a long hike. I guess I thought that if I didn’t fully commit to the “grand traverse”, it would somehow make everything easier if we ended up doing it anyway, which is a completely backwards way of thinking. But I can’t explain how my mind works when it comes to my outdoor adventures – if there was any rational thought involved I probably wouldn’t do half the things that I end up doing. And all I really wanted to do was to climb Observation Peak, which would be a big enough accomplishment for me.
We took a short break on the summit of Cairn, and then started over to Observation. I was hoping it would be a fairly quick trip, but first we had to drop about 700’ off of Cairn, and climb another 1,100’ up Observation. I was starting to regret the hill training run I had done two days earlier on the East Glacier loop, which I try to do once a week starting in August to get in shape for skiing. All those steep stair climbs were coming back to haunt me and my legs were feeling the burn.
Near the summit of Cairn Peak - Observation is behind us. Still some miles to go!
Thankfully, the climb up Observation was straightforward - rocky, with plenty of solid places to place our hands and feet, and a few spots where we could climb up on the snow. We steadily made our way to the summit, not talking much and looking at the magnificent views as we climbed. The runners were long gone and the mountains were all ours to enjoy.
We shared big grins, hugs, and congratulations with each other when we reached the summit. A brisk, cold wind was blowing and we put on extra layers so we could enjoy our lunch and soak it all in, taking photos of the surrounding icefield and peaks. There were breathtaking views in every direction!
Snapping pictures from the summit of Observation Peak

On the summit! We still have a long hike out ahead of us
Some more food and a short rest gave us time to evaluate our choices. If we could safely find our way down off of Observation, we still had close to two miles of unknown rocky terrain over to Granite Creek, another 500’ climb up, and a good six mile hike out after that. I am most definitely NOT an "ultra-runner", and I looked longingly back at Cairn Peak and the well-known Blackerby trail, with its rolling grassy ridge. We scouted over the edge of Observation and thought we could see a possible way down. Before we could come up with any reasonable objections, we were headed down to do the full traverse. Once we started, we were committed.
We carefully picked our way along the steep ridge, but there was no trail to follow, not even an occasional friendly cairn marker. It was the worst sort of Southeast Alaska mountain terrain – loose rocks and dirt, uneven footing, and threatening cliffs on all sides. We managed to negotiate it safely, but not once did we ever feel like we were on any sort of regular route. I think the most traffic this side of Observation receives is from occasional ultra-runners and maybe a backcountry hiking group or two during the summer season, certainly not enough to establish a recognizable trail that we could find.
Looking back at the steep, rocky route on Observation after climbing down to the Salmon ridge
The relief we felt as we reached the base of Observation was short lived as we started to work our way across the Salmon ridge, which is a series of broken rock bands that made us feel like we were going against the grain trying to reach the other side. Up and down, and up and down we hiked. Every time I looked back at Observation it didn’t seem like we had made any progress. And when I looked ahead at the ridge above Granite Creek, it appeared as if there was no easy way up what looked like a very steep slope. My brain was getting tired, my legs were aching, and I was feeling the weight of the decision we had made to extend our hiking adventure.
Across Salmon ridge and ready to hike out Granite Creek basin and down to Perseverance trail
Fortunately, my mind is quite experienced at convincing my poor, battered muscles to do things that seem impossible, because all at once we were at the end of the ridge and I was still moving along at a steady pace. And - happy surprise - a lovely little trail magically appeared on the steep slope leading up and over to Granite Creek basin! We were all smiles again. The rest of the way was going to be a tiring hike, but it was all on familiar ground. A long glissade down the snow slopes took us straight into the upper basin, and on to the well-known trail leading out. Stumbling through the mud, brush, and hard snow lower down, we finally reached the Perseverance trail, paused to shake the dirt and rocks out of our shoes and eat the last of our food for a final energy burst.
Regular hikers started to appear, just normal people enjoying a nice, easy hike, and a few runners out for a late afternoon jog. They looked so fresh and full of energy, while we felt tired, dirty, and just a little anxious about what we would do when we reached the end of the trail. We talked about how we were going to get back to our car parked at the Blackerby trailhead over by Twin Lakes. Hitchhike? Call a friend? Maybe even grab a taxi from downtown? That phrase came up again – “We’ll see how it goes when we get there.”
As luck would have it, some friends came by on mountain bikes, heading up the trail in the opposite direction. We waved hello to them as they went by, and I thought “If we hustle down to the bottom of the trail fast enough, we can grab a ride out with them as they come back down!” And that’s exactly what happened. We gratefully collapsed into their truck on Basin Road and thanked them over and over again.
So nearly twelve hours, 16.7 miles, and 8,020’ of total elevation gain after we left the house, we were back at home. Perfect blue sky sunny day over. Observation Peak climbed. Salmon Ridge traverse completed. Sore feet and tired muscles screaming. Brain futilely trying to understand what had just happened. If I wasn’t so completely physically and mentally exhausted, I knew I would be extremely happy, proud, and satisfied to have reached not one, but two big hiking goals. But first I needed to go to bed and sleep for a very long time.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Back To Bullard After 38 Years

Back in the early 1970’s, a girlfriend and I decided to try and climb Mt. Bullard, which is the first big mountain to the right side of the glacier as you are looking from the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center. We went up the West Glacier trail, crossed the Mendenhall Glacier and camped on the low shoulder of the mountain. The weather was hot and sunny, and this being the early 70’s, we did not know much about proper hydration and sun protection. I got away with mild sunburn and a need to drink plenty of water in camp that evening, but my friend suffered a real case of heat sickness and was so sick that night that she could not even think about trying to climb up Bullard.
The next morning after breakfast, I made sure she was comfortable, then got her permission to try Bullard alone, while she rested in camp and gathered her strength for the hike back out. I scrambled a few thousand feet up the heather and rock slopes, and then carefully kicked steps up a long snowfield, all the while looking at the little summit point at the top. From that side, the summit appeared to be a sheer block with a steep cliff face. I was sure there would be no way for me to reach the true summit by myself. I decided I would be content if I could safely reach the summit ridge and look over to the other side. Imagine my surprise and delight when I crested the ridge and found that the other side was a grassy slope that led right to the top of the summit block. I laughed, clambered to the top and hung my legs over the cliff. There was no one to take my picture, but I knew the memory would stay with me for a long time. I never tried to climb up Mt. Bullard again after that trip, until just recently.
A few days ago, through a chance encounter, I was invited to join a group of hikers who wanted to go up Bullard from the Nugget Creek side.  I said yes, although their planned start at 6:30 a.m. gave me a moment’s hesitation, as I am most definitely not a “morning person”. But the weather looked promising, the route they wanted to try was entirely new to me, and they were all experienced backcountry travelers, so I had to do it, even if it meant dragging out of bed at 5:30 a.m. to get ready.
I am sworn to secrecy on our exact route, which two of the group worked on last fall during several unsuccessful attempts to reach the summit. Even if I did tell you exactly where we went, there is no way that any sane person would want to try it. I do more than my share of steep hiking and have been known to bushwhack in the backcountry now and then (I once spent twelve hours traveling 2 miles through thick alder to get around Twin Glacier Lake to the East Twin Glacier, but that’s another story). This hike was a good test of all of my experience and stamina.
First we crossed a cold, rushing creek. Then we climbed up through impossibly steep woods where only mountain goats travel. Once we were clear of the woods, we literally swam up through every kind of wicked brush that lives in Southeast Alaska – devils club, nettles, and alder – with slippery, muddy, uneven, rocky footing that we couldn’t see due to the thick brush. We grunted and groaned and climbed and slipped as we alternately lost and found the route for several hours, until finally we popped out on to the main ridge.
Eureka! Our bruised, scraped, and bloody arms and legs filled with energy as we marveled at the grand view of the Mendenhall Glacier below us, and the beautiful ridge leading another two thousand feet above us. After a short break, we set out to climb to the top along the ridge. I was excited to see the summit of Mt. Bullard again, and wondered how reliable the memory of my solo experience all those years ago would be.
Up and up we climbed, passing one false summit after another, until at last we were right below the main summit block. I looked around me and it all seemed familiar. The view down the other side was the same, with the long snow slope leading up to the ridge. And there was the summit block. But – it was much steeper and rockier than I remembered it! In my memory it was a smooth grassy slope to the top, but that must have just been my relief at finding it was not a sheer cliff on the other side. The reality was that it was a bit of a fourth class scramble up the rock to the true summit.
My head was swimming as I gazed up at the rock and I realized that since we’d been climbing steadily for over four and a half hours, and I hadn’t eaten anything but energy gels, I was a little light headed. I needed some solid food in my stomach if I was going to go rock climbing! My hiking partners couldn’t wait and picked their way up to the top immediately. I joined them a few minutes later after I gobbled half a sandwich, and exactly 38 years and 3 days later after my first ascent, I stood on the top of Mt. Bullard once again.
Unbelievable views greeted us in all directions. We couldn’t stop laughing and goofing around as we snapped photos of each other on the top. This is what I had missed all those years ago – someone to share the summit with and record the moment. It was so perfect and I was so happy that I didn't want to think about how we would get down.
But we had to go down eventually. We lounged on the ridge right below the summit block and enjoyed a full lunch, more photos, and a spirited discussion of all the possible routes available on the many valleys and ridges across from us between Thunder Mountain and Nugget Peak from the Nugget Creek drainage. Then Bob and Ron did a little reconnaissance further along the ridge, while Dave and I slowly started to pick our way back.
We regrouped at a tiny alpine pond to filter more water for the long hike out. Somewhat reluctantly, we bravely plunged back into the awful brush and steep woods, which we knew would be even worse going down than climbing up. I go into auto pilot in situations like this, singing songs out loud, trying not to think about how much it hurt to slip and slide down, trying not to twist a knee or ankle, and trying not to lose the so-called trail. Ok, so we got a little off track, and for a while it looked like we might end up plunging into Mendenhall Lake instead of heading to Nugget Creek where we had left our stream crossing footgear. But thankfully Dave’s GPS helped us get back on course and after some "more to the left, now more to the right" on the crazy steep goat trails we found our way safely down.
As soon as we crossed the creek, I felt refreshed and energized, and the final hike back to the cars was a skip and a hop home. The weather had been perfect and we couldn’t have picked a better day for our climb. We toasted our success among the throng of tourists wandering around us at the visitor center parking lot, and gazed in awe at Mt. Bullard. You’d think after climbing up a mountain it would look more familiar and friendly, but instead it looked steeper and harder than ever. I will go back, but this time I don’t think I’ll wait another 38 years.
*Mt. Bullard, 4,225 ft. Named for Benjamin Bullard, 1848-1933, a mining engineer who came to the Klondike from California in 1897 and later moved to Juneau. In 1907 he began mining on Nugget Creek where he later built a hydroelectric power plant (DeArmond, Some Names Around Juneau, 1957, p. 9-10) (Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, Donald Orth, 1967, p. 167)