Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Camping Alone on Grandchild Peaks Ridge

Every once in a while I like to go for a solo camping trip. My favorite camping spots are above tree line, somewhere with a great view in all directions. During the most recent stretch of good weather, I decided the time was right. I juggled my work schedule a bit and picked out a place I’d been thinking about for the past few years – Grandchild Peaks ridge.
Solo camping involves some special planning. Since I would be carrying all of my own gear, I’d be packing a one person tent weighing only 3 pounds, a small down sleeping bag, superlight high-tech air mattress, compact propane camp stove with pot, a careful selection of lightweight, high calorie food (no freeze dried meals, which I hate), small water filter, minimal clothing layers, a few personal essentials, and my camera. I managed to pack everything into a 26 liter pack that I often use for long day hikes. Total weight came to just under 27 lbs., but that included a full 70 oz. water bladder in my pack and a full one liter water bottle which held my water filter. I was ready!

In my eagerness to strike out on my own on a perfect sunny day, I gallantly declined Scott’s offer to drop me at the end of Montana Creek road to get started. I decided I would ride my mountain bike the 7 miles from home to the spot on the Montana Creek trail where I would lock my bike in the woods and begin my hike. That way I wouldn't have to worry about leaving my car overnight or depend on anyone to pick me up when I was ready to come out.

The night before I left I had a few moments of doubt. The hike up the Grandchild Peaks route is steep and rough, and I wasn't sure I was physically up to the task of hauling an overnight pack all the way up to the ridge. I worried about bears, which can be plentiful along Montana Creek in the middle of summer. And even though I've traveled and camped by myself many times, I’m always a little nervous before I start out, worrying that I may forget an essential item, or that it might all just be a little too much to do on my own.

The best way to deal with these doubts is to plan as best you can and then just get started. Biking to the trail was easy, and I purposely went slow, enjoying the sunny day and letting my legs loosen up for the big hike ahead of me. Pedaling a bike with an overnight pack on my back wasn't the most comfortable way to ride, but I was on the trail and ready to lock the bike up within 45 minutes.

The route begins a little less than a mile along the Montana Creek trail. The start of the trail isn't formally marked, but climbs abruptly up a steep, muddy cliff in the woods. It’s easy to miss if you don’t know what you’re looking for. After scrambling up a few hundred yards, a small sign announces that the Grandchild Peaks route is marked with materials provided by the U. S. Forest Service and gives credit to the Juneau Alpine Club (see note at the end).
Once you've reached this point, the route is relatively easy to follow, as small red and white trail markers flag the way for almost two thousand feet to tree line. It’s very similar to the Blackerby Ridge trail – steep woods, muddy and slippery in the lower sections and a relentless climb up through rocks, tree roots, and steep dirt. It’s best if you don’t try to look ahead to guess when you’re going to break out of the woods, but just take it one grunting footstep at time.

Just about the time when you think you’re going to spend the rest of your life climbing uphill, the trail breaks out into an open meadow. The terrain levels out for a bit and the views of the surrounding mountains appear. Every time I take a new person up to this area, I savor this moment, because without exception everyone gasps when they see the ridge curving away high above, and the grand northwest exposures of Mt. Stroller White and McGinnis. Looking down into the valley to the left of the ridge it’s not uncommon to see a bear or two strolling along, while up in the alpine are often large groups of mountain goats, soaring eagles, and the occasional wolf. It feels wilder in this area than many of the other places where I hike, and I love it.
By the time I reached the ridge and began climbing again, I was drenched in sweat. Carrying the pack straight uphill in almost 80 degree weather was exhausting. I was tempted to stop at tree line and try to set up my camp there, but an onslaught of bugs discouraged me. Then I was afraid that if I even stopped for a short lunch break I might not want to move again, so I kept steadily hiking.

Soon I was high up on the ridge and still climbing, with the hot sun beating down and the flies following me up from the brushy area below. I forgot all my worries about being on my own in my single minded quest to find a good campsite and hoped my legs would hold out until I found it. I located a grassy bench to the side of the ridge with a flat spot for my little tent, gentle breeze, and a beautiful view of Lynn Canal and the surrounding mountains.  It was only 1:30 in the afternoon, but I needed a break. I set up camp, ate my lunch and rested until I felt like I could move again.
My little yellow tent is set up at the far edge of the snow field
It felt great to continue up the ridge with only water and my camera. As I neared the first high point about 400’ above my camp I ran into two hikers coming from the opposite direction. They turned out to be friends that I knew! They had started earlier and were just out for the day, having hiked to the end of the ridge already. I enjoyed visiting with them, until they continued on their way out. I walked a little further along this incredible ridge, soaking in the sights of the high country and looking for wildlife. It was the first time I had never spotted large groups of goats in the area, and wondered if the hot weather had driven them to other places. The heat had certainly taken a toll on me, and despite my earlier rest and plenty of water, I was surprisingly lightheaded. I decided to turn around and go back to camp instead of climbing the last few summits alone.
Dinner tasted wonderful as I sat alone on my mountainside perch. At first I was a bit restless and found myself wandering around camp, collecting snow to melt, photographing the alpine flowers, and inspecting the surrounding area. Then I slowly relaxed and sat down to simply watch the world go by from my high perch. My friends were long gone and I was completely alone in the mountains. I sat for a long time, listening to an eagle call, and watching the light slowly change in the early evening sky. I finally checked my watch and saw that several hours had passed while I sat and contemplated. This is one of the reasons I like to camp alone – to enjoy the simple tranquility of a summer evening in the mountains and let things flow. I climbed into the tent at last, comfortably tired and sleepy.
I woke a few times during the night, and was treated to a show each time I opened my eyes. I watched the moon set behind the Chilkat mountains, glowing red in the night sky that still had a light haze of smoke blowing through from wildfires in Canada.  I saw ships moving up and down Lynn Canal, shining brightly as they sailed fully lit on the black water. I could see the lights of Auke Bay in the distance, and watch the ferries and barges move in and out. There was always something to see, and if I hadn't been so sleepy I could have watched all night.

Around 5 a.m. I woke with a start. It was no longer dark out, and it took me a moment to realize that I was seeing the first of the morning light in the mountains. I grabbed my camera and leaped out of the tent, stuffing my feet in my trail shoes and running across the snow to the east side of the ridge behind my camp. I pumped my fist as I caught the first glimpse of the sun coming up behind the mountains. I started taking photo after photo, desperately hoping that I was capturing the moment on camera. I didn't have my contacts in and my glasses were back in the tent. But the sun was coming up so fast that I couldn't take the time to go back for them, so I just kept clicking away in every direction. I knew this was a lucky break, to capture a perfect sunrise on a rare clear morning in the mountains. Even the smoky haze had disappeared and the sky shown pale pink and blue as the yellow-orange sun glowed behind two distant ice field peaks. Then it was up in the sky and the moment was gone.
I walked back to the tent and crawled into my sleeping bag. I closed my eyes and slept for another three hours. This time when I woke it was a bright, sunny morning. Time to get up, fix breakfast and spend another day in the mountains. I hiked up the ridge once again, enjoying the morning light and clear skies.

Although I felt refreshed after a good night’s sleep, I was still a bit wobbly from the previous day’s exertion in the unaccustomed heat. I knew I needed the energy I had left to get out, and I felt satisfied from the time I’d spent alone, so I wasn't going to push much farther than I’d gone the day before. I took photos in all directions and spent some time enjoying the view, less than a kilometer from the final high point. I made a promise to return before the summer was over, with a light day pack and fresh legs, and hike the full length of the ridge.

I returned to camp and leisurely packed up. By mid-day I was ready to leave, but I took my time hiking out, pausing and looking back along the ridge every few minutes. I’m always sorry to leave the high country, but it was a bit easier this day, knowing that I had soaked up as much as I could in the time I spent alone up there.

The trail down through the steep woods seemed a little shorter, and the terrain was friendlier than the day before when I sweated my way uphill. I found my bike right where I left it on the Montana Creek trail. I pedaled home, and then cleaned my bike and my gear and finally myself. I stretched out on our back deck in the sun with a cold drink, completely satisfied, and started dreaming about my next adventure.

*Kim and Barb Turley pioneered this route in the 1990’s. The Turleys were known for exploring the backcountry around Juneau and helped form the still very active Juneau Alpine Club. Grandchild Peaks ridge is an informal name, and the summits along the ridge are named for each of the Turley grandchildren. Maybe one day the USGS will formally adopt these names, but for now the ridge and the peaks along it officially remain unnamed. Thanks to local outdoor adventurer Bill Forrest for providing information on the development of the Grandchild Peaks route.