Wednesday, July 2, 2014

Pick A Ridge

Grandchild Peaks ridge - photo credit: Scott Fischer

“We need to do a ridge hike,” I told Scott. “We haven’t done a good ridge hike yet this summer.”

He looked surprised as he replied, “Sure we have. We hiked Gold Ridge and up Mt. Gastineau in May.”

“Doesn’t count. That’s not a real ridge hike.”

“O.k., then, we hiked part way along the Juneau ridge a few weeks ago.”

“Doesn’t count. We should have done the whole ridge.”

He looked mildly exasperated with me. “We hiked to the top of Powerline Ridge.”

“That really doesn’t count. That’s more like hiking up a peak and not along a ridge.”

He gave up. “So where do you want to hike?”

We live in Juneau, so it was time to play Pick-A-Ridge. I thought for a few moments. We plan to do the Gastineau-Roberts-Sheep ridge soon with a neighbor’s visiting nephew. The Juneau ridge is a good one to save for going alone on a sunny day. Blackerby ridge might be busy with Juneau Icefield Research Group activity around Cairn Peak and Camp 17 this time of year. “How about Grandchild Peaks ridge? You haven’t been up there for a while.” I was up on the ridge just last year for a solo summer camping trip, but Scott hadn’t been up there for at least two years.

The next day was the first real sunny day after what seemed like a long week of steady rain. We loaded the mountain bikes in the truck and headed over to the Montana Creek road. The first mile and a half is a gravel and dirt road along Montana Creek, just right for easy biking. Fifteen minutes later we locked our bikes to the first bridge on the trail and hiked another half mile or so along the creek.

The 1,900’ climb up through the woods was more relaxing than I remembered, probably because I only had a light day pack instead of an overnight pack, but also because I’ve become very familiar with this route. Familiarity does not breed contempt in this instance, but instead gives a comfortable feeling of relaxing with an old friend. Much like my yoga practice, so much energy is saved when your mind is calm and the muscles you are not actively using are relaxed.

We climbed above the tree line and on to the ridge. I was so happy to be up in the mountains that I didn’t even mind while Scott lagged behind to take photos. I found a comfortable spot with a view in all directions and away from the biting insects below, and I soaked in the view.

We continued up and over the several small peaks along the ridge. I pointed out my campsite from last summer and the highest point I reached when I was alone on that trip. I had not been relaxed enough hiking alone to continue on the steeper terrain then, but with Scott along I confidently moved up the narrow rock sections until we were at the edge of the icefield.

At the edge of the Juneau Icefield - photo credit: Scott Fischer

A brisk wind was blowing, but if we ducked behind a rock outcropping we could sit in the sun and stay warm. We agreed this would be our high point for the day, although we could have continued across the snow to another peak we’ve climbed before. But we’d completed as much of the ridge as we needed for our first “real” ridge hike of the summer.

100% satisfied with our "real" ridge hike - photo credit: Scott Fischer

Climbing back down the steep parts of the ridges I once again used the breathing and relaxing techniques I’ve learned in yoga. When you’re about to step down a tricky rock section that falls away on both sides, it helps to remember to breathe evenly, and to calmly think about where you want to place your feet and hands. In yoga, we call it being “mindful”. Did I first learn these techniques in yoga, or did I develop them from years of hiking in the mountains? Probably a little of both, and I’m sure they reinforce each other.

High on the ridge a hiker can encounter a few steep cliff sections - photo credit: Scott Fischer

Running back down the easier ridge sections, we mentally braced ourselves for the narrow, muddy, twisty trail in the woods below, which is so much easier to climb up than to stumble down. Even my relaxation skills were not sufficient to help me avoid the dreaded butt slide in the mud. Let’s just black out that 45 minutes of the hike, and jump ahead to happily mountain biking down Montana Creek to the parking lot and our truck. I felt as satisfied as I could possibly feel. This was a real ridge hike. The muscles were working just fine, the endurance was good, and our attitudes were fully primed for the rest of the summer and many more ridges. Go ahead: pick a ridge, any ridge.


  1. So I just stumbled across your blog because I was looking at photos of Alaska trying to see what people wear there during the warmer months. My girlfriend and I will be visiting Juneau for the very first time from August 14th - 19th and we are very excited about it! We are going kayaking on the Tongass Coast, doing some hiking, and going out on the Mendenhall Glacier. Is there anything else you would recommend that we do while we are there??


  2. Sounds like you have great activities lined up for your visit. Juneau has world class sea kayaking, the hiking in the area is awesome, and going on the glacier is about as exciting as it gets. You could do more of the same - more kayaking, more hiking, etc. Depending on your interests and your budget, you could look into a fishing charter or whale watching tour, although you may see whales while kayaking depending on where you go. You can have a variety of experiences just going out on the different trails. A little book that I recommend is 90 Short Walks Around Juneau by Mary Lou King, sold at local book stores and at Foggy Mountain Shop, the BEST local outdoor recreation shop downtown (and my former business!). Have a great trip and safe travels.