Wednesday, September 23, 2015

What About West Peak?

If you love being outdoors in Juneau, then you are familiar with most of the local mountains that are popular day hikes. There’s Mt. Juneau, obviously, then Gastineau Peak, Mt. Roberts, and Sheep Mt. Looking at Douglas Island from downtown Juneau, Mt. Bradley (aka Mt. Jumbo) dominates the skyline, and Mt. Troy welcomes hikers traveling up the Dan Moller trail or crossing over from Eaglecrest. In the Mendenhall Valley no one can ignore Thunder Mt. and Mt. McGinnis. Even Blackerby Ridge and Cairn Peak are now hiked so often a trench like path has formed in places along the ridge. These are the peaks that are hiked frequently and often have several groups at a time on their summits on a nice day.

Alone on the summit of West Peak. We had the mountain to ourselves all day.
But what about West Peak? If you stand on Gastineau Peak or Mt. Roberts and look directly southeast, you will first notice Hawthorne Peak, standing tall at 4,210’. Immediately to the right are two smaller mountains – Middle Peak and West Peak. They are all beautiful mountains, but getting up them requires a bit more thinking than say trudging up Mt. Juneau. It makes sense to climb up Hawthorne from the Powerline Ridge above Sheep Creek, first following the Sheep Creek trail to the alpine and then working your way over to the Hawthorne summit ridge. But no formal trail exists to access either West or Middle Peak, which are connected to Hawthorne by a very sketchy steep ridge and should only be attempted by experienced mountaineers.

I have a long ago memory of hiking West Peak with some friends in late September 1974. We picked that time of year so the brush would not be so thick, because we intended to bushwhack up from Thane Road until we got above tree line. And, oh what a bushwhack it was, too. We pushed straight up through devil’s club, old berry bushes, nettles, tangled alder, and thickets of nameless weeds, following the contours of a USGS map and using our compasses to keep us on course. I remember looking up the slope through the forest at one point and seeing a gray wolf standing perfectly still. I blinked my eyes and he disappeared.

When we reached the alpine zone, we enjoyed a pleasant stroll across benches of heather turned red and gold in the cool fall air. The sun was shining, but we kept our layers on, as the higher we climbed the colder it got. There were no tracks or paths to indicate that anyone came up this way on a regular basis, but that was not too unusual back in the early 1970’s when the population of Juneau was barely half of what it is now.
Fall is the best time to hike up West Peak
I returned to West Peak five years later in late October 1979. We followed the same rough route to the alpine, and were greeted on the summit of West and Middle Peaks with a small snowstorm and chill winds. This was a “hiking date” with Scott, who had just moved to Juneau the year before. I think this was the hike we did where he found out that yes, I really did like to be outdoors in the mountains, no matter what the weather.

Fast forward 36 years to September 2015. Scott and I woke to a sunny day and wanted to go for a hike, but hadn’t settled on a specific place yet. We spread the map out on the breakfast table and studied it for a few minutes. Then Scott said, “What about West Peak?” A friend had recently pointed out an unofficial and relatively unmaintained trail that roughly led to the West Peak alpine area, so we decided to give it a shot. I figured anything had to be better than blindly crawling straight up through dense brush.
We enjoyed a much nicer climb up to the alpine than we did 36 years ago.
We climbed up through the forest from Thane Road, just past Sheep Creek, and followed a small winding trail to tree line, then an even smaller track through the brush. We had to stoop to get through some of the heavier brush, but there was always a faint trail occasionally marked with tiny bits of orange tape to show us we were on the right path. We continued our steady climb up through rocky, muddy sections, and I let out a mild curse when my foot was sucked into a mud hole at one point. It was not a big deal, because the sunny skies guaranteed my shoe and sock would be dry within the hour.
A clear, cool, breezy fall day - perfect!
We popped out of a brushy gully and reached the open alpine benches, which looked familiar even after all these years. I glanced down the steep hillside further on, where I had climbed up so many years before, and I shuddered. Only an energetic twenty-something would be crazy enough to do that more than once! I was grateful for the marked route we followed this far, rough as it was.

Once we were above the brush, it was up to us to find the best route to the summit of West Peak as there are still no clearly defined paths to follow. We worked our way across the ascending benches, trying to locate the most efficient way up without getting back into the occasional brushy zone and without losing extra altitude whenever possible. We wandered up separately, coming together in spots only to break apart again as we climbed up. It’s so fun to be able to wander freely on high alpine meadows, away from the constriction of dense trees and brush! The day was brilliant, although the breeze picked up and blew so strongly it almost snatched my cap off of my head. We each put on an extra layer and tightened up zippers and hoods.
Wandering through the alpine zone

You go your way, and I'll go my way
As we climbed together up a small ravine that led towards the final summit approach, something caught my eye along the ridge above us. It was large, dark, and – holy smokes! – a bear!!! Neither of us had an adequate camera that day because we wanted to travel light, so we missed grabbing a shot of him. That didn’t keep us from enjoying watching him come down from the summit, until we realized he had no idea we were right in his path. I decided to yell so he would at least be aware of our presence. He stopped and whirled around this way and that, trying to catch our scent and figure out where we were. Bears have terrible eyesight and we were too far away for him to see us properly, so I yelled again. This time he was sure of our position and he ran off to the side as fast as he could go, which was impressively fast. A good reminder that there is no way a human could ever outrun a bear.
All routes lead to the final summit slope
Stepping carefully on the steep hillside
The final hike to the summit was steep but manageable, and to our delight the summit was just out of the wind, so we could stretch out to eat our lunch and relax in comfort, snapping photos with our tiny compact cameras. We didn’t take the extra time to go over to Middle Peak, but it looked very tempting. Next time, for sure. Only we will not wait another 36 years, now that we are reminded that West Peak is just another day hike.
Middle Peak from the summit of West Peak
We never really needed our friend’s route finding instructions until we began our descent. There are many gullies that drop into the brush below and it’s important to find the right one to start down, unless we wanted to repeat history and thrash our way to Thane Road the old way. A few checks of the GPS route kept us on course, and we quickly recognized the right spot to start down with only a few small corrections. I generally don’t like depending on GPS tracks, since I learned map and compass work the old school way, but it does come in handy now and then. Still, it’s good to have strong skills navigating using a system that doesn’t rely on battery power.

Which way do we head down?
What about West Peak? Done and done. Now we have to go back and complete the hike by adding on the Middle Peak summit. As I repeat adventures in my retirement years that I once did as a young hiker newly arrived in Juneau, I am thrilled to find them much as I remember. I hope they stay that way for the generations of outdoor adventurers that follow.

West Peak; 3,620 ft., 3 mi. ESE of Thane and 7 mi. SE of Juneau, Coast Mts. Local name reported in 1917 by D. C. Witherspoon, USGS. Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, 1971, p. 1038.
Mt. Gastineau - Mt. Roberts - Sheep Mt as seen from West Peak

Monday, September 7, 2015

Thunder Mountain traverse - now and then

Yes, I'm still hiking!
Yes, I have been hiking. No, I have not been writing about my hikes. I have been approached by quite a few people over the past 11 months (has it been that long since my last blog?), asking me when I was going to write again. People have talked to me in the grocery store, at yoga practice, on the ski trails in the winter and the hiking trails in the summer. Last night at a classical music concert, someone tapped me on the shoulder and asked me yet again. Tomorrow, I answered. I’m going to write a blog tomorrow.

Let me start by telling you about my first big hike early this spring. Scott and I did smaller hikes all through the winter due to the depressingly low snow cover. We also skied over 55 days, thanks to helping to coach the Juneau Nordic Ski Team, which somehow located enough snow to train on from December through March. So we stayed in decent shape for the beginning of the spring hiking season, and felt confident enough to start off with a point to point mountain traverse – up Thunder Mt and out East Glacier trail – with which we were not entirely familiar.

The Thunder Mt trail starting behind Glacier Valley School is in great shape
We started on the Thunder Mountain trail at the end of Jennifer Drive, behind Glacier Valley School. I have mostly climbed up Thunder Mountain starting from the other side at mile 7 Glacier Hwy, north of the DOT building, and I was pleased to find the Jennifer Drive trail much easier and less confusing to follow, even as it began to climb steeply uphill. I have come down the trail on the Jennifer Drive side once, back in the early 1970’s, and I’ll get to that story later, but I will remark that the trail was not so easy to follow then.

The day was warm and sunny, and we enjoyed climbing up through the trees, following a well beaten route marked with occasional trail flagging. I kept expecting to encounter muddy sections – the Glacier Hwy trail crosses some extremely boggy sections – but overall this trail was much drier. It proved to be a popular route on a Saturday morning and we ran into hikers heading up and down the trail, admiring those who were up early enough to already be finishing their hike by mid-morning.

The two Thunder Mt trails come together high in the woods a short way below treeline
Right below tree line we met a larger group of hikers that we knew and we discovered they also planned to hike over Thunder Mountain and out to East Glacier trail. Not only that, but they were very familiar with the route, whereas Scott and I only had a general idea. We gladly joined up with them, and by lunch time we were sitting on the summit of Thunder Mountain, admiring the views of the Mendenhall Glacier and surrounding area. There really is nothing like seeing the glacier from Thunder Mountain, especially on a crystal clear spring day with snow on the summit. It’s a classic view, made all the more wonderful by good company and the prospect of a pleasant hike out a new route for us (or at least a route I hadn’t been on in over 40 years) without worrying about getting lost.

Flashback to the summer of 1973, my first full year in Juneau. My boyfriend and I decided to hike up to Heintzleman Ridge from the East Glacier trail, over Thunder Mountain and down to the Mendenhall Valley. We had a map, a compass and plenty of youthful energy (no smartphones or GPS devices back then). My boyfriend had a fair amount of mountain climbing experience, so he led the way as we plunged through the devil’s club, alder, blueberry bushes, and mosquitoes, working our way up to the Thunder Mountain bowl. (Note: this route is best done in spring or fall, when the brush is not so thick.)  From there we climbed up to Heinztleman Ridge, which is a lovely mountain ridge on one end, but soon turns into a terrifyingly steep, narrow ridge as you work your way across. This was the first of many wilderness trips where I became deeply religious, promising all sorts of miraculous conversions of the soul if God would only save me “just this one time, please”. I received helpful instruction from my boyfriend along the lines of “don’t fall here or you’ll die”, and somehow we made it to the other end of the ridge without mishap. My journal entry for that day casually reads: hiked up Thunder Mt – peak 3610’ – down Heintzleman Ridge. Somehow that doesn’t convey the sheer terror I felt staring straight down into the Lemon Creek valley on one side and the Thunder Mt bowl on the other with about a one foot wide crumbling rock ridge under my feet. By the time we were picking our way down through the woods to the Mendenhall Valley, I really didn’t care if we were on a trail or not, so I have no memory of that part of the trip beyond stumbling downhill through very steep woods in the late evening. We did make it out in one piece and I do remember being tired, hungry, exhausted and probably dehydrated.

A side note on the energy of a 20 year old: After such a brushy, steep, terrifying, and exhausting adventure, it seemed like the natural thing to do the next day was to hike up West Glacier trail, camp overnight on the glacier, and then climb Stroller White. That was also a steep, exposed route but by then my mind was numb to discomfort and fear. The only note I made from that outing was: camped at second icefall, climbed Stroller White, Pooch hit by rock (Pooch was our small brindle bull terrier, an energetic and fearless climber with more experience than I had).
It helps to have friends who know the way
Back to the present: You can imagine how lighthearted I felt as I hiked safely and confidently with an experienced group of friends up and over Thunder Mt, avoiding Heintzleman Ridge, happily glissading down the smooth snow slopes into the Thunder Mt bowl. From there we followed the route leading out to East Glacier trail, marked by trail flagging in a few places and reinforced by a friend’s GPS track that she consulted at a few key spots. The thing to keep in mind on this route is to not drop down too soon, but to keep in the open high meadows, bearing right and looking for any signs of flagging before locating the trail leading out through the woods. Once you’ve located that small trail, it’s a pretty straightforward hike down. At one point the trail follows old pipes that brought water to the Nugget Creek power plant workers. You finally come out on to the East Glacier trail, a short distance below the series of steep wood steps on the trail.

Things you can see in the lovely meadows that lead out of the bowl depends on the season, but you can look for wolf and bear tracks, wildflowers, berries, ptarmigan, eagles, hawks, stands of yellow cedar, and the every changing colors of the alpine meadow grasses and plants. You’ll want to linger and enjoy these meadows almost as much as the views from the top of Thunder Mt.

By mid-afternoon we were finished with our mountain traverse, and I am happy to report that I felt extremely happy, well-fed, sufficiently hydrated, and only mildly tired. While I did not camp on the glacier the next day and climb Stroller White, I have continued to hike throughout the summer. I look forward to sharing some of those adventures with you over the next few weeks and months as I try to get back into the swing of writing my blog.
A happy group after a successful traverse
Thunder Mountain, 2,900' elev. Thunder Mountain traverse from Jennifer Dr trailhead to East Glacier trail is approximately 8.5 miles, 3,100' total elevation gain.Thunder Mountain is a local name reported by USGS in 1965.