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.

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