Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Brutal wind

Date: Dec. 2
Mileage: 9.4
December mileage: 45.8

I could see a stream of snow pouring off Mount Roberts as I rode down the North Douglas Highway.

"Windy up there," I thought. "But that's a good thing. Good practice."

Most days, conditions are relatively mild in Juneau. So I'm always looking for unique opportunities — little tastes of the extreme. I parked my bike at the Roberts trailhead, readjusted the snowshoes on my pack and began hiking up the dirt. The trail was coated in flaky ice and a dusting of snow, but it was dry for the most part. Simple. I strapped on the snowshoes near the closed-down tram terminal and continued the hike over hard-packed snow. The breeze was starting to pick up and I checked my thermometer. 17 or 18 degrees. Perfect.

Just above treeline, the wind gained considerable force. The first big gust hit hard and I gasped as I pulled my Gortex hood over my balaclava. My knee-jerk reaction to a chill like that is always "Holy cow, I'm going to die." But as the wind continued to stream around my coat, I realized that I hadn't flash-frozen. I actually felt warm. And I remembered that, just as I hadn't in all the cold winds I lived through before, I probably wasn't going to die.

"This is awesome," I thought. "This is just like the Kuskokwim River valley."

Low on the ridge, sustained winds were easily 50 mph. The snowpack had been scoured. What was left was as solid as ice. The crampons on my snowshoes hardly left an imprint, but the footing was good. I leaned hard into the wind and continued up.

As I gained elevation, the really hard gusts began to hit. Some hurricane-force jet stream seemed to be moving along the saddle, and I was in its periphery. I wish that I had some kind of wind measuring instrument with me, because my guesses probably seem inflated. But I swear, some of those gusts were moving 70, 80 mph. Enough to stop me in my tracks, crouch down, and wait until they subsided. A small strip of exposed skin - my cheeks and nose - began to burn in the cold blasts, which made sense, because the wind chill was probably about -20.

Still I stood up, and thought, "Good. Feeling warm. Feeling good. Have to get used to this sometime. Might as well be now."

I knew there was no way I was going to climb to the ridge, but I let myself believe I was at least somewhat protected by the saddle and didn't think the wind would get much worse. I climbed over what I had already decided would be my last little knoll when I was hit by a blast so strong that I instantly dropped to my knees and instinctively grabbed for some nearby rocks. Hard to describe that gust. I've never felt wind so strong, ever, in my life. I'm sure of this. I became convinced I was going to blow off the mountain, even though I wasn't actually moving at all. But I death-gripped those rocks and buried my face in my coat as the wind poured around me. It just kept blowing and blowing and blowing. I started to fear that it wasn't a gust, but an actual sustained wind that I was going to have to fight. But it eventually calmed down a bit. I stood up, turned around, and with the wind at my back, moved very quickly down the mountain.

No real danger, ever, but it was an educational little taste of extreme weather. Baby steps up the big mountain.