Monday, August 31, 2009

Cairn Peak

I set my alarm for 7 a.m. based on this forecast: Monday, mostly cloudy with isolated showers. Chance of precipitation 20 percent. If that isn't a promising weather forecast, I don't know what is. "Monday's the day," I thought. "The day to bag my biggest prize so far - Cairn Peak."

The sound of the alarm dragged me out of bed feeling the way I usually do in the morning - like someone stomped all over my head while I was sleeping. I shuffled over to the window to see nothing but a gray blank slate - a thick bank of fog. I groaned and went back to bed. The snooze button went off nine minutes later, and again nine minutes after that. Alertness began to creep in to my grumpy daze. I remembered that during high-pressure systems in the late summer, fog tends to settle low while clear skies open up high. Maybe ... maybe it could be done after all.

I set out in the haze with nothing but faith to guide me. Sure enough, after I climbed 1,800 feet out of the Twin Lakes neighborhood, the fog started to break up. And above the clouds was sparkling blue sky.

I gained the ridge and started the march toward Cairn.

The peak always appears closer than it actually is. One you reach the first "summit" of Blackerby Ridge, Cairn is still nearly two hours, four miles and ~3,000 feet of climbing away.

I have been shut down on three separate attempts of Cairn. The first was due to a shortage of time. The second was foul weather. The third, about this time last year, happened because I went on faith and the fog never cleared. My friend and I became so hopelessly lost in a zero-visibility cloud bank that we had to put all of our faith in my GPS unit to guide us out. As Juneau mountains go, Cairn stands apart as my most consistent failure.

I did not want to fail today. I had set an "absolute turn-around time" that I knew I had to adhere to if I was going to make it to work on time, clean and fed. That time approached quickly. Cairn crept closer. The clouds rolled up to the ridgeline and gathered. I picked up my pace through the patchy fog, wondering if I'd need GPS to get out this time, too, but still determined not to give up.

My "absolute turn-around time" came and went. Cairn was right there. Looking up at the summit, I figured I only needed an extra half hour, maybe 45 minutes to go there and back. Maybe I could fudge the clean and fed part of getting to work on time. I didn't know how. I would worry about that later.

I surprised a herd of mountain goats as I crested a small knob. They looked up, turned, and glided over the loose talus like it was flat, solid pavement. Their movements were so fluid that their climbing seemed effortless. In a few graceful steps, they galloped over the ridge and disappeared. Amazing. I know what I want to be in my next life.

Cairn Peak rises above the western edge of the Juneau Icefield. From here, I have a great view of a long line of "someday's."

The summit, 4,537 feet above sea level. Finally, I've worked my way to an elevation in Juneau that is higher than my parents' Sandy, Utah, home. And I was so happy to be there. Really, really happy.

And thus began the mad rush back to sea level, both to beat the clock and beat the fog, which was starting to worry me.

Looking down the ridge from near the summit. It is always farther than it looks.

I reached the trailhead very close to (OK, maybe after) the time that I was supposed to be at work. But the trail also is only a half mile from my office. I had some clean clothes in a suitcase in my car, and a bottle of soap. I gathered them up, walked a little ways off the trail, stripped to my skivvies and took a quick bath in the creek. I dried off, put my hair in a ponytail, put on some work-appropriate clothing, and rushed to the office, where I bought a pile of delicious offerings from the vending machine for lunch. Clean and fed! And only a little bit late. Tour Divide skills come to the rescue, again.

The total hike was about 12 miles with 6,400 feet of climbing. It took me just under six hours. It was a great day. Life doesn't get much more satisfying.