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.


  1. Wow it sounds fantastic and you have some beautiful photos as well.

    I am always in awe of your acheivements and wonder what is your main drive to do it the sense of accomplishment or do you have a deeper agenda,

    Well done....another big tick on the bucket list

  2. Really wonderful pictures. I enjoy your blog, I think I started checking it out via fat cyclist a year ago or so.

  3. I think it's interesting that you compared the elevation of the peak you climbed with the elevation of your parents home. It's almost as if your trying to rise above the past, or assert your your independence. Maybe you're trying to show you're an independent adult woman, or rising above your past, or maybe you're trying to rise above being in the shadow of the attention another sibling got when you were younger.

    Another interesting thing is that you'd be willing to show up late for work in order to bag a mountain peak hike. That's somewhat passive aggressive towards work. If you care that little about your job I'd say it's time you started looking for another one that you care more about, and is more fulfilling.

    Siggy Freud

  4. Siggy - You have an interesting way of looking at things. I also noticed the reference to the elevation gain over the parents house but I viewed it as a sort of a reflection on a homesick moment. Not good or bad just a thinking about you moment. What's your angle Jill?
    As far as the job is concerned - some of us enjoy our "little cared about" jobs and see them merely as a hamster wheel that generates enough money to hike more mountains, ride more epic tours and take more breath taking pictures.
    Keep blogging Jill, you're inspiring all of us to leave home...with a camera. ;-)


  5. Wow "Siggy"
    Don't quit your day job to start handing out psychiatric comments (if you have one). There really doesn't have to be an underlying reason for everything someone does besides shear enjoyment. As readers of this incredibly talented writer's adventures, we all get to enjoy those moments vicariously, too.

  6. I remember the mountain goats from my Montanta days. I saw some up close and personal and I will never forget their sentient. yellow eyes. The way they float around on the rocks is...I can't even find the words.

  7. Congrats on making the summit! Great photos, as usual.

  8. I wanted to borrow a phot to put on my desk top. Work is important, but sometimes it can wait.

  9. I'd offer to give you a call in the morning to get you up. Like maybe 6 am, but I'm central time and it would be a bit early for you wouldn't it?

    Siggy, do you even know who you're talking about. This gal could out pace you in a mall let alone the world outside your cubicle. Troll some where else.

    Climb that next one Jill, we're all waiting for your great write-ups and pictures.

  10. Awesome pictures. I didn't realize the overall elevation in Juneau is lower -- does it just get lower as you go north? Here where I am in NW MT our "peaks" are much lower than Colorado, but higher than Juneau.

    Beautiful pictures -- and I am late to work every day to go running and whatnot. It all makes perfect sense to me.

  11. Great pictures. Really great pictures. Sounds like a heck of a day before getting to work!

  12. Funny coincidence! Cairn Peak is on my end of summer list too (only one failed attempt). Tomorrow is my day off and I am hoping (praying) the weather will hold. Thanks for the photos - they increased my resolve to get 'er done!

    Since I own my own business being late to work isn't an option (hmmmm - or is it?). But I'm sure you made up for it once you were there. As for the elevation I completely understand. I'm amazed when I travel south how I'm sometimes higher than most of the peaks in Juneau.

  13. Thanks for the pictures Jill, your pictures are probably the only way I'll ever see the view from Cairn Peak other than by helicopter.

  14. I love the pictures you post! They allow me to change my wallpaper frequently and try to forget I am sitting in a cube.

  15. Reading your blog brings me much enjoyment..keep it up!

  16. OK all you anon's are far too deep for me this morning as I am only on my first cup of coffee still.

    WTG Jill! What a way to start your day-endorphins, fog and pictures of course.

  17. you start work at 2pm? that's awesome. i'm jealous. much easier to get motivated to get out before work than after, for me.

    wv: bricka

    remy bricka is one of my endurance nutjob heros. he walked across the atlantic with pontoons for shoes.

  18. Beautiful pictures and words from a beautiful woman. Keep it up.

    How can someone read so much psychological babble into the fact that the top of this wondrous peak is about the same elevation as Sandy Utah. I get it..c'mon folks get real. Hell I wish I could go climbing, jump in a river take a quick bath and make it to work on time. You are in touch with the wildness of the world, what little is left

  19. Siggy, only someone that does not ever strive to rise above their couches (that would be you) does not understand why.

    My solution ? TRY IT ! Go out to your nearest mountain peak and hike. Get on your bike and ride. When you reach a certain level of fitness and you can comfortably go wherever you want to go you will understand.

    The reason Jill and everybody else does it will become clear to you. Oh and your psychobabble may or may not be anywhere near correct. I'm sure though, that many here think it's just BS.

    Go out there and challenge your self ! (speaking to siggy and everyone else)

  20. Jill...your pictures are AMAZING, so I'm making you 'official photographer' on our 2010 Trans Rockies Bike team!

    OK...and all you 'psychological' and 'retort to psycho' careful, or Jill will have to spend too much time approving comments first, and less time out playing and taking pictures for all of us to enjoy!


  21. Love these shots. The herd of sheep was incredible!

  22. Astonishing. I'm in awe.

    (PS. Isn't it strange how prophets have trouble spelling correctly?)

  23. Keith, excellent point. Must go into ignore troll mode.

  24. Hope you took that soap at least 100 feet from the stream!

    Siggy -- do you work to live or live to work?

  25. U rock don't stop! I'm even stepping up my rides.

  26. Siggy is just jealous.

    Now, lets see what I did today! Well, I park about 1/4 mile from the office on purpose, and walk that 4 times a day. I also walked to the mall, about another 1/4 mile each way, to get some diet cokes for some folks in the office (my treat). So, thats about 1 1/2 miles for me today. Not nearly as exciting. But.....I kinda do like my job and don't really have any set hours.

    Jill, I woulda rather had YOUR day, and been late for work. Go for it gal! (was the water cold?)

    Go away Siggy

  27. Lazy ... thanks, I actually could use a wakeup call. I suck at morning.

    Keith ... didn't you just let the cat out of the bag? ;-) When I say I'm not training, I mean I'm hiking my butt off for all the times I'll have to do so with a bike on my back sometime in the future.

    Danni ... Juneau's mountains start at sea level, which is why none of the "accessible" ones are very high. But because we're so far north, treeline is at about 2,500 feet, so alpine is a fair amount lower than the northern Rockies. Above 5,000 feet, it's mostly icefield or year-round snow cover, so only mountaineers and ice climbers go much higher.

    Anon 3:04 ... that stream water is about 500 yards from dumping into the ocean. I don't worry too much about a little soap. It was plenty cold, though.

    As far as other anons, I'm pretty much done responding. As much as I love arguing, tis a battle I can't win. I'll just say that what some people consider necessary, others consider optional, and vice versa. Life in America is awesome because we all get to choose what's important.

  28. Oh I love days like that.

    Just watch they don't announce redundancies the day you get in late. I'll keep you posted on how that works out for me.

    Do I care?


  29. Ok I did Cairn Pk today (Wed). Hooray! But I only logged 9 mi & 5800' total elevation. Are you sure about the 12 mi & 6800'? Where are you getting your stats? Thx.

  30. My GPS. I actually got 6,400 feet. Could easily be off on both, or it could just be I stagger more up the hills. I have a hard time believing it's only 4.5 miles to the summit, however. I was thinking 12 roundtrip was on the short side. Hard to say. I usually average 2 mph, feel like that was about my pace, and it took me just over three hours to get to the peak.

  31. I get my numbers from a usgs map & the old Discover SE Alaska hiking guide by Margaret Piggot which I've found to be pretty accurate. I also use a gps but struggle sometimes with it - prefer the map & compass. I like your numbers better. Makes me feel stronger & faster! ;-)

  32. My GPS is never super accurate on mileage, because it rarely registers in trees. I can see it being 4.5 miles as the crow flies. I don't think that would take into account all the ups and downs of the ridge. But maybe it is only that far.

    I must track down this hiking guide. I've been going by the rather vague Trail Mix Web page, which will do me no good when it comes time to route find on peaks like Mount Olds.

  33. I believe it may be out of print but I'll check & try to let you know. There is an excellent trail map by usgs that shows many areas in shaded detail that I like. Foggy Mtn carries it. There is no detailed description for gettin up Mt Olds other than stick to the ridge. If you had no problem going up Cairn alone you should be fine. I admit I had a sweaty palms moment on the rocks yesterday by myself, even though I have negotiated that section four times with an expedition pack and skis. Solo makes you think a little more about "what ifs".

  34. Thanks for the motivating story and pictures. It's something to remember on any gray foggy day. Getting to blue sky on a gray day is one of the silver linings whenever I have to fly a long way for work. In flatter country that is the only way to get above the clouds.

    By the way, could you see if those were right-handed or left-handed mountain goats?


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