Friday, August 21, 2009

Over the hill

I came home from work at 11 p.m. last night with four big bags of groceries. Libby came out of her bedroom to wish me an early happy birthday just as I started spreading the contents all over the counter ... five pounds of chicken, red and yellow peppers, mushrooms, zucchini, red onion, cherry tomatoes, marinade, skewers ... the makings of my birthday kabobs. "Are you going to make those tonight?" she asked.

"I have to," I said. "I'm going to try to hike up McGinnis tomorrow and I expect it will take most of the day." I arranged the mountain of vegetables I had to slice up at midnight. "I'm going over a hill on my 30th birthday. Get it?"

Libby smiled with a skeptical sort of smirk. "How much stuff do you do exclusively for the benefit of your blog?"

I feigned insult. "It's not a blog gimmick! I've been wanting to walk over that hill forever! Tomorrow is my day off and the weather's not supposed to be that bad. It might actually be a good window to do it."

I strung a pile of chicken kabobs, e-mailed a few friends to remind them about the evening barbecue and fell asleep around 2 a.m. The alarm went off at 7:15. I slumped out of bed and packed up my Camelbak with rain gear and Clif Bars. The sky looked a lot more threatening than I had hoped. Low clouds can limit visibility to the point of disorientation, and rain creates very slippery trail conditions, so I'm always wary of going high in marginal weather. But the clouds were still well over the ridgeline and rain didn't seem imminent, and, anyway, I had been gunning for McGinnis' peak for three weeks now. It was my hill, and today was my day.

The hike up was fairly uneventful. I shuttled my mountain bike to the trailhead and used it to "cheat" the boring first two miles of the West Glacier Trail. Funny how boring miles on foot can actually be quite strenuous and challenging on a bike. I enjoyed trying to "clean" portions of the steep rooty singletrack, but I was sweating buckets by the time I finally parked the bike and began the real climb.

I reached the top just before noon, three hours after I left the trailhead. Despite overcast skies and scattered showers that cast a dull gray veil over the sweeping 360-degree views, I was super stoked to be up there. At 4,228 feet, Mount McGinnis is so far the highest peak I've summited in Juneau. A brutal cold wind whipped around me as I lounged on the narrow point of a summit (locals call it "the nipple"), eating my Clif Bars and making a several of those annoying cell phone calls, thinly disguised as return calls but strategically timed to advertise my geographic uniqueness (those "calls from the peak" are an outdoor junkie's version of drunk dialing)

The rain showers moved overhead as I moved down, and I had to work my way slowly down an increasingly slick trail. McGinnis' mid-mountain area is rippled with rock outcroppings, smooth but crumbling limestone that drops steeply and sometimes vertically to the Mendenhall Glacier. The "trail" through this area is simply a widely-spaced series of florescent tape tied to branches that attempts to pick the least treacherous path over the rock. Thick vegetation surrounding the rocks bands makes it difficult to pick out the path, and wrong decisions can lead hikers to the edges of cliffs. The few times I've done this part of the route, I always end up doing a fair amount of backtracking after getting rim-rocked above another dropoff.

The rain really complicated things by turning the rock outcroppings into a giant, jagged slip-n-slide. Few surfaces could possibly be more slippery. It was like climbing down a slope of ice. I had to resort to planting my butt and taking slow, tentative crab steps as I death-gripped handholds. I was about one-quarter of the way down a longer drop, about 30 feet, when unexpectedly my handhold and butt traction gave out at the same time, and my body started to careen down the face. Because of the thick brush, I hadn't yet seen the bottom when I lost control. I had no definite idea whether it was the right route or one of those rock bands that ends with a cliff. And in that funny way that thoughts can run rapidly through fractions of seconds when a mind is operating under hyper-stress, I thought, "@$%! I'm going to have one of those sad date-matching gravestones of people who die on their birthday."

I slid about 10 feet before I managed to grasp onto the branch of a tree just as my butt bounced over a deep, jagged bump. My arm yanked and my palms burned as I instinctively rolled over on my stomach and grabbed another rock knob, effectively halting my slide. No worse for the wear except for a black-and-blue goose-egg on my left butt cheek, and I discovered the bottom was just a soft mud basin that would have broken my fall rather gently anyway. But the whole thing left me rattled, and I pretty much avoided the wet rock altogether after that, opting to bushwhack through the brush instead (scratchy, but amazingly effective in halting falls.) I was elated to finally make it back to my bike, and through the leftover adrenaline rush, rode the downhill stretch more aggressively than I normally would.

And, of course at the barbecue, everyone asked me if the essence of turning 30 made me feel any different. And I couldn't help but me honest. "Actually, I said, I feel pretty beat up and tired right now. Definitely more than I did yesterday."

Over the hill indeed.


  1. What a great way to celebrate life on a milestone birthday! I turn 30 in December. I wish I had a mountain to hike over! Maybe I'll have to do something crazy like ride my bike 30 miles in the Michigan snow. Ha!

  2. Congrats on climbing peak on your 30th birthday, I love the symbolism because it's all a rocky downhill path from here !. I guess I was right about you needing one of those Life Alert bracelets.

    I like Libby's comment about doing things for your blog. I had an idea awhile ago that would make it more fun for the readers your blog. You could make a daily "poll", and with every diffucult life decision you face you could list a series of actions you could take, and then we could vote on what we think you should do with your life.

  3. Happy Birthday!!! I really enjoy your blog. It is funny how 30 sounds old when you are young, but very young when you are older...

  4. You don't LOOK any older(!)

  5. happy birthday from the UK!

    i'm afraid that what other commenters have alluded to is true; it seems that you've 'peaked'.

    (sorry, couldn't resist.)

  6. Jill...first of all HAPPY BIRTHDAY! Looks and sounds like your day was wonderful.

    Second...I'm amazed at how good you look for being sooo over the hill:)

    The best is yet to come Jill and I'm sure you will enjoy it.

  7. Happy belated b-day and way a great way to celebrate. Glad the fall ended up only bruised and sore and not the other way!

    30 is nothing. I just turned 43 and feel better today than ever. Just think what you can accomplish in 13 years when you see what you accomplished this year alone!

  8. My goad when I turn 30 is to go to Kilomanjaro..!

  9. That's really scary. I'm glad you didn't die. And not just because I enjoy your blog :p

  10. You need to be in more of your pictures because you're far too lovely to be behind the camera.

    Turning 30 is great. Now, time to do something amazing. Go travel, go bike in foreign countries... do something amazing.

  11. Happy Birthday. Great way to celebrate.
    Over the hill? Not hardly...Some of us are trying to figure out how to celbrate our upcoming 50th....

  12. How's that Butt-Cheek lookin Jill? ;-)

    Like I said, to tough for the average girl, just right for you...

    Bet those kabobs tasted better than usual!


  13. Are you going to post photos of your bruised butt cheek like you did with your frostbitten toes ?.

    Just think, you're older today than you have been at any other point in your life.....and tomorrow it'll be true again !.

  14. always with the freaks over here...Feliz Cumpleanos amiga!

  15. Happy 30th Birthday!!!

    You only think you are over the hill. The real truth is you are still on the up hill climb. Keep up the great work.

  16. Wish I could have helped more with the party (AND gone on the hike with you). Dang working mommy-hood!

  17. You did it again, Jill. Congratulations on your 30th birthday and your hike up McGinnis. Believe me, you're not over the hill. Just always follow your heart and never settle. Oh yeah, if you need a break, try doing magazine ads for Clif Bars - "Jill standing on top of the summit eating her Clif Bars". lol Have a great year!

  18. Let's see I was 30 in 1961. Seems like just the other day.

    Still riding, although after 35 miles I feel tired. I'm still having fun and you can too if you are careful enough. Happy birthday!


  19. Today it's lycra cycling tights.....tomorrow it'll be geriatric support hose.

  20. Happy Birthday - (30 the new 18), Ted


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