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.