Friday, September 04, 2009

Mountain bender, days 4 and 5

The sunny stretch of weather was forecast to break Thursday, just in time for my weekend, and to be honest, I was a little bit relieved. Hiking three to six hours a day, then working for nine, was getting exhausting. To top it all off, I was coming down with a cold. That's when I got a late Wednesday night call from Sean with an ambitious proposal - wake up early, head up Blackerby Ridge, traverse to Cairn Peak, up and over Observation, then across Salmon Ridge and out Olds, Clark, Sheep and Roberts, with a bivy thrown in there somewhere. Lots of peaks and lots of climbing. It would be crazy to say yes - and also crazy to say no to someone who was actually willing to try something like that with me.

But the weather was supposed to be bad so I thought I would just head up Blackerby with the guys and then back down. I packed my bivy gear for good measure. Both of my real backpacks are in storage, so all I had on hand was my Camelbak H.A.W.G. Who goes on an overnight alpine hike in Southeast Alaska in September with nothing but a Camelbak? I've never thought of myself as an ultralight kind of a person, but there I was, packing mine with rain gear, my bikepacking sleeping gear, an ice ax, a headlamp, dry socks and gloves, iodine and energy bars.

And, as promised, the day started out rainy and cold. We were all pretty pessimistic about our chances of even making it to Cairn, let alone overnighting in the alpine. But Sean was pretty determined, and he nudged his friend, Burke, and I along.

Fall is in full swing on the tundra. I was amazed at how much it had progressed just since Monday.

The rain started to let up, but it left behind a bitter cold wind, blowing about 20 mph. I was dressed well for the weather, but well aware that what I was wearing was all that I had.

I set my turnaround time in my head even as Sean urged me to stay. The prospect was enticing, but I knew before I let the house that my bivy gear was inadequate. Since the weather was marginal and Observation Peak seemed like a long shot, Sean and Burke started discussing the possibility of staying in the base camp of the Juneau Icefield Research Program, supposedly located just below Cairn.

We started up Cairn Peak in a thick fog. "Are you guys going to be able to find that camp in this?" I asked. I was answered with a chorus of tellingly uncertain "Sure's."

We crested the peak and began wandering around at the head of Lemon Creek Glacier. As the fog swirled around us, I began plugging waypoints into my GPS, certain that little screen was now my only hope of finding my way out while Sean and Burke spent the rest of the afternoon looking for camp.

But, amazingly, the clouds lifted. The guys realized the were on the wrong ridgeline. We traversed the rotten talus across Cairn and worked our way to a veritable palace - JIRP's Camp 17. The round building, equipped with wire-spring bunk beds, foam mattresses, and a cache of seriously questionable "Emergency Food," is left open yearround for hikers and skiers.

This was the view from the front door - Ptarmigan Glacier.

Earlier in the day, Burke shot three ptarmigan with his .22. Sean cleaned them with his bare hands, no knives in sight, and Burke fried them up in butter for dinner. They were surprisingly delicious - very much a red meat, almost like pot roast.

Before dinner, Sean and I bagged Vesper Peak.

Then we walked a little way down Ptarmigan Ridge.

I didn't want to admit that I wanted to keep hiking solely because I was too wet and cold to sit around the cabin. The guys didn't criticize me for packing as light as I did, but they should have.

Still, it turned out to be a beautiful evening. I've never spent a night above treeline in Juneau. The feeling was incredible, like being perched on the edge of a different world.

As night descended and Burke fried up ptarmigan, I donned Sean's down coat and sat on the edge of camp for a while, looking across Lemon Creek Glacier and the barren spine of the ridgeline beyond it. The wind blew hard and steady; the stark intensity of the place cut through in a way that felt close to the soul, and I was mesmerized.

The rain came back that night, coupled with strong winds and temperatures in the high 30s - all I can say is I would not have been a happy camper inside my bivy sack. But Camp 17 was cozy. I curled up in my bag and fell into the best night of sleep I've had all week. As wind and daggers of water pounded the metal roof, we all opted to sleep in rather than show any sort of optimism about our chances on Observation. But when we finally did wake up, we were met with rainbows.

We climbed back up Cairn and wavered a bit on the dream of Observation, the large peak at the left. We wanted to climb that peak, then down on the other side, traversing Salmon Ridge at the center before banking left and possibly dropping down into Granite Creek Basin. But we finally decided the weather was too sketchy to attempt a route that was unknown to all of us. We had a good window here, but clouds were closing in on all sides.

During an expedition across the icefield in March 2008, Sean had cached a gear sled at Camp 17. It was still there a year and a half later, so he decided to carry it down.

Coupled with the (diminishing) wind and scrambling, the sled made for some funny moments.

But the guys took full advantage of it on the snowfields. We made it back to sea level just as the weather was really starting to clear up again. But what a great adventure! What an amazing week!