Sunday, October 11, 2009

Mount Olds

I seem to wake up these days with single-minded purpose. The cell-phone alarm rings out. I groan and nuzzle deeper into my down comforter. My cat wanders over and plops down my my chest. I exhale involuntarily, grab her, and sit up, blinking vacantly toward the window until I remember my name, my location, the year, and finally, the fact that the weather is supposed to be good today!

I carry my cat over to the door and throw it open. Outside, a thick blanket of fog hovers over Auke Bay, shrouding everything beyond the driveway. "What do you think, Cady?" I ask my cat. (Oh, yes, I talk to my cat, because she is the vocal type who always answers back.) "Do you think it'll clear up?"


"Yeah, I don't know either. But it is Sunday, so I don't have to go into work until later. I have five hours, maybe six. But what to do?"


"Maybe, Cady. You think I should go for it?"

The final indifferent glare from my cat as she struggles to free herself and dart outside is my answer. I dress quickly, grab my pre-packed Camelbak - pretty much just hoping there's enough water and food left after Friday's Camping Cove cabin trip - and go.

I used my newly remodeled Road Monkey to shuttle myself up the Perseverance Trail, stashed the skinny-tire bike and started up Granite Creek with a single-minded focus on Mount Olds. The fog was lifting quickly, but the peak was still shrouded in clouds. But Granite Creek Basin, always a smorgasbord of color, did not disappoint. Streaks of crimson and gold swept over the basin like brush strokes.

I crested the upper basin and started scaling a rocky drainage the became progressively steeper until I was climbing with my hands more than my legs, finding plenty of good holds but willing my head not to turn around and look down. I gained the ridge, vowing NOT to return on that same route, and yet I was a little uncertain how exactly I would get down (I knew Olds had been summitted before, by lots of people, so I figured there was a way it could be done without down-climbing a virtual cliff.) Still, I had a little bit of that anxiety that hits me when I realize my skills don't exactly live up to my alpine dreams.

That anxiety swirled around as I made my way up the face of Olds. The week-old snow had melted and refrozen and melted and refrozen to a solid sheen. The final 100 feet of the mountain looked steep - as steep as the drainage I had just climbed up - and was glazed in the same icy snow that was barely making an imprint below my feet. I stood on that final saddle, just a couple hundred feet from the summit, with a frown stretched across my face. I remembered how much I struggled on Sheep Mountain last week, and the scrambling up Olds looked even worse. I still have yet to obtain a pair of crampons (not for lack of trying. I really need to figure out when Foggy Mountain is open.) But I was weaponless, facing a ladder of rock and ice with bare fingers and rubber-soled hiking boots.

I knew before I set out this morning that snow conditions might turn me around, but it wasn't easy to let that happen when I was so close to the top. Summit fever gripped me and I paced back and forth, dropping a few dozen feet and then returning, double-back-tracking and stewing, squinting at the mountain and wondering if it was really so bad or if I was just being a chicken. A fierce wind drove up from the valley and cold-slapped some reality into me.

"It's OK," I told myself. "I'm a lover, not a fighter. I don't need to slay this peak."

I admit mountaineer aspirations have slipped into my dreams, but such things take practice and also take time, and not taking chances until I have more of both is probably wise.

I down-climbed a narrow notch filled with loose shale and found my way back to the ridge. I figured at worst, I would have to climb the next peak and regain the regular Juneau Ridge route on the other side. I found a less-steep drainage into the basin and started down, only to discover it confluenced with a waterfall halfway down. Undeterred, I worked my way down the wet rocks, soaking up large quantities of frigid water through my clothing as a below-freezing windchill whipped by. The scrambling was never too sketchy, but now I'm really curious where the "normal" route up Olds is. In hindsight, I probably should have just stayed on the Juneau Ridge and looped back down.

As always, I learned a lot. These solo mountain adventures have been great at forcing me outside my comfort zone, learning to breathe and trust and love in the grip of the indifferent unknown.


  1. Jill, it sounds like you made the right choice. Risks are great to take, but when life/death are in the balance, I'd need some more experience under my boots to go for it. I'd rather hike w/in 200 feet of 200 different summits than die trying to reach the top of one. Be safe, and keep on gathering that experience. It's quite the life you lead.

  2. I love that feeling. That "maybe I can" hitting against "I probably shouldn't" Its not like its a good feeling. But it is exhilarating. That personal challenge. It just sucks when the latter wins.

  3. Mt. Olds has several false summits along the ridge and judging from your photos you were below a series of false ridge summits which lead to the actual top. I was up there late this summer in the fog and kept scrambling eagerly up and over what I thought was going to be the top only to find yet another little ridge climb ahead of me. Some light crampons and a light ice axe would be good things to carry at this time of year. There is a decent route between GC basin and the ridge if you know where to go. I like to say that SE Alaska is one of the few places in the world where you can die falling down in a meadow! Glad you made it out o.k.

  4. Thanks Anon. I'm looking at Mount Olds right now from my friends' house (on Blueberry Hill) and see what you mean about the false summits. Not much elevation between them, but definitely dips. Also, I followed distinct footprints up the drainage I ended up in, so I'm guessing that might be a common route - still pretty steep though. I felt lucky that the ground was dry. Falling down a meadow indeed.

    Hiking in Southeast Alaska is pretty much nothing like hiking in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah. But I am having fun in the learning process.

  5. At the risk of sounding like a mother (could that be because I am?)I need to say that I hope you let someone know in advance where you are going when you go on these great treks. Just in case. You know.

  6. This sort of 3rd class, wet, unconsolidated stuff can be more dangerous than things where you know you need a rope...

    Grivel makes a very light (aluminum) tool. Not useful for harder ice. Or BD makes the whippit trekking pole/arrester. Aluminum step in crampons are great. Need to practice self arresting bc have to learn not to spin yourself around and keep crampons off ice while sliding. Your area snowpack is death on a stick.

  7. Listen to Jerry...Be careful! I am glad to see you have had some great October weather.

    And I love that you talk to your kitty. I think most cat owners do!


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