Tuesday, December 15, 2009

The bender ender

(Note: A bookend morning of sunlight gave me one last day to bask in the mountains before a forecast storm dumps several inches of heavy snow on a really rotten surface layer, thus creating avalanche conditions that I'm not equipped to deal with. I snowshoed up the Grandchild Ridge with Sean. It was a fun, beautiful day, but this point, it's probably best left to short photo captions. So I'm including the first draft of my Empire Outdoors column with the photos. Now, time to sharpen up the snowboard and finally get down to bicycle training for the White Mountains 100. Who wants to go to Eaglecrest on Saturday?

Sean follows wolf tracks up to the Sun Bowl.

SAD? Winter joy just a matter of perspective

By Jill Homer
Juneau Empire

The extended week of Dec. 4 to Dec. 12 was perhaps one of the sunniest I have ever experienced in Juneau.

It didn’t matter that it was out only for six hours a day, hovering low on the horizon and casting long blue shadows between intermittent flecks of gold light. It didn’t matter that temperatures were in the 20s, sometimes in the teens, and bulbs of frozen sweat clung to my air. It didn’t matter that thick fog hugged the shoreline, forcing me to gasp and claw my way to new winter heights. I spent a week-plus basking in sunlight. During these short days when many Alaskans are perched in front of full-spectrum florescent bulbs, that really matters.

A fairly large slab avalanche slides off the ridge.

It’s that time of year again in Alaska. And no, with the exception of the most holiday-crazed among us, it’s not the most wonderful time of the year. It’s dark. It’s cold. Winter solstice offers but a small glimmer of hope, and it’s not even here yet. Time to flick on the SAD lights.

I’m no stranger to Seasonal Affective Disorder. I’ve had my fair share of bouts. I remember one particularly strong flare-up in 2008, when I climbed up Mount Jumbo in a summer gray-out only to be hit with the full fury of a snain storm (for those new to Juneau, that means a chilling swirl of snow and rain.) It was July. I don’t think I’ve felt so SAD about anything weather-related in all my life.

This is the kind of photo we take because it says, "Dear Mom, Alaska is great! Merry Christmas." As I backed up to get the full profile of Mount Stroller White, I broke through the deep fracture of a separated cornice that hung over a very precarious, avalanched slope (see previous photo.) That's the part we don't tell moms about. (Sorry, Mom.)

But in December, there’s something wholly joyful about pulling on layers of fleece and wool, wedging oneself into a winter coat and pushing out into the wind and ice and yes, sometimes snain. Beyond the initial “yuck” factor of cold weather and sometimes difficult-to-navigate trail conditions, the best-known cure for SAD is out there, just waiting to be discovered.

Take this past week for example. A high-pressure system moved in, bringing lots of sun, light winds and only mildly cold temperatures. I wanted to take full advantage of what for me is ideal winter weather with an outdoor binge:

Sean chips his way up the steep ridge. Later, these slopes would provide humbling lessons in the art of self-arrest.

On Dec. 4, a friend and I trekked up Mount Jumbo, punching thigh-deep snowshoe tracks in the seemingly bottomless fluff. In four years of endurance cycling training, I have yet to experience a more endlessly strenuous workout. But as we stood on the saddle with endorphins pulsing through our blood and basking in full sunlight, I doubted if I’d ever experienced a more satisfying one.

On Dec. 6, I rode my snow bike up the Lake Creek Trail to Spaulding Meadows. I followed the narrow tracks of cross-country skiers as they weaved across a frost-feathered blanket of clean snow. It’s still too early for snowmobiles; the meadows were soulfully quiet and reflective on a Sunday morning.

On Dec. 7, I cycled out the road, studded tires crackling like sizzling bacon on the cold pavement, and frosty wind chill amplifying the thrill of movement in warm muscles.

On Dec. 8, I mountain biked around Dredge Lake, where frozen beaver ponds provided easy passage and hoarfrost-coated alder branches sparkled.

On Dec. 9, I climbed Thunder Mountain, tracing the tracks of a mountain goat along the sun-drenched ridge.

On Dec. 11, I hiked Blackerby Ridge, which rose like a breathtakingly scenic bridge over the thick inversion that kept most of the city in fog.

And on Dec. 12, another friend and I returned to Mount Jumbo. We followed those well-earned snowshoe tracks from Dec. 4, nicely hardened into a express “stairway to heaven,” and continued on to the ice-glazed peak.

Looking toward the majestic Chilkats.

All in all, it was one of my best outdoor weeks in three and a half years of living in Juneau. I wouldn't have traded it for a dozen 60-degree days in July. I’m not saying every Juneau resident should immerse themselves in the same activities. After all, not everyone has a job that doesn’t require them to be at the office until the sun has nearly set. And some winter enthusiasts prefer regular storms and fluffy powder stashes to the hardpack crust and sun that winter bikers and hikers thrive on. And, really, after a week of playing hard for three, four, and sometimes eight-hour stretches in the freezer of December, I’m pretty much exhausted. But I also have enough quality stoke in the bank to stave off Seasonal Affective Disorder, at least through Christmas.

Goodbye to the Sun Bowl, goodbye to the sun ... at least for a little while.

And that’s my point. Whether you’re a cross-country skier, a downhill skier, a snowboarder, a snowshoer, an ice skater, a bundled-up beach walker, an ax-wielding ridge trekker or a studded-tire-clad cyclist, the rewards of venturing outdoors in December far outweigh the discomforts. Analyze the risks. Choose some good equipment. Don’t push past your abilities. Dress warm. And just get out there!

It can’t be worse than snain in July.


  1. Just looking at your photos of sunlight and outdoor joy makes me feel less "SAD". I'll try to look at those instead of at the dull grey sky outside my window. Thanks for sharing your adventures!

  2. I love your last lines here, Jill. "Choose some good equipment. Don’t push past your abilities. Dress warm. And just get out there!"

    I lived in the northwest for several years a while back and went hiking and riding in all sorts of weather. I've been overheated and dehydrated in the middle of summer when I didn't plan ahead, and snug as a bug in a rug in the middle of a snowstorm when I had the right tent and foul weather equipment.

    There's no such thing as bad weather, only bad gear.

  3. Thank you for your words and the photos!!
    Here here to the sun!!!
    I go to work in the dark, and I get home in the dark, but I pedal all the way!!!!
    There really is something to be said about making your own way during the dark time!! Before we know it, the sun will be back for a longer stay!!

    Peace, Joboo

  4. So well stated Jill. Snow has it's very own special feel. I always learn something new everytime I spend the day out there. Snow biking, has made winter my friend.
    Happy rides.

  5. I'll be up there on Saturday for sure...and a co-worker and I are planning on hiking up Friday afternoon. I'm going to meet him in the parking lot at noon if you'd like to join us.


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