Sunday, December 13, 2009

My December mountain bender

(Note: Most of these photos are from my Saturday trek up Mount Jumbo with my friend Bjorn. So the photos don't necessarily match the text, but they still illustrate to some degree, so I'm posting them.)

When I sat down on Friday to write about my experience on Blackerby Ridge, I genuinely could not find the words. Descriptions like "sublime," "transcendent," "spiritual" and "closer to God" all fell flat to their inevitable cliches. I started the trek at 8:15 in the morning in the midst of a thick fog, both mental and literal. I went to Blackerby Ridge mostly because I had already told a few people that's where I planned to spend the day Friday, and it's always good when people know where you are. But as I began the trudge up the ice-slicked trail, I felt tired and downtrodden and disconnectedly obligated, just going through the motions.

Why the obligation to climb a mountain? It's tough for me to say. There's the physical factor - exercise is good for me. And there's the environmental factor - this long high pressure system has created absolutely ideal winter climbing conditions - hardpacked crust, lighter winds, mostly clear skies and relatively low avalanche danger - that should be taken advantage of while the going is good. There's the emotional factor - I find a lot of comfort in big spaces, swept clean of confusion by a blanket of snow, bright and flawless. But there's something else there, something deeper than my physical being and emotional state, something that approaches spirituality. But as I continue this activity with increasing gusto and dedication, I'm realizing that this really is my spiritual outlet - a temple where I can touch the greatness that is everything and connect with the more abstract motions of my soul.

And I realize that sounds hokey. Thus my reluctance to write about it. But there is little else I can say to describe those short, beautiful daylight hours on Blackerby Ridge. I followed my own week-old snowshoe track up the icy slope. There were a few bursts of sun through small sucker holes, but when I was above treeline and approaching the bottom reaches of the ridge, I was still encased in fog. I thought that was going to be it - just another gray walk in the clouds - but then, just above 3,000 feet, the most amazing thing happened. My head just sort of popped out of the inversion, and suddenly I could see the sharp, infinite horizon.

The rest of the day followed my long photo sequence in the previous post - awestruck, wandering, a solo journey above the clouds. The inversion hung above 3,000 feet, beyond the upper reaches of most of Douglas Island, which means I was likely alone or nearly alone in the region's sunlight on Friday - not a whole lot of people around here do mainland ridge walks or even skis in December. I hiked along the rime and hard crust to the backside of the ridge, the base of Cairn Peak, and gazed up at the looming monolith with its treacherous near-vertical pitches of mixed ice and rock that will keep me off of it until the snow melts. Winter had dramatically changed this fairly familiar place in a way that was both daunting and satisfying.

By the time I returned to the cloudline, it was 2 p.m., nearly the day's end. As the fading sun turned the mountains a deeper shade of gold, I lingered on the edge of the ridge, waiting for sunset. My hair and eyebrows were caked in frost, I was otherwise drenched in sweat, and it was impossible for me to stay warm in the freezing air unless I kept moving. So I danced. I literally danced, skipping and twirling in loopy circles on the snowy tundra. I had been hiking, hard, for nearly six hours. I still had two more to go before I would reach the trailhead. My body had to work even harder to stoke its own heat in temperatures that ranged from the low-teens to low-20s since 8 a.m.; I had only a frozen bagel and a chocolate bar to eat, and I was dancing as though I were trapped in a warm room with an endless supply of unchecked energy. It was an incredible feeling as the disappearing sun lit the deep-frozen world on fire. My prayer and praise to the powers that be.

My incredible day on Blackerby Ridge pretty much drained me, and I probably would have passed out before 10 if my friend Bjorn didn't call that night. The high pressure was set to linger at least one more day, so we decided to climb Mount Jumbo on Saturday morning. I shouldn't have had the energy for it, but I felt surprisingly strong. We followed the snowshoe track that my friend Shannon and I had worked so hard to punch out last week. It was well-hardened on Saturday, the "stairway to heaven," Bjorn called it. We climbed easy and free, nearly twice as fast as last Friday, and continued toward the peak.

At the top I struggled to fight back a huge grin, trying not to look too blissfully deranged because this kind of stuff is fairly elementary to Bjorn and he already thinks I'm a bit of an odd duck. But I've been to the top of Jumbo more than a dozen times and I've never seen it like that, coated in wind-carved ice. It looked like a frozen fountain, or an elaborate delicacy at the center of a wedding spread. I quietly said my prayers and started down.

I mulled the possibility of another trek today, but I was in all honesty beyond exhausted. As much as I want to take advantage of the last gasp of a long stretch of good weather, I couldn't drag myself out of bed until 10 this morning, so I went for a sea-level bike ride instead. Still beautiful, still fun, but missing that aspect of the sublime, that deep connection to something bigger than myself and everything around me. No wonder church is such a popular pastime. Juneau's weather is set to break tomorrow, and the first new snow will turn these mountains to avalanche central for a while, but I do hope, body and mind willing, to return soon.


  1. You have an ability to put into words what each of us is search for. Thank you

  2. I couldn't have said it any better than "anonymous"...simply an awe-inspiring post!

  3. I love your posts and your pictures and totally understand what you find in the solitude of the mountains! Not to sound preachy, but I find church (or rather, the God of the church) to be so much more than a pastime...all that we find in the mountains and that extra step beyond that. Thanks again for inviting us into your life.

  4. Thanks for answering my questions (how far back on the ridge you went and avalanche danger assessment). I know that sublime "mountain high". Love it! Bring it down with you - you can do it!!! And take a well deserved rest day.

  5. I look forward each morning to reading your words and looking at your photos while I eat my breakfast. You images get better with every post, are you carrying a slr with you or are these from a point-n-shoot? Either way, they are beautiful shots and and really help convey the emotions you speak of in your posts. its great to see your photography skills growing with each trip.

  6. Nice, keep taking us along on your adventures.....

  7. Thanks for the write-up! be safe.

    Have you posted your Tour Divide pictures anywhere yet?


  8. Another great post Jill. I dance alone too, albeit in my house. I think it's good for us... to get in touch with that inner child, the child that doesn't worry about what people might think. I hope you keep dancing.

  9. Something so basic about covering the ground on foot versus bike...way to go! Thanks for these posts, they are really special.

  10. There's a reason Moses spoke to God at the top of a mountain. Personally, I don't have much connection to organized religion but I have always found something other than myself at the top of mountains. I think we all share an archetypal spiritual connection with high places, and this post speaks of it perfectly. Thanks for sharing your experiences!


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