Friday, February 12, 2010

Into February

Date: Feb. 11
Mileage: 35
Time: 2 hours, 17 minutes
Weather: 38 degrees, overcast, east wind 5-10 mph
Details: Another tempo ride, with three intervals until my right knee started to ache a bit; intensity 60-95 percent.

Date: Feb. 12
Mileage: About 10
Elevation gain: 5,237 feet
Time: 6 hours, 54 minutes
Weather: (alpine) 26 degrees, partly cloudy, east wind 20-30 mph
Details: Blackerby Ridge walk; intensity 20-90 percent.

On Friday, I woke up to beautiful blue skies, so I postponed my planned distance ride and set out for a climb up Blackerby Ridge instead (I've been biking a lot lately, anyway. I needed to give my legs a break by stumbling up and down an incredibly steep mountain with a lot of gear on my back, thereby beating up my entire body equally.) So here goes my latest mountain photo post:

I tried to figure out what kind of animal made these tracks. They looked more feline than canine - maybe a lynx?

And the requisite snowshoe track shot. The brown spot in the upper right is the Juneau International Airport.

The view of Blackerby Ridge from the far end. It doesn't look like that long of a ridge, but it always takes me a surprising amount of time to reach Cairn Peak, the high point in the center - or in the case of today, the knife ridge just below the peak.

Looking out over Salmon Creek reservoir. Usually this is a great bowl for skiers, but probably not during this low-snow year.

The entire ridge was lined with incredible cornices. The one near the top of this photo overhung by at least 30 feet. And you can see in the center right where the entire cornice is starting to crack off the ridge. I made a concentrated effort to keep my feet on top of rocks.

The cornices continued to the point where the ridge narrows, giving literal meaning to the term "knife ridge." I spent about 30 minutes working on this particular spot, punching my way up one side, feeling queasy, backstepping down, trying the other side, etc. The snow was fairly well packed and the angle was never more than 45 degrees, but eventually I'd hit a crux where I had no choice but to side-step along the edge of the cornice with scary exposure on both sides. I just don't deal well with scary exposure. But as I analyzed the traverse, I started to become more confident in both the stability of the cornice and my ability to skirt along the top without falling. As I was reaching these conclusions from a perch on a spot that was not nearly as exposed, I took a careless step backward, missed the snow-step I was aiming for entirely, and slipped. Even on a 45-degree slope, I plunged downward with surprising speed and lack of control. I was quickly stopped by the ice ax I had stabbed into the top of the cornice, so there was never any danger. But it was such a strange sensation - the only thing anchoring me to the mountain was five fingers wrapped around an ax, while my body just dangled like a windsock over a precipice. Had I continued to fall, I probably would have slid about 100 feet into a bowl - certainly not a catastrophic fall. But a similar fall on the exposed section of the cornice would be a different story. It was enough to make me lose my nerve entirely. So, like I usually do, I turned around.

All is OK, though. I'm really not up here to bag peaks. I'm here to absorb beauty. Oh, and beat up my poor body.

I got lost on the way down. I had left the crampons on to deal with the steep ice patches at snowline, but it turns out they're mighty helpful when trying to crawl out of a partially frozen waterfall. You learn something new every day! I don't mind learning the slow way.


  1. Jill,
    At the start, this post and pix make for some wonderfully serene reading and viewing. Thank you.
    The tension then begins to build when you first start talking about knife ridges, cracks in cornices, and keeping feet on rocks. A little drama, no problem.
    Then those of us who suffer from even vicarious vertigo will certainly be sharing your queasiness on that edge and feeling the fear that all that exposure brings. Scary, sure, but safe enough from our perches in front of computer screens.
    But when you get to the bit where you take a step back and slide and, "the only thing anchoring me to the mountain was five fingers wrapped around an ax, while my body just dangled like a windsock over a precipice."
    That, in all honesty, was a step too far.
    Had you fallen, had you slid, there's no way of knowing that reaching the bottom of the bowl, or hitting something on the way down, would not have been catastrophic. Or even worse.
    Please keep absorbing the beauty, and sharing it with the world, but, whatever you do, don't let the the peaks bag you.

  2. Soooooo pretty! I miss Alaska's winter!!

  3. Interesting links to avalanche information, esp. the "accidents" section.

  4. Found your blog by coincidence and like it a lot . great photos and writing!

    What I find helpful if in scary exposure situations is not to thinking about what might go wrong, because I found out the hard way that if you think negatively, negative things will happen. So I always keep a positive attitude, even if in dangerous situations. Don't know if this helps you, though you might want to give it a try in the next "scary exposure" situation!

  5. At the very least, if you go into the mountains in winter alone, please let someone know where you are. Also, you should seriously consider investing in a avalanche beacon. That way at least your family will be able to give you a proper funeral.

  6. Regarding safety:

    I don't carry an avalanche beacon when I am alone, because it wouldn't do much good. I do, however, avoid all avalanche chutes and bad conditions. As a non-skier, this isn't hard. This is why I hike along ridges and don't go out when there has been recent snow or heavy wind events. I also observe the snowpack along the ridge and stay away from anything that looks recently changed or wind-loaded. Right now, Juneau's snowpack is very stable. I acknowledge an avalanche could still happen to me, but the places where I go, it is unlikely.

    I do always tell someone where I'm going when I hike alone. Usually co-workers or a friend. I send them a little text that says "Going up Blackerby today. I'll call you at 5."

    I also carry a SPOT beacon that I can hit in an emergency. As well as a big down coat and bivy sack so I can sit tight if I am injured.

    Not to mention must of these ridges around town get cell reception.

    Regarding the fall: I was anchored in - I even had the leash wrapped around my arm, so I was in a safe situation and that's why I was a bit careless. My unwillingness to enter precarious situations is why I haven't bagged a mainland peak yet this winter. I'm cautious to the point of being overly cautious. Anyhow that has ever played outside with me can attest to this. It's even more pronounced when I'm alone. And yes, I suffer from somewhat debilitating vertigo, so I'm not likely to enter an actual extreme situation any time soon.

  7. My readers don't care about me like yours do. In fact they encourage me to to dangerous things. Those tracks, fyi, are obviously a black panther, if not the less exotic jaguarundi.

  8. Jill, I don't think you can be overly cautious when you are alone. Just my opinion. At least you let people know where you are going. When I am up north and alone that is something that I still don't do even though I know that I should.

    That being said...You take care!!

  9. The SPOT will do the job just fine. And very good to let people know where you are when traveling alone! Not everyone thinks to do that (like me sometimes). As for anchoring in to an ice axe in the snow - I've seen too many ice axes and snow pickets that were "firmly anchored" pop out of the snow like a rocket on the 4th of July upon receiving a sudden heavy load. Good thing you're nice and light!

  10. I admit to frequent solo exploits over the years. Sometimes I'll leave details on my plans, sometimes just a vague plan. I've learned, over many years, that often one can get away with making a mistake. but, if you make two mistakes, you quickly get in big trouble. A reading of any Accidents in North American Mountaineering (from the American Alpine club) will reveal the truth of this, most accident happen because of more than one error. But, it is also true that when you are alone, one mistake may be enough to do you in.

    My goal in mountaineering, sea kayaking, cycling is to live to be an old climber, kayaker, cyclist.

    If, in a solo situation, I find myself feeling uncomfortable about the route conditions, my skill level, whatever, I do not give any time to thinking I am being chicken or wimping out. I have many people who are expecting me to come back on schedule and in one piece, too many to disappoint.

    As for being "positive in scary situations," I use that when I have gone too far, so that I can get out safely. If you are in trouble, you have to stay relaxed and focused.

    Also, I don't bother with a cell phone (I only have the one my job supplies me). If I do get myself in trouble, the embarrassment of having to be rescued would be humiliating. But, I grew up before cell phones and the "rescue is just a call away" paradigm.

    And, don't ever call me "an experienced outdoors person." Ever notice in news reports that the person who gets themself in trouble is always referred to as an experiences outdoors person?

    I've also noticed that more than a few people do really stupid things and manage to come through without getting killed. If you can't be good, be lucky -- though being both is best.

    MikeS (who went biking on North Douglas)

  11. Jill, I always think of your mother when I read posts like this! And I am glad not to be her!

  12. well said, Mike S! Especially regarding the cell phone. I agree with every point.

  13. I agree that a rescue would be humiliating. But, really, is it better to be dead?

  14. Jill,
    Just read your report on last year's Tour divide Race, a great write up. The best that I've yet read. Also bought your book, can't wait to read it.
    Happy trails!


  15. Yup, better rescued than dead. The humiliating part about a rescue would be needing to be rescued because one made a stupid decision that ended up badly. Also, one should not do dangerous activities in remote places and assume rescue is possible, or can happen in time. I have been in places where a mistake caused injury would have required that I be able to get myself out; waiting for rescue was not a realistic option. Basically, if one is going to do risky solo outings, or small group outing far from outside help, one just doesn't have the option of making mistakes. You always do things right, the first time.

    MikeS (played music with friends and otherwise stayed inside, Sunday)

  16. Hey Mike,

    I agree with you that putting lives and resources at risk with a costly rescue should be avoided except for the most extreme situations. This is why I'm so extremely conservative in the backcountry. And I agree that self-rescue should be the first tactic in any situation, even if you are butt-scooting down the mountain with a broken leg (as a friend of a friend did in Banff earlier this month.)

    But I do take exception to the idea that one should not even prepare for the undesirable situation of a backcountry rescue. If I fell down the stairs at my house and broke my back, should I drag myself to the hospital or should I call 911? What if you become immobilized in the backcountry? Of course you have to accept that you went out there in the first place, and there is a fair chance that no one is going to reach you in time. That should discourage you from taking extreme chances. But should it discourage you from leaving city limits altogether?

    I'm feel I'm completely realistic about my chances of survival should something happen in the backcountry. I realize there's a risk - just as there's a risk that I'll be hit by a car every time I go riding on Glacier Highway. I'd still appreciate if an ambulance came and scraped me off the pavement, and I'd be willing to pay whatever it costed for the service. I feel the same way about backcountry rescue. I do everything I can to avoid stupid mistakes, and even though I make my fair share, I do everything I can to avoid situations where stupid mistakes would be catastrophic. But even if you're an expert, there are always too many unknowns to say with certainty that nothing is going to happen to you.

    Anyway, this is an ongoing debate I've been involved in that eventually got SPOT units banned from the ITI. I feel there's more bravado involved there than common sense, but that's just my opinion.

    By the way, good choice staying inside Sunday. It was nasty outside on the road. I swear, one of these days, I'm going to get blown into traffic. That's probably even more likely that the prospect of falling off a ridge.

  17. Sking was AWESOME today! No kidding - blowing snow on top, lots of soft stuff to carve through on all sides, and even the xc loop at Hilda Meadows (aka the upper loop) had great classic and skate skiing. Little bit of rain at the base and the lower loop a bit soggy, but not too bad. And - no chance of needing a remote rescue! A win-win situation all around.

    Left my cell phone at home.

  18. Well of course you did, nice skier. Cell phones don't work at Eaglecrest, unless you're on top of Mount Troy or Ben Stewart. :-)

    I envy you skier-types. Most every skier I know in town is always looking on the bright side of Juneau weather, even though it is often truly sucky - 40 mph winds, sideways rain and 43 degrees. I still haven't figured out a way to actually enjoy that, but I'm glad you had a good day.

  19. ATT gets pretty good reception starting at top of Hooter chair, excellent reception at top of Black Bear chair & EC lodge has free wi-fi ;-)

  20. I agree, Jill, you are exercising care. If I have any real advice, I'd repeat what I said earlier, don't feel like you are chickening out if something feels too uncomfortable to try. Nothing wrong with deciding that "this is as far as I can go, today." And, as Hendrick M commented, if you're tense about something, that's the wrong head-space to be in to try to do it.

    Thanks for helping ME feel like I didn't chicken out about riding, today.

    My wife gets back from Costa Rica in a couple days -- 10 days of tropics, birds like she has never seen or heard (except in zoos), monkeys, swimming every day and AIR DRYING. She had a good trip with her sister.


  21. you really need to be on facebook. i would be your fan instantly. i tell all my friends about your blog...and everyone loves it!

  22. great photos, we like them!!!
    just checking you blog, we are from Chihuahua Mexico.

  23. xc skied on the upper loop at EC today and took my cell for giggles. Pulled it out and had all my bars and full 3G coverage in Hilda Meadows. Then instantly regretted bringing it because someone might call me from work - gahhhh!

    Lovely little snowstorm up there today! (Wed)


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