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A solo hiking traverse of Mt. Gastineau-Roberts-Sheep

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Looking back at Gastineau Peak from the summit of Mt. Roberts  Betsy Fischer
Betsy Fischer
Looking back at Gastineau Peak from the summit of Mt. Roberts

My favorite hiking partner, Scott (who also happens to be my husband), was going to be out of town for a week and the summer weather was finally looking like it might give me a break. I had a day off coming up fast and I had to make a quick decision. The hiking traverse starting from the Mt. Roberts trail head and up to Gastineau Peak, Mt. Roberts, Sheep Mountain, then out Sheep Creek valley trail was on my mind as I hadn’t done it in a few years. Scott and I had just hiked the Juneau ridge a couple of weeks earlier so I was physically ready. But it’s been a big snow year and I was slightly nervous about negotiating one or two of the steeper snow spots on my own. Plus there is always the added concern of heading out on your own and having no one else to rely on if there is a problem. There was only one way to find out if I was going to do this or not, and that was to head out the door and get started.

Starting out on these day long hikes alone is always a mental challenge for the first hour or so. Mostly I don’t think about anything, or sometimes I get a song stuck in my head. (Note: I NEVER wear an iPod when I’m outdoors!) I try not to think and if I can keep my mind clear then the trail goes by quickly, which is a blessing as I don’t start to really wake up until I’m above tree line. Today was no exception. There were very few people going up the trail that Friday morning, and one runner coming down, so I felt mostly alone all the way up past the tram and cross and to the top of Gold Ridge. I met one pair of hikers between the cross and Gold Ridge, and they asked me where I was headed. “Gastineau, Roberts, Sheep?” I said tentatively. It sounded more like a question than a firm answer. So much for my iron resolve!

Once I reached Gold Ridge and started over to Gastineau, I realized I had hit it just right. The snow stayed late in the mountains this year, and it was mostly snow all along the ridge and between the peaks. That might deter some hikers, but with a good pair of trail running shoes and my hiking poles I found I could cover ground in what seemed like half the time than if I were following the dirt trail. Scott and I had enjoyed the same conditions just two weeks earlier, when we hiked the Mt. Juneau ridge and glissaded off the top of the ridge and all the way down into Granite Creek Basin in what seemed like just minutes. Today’s hike was much the same, as I kick stepped up the snow to the summit of Gastineau, took a quick snack break, and then slid quickly down towards Roberts.

The last pitch of steep snow up to the summit of Roberts caused me to step a little more carefully, mindful that the snow was firmer in spots than others and that I was alone and not too keen about an uncontrolled slip down the wrong side of the mountain. I channeled Scott’s presence on the snow slope and pretended I was kick stepping behind him as he chose the best route to the top. Once I tried getting off the snow and onto the steep heather, but that never quite works out the way you hope it will. I like to tell people that Southeast Alaska is probably one of the few places where you can say that you almost died falling out of a meadow, as the grassy slopes here are so steep, slippery, and exposed.

As I topped Roberts I really started to relax. Actually I’d been having a great time since the moment I reached Gold Ridge. I felt good, the temperature was just right, and now that I was up on the ridge everything seemed to be falling into place. The high overcast sky still gave me perfect views of all the mountains around me, looking up and down the Gastineau Channel, over to Douglas Island, and beyond to Admiralty Island. I knew as I went over to Sheep Mt. I would get awe inspiring views of the Juneau icefield and the peaks surrounding Taku Inlet. Another short snack break and a quick shot of the summit with my little point and shoot camera and I was on my way.

The snow carried me off Roberts and over to Sheep, and I scrambled up the final slope to the third summit. I wanted to linger there and absorb the views, but the wind was suddenly howling. I knew it was warm and calm lower down, but for some reason the wind was probably blowing a good 20-30 mph on the summit of Sheep. I covered up as best I could, ate the main part of my lunch, snapped some pictures and then quickly moved down.

A long glissade on the snow took me all the way down to the Powerline Ridge. I hit a few icy spots in places and got a reality check once when I fell on my butt, so I started to pay more attention, realizing that I might be getting a bit tired and careless. I didn’t want to end up slipping down into the wrong drainage! Then I worked my way across the slopes of Powerline Ridge and over to the power line towers and the small cabin just above tree line. This is where the going gets tough. I always manage to lose the poorly marked path trying to work my way down from the power line cabin to the more clearly defined trail through the woods and down to the valley floor. Somehow I always end up with scratched legs and a handful of devil’s club despite my best efforts. Once I hit the woods it’s easy to follow the trail down, but that short little section down the brushy, rocky slopes is not my favorite part of the hike and probably wears me out more than the entire route across the peaks.

When I hit the valley floor, I did something that I’ve always wanted to do when I’ve been with other people, but couldn’t because of the group dynamics. I ran the rest of the way out! I have no idea where I got the energy or the bounce in my legs, but it was a beautiful, warm afternoon and I was so excited about completing the hike in good time with no problems that I just started jogging down the trail. I wouldn’t have won any races with my slow pace, but I was moving faster than a fast hike, for sure. The trail was recently brushed, the footing was smooth, and the final section down through the woods to Thane Road was shorter than I remembered it. I also love the view of the ridge above, where I could see exactly where I’d been just a few hours earlier. It’s a bittersweet feeling – on the one hand I still want to be up there, hiking through the snow and heather slopes; but on the other hand I’m happy to be almost done and ready to exchange my wet, muddy shoes and socks for flip flops and my Camelbak for a cold brew.

I should mention here that when you start this traverse at the Mt. Roberts trailhead on Basin Road, it's useful to have a friend on call when you finish who will pick you up at the other end on Thane Road and drive you back to your car. 

When I decide to go for a long hike alone, I’m never truly alone. In fact, I have more people with me when I’m by myself than when I am hiking with someone else. Sound confusing? It actually makes much more sense when you think about the fact that I’m usually hiking on trails that I’ve traveled for almost 40 years. When I go out by myself, it gives me a chance to think about all the times I’ve hiked those trails with friends over the years. The Gastineau-Roberts-Sheep traverse is one of the first good ridge hikes I did my first full summer in Juneau back in 1973. I’ve hiked, run, skied, and snow shoed it many times since then. As I travel over familiar ground, I think about the many friends I’ve shared this adventure with. By the time I’m done, I almost feel like I’ve attended some sort of big reunion with them. It’s a good feeling and I certainly don’t feel lonely, even though I’ve been alone all day.

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