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Hawthorne Peak

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Looking at Hawthorne Peak from the Sheep Creek valley trail  Betsy Fischer
Betsy Fischer
Looking at Hawthorne Peak from the Sheep Creek valley trail

I should have brought an ice axe.

A friend of mine cautioned me when I told him I was planning to hike up Hawthorne Peak. “The snowpack can be pretty icy up there this time of year. You should take an ice axe with you.” I agreed with him, and I did pack a set of ice grippers and a hiking pole. But no ice axe.

There are a few things I will do differently the next time I try to hike up Hawthorne Peak. First, I won’t do a vigorous 90 minute ashtanga yoga practice the night before. Less than fourteen hours before my hike I was lying in a sweaty puddle on the floor after stretching, balancing, jumping, and twisting in a hot room. Not a good idea. I will also get up earlier and be on the trail before 9:30 a.m. And I’ll bring an ice axe.

It’s been so long since I’ve hiked up Hawthorne Peak that I can’t even remember it. I’ve been gazing at it over the past few years as I’ve hiked over Mt. Roberts and Sheep Mt., and took a serious look at it last summer when I spent some time up on Powerline Ridge. I don’t keep a checklist of places I want to go, but if I did then Hawthorne would be near the top.

The weather and my work schedule provided me with yet another partly cloudy day for a long mountain hike. I felt a little intimidated by the thought of traveling so far up a mountain by myself when I could barely remember hiking it years ago. In order to handle these little solo adventures, I often break the day down into stages and try not to think about the whole until I see how things are going. So my day went something like this.

Stage 1 – Hike the Sheep Creek valley trail. This is a gem of a place and anyone who lives in Juneau who hasn’t spent a little time on this trail is missing out. A short, steep half-mile walk through the woods on a well-maintained trail takes you to a quiet, beautiful mountain valley. Sheep Creek runs clear and cold along the valley floor and it’s a bird watcher’s paradise at certain times. My favorite is the dipper, who walks along the creek bed and ducks underwater to feed.  The trail along the valley floor ends after a pleasant couple of miles, when it starts to climb uphill again.

Stage 2 – Climb up through the woods to tree line and up to the power line cabin. The trail turns steeply uphill from the valley floor. It features knotted tree roots and a slippery dirt trail that climbs steadily up. It’s a grunt no matter which way you look at it. I’ve covered this route many times, so I can turn my mind off and focus on breathing and moving and saving as much of my energy as I can for the unknown parts ahead of me. The trail pops out of the trees at the old power line, zigzags through the low brush to avoid a deep ravine on the hillside, and then reaches the tiny cabin, sitting along the power line in the open alpine. At last I could look around me and scout out my route over to Hawthorne Peak.

Stage 3 – Hike from the power line cabin to the base of Hawthorne Peak. An old path led from the cabin in the direction of Hawthorne, so I followed it along a natural mountainside bench to a series of old power line towers. The path disappeared and I found my own way down the ridge to the saddle below Hawthorne, all the while scouting the mountain for the best route up.

A few helicopters flew by on their way to glacier tours, but otherwise I was completely alone. Small alpine pools dotted the landscape. A waterfall poured off of a glacial snowfield. The mountain heather was still bright green, but starting to turn orange, red, and yellow in the late summer coolness.  I wanted to sit and enjoy the beauty, but first I needed to see how high I could get on the mountain in front of me.

As I scouted the steep rocks and snow above me, a slight movement on the summit snow ridge caught my eye.  I watched it move quickly across the snow and realized it must be a wolf. I could just make out the dark gray shape of it as it ran, and noted the route it took across the snow and over to the rocks. Then it disappeared from sight.

I decided to give the rock ridge a try. The rock was steep, loose, and crumbling – a poor excuse of a mountain ridge, but typical of Southeast Alaska rock. I didn’t like the way the rocks slipped and slid under my feet, so I moved over to the snow ravine next to it. The snow climbed steeply up, and I could just barely get a good purchase with my light hiking shoes. I stopped to put on my ice grippers and break out my trekking pole, and found it easier to climb, but I was starting to get nervous. I was hoping that as I climbed up to the summit ridge the snow would soften and the pitch of the slope would lessen. That is probably what would happen if I was trying to climb up in May or June, but in late August the snow was rock hard, and so much had melted that the angle of the slope only got steeper as I got higher.

I saw the wolf tracks in the snow as I neared my high point. I worked my way back over to the rock and found a spot to sit and survey the last bit to the summit. I knew I could safely manage the slope I had just climbed, but the final bit ahead of me was more exposed without a safe run-out below. Spots of ice showed on the snow. I should have brought an ice axe, and a partner to help kick steps and provide a little moral support.

I looked at my GPS. I had traveled five and a half miles and was at 4,009’. The summit is 4,210’ and I was less than 500 yards away. I sat on a flat rock, ate a little food, and took a good rest for the first time since I’d started four hours ago. I thought about it and decided I didn’t have enough confidence in my ability to safely travel the very last part alone. I stood up and shouted as loud as I could “HAWTHORNE PEAK!” Then I laughed and sat back down and muttered “You kicked my butt today.”

Stage 4 – Go back the way I came. There was still plenty of adventure ahead as I carefully made my way down the steep snow ravine.  I practiced a few self-arrests with my trekking pole before I got to the trickiest sections, which didn’t inspire me to try any high speed descending. I made it to the grassy saddle over a thousand feet below without any serious mishaps, and climbed back up to the Powerline Ridge path.

Now I was completely relaxed, with an easy trail to follow the rest of the way out. I took another long break next to an old power line tower and soaked in the views of the mountain I had just come down, the valley spread out below me, and the high ridge between Mt. Roberts and Sheep Mt. to the northwest. I felt a little bit cheated that I had worked so hard only to turn around just short of my goal. I also decided I would most certainly be back next summer, when the snow was a little softer, the slopes a little less steep, and my ice axe securely in hand. Maybe I can even talk someone into joining me.

Hawthorne Peak, elevation 4,210’. Named by Lieutenant Commander Henry B. Mansfield in 1890 when he commanded the Coast Guard steamer Patterson in these waters. The source of the name is not known, but Mansfield sometimes honored members of his crew by placing their names on the map. (pg 24, R. N. DeArmond, 1957, “Some Names Around Juneau”)

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