Saturday morning dawned clear and cold on the first day of 2010. The view of the full moon on the drive to the Valley was glorious, and seemed a sign of good things to come. The four of us parked at the end of the Montana Creek Road and made final preparations for the hike to Grandchild Peaks, a group of mountains named for the grandchildren of Kim and Barb Turley, founders of the Juneau Alpine Club.
The group heading out on this winter-camping experience was made up of experienced mountaineers. Drew Maples and Franz Mueter, both friends and Juneau Alpine club members, had agreed to join my husband, Greg, and I on a trip with one simple goal: To have fun climbing and camping in the Grandchild Peaks.
At the last minute, we decided to leave the snowshoes behind. The weather had slipped into a cold, dry, windy stretch, following a warm, wet spell, which made for rock-hard, wind-swept snow above tree-line. But, we were willing to risk a bit of post-holing in the trees to avoid the extra weight of snowshoes on our backs.
The hike along Montana Creek is not spectacular, but ice formations in the frozen creek provided some visual entertainment. And early on, sloping ice-flows along the trail had us joking about donning our crampons on level ground.
Before long, we left the creek and main trail behind and began the steep up-hill climb to the Grandchild Peaks. Hiking behind Franz, I quickly realized that, being at least one foot shorter, I had to take about two steps for every one of his. But, I found that I had an advantage when it came to going under things, like fallen trees. The frozen ground made for slippery hiking, but before too long we were above tree-line and enjoying spectacular views all around.
We started with a flexible plan to be modified depending on the wind. If, upon leaving the trees, we were blasted by the icy wind, we would camp at tree-line and hike up into the peaks without our camping gear. But, if the winds were calm, we would traverse a long ridge, climbing over several of the peaks, and camp in a protected, flat area below Mt. Sabrina Joy. As luck would have it, there was hardly a breeze, and we opted to continue to the high camp at 4,200 feet.
Traversing the narrow ridge in winter is a spectacular and exciting adventure. A large cornice on the north side of the ridge added to its alpine beauty, but also called for care in choosing our route, lest we find ourselves walking out beyond the cornice fracture line. Along the ridge, we encountered a variety of snow conditions including rime ice, snow-drifts, breakable crust and nearly bare frozen ground.
Zigzagging along the ridge, we climbed and then descended peak after peak until we arrived at the last one that marked our descent into camp. The fading winter light made for spectacular views of the surrounding peaks and the distant spires, and from this vantage point, we also got a good view of the camp area - a welcome sight considering that our short winter day was drawing to an end.
We dropped down and set up camp before dark. We chose to build our snow wall to block winds from the north, hoping that the wind direction wouldn't change over night. The temperature was quickly dropping into the single digits and the cold work of building camp sent my fingers through the figurative freeze-thaw cycle a few times before we were finished.
Finally, with camp made, we crawled into our tents and set about making dinner and melting water. Snow camping requires that a lot of time be spent melting snow for drinking water, for cooking and for hot drinks. Greg and I passed the time by snacking and finishing the still-hot tea in the thermoses we had carried all day. We had only eaten a quick lunch, and I was hungry after a day of moving in the cold. We briefly discussed plans for the following day with Drew and Franz. Would we get up early and try for a climb of Mt. Stroller White - quite a distance considering the short days. Or would a climb of Mt. Jessica, something closer, be more realistic? In the end, we decided to listen to the forecast on the weather radio in the morning, and make a decision based on the report. In the meantime, we settled in for a long winter night, snug in our down bags.
As things go, the morning forecast called for a change in the weather. Clouds were already forming on the horizon, and the forecast called for snow by evening and more snow in the morning. No one relished the idea of reversing our traverse of the ridge in poor visibility. Our beautiful, aesthetic ridge in good weather could be quite dangerous in a storm. So we decided that it would be best to move camp down to tree-line for the second night.
But despite the weather, three of us to decided to attempt a quick dash up Mt. Jessica, which looked tantalizingly close, and looked like a very fun snow climb.
Climbing Mt. Jessica was just what I had hoped for - pure fun. Good conditions made the steep snow quite manageable - and easiest for me, as the third person following in the nice steps kicked by Greg and Franz. The views from the summit were well worth the effort, and we took a few minutes to enjoy the panorama and take pictures before heading down.
Down-climbing is never my favorite part, but at least there is a certain rhythm to it - facing in to the slope, planting my ice axe, kicking the toes of my boots and crampons into the snow, pausing to examine the route below.
By the time we returned to camp, we had to pack quickly if we hoped make tree-line before dark. Being quite hungry after climbing Mt. Jessica, I tried to eat while packing, knowing I'd need the energy to carry my fully-loaded pack back down the long ridge. I was cramming a granola bar in my mouth when Franz offered up a baked concoction consisting of graham cracker crumbs, butter, coconut, butterscotch, chocolate and sweetened condensed milk. Yum! That, combined with the hot water that Drew had kindly prepared were enough to get us ready for the descent. By then it was snowing lightly.
We reversed our route along the ridge, up and down the peaks, and finally down to a good camp-site at tree-line as the last light of day faded.
Tamara Bledsoe is acting president of the Juneau Alpine Club. Information on the club can be found at: www.juneaualpineclub.org.