Five intrepid climbers, one small dog and one rather large black bear met at the East Glacier Trailhead on an early Saturday morning and prepared to climb Bullard Mountain, the Juneau Alpine Club-scheduled hike on this rainy October day.
Although the summit was obscured in the clouds, Tim Arness (the leader), Joab Cochrane, Tom Bornstein, Bob Seta and I signed our release forms and headed for the trail. The bear remained at the trailhead by the parking lot and no one wanted to ask it to sign the release form so, not wanting to intrude, we marched over to the trailhead at the visitor center and started our hike.
In a short time we were at Nugget Creek and studied our options for the crossing. The creek was high and too silty to gauge the depth at the usual crossing so we walked the river to check on other crossing points. No other places looked good either so we determined to try the crossing where we were. Joab and Tom carried hip waders, Tim and Bob brought sandals, and I brought an old pair of running shoes for the crossing. Joab donned his waders and headed across, what we could guess, the shallowest section of the river. Fortunately, the swift, cold water remained just below the top of his waders and he made it to the other side.
The plan was for Tom to make the second crossing, remove his waders and Joab would carry the waders back across for Bob, Tim, and I saving the three of us cold, wet feet. Tim wanted to try to cross with his sandals and neoprene socks but was ferried across the river on Joab's back so all five us made it across with dry feet.
The summit was still in the clouds and it started to rain but with the river crossing behind us, we punched into the thick rain forest and started a slow slog up the long, steep ridge. Somewhere just above the first avalanche shoot we lost the scant remains of the trail and headed off into a thick alder patch. We kept on climbing and traversing the hill became steeper, the ground was slick, and the saturated brush got thicker. Every once in a while we would stumble across a piece of flagging at a place we thought no one in his or her right mind would have walked before. Tom even accused me of putting the flagging there to boost morale. Finally we all decided that this was probably a Kim Turley trail up Bullard.
After four hours of what we determined to be a true Juneau Alpine Club hike, we made it to the ridge. Needless to say we were soaking wet, tired, hungry, and cold. A gusty wind drove the mist over the ridge but blue sky to the west kept our hopes that we may have a view from the summit now just an hour away. We hunkered down in the subalpine firs, ate lunch and changed clothes for the ridge walk. With dry clothes and some food in our stomachs we headed into the clouds. The rain stopped and the light, yet gusty wind was moving the clouds off the surrounding peaks. We were even more optimistic that we might get a view after all.
We were still in the clouds when we reached the end of the ridge just before the summit. Tim brought a rope and climbing gear so we had some protection if one of us should slip. The last 50 feet to the summit of the 4,225-foot Mt. Bullard is a scramble on a very exposed cliff. A slip would send the unfortunate climber down a 1,000-foot drop. It was best that we didn't see the bottom.
Tim set an anchor and belayed Tom as he climbed to the summit. Once on the summit Tom braced himself in the rocks and acted as another anchor so we could have a fixed rope over the exposed section of rock. I donned a harness, clipped onto the rope dangling over the fog-shrouded ravine, and started for the summit. With the two of us safely on the summit, Bob and Joab climbed up. Tim remained behind to take a picture of us on the summit (we could have been in a fog bank anywhere but let's just say we made the summit). We spent only a few minutes in the cloud before climbing down and once we were all safe on the ridge we secured the climbing gear and headed down. As we descended, the clouds started to break and we were treated to spectacular views of Suicide Ice Falls, Mendenhall Glacier and the ridges, rich in fall colors, that surrounded us.
We were not looking forward to the slog down through the brush and we scoured the area looking for a familiar landmark of the original trail. Luckily we found the usual trail and descended in relative ease. (If you consider slipping on steep, wet devil's club easier.)
We reached the bottom and crossed the creek, which was now several inches lower. As we approached the viewpoint on the East Glacier Trail, the sun started to descend below a cloud layer just above the horizon. The forest behind us turned golden, the glacier was illuminated and the sun's reflection in Mendenhall Lake was glaring in our eyes. It was a perfect setting and a spectacular ending to a grueling climb. As we started the drive down the road, the bear and her cub crossed in front of us. Sure glad she didn't sign the release form and join us.