Upward in search of light and ice

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

One of the biggest avalanches I have ever seen happened fifteen minutes from my front door. The plumes of snow billowed like a cumulous cloud down the long ice runnels that clung precariously to the sides of Mount Juneau.

Photo by Bill Dwyer
Photo by Bill Dwyer

At times, these ice routes appear thick and safe — perfect for a quick climb. However, objective hazards are not far off.

When I lived in Seattle and Colorado I drove hours for ice climbing. I would commune with nature, preach environmentalist diatribe, then burn tanks of fossil fuel back over the mountain passes to get back home in time for work on Monday.

With the large falls above downtown on Mount Juneau, only a stones-throw from espresso, I wondered why more climbers weren’t giving them a shot.

Yes, people have warned me about the ice up there. They explainined that however tempting from a distance, the hollowed out mountain “ice snot” was seldom in proper condition. The danger, they said, of hanging out on what could become a rock shooting gallery, was not worth the risk. The plumes of spindrift on the flows, and fans of rock-fall at the base of the flows, are warning signs declaring the high activity in the area.

Two years ago I watched the ice form up, hollow out and shed down the mountain. This year, I refused to watch it happen again.

Sunshine Gully is the name given to the ice flow tucked around a corner of Mount Juneau, off the Perseverance Trail. With a streak of recent cold weather, it appeared in condition. As we climbed the half-frozen creek to the base, I noted the tree tips pointing unnaturally downhill — a subtle avalanche sign known as flagging. A more obvious sign of potential problems, however, was the occasional sound of tinkling glass. The sound ice makes as it sheds off the mountain.

We geared up for the climb around a sheltered corner of the flow. I glanced up to see two large rocks come skipping down the gully on the right. I tightened my helmet and thought small thoughts. The line we chose was a ridge of ice that appeared to be out of the drop zone.

We swung our axes and kicked our way up the flow, out of the thick Tongass Forest. Climbing in this area gives a panoramic view above the spruce and a glimpse into the heart of Juneau’s history. Skeletal mining ruins stand out under the frost of winter. Ghostly lines of forgotten highways have left imprints the woods. The only noise was the wind tangling through the branches below.

After an hour, I anchored to the ice, feeling like I was amid a mirage of old Juneau. A place, only a small hike from modern downtown. It is a historical climb and one that highlights the fact we must sometimes ascend high in order to gaze back where we have come.

We scrambled across a third pitch of climbing, on the upper section, to a clump of alders growing out of a shale rock cave. It couldn’t be a true Juneau climb without bashing through alders at some point, so we followed tradition and swam through the branches, finding the biggest off of which to rappel.

When the sun crested through the valley on our descent, the flow lit up as if someone had plugged it in. It was then I realized why Sunshine Gulley got its name.

Sun can be a bad thing on an ice climb, however, as things begin to fall apart. The basketball-sized rock that crashed dangerously close to my partner reminded us of these dangers.

We rappelled a second time off a bollard of ice, scrambled down the hill and back into the living city.

For the past few years, I have been flying around the globe in search of adventure, finding myself on mountains on all seven continents. In all that traveling, it is easy to forget about the adventure and mystery that knocks at our back door. With 16.8 million acres of wilderness just up the hill from coffee, the potential for adventure is amazing. Sometimes spending time close to home enables us to see beyond ourselves and into where we are from.

I went back to Sunshine Gully two weeks later to climb it again. Only this time, I found hollowed-out ice that cracked and splintered under my weight. Running water spat down rocks and ice chunks showered around my partner and I as we climbed. I am still glad for that effort, because with magic so close, you never know when you are going to strike gold twice.

• Bill Dwyer works as an international mountain guide and thinks Juneau is the best town on the planet.

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