As seven eager hikers assembled at the parking lot on an April morning and prepared for the Juneau Alpine Club's Thunder Mountain traverse, the question for the day was whether to bring skis or snowshoes.
Don Larsen, the leader of the trip, was going to bring both. I elected to take snowshoes because I was expecting a wind-blown, crusty layer of snow on the summit and in the bowls from the weeks of cold, snowless, windy weather. I also didn't want to carry skis through the trees as well as have the extra weight of ski boots, climbing skins and poles for possibly marginal conditions. Tim Arness and Janet Valentour also decided to take snowshoes. Dave Duntley and Bill Scheding decided to go with skis while Joe Galluci carried his snowboard.
With Stroller White and Mount McGinnis slowly disappearing behind a veil of snow showers, we shuttled off to the trailhead near the Department of Transportation parking lot on Glacier Highway. Christy Lear was waiting for us there, all set to try her skis. The tally was four snowshoers, three skiers and one boarder.
The gentle climb through the trees was made easy by the frozen ground and there were only a few patches of ice on the trail that made for some slippery conditions. We took breaks in open meadows and enjoyed sweeping panoramas extending from the Mendenhall Glacier, along the Mendenhall Valley, out to Stephens Passage and down Gastineau Channel to Taku Inlet.
As we approached the ridge, the slope steepened and the soft snow suddenly hardened. Fortunately, another hiker climbed the slope recently and kicked steps in the rock-hard snow, making our climb on the steepest part of the mountain a bit easier.
With the Juneau Airport almost directly below us, we crested the ridge in less than three hours and took a leisurely lunch in the light, chilly breeze. The snow showers finally caught up to us as we prepared for the descent in the graying skies. Joe tried a few runs on his board and, as I expected, the snow was not the best for skiing. Even worse, the overcast sky and light snow showers produced flat light conditions making it difficult to determine if the slope was a gentle grade or a sharp drop-off.
We started down to the Valley in different groups. Joe on his board was out in front, the four snowshoers headed directly down, and the skiers traversing the edges of the slope and adding numerous "sitzmarks" throughout the bowl. Yep, I was glad I brought the snowshoes.
As we approached the trees, the snow softened and there was a gentle downhill grade through open meadows and patches of trees that lasted for a few miles. The skiers were enjoying great cross-country conditions. Darn, I wish I had brought my skis.
As we skied through the last meadow in a light snow, the clouds started to break, revealing a dramatic view of the Nugget Spires. We gathered again just before heading into the steeper forest and shed clothing, skis, snowshoes and the snowboard in preparation for the hike out. We followed the old water pipeline to the middle of the East Glacier Trail and finished the hike in a warm sun.
I had been up Thunder Mountain before but this was my first time on this traverse and it won't be my last. The varied snow and weather conditions added to the day and, as always, being able to share the experience is the best part of hiking.
Larry Musarra is a member of the Juneau Alpine Club.