High-altitude climb behind downtown Juneau

Posted: Sunday, August 03, 2003

There isn't an ocean too deep, a mountain so high it can keep, keep me away." It's not the best hiking music, but Little Peggy March's hit from 1963 had somehow found its way into my mental juke box and I resigned myself to walking with March's gushing love song running through my head.

As I scrambled over the rocks lining a drainage bed that funnels water to Granite Creek Basin, aiming for the ridge that would eventually lead to Clark Peak, the song continued:

"... And where he goes I'll follow, I'll follow, I'll follow."

Almost appropriate, I thought, but in this case "he" was actually a "she" - Molly, the Western Alaska dog who was bounding up and down the side of the mountain, splitting time between me, the ridge and my two hiking companions hiking 25 and 50 feet below me.

The mountain that would not keep me away was actually four mountains that Saturday in July. We aimed first for Clark Peak - above Silverbow Basin and about 412 miles east of downtown - which at 4,050 feet stands slightly below the 4,238-foot Sheep Mountain. From Clark we would ride the wave of the Mount Roberts ridge: down and up to Sheep Mountain; down and up to Mount Roberts, at 3,810 feet; and down and up again to Gastineau Peak, at 3,666 feet.

Gastineau, usually the first peak hikers summit when on the ridge above the Mount Roberts Tram, would be our last stop. From there we would head down the trail leading from the tram to downtown. An offshoot near the end of that trail would lead us to Basin Road, right where we had started our hike early that morning.

But that was all to come. For the moment, I had to focus on making it to the ridge in the first place. Heads down, focused on the rocks that formed a quasi-staircase out of the basin, my two hiking companions and I scrambled to the ridge. From there, we got a delicious view of what was in store for the next nine hours.

I'm not sure whether the view or the climb was more breathtaking.

There's something about Juneau's ridges that is much more effective than an alarm clock in waking me up on weekend mornings. Skiing, tennis, running - they can all wait until I've had a nice, restful morning. But the ridges on a sunny day require as many hours as a person can give them.

So when Greg Bledsoe told Lisa Eagan and me to meet him and his dog Molly on Basin Road at 7:30 one Saturday morning for a hike on the ridge that forms a semicircle around Silverbow Basin, I agreed to trade a few hours of lounging for more than a few hours of alpine exploration.

"A lot of people do Mount Juneau to Sheep, but not many people go from Sheep down to Granite Creek Basin," Greg told me, explaining why this hike is his favorite in town. "And it's also nice because you make a loop, and there's no backtracking."

Greg frequently leads high-elevation trips with the Juneau Alpine Club, so Lisa and I felt he was a safe person to follow on the potentially dangerous ridges around Juneau.

"These mountains aren't very forgiving," Ed Mills, a long-time hiker in Juneau, said. Fog can disorient even experienced hikers, and a good strong wind blowing on a hiker wet with sweat can cause hypothermia.

He recommends hiking ridges on a clear day with somebody who knows the hike well. If that's not possible, the hiker should carry a topographic map and compass.

Greg, his large daypack stuffed with supplies ranging from bug spray to bandages, was the right person to follow. And Saturday, July 19, was the right day. Though the sky wasn't the brightest blue, we were comfortably warm in shorts and T-shirts, and a pond between Sheep Mountain and Mount Roberts was the perfect temperature for a dip.

The route was simple: We left our cars before the Gold Creek bridge on Basin Road, where an offshoot of the trail to the tram's upper terminal ends at the parking area. Members of the Juneau Alpine Club, led by Don Larsen, left their cars there as well; they planned to hike Sheep Creek up to Sheep Mountain and down the Mount Roberts ridge. With any luck, we would meet the Alpine Club group on the top of Sheep Mountain.

We set off down Basin Road and turned onto the first, unofficial trailhead to Perseverance Trail. That 14 mile of Basin Road was the only pavement we would touch for the rest of the hike.

After an uneventful walk to Granite Creek Basin, we set off on a slope on the southeast side that would lead us onto the ridge. Once there, we traversed the northeast ridge of Silverbow Basin and headed to the north ridge of Clark Peak.

Greg likes this hike because of the few people he's seen on it. And sure enough, we didn't see anybody between Granite Creek Basin and Clark Peak, which we reached at about noon. From Clark Peak, we saw the silhouettes of the Alpine Club hikers on a different ridge leading to Sheep Mountain, so we started down Clark Peak and then up the back side of Sheep Mountain.

We arrived at the top of Sheep Mountain just as the alpine club hikers were finishing the break they had taken at the summit. After comparing our two routes, they took off from the mountain, and we sat down for a rest.

Hiking this ridge with no specific time to return, you have a chance to rest, swim and take in the view. When I hike it again, which I definitely will, I will take a bit more time heading up Clark Peak, and turn around more often. With every step on the north side of the mountain, a better view of the peaks on the icefield - from Split Thumb to Devils Paw - and of Taku Inlet appear.

Six hours after our lunch on Sheep Mountain, 12 hours after we set off, we were sitting in a pizzeria ready to feast. There wasn't an ocean too deep, or a mountain so high it could keep us away from that reward.

Christine Schmid can be reached at cschmid@juneauempire.com.

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