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The topography of the Juneau borough is full of natural wonders that support a growing community of climbers and mountaineers. One of the best climbs available is on Douglas Island's prominent Mount Bradley, locally known as Mount Jumbo. The snow route described here is easily visible on a clear day from the Douglas Bridge and slides down through the right side of the thousand-meter peak.
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Located on the west side of Mount Jumbo's treacherous, cliffed north face, the steep-angled snow gully or couloir (pronounced coo-lar) does not usually melt away until late summer or early fall. A spirited ascent from the basin into the snow chute and to the summit ridge is a climb worth every bit of the term, "local classic."
There are a number of good reasons why Mount Jumbo's summer couloir should be considered a classic. One of the best reasons for considering the route a classic is its accessibility. Everyone who climbs in Southeast Alaska knows that the hardest part about climbing here is the approach. An easy approach to a good climb in the Tongass National Forest is about as rare as a public sighting of our ex-governor, Frank Murkowski; it could happen, but the chances are slim. The summer couloir of Mount Bradley's north face is a classic because the approach has a couple different variations that follow man-made trails.
One choice is to ascend the East Ridge via the normal hiking trail and drop down into the basin from the high saddle. The first time I climbed the route was with my climbing partner, Ray Dezek, U.S. Coast Guard retiree.
"That was a fun approach," Dezek said. "We did it in spring while training for Mount Rainier and there was a lot of fresh snow to wade through. The deep snow made it quite a challenge."
You also can start by following the normal trail to the Treadwell Ditch confluence, veering off to the right on the Treadwell Ditch trail until hooking up with the snowmobile trail roughly half of a mile back toward West Juneau. After climbing Mount Rainier in July, I led my son and his cousin, Michelle Vitcovich, up to the couloir following this back and forth route without any problems at all.
After working our way up the hillside to the Treadwell Ditch and back, tracking to the scant whereabouts of the snowmobile route, we veered up into the muskeg. The muskeg is wet and squishy, and as soft as it is, each step can potentially cause a sprained ankle. Yet, when slopping about the muskeg, it is almost merry to watch in wonder as the average footprint creates an ankle deep puddle in the vegetation, which then unexpectedly springs back into place as soon as one moves on. The retraction is like a thick foam pad expunging any evidence of being stepped on.
Many tiny ponds and pools form on the gently slopping tears or steppes of the hillsides. Crossing the larger bogs can be tricky, and one must take precaution not to trust the muddy textures.
A few weeks ago, Travis Reed, a friend of mine from Douglas, and I both plunged in very small bogs to our upper thighs. When not paying attention it is easy to assume the best, only to find oneself sunk deep in brownish-black gook and struggling to attain solid ground. As horrific as the scenario sounds, the trail does not offer too many such surprises.
For the most part, the tracks meander through meadows that spring up with seasonal colors of various flowers and plants. One area may tender tall tussocks of wild grasses and chocolate lilies, while another spot will tantalize the senses with the bright purple blooms of the lupine or bog violet. A warm, humid day can accentuate the fragrance of flora; the large elliptic leaves of the skunk cabbage often radiate their pungent aroma. Whether it is the fireworks of bog cranberry, the puff of Alaskan cotton grass, the elegance of wild flag iris, the 30 pink petals of coastal fleabane or the needles of pine, spruces, or hemlock, the theme of the muskeg is always organic wherever you are.
After crossing the numerous muskeg meadows, the trail comes alongside a clear, rushing creek for about a quarter of a mile. Here, the forested area of the trail is rutted with tree roots and congested by colossal skunk cabbage. The fiddlehead ferns can grow just as big, but when the prickly devil's club and salmonberry bushes are growing over the trail, progress can be tentative. Toss into consideration a couple of large piles of bear scat and one can get the feeling that he just may be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Once through the dense brush of the forest, visitors are greeted by several shallow stream crossings. Here is one of the most aesthetic settings I've ever seen.
The area is littered with a handful of large boulders and swept clean by several converging snowfields. The snow remains from last year's record-setting winter. Beneath the terminating snows, newly formed brooks of melt water gurgle past our points of view. Between the boulders, the watery conduits congregate into a single unit to form a crystal rivulet.
Intermittent warning whistles filling the air randomly break moments of thought. Marmots are constantly on the watch for predators such as the hawks and bald eagles frequenting the skies around the mountain. The critters dig homes underneath the boulders. They can be tricky to spot because their gray coats blend in with the color of the rocks and tree trunks.
In the basin of Mount Bradley, the hike turns into a scramble. The snowfields descend from the base of the vertical cliffs from which avalanches poured earlier in the season. Gazing up the mountain's north face reminds me of an ancient fortress called Masada. The cliffs repel thoughts of further approach and make a person feel small.
If one did not know of the summer couloir that lay hidden behind an arête (large fin-like outcropping of rock), this likely would be the place to pack up and head back toward town. Instead of calling it a day though, my friends and I recently found refreshment in the anticipation of the steady gain of elevation and abrupt change of inclination. Here we peeled off damp X-Tra Tuffs and swapped out the wet for dry socks and mountaineering boots.
Joel Balcarras, Travis Reed and I recently rambled up the rocky stream bed tumbling down the mountain. The Class 1 scramble in the stream bed lacks the vegetation and bush-whacking often encountered along different approach lines. A couple of times, a moderately large boulder chokes the way, but neither is very difficult. Reed had never attempted any rock or ice climbing previously, but described the endeavor as "a total blast, better then Swedish pancakes!"
High on the mountain, a refreshing trickle of water flows out of the ground, perfect for refilling water bottles. The water soon disappears beneath the rock bed, and the climber is left with a couple hundred yards of dry scrambling before encountering the couloir.
The couloir's terminus always sends a rush of adrenaline through the body. The mountaineer lives for this part of the day. Anticipation skyrockets as the couloir appears in plain view. Rucksacks come off, crampons are attached and ice axes removed. Lungs breathe deeply, attempting to calm the agitated nervous system, and it does rarely work. The only thing that helps is to get moving up the ever-steepening slope.
The couloir begins at an elevation of about 2,400 feet. The chute is roughly the length of a couple football fields and is a safe climbing route after the spring avalanche season. Nevertheless, during the warmth of the changing seasons, mountainous debris loosened by melting carves out a garbage-chute gutter as everything that falls funnels down the slope. By the middle of June, though, the terrain has dumped most of the debris that is going to be deposited in the basin below.
By July, very little surface snow remains in the couloir and there is very little slush to slip on. The sun and rain scour the hard-packed snow into concave, oval divots. The divots become small shelves for secure foot placements. The climbing is excellent and the views are stunning. There is no need to rush through the couloir except for a fear of heights. After the ascent last summer with my son, my niece Michelle Vitcovich said to us, "I never knew that climbing a mountain could be so emotional."
The climb is always over too soon, so taking time to absorb the amazing scenery is the best way to enjoy 80 percent of the couloir. From the climber's perspective, one looks back toward Juneau and notices the city's cul-de-sac of humanity behind the blockade of cruise ships clogging the harbor. The bridge is what it is, the bridge. Gazing west, the skyline whoopty-dos toward the Mendenhall Valley. First in view is Mount Juneau, followed by Blackerby Ridge and then Thunder Mountain's Heinztleman Ridge. In the far distance, Mount McGinnis and Stroller White Mountain crop up from the horizon. To the left, Lynn Canal provides a shallow depression. From that point, though, only the Chilkat Range can obstruct a setting sun.
The walls of the mountain continually bottleneck the width of the couloir. At the base, the chute's run-out zone is about 100 feet wide, but near the top it shrinks, at one point, to a mere 15 feet across. Moats form alongside the mountain's sheer walls average 10 to 20 feet deep and five to ten feet across. In some ways the moats offer a sense of safety from a run-out slide, but then the reality of taking a long fall into a deep moat does not quite appeal to the sensible mind either. Furthermore, the angle of inclination gradually works its way up from 45 to approximately 70 degrees.
At the steepest point just below the top of the couloir, the climber is no longer enjoying the views. Here, newcomers and seasoned mountaineers alike concentrate their attention on making safe steps and ice axe placements. The margin of error is very small in this short section and slips are not allowed. Fear reaches its high point and emotions are as pure and real as they get. The climb's rating is upgraded now to Class 4, which means, "a fall could be serious or fatal due to the exposure of the climb." This is where all beginners and most average climbers will want to have a harness and rope for a safe belay to finish off the climb.
Safety equipment for the climb is not heavy when everyone in a group shares the load, nor does Mount Jumbo's couloir require a lot of gear for a safe climb. With proper knowledge of the boot-axe belay system, a rope and possibly a harness, is all the extra gear needed to fully enjoy this local classic climbing route.
The descent can be made by one of two options. Climbers descend the normal trail until they reach the upper saddle where a large snow field drops back down into the basin of the north face, or they have the choice of continuing on down the normal trail. The normal trail is a great way to go, especially if the climbers have a car waiting for them in downtown Douglas.
No matter where a party descends, the Island Pub and Doulgas Cafe are perfect culminating destinations after a perfect outing in our backyard wilderness.
Ben Still, an avid Alaskan mountaineer from Douglas, is a big fan of the climb. "It is a lot of fun," he said. "For sure, it's a local classic."