Beating the snow to the summit

Local hikers take to Juneau's crown of summits before the weather turns nasty

Posted: Sunday, September 26, 2004

The steep section of the hike seemed more like climbing a ladder than walking a trail. One step, one deep breath. Heart thumps way up in the aerobic range. With all the huffing and puffing it seemed as though I was trying out for a part in "The Little Engine that Could."

The effort was the price for hiking high enough to stand on one of the points creating Juneau's crown of summits: Mount Juneau (3,576 feet), Gastineau Peak (3,666 feet), Mount Roberts (3,810 feet), Mount Jumbo (3,337 feet), Mount Meek (3,130 feet), Thunder Mountain (2,700 feet) and Mount McGinnis, (4,228 feet). There are other high peaks above Juneau, but these seven share a convenient characteristic. Each has a trail to the top listed in "90 Short Walks around Juneau."

Throughout the summer these summits are accessible to anyone willing to walk more up than level. But now those sunny hiking days have disappeared. Suddenly, it's fall. And each good weather day may be the last chance to stand on a summit before winter snows limit access to all but mountain climbers.

To savor what was left of the summer alpine season, I carried a tent, sleeping bag and extra gear to timberline on Mount Jumbo to spend a September night.

Even on a weekday I met two other hikers. One spent the day looking at birds. The other simply wanted exercise and the chance to fly his kite from the summit.

When I reached the top, I could look down on Stephens Passage, Seymour Canal, Icy Strait and Lynn Canal. These large bodies of water seem more like small threads in a large blanket of bumps. Bumps that were ridge after ridge rising, like waves, into the distance.

I returned to the meadows at tree line. In addition to abundant blueberries, the meadows also provided flat space for the tent and panoramic views of downtown Juneau.

The next morning after breakfast I began the hike back down. On some of the steeper sections I grabbed branches and roots worn smooth by the touch of many previous hands. Sometime I simply slid down rocks.

After a couple hours, and with great pleasure, I took off my pack for the last time and started to drive home. That's when I realized my wallet was no longer in my back pocket.

In fact I hardly had a back pocket. The top was still attached, but the bottom was loose and empty.

I was not enthusiastic about hiking back up the same steep trail. But I was less enthusiastic about having to replace all the cards in the wallet. I looked closely along the first, more level, sections of the trail. No wallet. Then I got to the steep, grab-onto-the-roots section. Up I went.

Twenty minutes later I saw the wallet sitting in the middle of a smooth rock, one I had slid down earlier.

"Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes," I said with big smiles.

The smiles, and the sunshine, continued and so did my desire to get to the summits I had neglected all summer. A week later I was on the Thunder Mountain trail.

About half way to the top, I entered the "yellow zone," where plant leaves had already taken on the next season's colors. The color intensified along the ridge that is Thunder Mountain to an overlook of Mendenhall Lake and glacier.

During the day, I met 17 others who were also taking advantage of a sunny day for summit hikes.

"If September stays like this," one of them said, "we'll be able to get every trail on our list before winter."

The good weather lasted. Last Sunday the Juneau Alpine Club had scheduled a hike up Mount Meek on the north end of Douglas Island.

All, except leader Art Peterson, came because they had never been on that trail. Most, in fact, didn't even know where the trail started.

Mount Meek is a steep hike. As steep as the steepest sections on Mount Jumbo or Mount Juneau. One hiker, Jan Conitz, described it as "just straight up the mountain."

Although unmaintained, the trail is easy to follow but seemed to end in a series of meadows. Or maybe we just lost it there. Regardless, we went cross country scrambling through blueberry bushes and sometimes up grassy, but slippery, slopes still covered with morning frost.

"First snowball of the season," Peterson laughed after scraping pieces of frost into a small ball.

We ate lunch on the summit on a day that made it feel like we were taking a sunshine bath.

"I felt this might be the last good hike of the summer season," Conitz said.

Perhaps she was right. On Monday, a storm with high winds and hard rain arrived and stayed all week.

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