In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, after graduating from high school, I lived in Juneau, Alaska. Some of you know this from previous columns I’ve written. I’d like to tell you about a particular adventure I had there.
I had a good friend that I used to go mountain hiking with just about every weekend. His name was John. On this particular trip, we were planning to hike up Mount Juneau on the Perseverance Trail to the summit. It was called that for a very good reason. Then we would hike east following the ridge until we reached the ice fields and then turn around and come back, all in a day. We believed this was doable, and I have never thought it wasn’t, but it would have been a long day of hard pushing hiking and climbing.
We knew from experience that we could make it up Mount Juneau with a light pack of about 25 pounds with just enough provisions for snacking for the day in about five hours. Then about four hours to the ice fields round trip, and then another five or so hours down the mountain. We’d no doubt want to hang out when we got there and enjoy the awesomeness of it. So all in all it would be about 14 hours of hiking and perhaps two hanging out – like I said, a long arduous day. Mount Juneau had about a 3,600-foot vertical drop and was quite steep and dangerous in places.
Downtown Juneau rests at the foot of the mountain, and is one of the most threatened cities in the country from avalanches. In 1972, an avalanche, resulting from 100 mph Taku winds, overtook the city, crossed Stephen’s Channel, and finished up on Douglas Island. The speed of the resulting air blast was estimated at 180 mph. That one was a whopper. Although Juneau has a temperate climate due to Japanese warm air currents, occasionally it does get quite cold like it does here in the midcoast. But on that day, the chill factor was 60 degrees below zero.
Another couple of interesting facts about Mount Juneau: Although the city gets about 90 inches of rain per year, the mountain gets about 300 percent more. Bottom line, as large mountains often are, Mount Juneau could be inhospitable in the summer and absolutely deadly in the winter. One foolish young man once tried it and was caught in a “minor” avalanche where he was only partially buried. He survived the ordeal, abandoned the climb, and went on to live a rich life in midcoast Maine running a local newspaper company.
Back to 1977, everything was going according to plan. We had reached the summit. Neither of us were wearing a watch, and there were no cell phones or smart phones at the time to tell us the time. We preferred to look at where the sun was in the sky and rely on our understanding of its place in the daily cycle. I must admit I got pretty good at this.
We could tell that we were doing well in terms of time and were not particularly tired. Then all of a sudden, as will often happen in Juneau, an incredibly thick fog rolled in at the top of the mountain where we were. In a matter of minutes, the fog became so thick we literally could not see our feet and thus the ground. We sat down, realizing it would be terribly foolish to continue walking and risk falling off the cliff. After about 30 minutes, we decided we best plan for the worst – that is, we might be there for some time.
As I mentioned, we had very little food; however, I always packed a gas stove, a pot, and a few other items for emergencies, and simply to put some weight in the pack so the hike was more of a workout. John had packed a mountain tent and other items for similar reasons. We set out on all fours looking for some snow to melt to make sure we were hydrated and to make some soup that we had read was highly nutritious if not delicious: Lichen soup.
Lichens are a type of moss and this kind grew on the rocks above timberline. With a knife we scraped it off and stuffed it in our pockets. I know this sounds disgusting and I must tell you it truly was, but those fogs sometimes lasted for weeks, and I had no intention of becoming a statistic. Even in the summer the temperature at the mountain top would plummet at night, sometimes into the 20s.
The next thing we did was set up the tent. That was simply to stay dry or at least dryer, because at the top of that mountain, it was largely rock, boulders, which I have never found to be easy to sleep on. The tent would also keep us from rolling off the cliff should we fall asleep.
Because this was Alaskan brown bear country, which for those of you unfamiliar with them, are the larger cousin to the grizzly, we both carried high powered rifles with us anytime we went in the woods or climbing. I had a .300 Winchester Magnum and John had a .375 H&H Magnum. Both were quite powerful and we were good shots with them. There were also many black bears who were sometimes more aggressive than their larger relatives from frequent encounters with humans. During my time in Juneau, two guys were attacked by brown bears and several by black bears.
So we put the snow in the pot with the lichens and made our lichen soup, and we sat there waiting for it to get dark (which in the summer was about 11 p.m.), or for us to be too tired to stay up. Three days later, the fog lifted. I felt like I must have lost 10 pounds from my six foot two inch, 150-pound body during that time (yes, I was quite thin). I’m sure I didn’t, but I was quite hungry. We packed up and descended that mountain as quickly as we could and went straight to a pizza place called Bullwinkles. It was a great adventure 35 years ago, and one I am not likely to forget in the next 35.
Have a great week, and thanks for being a reader!
Bruce M. Hardina
Coastal Journal Editor & Publisher