Travel February 1997

Scaling Alaska's Heights

Within Juneau's city limits are handsome mountains that novices can climb
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In the West when developers and businessmen feel pushed into a rhetorical corner by their tree-hugging adversaries, they typically say, "Sure, the views are nice, but you can't eat the scenery."

This remark has outraged the environmental lobby for years, if for no other reason than its self-assured and self-evident logic. But the line also illustrates a problem that has long vexed visitors to the great western landscapes: the difficulty of interacting with an often impenetrable land. Sure, the mountains and valleys and rivers are sensational, but how does one who is not naturally inclined toward crampons and ice axes take on a tumbling glacier or a jagged mountain peak in a way that will be more rewarding than the travel-twenty-hours, look-twenty-minutes approach?

Alaska poses special problems for travelers who are many generations removed from the pioneers. "The Great Land"—the nickname is suitable considering the state's daunting terrain—claims even highly experienced outdoorsmen as part of its annual casualty toll. The much-publicized case of Christopher McCandless's death by starvation in Alaska's interior—chronicled by Jon Krakauer, a contributing editor of Outside magazine, in last year's best adventure book, Into the Wild—is only a recent example. Alaska's wilderness rarely forgives mistakes. Its tempestuous weather is infamous for lethal unpredictability.

So when visitors arrive amid the forbidding mountains and glaciers that surround Alaska's capital city of Juneau, alighting from ships and airplanes (the only ways to get to Juneau—there are no roads running into the city), they have little reason to expect to get beyond the fail-safe experiences of nature that helicopter tours, landscaped footpaths, and state-of-the-art tourist attractions will allow. The dominant landmark in the city, Mount Juneau, which is rippled with a line of dramatic cliffs, rises 3,576 imposing feet directly out of the famed Inside Passage. A nearby peak bears the name Thunder Mountain, for the ominous springtime rumblings that bring tons of snow barreling down its many precipitous avalanche chutes. The visitor senses a familiar frustration in Juneau—it's a great place to look at, but tough to know how to get a handle on.

For all its intimidating beauty, however, Juneau's natural environment is startlingly accessible. An uncommon concentration of hikable mountains makes the place a find for travelers who yearn for the chance to scrape knees and strain muscles on a real mountainside. To quote Discover Southeast Alaska With Pack and Paddle, a wonderful if obscure guidebook published in 1974 by The Mountaineers of Seattle (and available from them for $12.95 plus postage; call 800-284-8554), Juneau is "one of the few places where the casual hiker can gain entry into the mountaineer's mystical world without the climber's skills and trappings, and may better understand the mountaineer's love of high places and his urge to journey into otherwise unreachable wilderness."

Juneau has grown at a rapid clip in recent decades (though its population is still only about 30,000 today), but the Mountaineers guide remains current as to the landscape. Within the city limits there are trails leading to the summits of five "walk-up" mountains. Each winds through dense rain-forest stands of mature timber, and features commanding views of ocean, glaciers, valleys, and, sometimes, wildlife, including bear, goats, deer, and wolverines.

The five peaks—Mount Juneau, Mount Roberts, Mount Jumbo, Mount McGinnis, and Thunder Mountain—have lent their names to sandwiches and other items on the menus at diners around town, and they are the bond among an informal group of locals who pride themselves on having climbed them all. Overnight camping and fires are allowed on each of them, but round trips can easily be managed in a day. Thus, given a decent stretch of free time and good weather, even a visitor can join the five-peaks elite.

The Mount Roberts trail actually begins downtown, a few blocks away from the capitol building and just up the hill from the Baranof (Juneau's best hotel, for both location and amenities; for information call 800-544-0970). It is possible to begin the day in the hotel's handsome lobby, strap on a day pack, climb to the mountain's 3,819-foot summit, and be back in time to enjoy a locally brewed beer as the sun sets over the Pacific Ocean and nearby Douglas Island—all by foot travel alone. The trail ascending Mount Juneau, which offers gorgeous panoramas of the city's historic gold mines and Stephen's Passage, picturesquely dotted with cruise ships and fishing boats through the summer months, starts less than two miles from the same hotel lobby. In the Baranof's neighborhood most establishments retain enough frontier spirit that even the person who doesn't get off the mountain in time to shower before the cocktail hour won't feel painfully conspicuous.

Fifteen miles from downtown, in the residentialized Mendenhall Valley, stands Mount McGinnis, the tallest, most difficult, and most rewarding of the mountain quintet. After covering a little less than three miles of relatively flat ground, the West Glacier Trail rises through a half mile of challenging switchbacks and skirts the icy blue edge of the Mendenhall Glacier—the one-and-a-half-mile-wide, twelve-mile-long centerpiece of Juneau's tourist trade—and an adjoining trail winds its way to the top of the 4,228-foot peak. On each day of the tourist season, which lasts from late spring through late summer, busloads of visitors are hauled out to a parking lot and an excellent visitor center to behold the mammoth glacier from across Mendenhall Lake. Hikers who tough out the switchbacks on the West Glacier Trail are rewarded with a satisfying view of the mob—now reduced to anonymity—from a point just above and behind the face of one of the most stunning and accessible glaciers on the planet. Here following the trail is like walking very slowly toward an open freezer: the chill from the massive block of ice increases noticeably as a hiker draws closer to the glacier's west flank.

Even at the height of the season—summer is the best time to visit, because spring avalanches have claimed lives on the mountains, and fall weather is reliably miserable—none of the peaks around Juneau is overburdened with climbers. When I was growing up in Juneau, Mount McGinnis was all but unknown to out-of-towners, and it remains so today. On the crisp, sunny Labor Day of last year I climbed the mountain with two friends. We ate lunch at the summit, and for the hour and a half we were there, we had the place completely to ourselves—not counting the group of seven mountain goats, each turned out in a lush autumn coat, that ambled over from a neighboring ridge to graze and sun in the alpine scrub a few hundred feet below us. The natural drama of the view—the 1,500-square-mile Juneau Icefield and the Mendenhall Towers, a group of spires rising out of the frozen plain to a height of 5,900 feet, provide the backdrop—never fails to repay the hiker for the strenuous climb.

On the way down our group passed a lone teenage girl, two couples with dogs, and a party of four that included an old classmate I hadn't seen since high school. Through conversation it was established that everybody was somehow socially connected to at least one other hiker on the mountain that day. My classmate recalled with vivid horror the Labor Day he'd spent the year before among the throbbing hordes at Yosemite National Park. We all congratulated one another on the fine day and moved on in separate directions. By seven o'clock I was happily soaking my feet in a hot tub at Pearson's Pond Luxury Inn (907-789-3772), a snug bed-and-breakfast about a mile from the Mount McGinnis trailhead and not much farther from Thunder Mountain.

Although walk-up mountains require no training, technical skill, or equipment beyond sturdy footwear and rain gear, each of these five peaks asks for a fair amount of caution and basic outdoor skills. Most of the trails break off near their summits, requiring hikers to pick the most likely (though usually obvious) path to the top, between rock cairns and swatches of pink surveying tape. Physical stamina, too, is tested. On the morning after a late night of Fourth of July celebrating several years ago my brother and I, both in reasonably sound condition, decided to cleanse ourselves with an invigorating jaunt to the top of Mount Jumbo (called Mount Bradley on some maps)—the least demanding of the area's walk-ups, though it's none the less spectacular for that. We hit the peak by noon—staggering views of Admiralty Island and the Inside Passage compensate for the Jumbo effort—but have endured ever since the good-natured barbs of family and friends who have seen the snapshots from that hike. Fatigue is plainly evident in our faces, and in most of the pictures my brother is fiercely clutching at his rib cage as if fending off a terrible side ache. Which, of course, is exactly what he was doing. No doubt we'd underestimated the ravages of the previous night's patriotism (with normal stores of energy, Mount Jumbo is an easy hike), but the trip certainly illustrated the point about taking the land too lightly.

Others have done worse. On the Friday before my Labor Day excursion the Juneau Empire featured a front-page story about a Seattle electrician who, having set out for a simple day hike, finally emerged from the wilderness four days later. The man had wandered off the trail to Mount Juneau, gotten lost, stumbled about among bear tracks, and spent at least one torrential night on an exposed sandbar with only a few alders for shelter. Even Juneau's on-call and highly effective canine rescue team failed to locate him. (That a full-time organization of this sort exists at all says much about the rugged territory here.) Accessible or not, Alaska's mountains require a sufficiently humble approach and judicious doses of common sense. (The best overall source of trail maps and tips is Juneau Trails: Guide to the Trails of Juneau, Alaska, published by the Alaska Natural History Association and available from the Forest Service Information Center in downtown Juneau; call 907-586-8751.)

Juneau itself becomes less and less rugged as the tourist industry continues to boom (cruise ships have been docking here since 1884). The latest major development is a tramway, opened last August, that runs 1,750 feet up Mount Roberts. Some locals feel that it sacrifices too much of that mountain to tourism, which places just behind crude oil in the hearts of Alaskan opportunists. Nevertheless, nestled among the downtown souvenir shops and T-shirt emporiums there are still a few watering holes, restaurants, and art galleries that residents make use of, or at least like. The walking tour of the city (brochures showing the route are available at every hotel) is the most worthwhile in the state. The capitol, formerly the Territorial Federal Building, is quiet in summer, though tours are available; the governor's mansion, built in 1912, sits a few blocks away. Down the hill is a nonpareil collection of Eskimo, Tlingit, Haida, and other native art at the Alaska State Museum. The St. Nicholas Orthodox Church, from 1894, is the oldest original Russian Orthodox church remaining in Southeast Alaska, and it retains an active congregation. These sites are no more than fifteen minutes apart by foot.

Evidence of the area's gold-rush past is on permanent display at the Juneau-Douglas City Museum. During its heyday, from 1888 to 1915, the Treadwell Mine was the world's largest underground gold mine. And at Last Chance Basin summer travelers can visit remnants of the Alaska-Juneau Mine, which at its peak, in 1924 and following, was the world's largest underground mine in terms of rock tonnage mined. On display is A-J's old transformer building, locomotive repair shop, and gargantuan Ingersoll-Rand compressor (which ventilated mine shafts and provided power for pneumatic drilling equipment). The A-J (the last of Juneau's gold mines, it closed in 1944) and Treadwell mines rank first and second as the largest gold producers in Alaska's history. They are interesting in themselves and also because many of the area's trails, including the popular Perseverance Trail, are rooted in the gold discoveries of the 1880s to early 1900s. (For more information on the city in general, call the Juneau Convention & Visitors Bureau, at 907-586-2201.)

It is, however, Juneau's "precarious site on the skirt of sheer mountain slopes," to quote the Mountaineers guide again, that provides a breathtaking argument for travel to this most naturally scenic of all U.S. capital cities. For those wishing and willing literally to rise above the crush of modern sightseeing, Juneau's mountain trails provide a rare concentration of remarkable opportunities.

Charles Thompson is a senior editor of American Way magazine. He has written for Spy, Mademoiselle, and The Oregonian.
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