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.

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