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PUBLISHED: 10:51 AM on Wednesday, February 22, 2006
Mt. McGinnis winter climb becomes tradition

Photos courtesy of Barb Turley
  It's a lot faster, and great fun, to glissade down a steep, snowy slope, but it's easy to get out of control on a fast glissade.
The Juneau Alpine Club always schedules a Mt. McGinnis climb for March or April. In the summer, reaching the top of McGinnis would be a hike. In early spring, it's a climb.

When the Alpine Club was organized about 10 years ago, Mt. McGinnis was the first climb on our agenda. Though McGinnis is a straightforward, safe mountain (if done with prudence), the high winds on top contributed to its being a very representative introduction to mountaineering. The only technical equipment required is crampons and an ice ax. Long before it was an Alpine Club tradition, it was a Turley family tradition.

In the 18 years that my husband, Kim, and I have been making this climb, we've used several routes and encountered a full spectrum of weather and snow conditions. The summer trail is neither the shortest nor the safest route in the winter. When we were getting ready to lead the first Alpine Club winter climb, we told people that a level of physical fitness equivalent to being able to run ten miles in two hours or less was necessary. We've never enforced this, but those who comply have an advantage.


Eleven people, including Kim and I, showed up at 6 a.m. for this first Juneau Alpine Club Mt. McGinnis climb. The snow was firm on the West Glacier Trail, which sped us along. In the section where our preferred winter route leads up into the trees, the ground was clear of snow and easy walking. We needed snowshoes for a short distance near tree line. Beyond that, the route became too steep to use them. This area requires intense physical exertion. The group spread out over several hundred yards, but everyone kept plugging along.

As we got closer to the summit ridge, we could see what appeared to be puffs of white smoke. Kim and I knew what that cold smoke was - snow plumes. We gathered the group and had everyone put on warm layers and wind shells just a little below the ridge top. The ridge was just as we expected, if not more so. Winds gusting to over 50 miles per hour were roaring across it. At the base of the steep pitch on the ridge approaching the summit, Kim organized three rope teams.

The wind made getting to the peak a challenge. The tracks were blowing out so fast that they were gone before the next person on the rope got to them. Kim placed wands along the ridge just below the peak to help those following know where to walk. It was very important not to walk any farther to the left than Kim did because this was a corniced ridge. We were concerned that inexperienced climbers, intent on battling the wind, might not realize if they were walking on nothing more than snow with many hundreds of feet of open space below them. We passed the word along the line as best we could. We all arrived safely on the top.


Photo courtesy of Barb Turley
  Mt. McGinnis in winter was Juneau Alpine Club's first climb when the club was organized. The summit ridge is often obscured by clouds and almost always very windy.
Many family winter climbs proceeded this first Juneau Alpine Club adventure. Our daughter Kathy, who was only in eighth grade the first time she summitted on McGinnis in the winter, was with us most years thereafter. About five years prior to the Alpine Club's first hike, she was there when we first used our preferred winter route. After hiking for about 40 minutes on the West Glacier Trail, we left it and headed directly uphill into the tangled alders. In the ensuing years, we've found a mostly open way to tree line through the forest there.

This particular climb was a good example of beautiful weather. For the next couple of hours after we reached tree line, all we had to do was put one foot in front of another, enjoy the spring sunshine, and watch the courting Rock Ptarmigan, as we gained 1500 feet of elevation, which brought us to the sky line ridge. While we were coming up the front of the mountain, the temperature was so warm that we'd peeled off all the layers we could, but an icy wind was blowing on the ridge. After 45 minutes on this windy ridge, we reached the summit and enjoyed a beautiful view from the top.

There's no guarantee that a climb is going to make it to the summit. On one particular hike, when we'd climbed onto the summit ridge, not making it to the summit was the farthest thing from my mind. We'd had much better snow conditions than could reasonably be expected. We should have stopped just short of the ridge to put on our coats. We knew that the ridge top is always windy and cold, but we waited because it seemed that it would be very difficult to get into our packs and not drop anything on that very steep face. As it turned out, it was even more difficult to not loose anything on the ridge in the fierce wind. Kathy and I helped each other dress, then curled up in a shivering heap and waited and waited while Kim got dressed. He was having a lot of trouble because his hands were near the frostbite stage. When we were finally roped up and ready to move, we noticed that we couldn't see. The snow that had been falling (blowing by, actually) had escalated into a full-fledged whiteout. Our tracks were gone. The wind direction was our most reliable means of orientation.

Kim was hesitant to continue. "This ridge just goes up," I pointed out. "What difference does it make that we can't see very far?" I was totally surprised that we were thinking about turning back. I was very cold and hiking uphill was how I was counting on getting warm.

"We won't be able to find our way back down this ridge, and even if we could we wouldn't know where to get off the ridge," he answered. Many of the faces that led down from the summit ridge are interrupted by cliffs.

We continued upward for another five minutes. That was long enough to warm up a little. Kim then said we needed to turn around, so we followed orders. Now that we were headed downhill and I was the leader, I immediately saw how right he was that knowing where to get off the ridge would be a problem. We had only gone a short way up the ridge, but guessing how far was very confusing. Fortunately, the top of the face we had come up was fairly broad and as close as we still were to it, there was a wide margin for error. Nonetheless, it worried me how long it was before we got down to where anything looked familiar.

Although Mt. McGinnis is a good beginner's mountain for winter climbing, it's important to have someone with experience in the group. Joining the Juneau Alpine Club on such a climb would be a perfect introduction. A Mt. McGinnis climb is scheduled for Saturday, March 18. The trail will be broken and pace set by an experienced 64-year-old man and his wife, who is recovering from serious medical problems. For more information, go online to www.juneaualpineclub.org.


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