Tyler Gress climbs a classic route at the Sea Cliffs, a popular local climbing area.
Mike Miller points out peaks along the east side if Lynn Canal he has climbed.
Story last updated at 8/1/2012 - 6:40 pm
The benefits and downsides of small town life can be endlessly debated. It's my opinion that one solid, indisputable benefit is that the room for exploration into all realms of human interest is both quite approachable and endless.
Mike Miller, an alpine climber is a case in point. When he moved to Juneau in 1991, he scoured a few maps and noted a few peaks he wanted to summit. Then he made up a note indicating the mountains he wanted to climb, and headed downtown to the Foggy Mountain Shop to post it on their bulletin board, hoping to find a climbing partner.
"There was a note almost identical to mine, also listing some peaks," Miller said. He called the number, and when the phone was answered, Miller felt inclined to ask, "How old are you?" Ben Still was 13, and told Miller he was climbing Stroller White the next morning. They met the next morning for the climb, clicked, and began a long relationship focused on alpine exploration.
"It's been darn near 20 years, climbing together steadily," Miller said. "He's very smart and very cautious, and we both share the same passion for climbing, which is more adventure mountaineering."
Throughout the last two decades, Miller and Still have climbed most of the larger peaks in the greater Juneau vicinity, and have worked their way north toward Skagway, logging almost 100 peaks, a large portion of which have been first ascents.
"Sometimes we name them, and other times we just respect it," Miller said, explaining that in lieu of a name they would call the mountain the height in feet that it stands at. "Like '5295."
The kind of climbing Miller pursues involves isn't a walk in the park.
"You get the whole experience, from climbing right from tide line through thick old grown forest, sub alpine, and then the high alpine glaciers, with some type of rock pyramid," Miller said. "We love the whole experience. If we start it, we finish it."
Miller said he's made a lot of sacrifices to live a life revolving around alpine mountaineering. It's influenced his career decisions, and the adventure factor, the reason why he keeps going, inevitably comes with potential physical threats.
"It's tricky, it's dangerous; you have to have all sorts of different skills, crevasse rescue skills and gear, to get across (glaciers) and get onto a rock pyramid," Miller said.
He explained that his adventures vary greatly from other forms of climbing.
"Alpine climbing is a completely different world from rock climbing," he said. "There's thousands of places all over North America you can drive to and just climb."
That may not be Miller's ticket to paradise, but it's a bit closer to another form of climbing that's gaining a large amount of local followers.
Bouldering is a type of climbing focused on particular routes up one piece of rock, or a boulder. It doesn't require the bushwhacking that Miller and Still endure, nor does it require a lot of gear, just shoes, chalk, and crash pads, which are placed at the base of the boulders for the just-in-case moments. What it does require is a huge amount of strength, and in the case of Juneau, a determination to make the boulder actually climbable. With the wet climate, the boulders are covered in inches of moss. The moss has to be peeled off, and the rock has to be scrubbed and maintained. Though the natural moss-ridden state of the boulders has to be altered in order to climb them, Charlee Gribbon, a local woman who spends a lot of her time bouldering in areas around the Mendenhall Valley, stressed the importance of maintaining as low of an impact as possible.
"If we remove moss, we replant it," Gribbon said. "So it doesn't look like someone's vandalized the beautiful moss. When it's done all you see is the raw granite and nature, so it's harder to tell we've been there."
Tyler Gress, 29, a manager of the Rock Dump, Juneau's indoor climbing gym, shares Gribbon's stress on respecting the environment in which one is climbing.
"We're out in the environment everyone wants to protect," he said, "So, in general, climbers are good stewards of that environment that they're in."
Gress grew up in Juneau, and explained that climbing was still a "fringe weird thing" when he was in high school. Gress said that just more than five years ago there were fewer than a dozen quality boulder problems around town.
"Now there's over 100," he said.
Part of the increase in bouldering problems is simply the realization that they exist. Once a boulder is "discovered," and its potential realized, it sparks other climbers to explore more areas. Jessie Palomino, 23, can claim credit for a lot of the new bouldering.
Palomino, who grew up in California, first came up to Juneau in 2007. He explained that most of the climbing he had done in other states was quite straightforward.
"But up here," said Palomino, "everything's totally raw."
Palomino, who's an accomplished climber, found that the established bouldering was a bit below his climbing level. Then he was introduced to a bouldering area in Tee Harbor.
"It just looked like an insurmountable jungle," Palomino said. "I never had any experience cleaning a boulder. Everything's so overgrown; there's root systems. We had to put in some work to make them climbable. Without work they won't dry. It was the first time I went out to a climbing area and didn't climb."
Palomino began exploring the boulders in the area and has cleaned up some more challenging routes.
"It just opened my eyes to what was possible and the potential of the area if you dig and clean and put in some work to actually make a boulder climbable," he said.
Gress said he's pretty sure that a majority of even the regular climbers at the Rock Dump are only aware of about a quarter of the uncovered bouldering areas around Juneau. He also explained that the climbing arena is a full spectrum of sub-genres.
"For a lot of climbers their own climbing is the ultimate," Gress said. "Boulderers might say it's the purest form of the sport."
Palomino certainly fits that description.
"I feel like bouldering is the pursuit of perfection," he said. "When you start looking and attempting these extremely difficult rock climbs, the margin for error in your movement and your body position significantly decreases. There's one way to go up it, there's specific moves, there's only these holds, but to execute these moves you have to have good body position and the appropriate strength to hold the holds and move from those positions to the next."
Hunter Brown, 22, describes his experience in more spiritual terms.
"Here, it's kind of a lot of work for a little bit of climbing," Brown said. "But the climbing we do have is high quality. There's not a lot of places where you can walk into the woods and essentially have these boulders to yourself. It's a very personal experience."
"I like climbing in Juneau for the same reason I like living here," Gress said. The combination of pretty good climbing and awesome scenery. The trade off is worth it to me."
Whether its alpine mountaineering or diehard boulderers, Gress is just happy the interest it out there. "That's what's beautiful about climbing to me," he said. "There's this enormous garden of choices."
For more information on outdoor climbing spots, Tyler Gress is happy to chat it up if you head to the Rock Dump.
To see video of some of Mike Miller's expeditions visit his You Tube channel: www.youtube.com/user/AlpineMikeAlaska.
Amanda Compton is the staff writer for Capital City Weekly. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.