“Which mountain do you want to climb?” We’re sitting around the table at the cabin my family and friends have built together. These three windows were designed in triptych to frame the inlet and the mountains that rise, sharp and steep, on its other side.
When we’re up there, this is how our hikes go: not too much planning. There aren’t really trails. So we look out the window and say: if we stay left of that ravine, get around that cliff…
I gesture: “The pointy one.” It’s the tallest one, of course. Ert nods. Andre and Eric look out the window. Rick shrugs. Why not?
Dawn hasn’t broken yet, but here we are in the boat. In my pack, there’s a loaf of my sourdough olive bread and a water bottle. Rick has smoked salmon and pilot bread. Eric has Clif bars, modern wonders. Ert is carrying iodine tablets so we can refill water from snow runoff. Andre has venison ribs, dinner leftovers.
We haven’t climbed this mountain before, so we’re leaving lots of time – but overall, it seems straightforward. Cross the inlet, tie up the boat, hike straight up. Sing and laugh with each other to warn the bears we’re coming.
It goes like that, so smooth! We’re in our 16" rubber boots, crossing swampy muskegs and then picking where to fight through the underbrush on the steeper slopes. The sun comes out, a beautiful day and unusually warm for Alaska’s Southeast. The underbrush is thick, but it’s August and the blueberries are ripe. So we’re eating the whole way: highbush blueberries, blue huckleberries, super-sweet lowbush blueberries carpeting open regions of the mossy ground.
Before we know it, we’re up above the treeline. We pause as we go– lean back on the mossy land, pull off our thick rubber boots to let our wool socks steam, graze on the lowbush blueberries. And then onward.
It’s not easy, exactly. We’re picking our way up cliffs, but they’re not so bad that we need ropes. We find a long, long spur– and though we want to pause and rest, we can’t hold in the urge to push on: does it really connect to the mountain’s base, or will we walk all this way and find ourselves clifftop at the end?
But the spur connects, and it’s still morning, and we’re high enough now that big patches of snow melt into freezing-cold streams we can use for drinking water.
The greenery fades away entirely, until we’re scrambling bare rock. And the cliffs get steeper, but we’re committed now. Hubristic, even, hoisting ourselves up ledges, spreading out as we choose our own routes, wind growing as we approach the ridgeline. Until we can’t hear each other even when we shout.
Andre and I wedge ourselves into a little hollow out of the wind and watch and listen. And out of the endless gray of granite, Rick’s yellow bag appears below. Eric’s blue hat. We shout and gather and break for smoked salmon, then stick together for the final approach.
The trouble is, it’s not yet noon when we summit. It’s gorgeous, peaks in all directions, views out to the Fairweather range and through Yakobi Strait. The sun is shining, and there we sit, on top of the world:
Our provisions are not great, but they’re not bleak. We ate the ribs and the olive loaf, but there are cliff bars and more bread. Our water bottles are full and refillable.
Why not go on, hike the ridge down to Apex Lake? There used to be a gold mine down from the lake, so there should be a corduroy road from there back to the beach. And there’s so much daylight left in an Alaskan summer day…
I don’t know how many hours it took for my skin to redden from sun and wind. What I do know is how deceptive heights and distances look from above. That ridgeline was studded with ravines, each to be carefully assessed, descended, scaled. Not all of the ridge was passable, but just below were rotting snowfields: beautiful, dangerous, hollow beneath.
We sought the mapped Hourglass Lake, a little double-lake in the endless granite, for more than an hour before we reached it. We climbed, descended, scrabbled, finished our food. We began to watch the descending angle of the sun. It was all beautiful and endless.
Finally, two things happened at once: Apex Lake, our point of descent, came into close view. And our ready path onward ended in cliffs to every direction.
To the left, the cliffs rose steeply back to the ridge.
To the right and ahead, the cliffs dropped precipitously, rotten rocks ready to give way.
Back where we’d come, there hadn’t been a promising option for a long while – and we had been descending.
So we spread out, each exploring: how steep is this cliff? How loose are these rocks? Shouting into the wind: “Hey, is your way good?”
I scrambled forward and left, skirting a sharp re-entrant, staying low to the sloping ground. Down a chute of mostly-solid dirt.
“Hey! Come this way! I think I see a way down!”
It took me a good bit of shouting to corral the group, but they followed reluctantly: over the edge, down the chute, across a small river of scree. And to the safe other side, altitude now low enough that scrubby low-bush blueberries were growing in the moss.
We rode the blueberry bushes, sliding on our pants-seats down the steep slope to the edge of the lake.
It wasn’t a simple hike back from the lake. We found a ruin of a cabin near where the mine used to be, but no sign of the corduroy road until much further down the mountain. The road must once have been impressive: full logs strung together to make a path for carts. But now it is a dangerous, oft-broken mess of rotten wood. We pick our way down and around it to the beach.
By the time we reach the shore, the sun is down and we are exhausted. But there’s one more challenge: we’ve tied the boat out of our reach; it’s anchored now offshore. Andre volunteers to swim – and after some wading around and futile tugging at the bow line, we accept. So he leaves me with his boots and clothes and swims out into the freezing water: a pull-up onto the boat and hand-over-hand to raise the anchor line.
The moon is rising over the mountains as we ride back across the inlet to home.