Goats and Glaciers on Cairn Peak

July 11, 2019
Hiking Blackerby Ridge Route Trail out to Cairn Peak

On my first day off in Juneau, I told Sadie I wanted to climb a mountain in a long day. Unfortunately with Sadie’s broken thumb still healing we would be unable to heli-climb one of the esthetic Mendenhall Towers out past the famous Mendenhall Glacier. Our objective would have been the amazing 1000 ft, 5.8 Solva Buttress route up the fifth tower of the Mendenhall Towers Massif, but we’ll have to save that for another day. Instead we focused on a long hike up with views of glaciers high above Juneau towards Cairn Peak.  (Drone footage coming soon)

Alaskan Jungle Heat

Alaska was recently going through a heat wave with temperatures as high as 90 degrees hitting new records in Anchorage. In Juneau, that meant 80 degrees with 80% humidity while climbing up the Blackerby Trail towards Cairn Peak. The warm jungle trail quickly pitched straight up, with installed hand lines to assist ascent of the eroded dirt trail. Frequently entangled in a lattice of tree roots.

After two hours, we were relieved when this thick jungle broke to a forest.

Then broke further into swampy meadows which reduced at least some of the lush biological humidity.

However, even when we reached ridge line an hour later past the mucky meadows, looking 3000 ft down into the valleys below, we didn’t have any wind-relief from the abnormally hot sun. Similarly, we’ve come to expect a breezy, bug free existence on the alpine ridge line but mosquitoes, huge black flies and biting ‘no-see-ums’ were a constant nuisance. We did however, catch the scent of the fire obscuring haze that was permeating the Alaskan coast from the Swan Lake Fire several hundred miles away near Anchorage.

Further down the ridge, we started noticing strange white tuffs in the short hardy ‘grasses’ before finally finding some wind under Cairn Peak to sit for a temperature respite for lunch. Here Sadie pointed some smaller white patches out I discounted as snow until they began moving. 

Mountain Goat Convention

Slowly we began noticing one heard of a dozen white mountain goats with their kids on our ridge line, another descending scree below and a third traversing Cairn Peak away from us. We never got closer than 50 ft to them when we resumed hiking, but it was pretty fantastic to see so many wild goats in one place. 

As typical on our adventures north of the lower 48, we had this experience all to ourselves without seeing another person yet that day. Except for the hourly regular Juneau flight-seeing helicopters circling an arc around the glaciers in swarms of four servicing the 1-4 cruise ships in port each day. Later, when we would fly to Sitka, we would count 19 helicopters at the small airport.

Our rest bringing some energy to our legs we completed the final push up Cairn Peak to get a great view of an ice field off to our right with rocky peaks sticking out, including Observation Peak. Ahead of us in the hazy distance we saw Split Thumb. In its foreground, a ridge from Cairn Peak hosted several buildings making up Camp 17 Glacial Research Station. Splitting the right ice field and another glacier to our left slowly flowing down-valley over a moderate edge.

Glacier, Camp 17, Ice Field, Observation Peak (left to right)

I felt a little nervous about ascending Observation Peak since I noticed some exposed ice out of the snowfield which could point towards some covered crevasses. Even though Sadie felt that this glacier was mostly stable. Without true glacier traversal gear (and tired bodies) we decided to call this our high point and turn back.

On the hike down the intense sun, which warmed by bag to the touch, kept it hot. The bugs continued to pester and the wind was nowhere to be seen. We had each drank 3 of the 4 liters we brought for the day and Sadie was beginning to get heat stroke. This was not quite the Alaska weather either of us had expected…

After a head-dip from a running stream and some hobbling knees down the steep section we gluttonously drank from some ice-cold San Pellegrinos in our cooler. 10 hours after we started up the trail. How tired I was after only 5000 ft gain and 11 miles to Cairn peak I cannot believe that one party climbed Split Thumb in a day with 21 miles and 11,000 ft gain with even heavier packs containing climbing gear.