Thunder Mountain Summit 6/14/15

“I’m not going to say ‘I’m sorry’ anymore for being slow, but I will say ‘thank you’ for letting me go my own pace”.

There are some mountains in Juneau that are good ole standby peaks: Mt Juneau, Jumbo, Eaglecrest…. Mountains that we know by heart, that we have done so many times we end our sentences with “ya, I hiked mount ______ again today”, mountains that we don’t really consider to be a big deal anymore. Then there are some mountains that we look at and say “one day I’m going to be standing up there and know what it looks like from the top”.

Having my Literature of the Environment, English degree, I have read plenty of books about ‘men concurring nature, just like women’, and about ‘humans (especially white man) having no regard and respect for nature’. But I have to say that my desire to stand on mountain peaks is rather out of a humble and ignorant place; I want to stand on something so magnificent I feel my own insignificance. I want to see a view I have never seen before, something that only nature can show me from just that place. I want to see my home from a different perspective, a different angle, and I want to feel tiny to better appreciate the true expansiveness. I want to see the intrinsic beauty of nature, where our man-made mundane problems seem trivial. And I want to fall in love with my State all over again. And I want to bust my ass getting there.

Well, let me tell you about busting my ass to get there.

First, we went to a Mermaid and Pirate party Saturday evening. I dressed up as a snagged Mermaid, which was perfect because later that same night we had a 5k fun run to go to. In Juneau we have this awesome race called “Only Fools Run at Midnight”, and usually it is on the summer solstice. But this year for some reason (probably to not compete with other events) it was Saturday the 13th at 2359 (so kind of Sunday the 14th). I love to run, and I find a lot of personal quiet time in running. For some weird reason, I feel like when I am physically running, my mind stops running. I have read once that it can be ‘active meditation’ for those of us that can’t sit still to find some inner peace. But let me tell you, trail running is way different than road running. And that 5K totally killed my legs. I woke up the next morning with my ankles, feet, knees and even my butt hurting. My head was killing me, and I have never had my little eyeballs hurt before. I have also never had a hang over, but I imagine that is what it feels like. I know I didn’t drink enough water that night, but dang, I must have been super dehydrated, which is frustrating considering I literally only drank water that night.


So starting the morning was already a struggle. I took a shower, and then my tummy joined in the misery. So, after slowly getting dressed, and some Pepto, I finally made it out the door at 1115. Having never hiked this trail, I really had no idea what I was getting into. But I generally knew that it was pretty steep, and obviously I knew what my destination looked like from the ground. But when you head up Mt Jumbo, you kind of go around the back side once you come up the saddle, so for Thunder Mountain, I wasn’t totally sure where the trail actually came out on top. The trail has a nice new sign, and there was really good flagging the whole way. There are two starts to the trail, by Glacier Valley elementary school (GVES) where we started, or Fred Meyer (more on this later). There is a short flat part, and then once you hit the actual Thunder Mountain trail, it is basically nothing but up. There are a few sections where when it’s rainy, they would be total swamps. Thank goodness we had a few days of dry before we hiked it.

There are two sections where there is rope tied above particularly steep sections to help people get up when the ground is wet and the mud is slick. For us, luckily we didn’t need the help of the ropes (first yellow rope and then red rope), but it was a nice thought and I’m happy that the trail has them. Kiska was able to get up most of the trail on her own, but there were four sections where she needed a boost. For people with dogs that are either old, or have any leg problems, this may not be the best trail for them. Good thing Kiska and I have a routine down for when she needs help. So she asked, and I boosted. The trail is also pretty rooty, so you really need to pay attention to your feet. I don’t think this is a trail that I would ever trail run, although it would sure be a killer hill workout!



Looking at the mountain, there are a few patches of meadow, but on the GVES trail, we don’t actually hike through any of them. There is one section that is a teeny tiny meadow, and I hear that on wet days you will be ankle deep in mud and muskeg. But again, lucky for us, it wasn’t very muddy and our feet stayed dry. I have to say, my Salomon Women’s Quest 4D GTX hikers from REI have been one of my favorite, and most used, purchases in a long time. I wear them year round, and I have found that even when hiking through thigh deep water then plodding along for days on a multi-day hike, I still don’t get blisters. There was basically no break-in time, and they have seen hundreds of miles, and dozens of summits. They don’t feel heavy either, so even when I’m dog tired, and trudging along up a steep mountain, I can still manage to pick my feet up and not get tangled up in those tricky roots. But even if my feet can continue on, sometimes our heads can’t.


I’m not saying that I had a break down, but I definitely needed a moment. Tim made me stop and sit on a log, drank some water, and just sat for a few minutes. Kiska rummaged around in the devil’s club leaves for critter tracks, and Tim and I sat and took a breather. After a few minutes and a general mental regroup, we mustered on. Having never done the trail, I couldn’t really tell myself that I had ‘just a bit further’ or ‘it’s just another while ahead’. Good thing too, because we had probably another hour of hiking ahead of us. But, after a while longer, it wasn’t so bad. We passed where the trails for Fred Meyer and Glacier Valley meet, and there is a nice sign now showing that trail split. I guess several people will take a left when they mean to take a right, and end up on the wrong trail and the wrong part of town. But this nice sign should totally alleviate that problem.


We passed several people on their way down, and as we neared the top, we started hiking along what feels like a wooded saddle. The trees were no longer looming above us, and generally we were hiking along flat trail. Then, we came out into a beautiful meadow. With the wildflowers in bloom and the birds chirping, I felt like we just walked into a Disney movie. It was simply magical. The clouds had been clearing all morning, and with the dappled light on the smattering of flowers, and my dog delightedly bounding through the flowers, it was simply an amazing place to be. My pack didn’t feel so heavy, and the anticipation of the summit was almost palatable. I will take this moment to mention that the trial has no running water suitable for dogs to drink from. So, I brought my 3L bladder and her collapsible rubber bowl in anticipation of there being no streams for her. Good thing, because she was one hot pup.


The last bit of trail to the summit is a pretty good push straight up, so on days when it has been raining or the ground is still wet, I don’t advise this trail. Not only for yourself, but also for your dogs. On dry ground, Kiska scampered up the trail, and she was the first one to pop out on the summit. There is a large cairn to mark the trail down, as you can immediately go right and hike out Heintzleman Ridge, or go left and walk along the shelf of Thunder Mountain proper towards the Mendenhall Glacier. For us, I was not interested in hiking any more up than I already had, so another half mile flat was all I was up for. We strolled almost effortless along the trail, with content euphoria carrying us along, probably hiker high.



Due to high and low pressure systems in BC Canada and around Juneau, it was super windy up at the top. But with the undulating summit, it wasn’t hard to find a nice place to hunker down and eat our lunch. The trick was finding a place with just enough wind to keep us cool in the 82F heat, without us getting too cold. There were several lakes for Kiska to swim in and drink from, and if there hand’t been any wind, I would have joined her on the swimming part. With a water filter, you could probably drink from the lakes if you ever needed to, and honestly, being snow melt you maybe could if you didn’t have one.


IN NO WAY DO I SUGGEST YOU DRINK UNFILTERED WATER. If you get Giardia and poop your brains out, that’s on you. Although, I will say, that if you are legitimately afraid of dying of dehydration, Giardia takes about three days to hit, so if you think you will be rescued by then, you might want to drink the water that is the fastest moving and clear and cross your little fingers and hope for the best for your pooper. Otherwise Giardia will expedite you dying of dehydration in a very unfortunate, uncomfortable, and humiliating way.

Anywho, so after a nice lunch drinking filtered water from the refrigerator, we moseyed on back across the summit. The way down seemed much easier, but the few parts that Kiska needed help up, she also needed help down. With direction, she was able to find alternate routs around all but one spot, and there it was easy enough to pick up her – from chest level mind you – and carry her a few steps down the trail to set her down. Now that we have been up here, because of Kiska’s knee problems, I probably won’t bring her up this trail again unless we have another stretch of super dry days and she is pretty rested from the day before, and can totally rest the day after. But for days that she doesn’t come along, this is a really rugged trail with amazing views.

I can’t wait to camp up there!!!



About Courtney

Juneau, Alaska local.
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