September 8 (afternoon). Our trip to Alaska was not primarily a hiking trip, although we did get in some decent little hikes. I wanted to do at least one “serious” hike while we were there, and time was running out, so we decided this afternoon would be it. Mary was just as happy to spend the rainy afternoon relaxing and reading after a nice lunch. She did convince me to do a hike guided by St. Elias Mountain Guides, rather than going off into the Alaskan wilds by myself. I didn’t really want to spend the money, but decided it was probably a good idea, and maybe a few more people would come along. But it ended up just being Jules and me on this 9+ mile hike up to the old abandoned mine site. There was nothing pretentious about this hike: 4.6 quad-burning miles straight up to gain 3,800 feet, and 4.6 knee-tweaking miles straight down. Switchbacks? Not on this hike! We hiked 4 hours uphill, spent 20 minutes at the mine, and it took only 2 hours and 10 minutes to get down. My time goal? Don’t miss dinner, which I didn’t. Here is the route, with the little wildlife icon indicating our first ptarmigan sighting, and the American flag icon indicating the historic Bonanza mine bunkhouse ruins.
Most of the time, there was not a heavy rain, just a steady light rain or mist and lots of fog. Jules kept saying “If it were clear, the views are incredible!” Rub it in, Jules! Most of the time, visibility was 50 feet or less. My biggest problem was how to dress. I started off in rain gear, but got too hot and wet from the exertion, so I stripped down to my Merino wool shirt. It got soaked but was warm enough as long as I walked. Above tree line at about 4,400 feet it got colder and colder, and ultimately I put on a winter hat, a fleece, and finally, gloves. I had to keep taking my glasses off to see where I was going because they fogged up. Many times, it was hard to see well without the glasses on trails with very steep drop-offs and a lot of scree.
The coolest thing was running into two separate ptarmigan broods, less than 20 feet away. Each brood had close to a dozen birds that had somehow survived the summer. I had never seen this grouse-like bird of the north, and took lots of photos. Jules was pretty amused, it would be like someone going nuts over seeing a robin. “You’ve never seen a ptarmigan?” he asked in amazement.
We got to the ruins of the bunkhouse, ghostly in the fog, and explored around a bit. I found a nice heavy chunk of copper ore. On the way down, we got partial clearing and a teasing slice of what the views could have been like. But we also missed a turn above treeline when the fog rolled back in, and had to backtrack. I am not sure I would have caught on as quickly had I been by myself, but Jules has done that hike so often that he figured out that we were going the wrong way before we walked too far.
I got back tired, wet, and feeling like I would not feel like eating. The latter feeling lasted until we sat down in the dining room! Here are some photos from this very cool, but strenuous, hike:
Given the poor weather, seeing this ptarmigan brood was the highlight of the hike. They were just feet away but still fuzzy in the thick fog:
Not far after seeing the ptarmigan, we came on the ruins of the tram station that helped transfer the ore buckets between Bonanza Mine and the Kennecott Copper Mill 3,800 feet below:
There was also a section of the trail where the cables ran right across the trail. They are amazingly heavy!
Here I am with the bunkhouse ruins in the fog behind me:
This Dall sheep or mountain goat hip bone was near the bunkhouse on the ridge:
Jules descends along the narrow and steep trail:
We never got the grand vistas that were hidden behind the fog, but these views were better than nothing:
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