March 7, 2014- Hiking the Nipple
Okay, yes, I’m aware of how that sounds. Actually, I’m not entirely sure how that sounds, other than weird.
Today was our first day off and, yes, we hiked the Nipple. That, at least, is the name that past squirrelers have give the nipple-shaped peak behind our camp. The big map of the Yukon in the cook shack dubs this general region of ‘rolling peaks’ the “Kluane Hills”. Not very exciting. So it’s no wonder that some female companion deprived squirreler looked up in the hills behind our camp one day and saw a breast. I’m not even convinced the peak looks like a nipple. And it must be some kind of trend to name breast-shaped mountains “nipples” since “Nippletop” is the name given to one of the 46 high peaks in the Adirondacks too. Really I’m probably being too critical here since “nipple” is actually quite a gender-neutral term. But all this is really tangential to the point of this post so I digress.
So here’s the bottom line. For all categorical purposes, The Nipple is a hill. At least compared to size of the peaks in the Kluane Range. And hiking the Nipple was tough. I’m not sure I want to see snowshoes again anytime in the near future (I’ve only seen them every day since). I’ve done lots of hiking but I’ll admit that I haven’t done much (any) real winter hiking. Sure I ski and snowshoe around in the woods a bunch, but I haven’t actually snowshoed up a mountain, until now. (And yes, I am calling it a mountain; if had you climbed it you would too.)
Speedy’s (that’s Emily’s nickname) estimation was that there was the potential to make the summit in about an hour, two at the most. I sure hope she was thinking of the hike in the summer with no snow. If not, I am in far worse shape than I thought. We all are for that matter. Maybe it ‘s the excessive amounts of chocolate cookies we have at camp… when you’re outside all day long there is nothing that you crave more than a sweet starchy snack.
So as it turns out the first hour of hiking wasn’t too bad as we wound our way mostly through deep spruce forest where the trees had prevented the snow from piling too high. Our snowshoes remained strapped on our backs for the time being. But hiking in the Yukon is nothing like hiking in the Adirondacks or most places I’ve hiked growing up. There are no trails to follow, no places to register so that the park ranger can find you, and generally nothing to mark your passing other than your footprints in the snow and a few broken branches in your wake. Thankfully with 8 of us in a line breaking trail there was little chance of us getting lost on the way back, but I can only imagine the potential confusion in the middle of summer. Our trek is, in simple terms, a bushwhack without a map. It is truly like adventuring through uncharted territory (cue the Lord of the Rings music). But enough of the dramatics. Yes, it is amazing to hike through shadow-laden forests and crest the ridge just as the sun is peaking over the Ruby Range to the east and there is nothing ahead of you but aspen and spruce in the early morning light and mountains both rising up and dropping away at the same time behind you. But it is also a little scary too, with nothing to tell you where to go, and only a faint (or not so faint with 8 people) trail to mark your passing.
But anyway, the hike starts off easy enough along the edge of camp, through the back of the grid called Kloo, making our way through dense spruce forest (Picea glauca) to the base of the first ridge where spruce gradually gives way to trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides) and we begin a slow zig-zag ascent up the ridge, angling northeast. Over this ridge lies a dense region of willow that bars the ascent up The Nipple and we want to avoid as much of it as possible.
Shannon leads up one slightly frightening section that is part snow and part bushy undergrowth, requiring scrambling on al fours, grabbing onto every bushy protrusion possible to keep yourself anchored safely to the 60° slope. The views from this point are already breathtaking. I’ve never seen the mountains from this high up before and the pure scope of it is enough to make you catch your breath. The spruce forest falls away where below Kloo pond stretches lazily in the early morning haze and the Kluane range rises beyond, the mountains smaller and further away than I’ve seem them and yet more expansive and dominating than I’ve ever appreciated up close.
Not long after this point we catch our first view of our destination. It really is a hill, dwarfed by the mountains that sit to the south. But at the moment it looks incredibly close and yet so far away that the goal seems unattainable. Now the snowshoes come unstrapped and the snow is deep enough that the person breaking trail is trading places every 10-15 minutes. When my turn comes I am sinking up to my thighs even with snowshoes on and panting for breath within 30 seconds. Our path winds sinuously, trying to avoid woody debris and the worst of willows (Salix spp.), which stand somewhere between a tree and a bush and continually snag your snowshoes with long snaky arms. Half the time it is a pure miracle I don’t end up flat on my face, and a few people do. You learn quickly that if you do get tripped up the best thing to do is just let yourself fall. The more you struggle to stay on your feet, the more tangled you become and the harder you do go down when you do fall- which is inevitable.
Our path is defined only by that distant goal and we find ourselves making for the ridge that leads up to the peak. It seems like an easy goal from a distance, but the snow is incredibly deep and the going is very slow as we try to gain elevation. Our path eventually takes us along the edge of a wide bowl. Spread out far below Kluane Lake reflects sunlight in the distance and The Nipple rises still above the ridgeline. This is perhaps the scariest part of the hike yet as we walk along the edge of the bowl with a 50-foot drop beneath us and only up to go along our right hand side. Just as I take the lead the snow stops giving way beneath our feet and we are walking on a crusty layer of snow with little purchase for snowshoes. All the sudden the slog through deep snow has turned into a tenuous balance on fingers and toes as our snowshoes dig and we pull ourselves slowly up the slope, trying not to look back, or down. I am bolstered only by the fact that if I do slip hopefully one of the 8 people behind me will break my fall.
It feels like forever before we make the ridgeline and when we do we are met with an icy blast of wind coming up from the northeast. Where I was sweating before I now find myself pulling my hood and neck gator up in a futile effort to protect my face from the biting wind. The Nipple is now well within reach and we are crunching on top of the snow more than sinking through. The snowshoeing is not nearly as difficult as it had been but the cold is putting a hurting on us and making the final stretch a challenge. As I begin the final ascent all I can think about now is how much I want out of the wind. I am caught somewhere between admiration and incredulity at the people who climb Everest and other such peaks and can’t imagine why anyone would ever subject him or herself to that. I can hardly imagine there is any pleasure in the hike or the success, other than to say you made it. But if there is no pleasure in the doing of it, I simply can’t see doing it.
At the top the wind is gusting stronger than ever and any satisfaction of having made it to the top, or enjoyment of the spectacular view is stolen by the icy wind this is cutting like a knife through my sweat-soaked clothing. I hunker down behind a few rocks and quickly strip off my jacket, throw on my wool sweater and zip my layers back on. But just that short time out of my gloves has completely numbed my hands and my thin sweat-soaked liners are now frozen solid. I stuff them into my pocket with a hand warmer and try to stuff my hands into my heavy gloves, using my teeth to pull them on and only half succeeding. I am not sure I have ever been so cold in my life and once again I am reminded how little I know about winter hiking and woefully unprepared I am. I desperately want to open my granola bar but I can’t get my hands to work. When I finally tear into the wrapper I find the granola bar frozen and barely chewable. I force myself to snap a few photos, somehow miserably get my snowshoes back on, and then we are practically running down the mountain.
Murray Humphries, a professor from McGill and one of the principle investigators on the Kluane Red Squirrel Project, shows me and Lisa a moose and calf along the way. They are a goodly ways down the other side of the ridge, half hidden by the willow, but we can just make them out with binoculars. By this time half the group is far ahead, unwilling to stop for moose or calf or anything, so me, Lisa, Speedy and Murray make our way down together, half walking, half sliding the whole way. Crossing the rim of the bowl is, if anything, more scary on the way down, with long stretches of crusty unbroken snow that we slide down and pray we will stop at the and not go sliding right to the bottom of the bowl. All through the hike my water bottle has been steadily freezing. Each time I open my Nalgene I can break a smaller and smaller hole in the top covering of ice- and now it is frozen solid. I try to jam an elbow into it- to no avail. I am fairly sure either my legs will fall off or I will die of thirst before we reach camp.
We see ptarmigan scat and plenty of moose scat along with moose beds, but I give them only a cursory glance in my haste. Ptarmigan scat looks, to me, like the pellets that I used to feed my guinea pigs as a kid. They are small and curved and appear to be made of sawdust. Moose scat simply looks like it came out of the rear end of a very large deer. I end up on my butt more than once and one time I get my snowshoes all tangled up in some undergrowth and end up in the upside-down turtle position underneath a spruce tree- unhurt and giggling. Murray takes great pleasure in telling that story later on. We reach camp about 5 ½ hours from the time we set out and I am hungry enough to eat every squirrel on grid. The only other thing on my mind besides food is how good that how shower is going to feel when we go into town later today….