Baranof Island is almost entirely mountains. They rise from the outer coast of Southeast Alaska, steep, rocky, clad with rainforest, and capped by glaciers. Most are rarely visited and many non-technical peaks are unclimbed. In the spring, from almost any point on the interior ridge, you can see dozens of waterfalls pouring thousands of feet into lush valleys, which are home to pristine salmon streams. Grizzly bears are the islandâ€™s most frequent backcountry traveler and live here in one of highest densities on the planet.
Our objective was to travel Baranof lengthwise via ridgelines in one trip. I tried last summer. Thanks to support from the American Alpine Club’s McNeil-Knott Award, John and I tried this year!
Starting on a rocky beach on the islandâ€™s northern-most point, near whales, seals, and salmon, we journeyed south for 60 miles with 36,600 ft. of elevation gain in four and a half days. Though we saw less than half the islandâ€™s length, this is the longest known distance a human has been overland in one trip. We carried harnesses, a 60-meter rope, strap-on crampons, ice axes, stoppers, slings, and an 11-ounce can of pepper spray in case we accidentally irritated any other travelers.
We hiked up and down, up and down, up and down. Rainforest. Salmon stream. Tundra. Snow. Rock. Repeat.
It was glorious!
And physically and mentally exhausting.
Besides route planning, the greatest logistical challenge is guessing when precipitation will least affect travel on Baranof. A display in the Stika airport says it rains 60% of the time. But rain isnâ€™t the primary obstacle to mountain travel. Itâ€™s what some locals call the cloud dragon, a very dense yet gentle mist monster that slowly soaks everything to its core. Even your sleeping bag underneath a tarp! The dragon also makes it very difficult to see the route of least resistanceâ€”more often than not, Iâ€™ve found that a phoneâ€™s GPS app is the most useful thing to look at.
Come August, rain falls nearly non-stop until it turns to snow.
According to a longtime local mountaineer, this was the snowiest year in the last twenty. We went to Baranof in early and June and found that skis would have been great for most of the ridge. Fortunately, except for a brief bit of whiteout, the cloud dragon remained at bay.
John and I slept in our rain jackets inside synthetic insulated quilt sleeping bags. I put my head inside my backpack.
We walked in the snow for four days wearing trail running shoes with our feet in plastic bags that previously contained M&Mâ€™s, Triscuits, and other calories. The plastic bags decrease friction between your socks and shoesâ€”removing the bags is our recommended technique for rock scrambling.
Johnâ€™s feet are vulnerable to the cold because he has had frostbite and related surgeries. By day four, he was developing trench foot.
Do we continue for another week and risk Johnâ€™s feet? He was willing to do so. Do I go on alone? It was more dangerous, physically harder, and would require a lot of mental stamina. Do we head down, out of the snow, and back to our homes in the Anchorage area?
Of all the trips I had planned for 2017, this was the one I was most excited about. I was attached to completing the traverse and I cried as I told John I thought we should both bail.
So we walked downhill. Post-holing up to our waists in snowdrifts, slithering through alder and salmonberry, leaping from one slippery log to another, and skirting the edge of a majestic lake surrounded on three sides by granite cliffs and myriad waterfalls.
Baranof, we want to come back!
This trip was made possible by support from the American Alpine Club. We would also like to thank Nunatak, Mountain Laurel Designs, MSR, ZPacks, Suluk 46, Gaia GPS, Skout Backcountry, Tongass Troll, and Trail Butter for their generous donations.