Fire on the Mountain

November 1, 2018

Friday 13thJuly 2018

There is ‘fire on the mountain” this morning. Cloud shifts swiftly in long ribbon strips along the hills, white against the green, following the contours as it were, and a light rain intermittently scatters itself, sometimes so light the first awareness is the sound of the drops in the Alder, a fine pitter patter that barely registers on the ground, but after some time leaves you quite damp. We are up fairly early getting gear ready but despite even the best preparation and most comprehensive warning some are still not ready by 8.30 when everyone rushes out of the Lodge and charges up to the footbridge. We arrive there at 0836 just as Hollis arrives in his van, though we had booked him for 0900. Other trekkers or visitors (likely the latter) are waiting and expect to be given a lift but are to be disappointed when Hollis calls out “Are you the party of 19?” We confirm he is here to pick us up but that there are but 13. 13 with full packs. Somehow he jams us all in, a matter of some pride I suspect as the radio chatter later suggests. He creeps up the road to Kennecott to make life easier for those perched on seat edges and we arrive at 0910 in time to have a toilet break at the Parks office and to do some last minute adjustments before we get going at 0930. We walk through to Kennecott with the Mill ‘cathedral’ towering over us. The place is deserted, with one couple only in the street, a thoroughfare which has now become very familiar to us. We move through town out to the track junction at which point the course to Eirie is the option we took earlier in the week while the second option, which switches back to the right points us at Jumbo and Bonanza, two of the four mine sites high above us. (The other two are Eirie of course, and out of side over another ridge Mother Lode). When we came up here on Monday a tractor /truck unit tow a flatbed past us, loaded up with a D4 dozer. Today we follow its claw marks up towards Bonanza and we are grateful for the track upgrades its undertaken for us. Well there’s a conceit but I fancy it’s been graded for our benefit. The rain has stopped and the sun has ceased being harassed by cloud and we find ourselves in a pleasant walking day. The track is reasonably dry (damp but firm) under foot, beech and alder and spruce provide shade while long green grass and wildflowers reach out to us from the verge. The track starts out easy enough with a couple of switches that are very gradual inclines but once we are above the mill the track kicks up into a steady, unrelenting ascent. Nothing like Nepal or Argentina but still steep. However not so steep that vehicles are deterred. 3 ATVs (quads) pass us, riders giving a cheery wave in response to our humorous attempts to hitch a ride.  We make a surprising connection with them later in the day.

We are in ‘alpine mode’ which a very slow walk mainly designed to ensure we all get to Bonanza Mine high above us, with enough energy to still enjoy the walk as well as the destination. Just before midday we pull onto a round knoll and have lunch. The vegetation has given away the Spruce and now sports low shrub I don’t recognise, mixed with soapberries and blackberry. From the knoll we can see the sub-alpine vegetation not too far off and its blend into the alpine higher above us. But right now we appreciate that the vegetation is low enough for us to now enjoy remarkable views up and down the Kennecott Valley and our cameras work over time. Another visitor had beaten us to the knoll and was flying his drone up and down and all about clearly trying to capture something of what we were gazing at. A drone about made the toilet stops in the low bush a bit problematic until the pilot was asked to move his drone away from one side of the knoll. Everyone is now in a good rhythm and climbing strong and well and more importantly are all in a good humour and high spirits. Everyone seems to be mingling well and interacting without too much reservation, a chemistry that can’t be forced and which has taken nearly a week to emerge. But there is nothing like a bit of mutually shared hard work to forge this sort of interaction.

Our lunch is interrupted by the owner of the block who appears out of nowhere. They can be twitchy about these things up here but he happily concedes he is at fault for not having any signage up. But he is delighted to discover we are from Australia and all is forgiven, for he tells us when he was 20 he spent some months in Australia and was assisted over a girlfriend severance by his new Australian mates (beer might have been part of the formula) and who showed him that there are decent people anywhere in the world if only you go looking for them.

As much as we enjoy the conversation we have to push on and we leave him to set up his survey markers for the house he planning on building up there. Actually more like an adventurers retreat. He seems to think he can get people to stay up there in the winter. The next leg is a long tough incline followed by a left switchback and the end of the bulldozed trail. We are now in alpine grass and mosses and have passed Tim’s ramshackle hut down on our right. Tim wants to sell his block of soapberry  for USD500,000 which everyone thinks is crazy. Maybe not in the context of Sydney prices. And you would be a buying a remarkable view. Mind you that view may not be visible for half the year given Tim’s hut vanishes under a mountain of snow in wintertime. At the end of the bulldozed track we find the three ATVs that passed us earlier. They are parked up next to a ‘rollover’  – a massive timber frame through which are cables which once carried ore cars from Bonanza above us to the mill now far below us. Not for the first time we wonder how anyone got anything built up here. The timber came from the US West Coast. It’s been a stupendous effort. Massive beams. Cast iron. Steel cable. Steel buckets. Bolts as long as your body and as thick as your wrist. We pause and examine the frame and the cable that still hangs in the air from the gantry on the ridge in the middle distance. Hanging as if waiting for the wheels to start turning again. It’s a slightly haunted place, with the spectres of all those workers still lingering on the slopes about us.

The day has cleared off completely to ‘clear and sunny’ and we have bent over cameras and taken more photos than we will ever look at. In fact some have decided at different points to pay less attention to the photos and to focus on just soaking in the experience. The Chugach (Choo-Garch) Mountains extend in an unbroken white serrated line on the far southern horizon, dividing this region from the climate and geography of the Pacific coast. We’ve learned already to watch them closely to discern the weather. If its cloudy over the Chugach the rain will be on us shortly, not matter that those mountains are a long way off. Equally, if is raining here but clear over the mountains, the rain will quickly clear.

We change our gear, don packs and start up a rocky trail that picks its way up the lip of the old moraine wall of a long deceased glacial arm. It takes about thirty minutes but eventually high above us on the left the timber remains of the Bonanza Mine become visible. It’s a sobering sight and we are doubly amazed at the industry and energy that planted such a massive building up there.

Between us and Bonanza a stream cuts deep, tumbling down a waterfall and rushing on to the Kennecott Glacier, fed from ice and returning to ice. The track eventually merges into the stream where we  stop for photos and a bit of horsing around. We have just passed a group of middle aged American tourists (aren’t they all?) who asked after our plans and exclaimed “Good luck with that” when we told them we intended to sleep up at the mine site. I confess to reacting poorly to that though I said nothing. People who are quick to see the negative and to find reason why something should not be tried are not those I want to surround myself with. I guess our plans might sound too adventurous to some but I’m a bit worried that they won’t be adventurous enough for our lot. We press on. By now we are in alpine mosses and lichens and petite flowers. We pull over onto a low mound which sits in the middle of the shallow gully we are now moving up and have a bite to eat and a breather, the mine building watching over us, perched high up on the left of us. We sit on the last of the vegetation  – we walk from this mound over snow, up onto some scree which we follow in a zig zag fashion up into the head of the valley before turning left and angling up to the building. On the way we stop and chat with the family who own the ATVs. Brad and Connie who know Brad and Ramona! We chat for a while and discover they are pastors at a local church. They are travelling with young kids and we bid our farewells then climb the last few metres up onto the remains of a boardwalk. It used to connect the mine building (mostly still standing) with the three story bunkhouse, now long vanished. I wonder if it was destroyed by fire such is the pile of twisted metal, including bedframes, radiators and molten taps from hand-basins. A shame, for the McCarthy museum model suggests an impressive structure once stood here along side the remains that are still up here.

We set up dinner on the boardwalk, borrowing cedar planks 100 years old to make wind breaks for our gas cookers, trying to break the zephyrs that lift up from below and hurtle up the spine of this ridge. Zephyrs chilled by the snow they cross as they emerge from the basin far below. The view from our dinner perch takes in the basin we have just ascended through, a bowl that is encompassed about by a sawtooth ridge of bare rock, the serrations through which we can see a snow-capped range in the middle distance. But when we climb above the buildings after lunch we find ourselves looking over vast hazy distances, south to the Chugarch Mountains, across the Kennecott Glacier to Fireweed Mountain and others, and north to Donoho and the snow-capped peaks and ridges behind it. It’s clear from the blue and green rock that even the ridge we stand on has been deeply and thoroughly mined for copper. Up here I find a hessian sack burst open, spilling its pure copper contents. Ore greater than 70% purity was simply dug out of the hill, bagged and shipped directly to Tacoma for smelting. There’s never been another mine like it with such purity of mineral. Consider that today (and then) a copper mine could be profitable on less than one percent purity. No wonder this got so much attention.

The walk up here has taken us 5 hours and 50 minutes. Okay, make that 6 hours. But we continue to explore after we have melted snow and sorted dinner. We set up our tents up here on a gravel ledge. Hamish considered setting up a snow ledge and even started cutting and shaping one but in the end the snow was too soft. We pull big rocks around, shovel fine grit into the holes and otherwise create pads for all the tents. Pegs are pointless but there are large rocks of 20kg or more, pieces of steel and even an anvil and a drive shaft which are harnessed as tie down points.

After ranging across the narrow ridge above us we go into the building that houses the end of the cable, which still sits in its steel wheels. The roof has collapsed in places and snow has dumped in and filled a lot of space. But there is enough room for us to walk around with care. It’s the human ghosts that speak to us the most – workers gloves, wrenches, spanners, socket drives, cans of oil, nuts and bolts, switches and all sorts of other evidence that speak to us of the men who lived and worked up here. I’m sad that so much effort and care sits and rots here but that is all our industry is it not. It will turn to dust one day. This monument is a legacy of sorts to the miners, engineers and builders who laboured here.  A legacy that now rots. Building treasures in heaven comes to mind, and that of course is part of what these expeditions are about. Another building further along the boardwalk is in danger of disappearing down the mountain, weighed down by rubble that has slid onto it and no doubt compressed by tons of snow each winter. I peer into what was the top floor of a three-story building. A towel hangs from a bench which tilts with the rest of the building towards the valley floor below. Was it left here in 1938 I wonder? Unlikely but I fancy it has been here all along, waiting for its owner to return. The company intended to come back after all.

The wind was up by the time we pitched our tents but the cool evening air is whisper still a few hours later when we snuggle into our sleeping bags. Our tent is warm, helped by the goose down high altitude mattresses that keep the cold from seeping up from the ice and gravel beneath us.  I’m asleep in a heartbeat.

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