The perpetual daylight keeps things well illuminated but not so much that we can’t sleep. We have been advised to bring those devices the airlines hand out to shade your eyes but I have not had to use them. This morning it’s not the light that wakes me but the pitter patter of light rain. I listen to it at 5am and let it lull me back to sleep. I wake an hour later and lie there enjoying the warmth of the tent, even to the point of opening up the sleeping bag to cool off. The pitter patter on the tent has eased but it’s still there. I figure a bathroom break is needed and open the tent to have clumps of snow fall off the tent onto my hand. I lift the flap and am greeted by the sight of thick snow slanting in and laying up thick on our site. I can’t see more than 200m down the gully up which we have walked and which usually afforded a very long view down the mountain and out to the Churgach range on the far horizon. I step out in bare feet and have a look around. All the tents stretch out in front of me in an uncommonly straight line. How did that happen? I grin to myself. Not through any careful planning that’s for sure. It’s a good camp and the team has done a great job making an ordinary ledge very comfortable. I turn about in the snow and face in to the breeze and try and get a feel for the weight and speed of it. It’s thick but only moderately so. I pause and think about our options. There is scope to do something up here around snow safety and perhaps even to build snow shelters. I turn back to the row of tents sitting in that muffled silence that happens under snow. I call out and let everyone know the pitter patter is not rain but snow and that I’ll let them know at 7am what the plan is. I then walk up the tent line and check them all before returning to the warmth of my sleeping bag and to warm up my feet.
I lie there for half an hour and notice the snow is now falling even more heavily and when I look out the tent I can’t see the track only 25m below us. I climb out for a closer check of what is happening. It’s a matter of trying to determine if the snow is this thick all the way down the mountain. I simply can’t tell. Do we have enough supplies to spend another day up here? Yes. Another two or three days? No. But of course we could stretch one days food into multiple days. Are people warm? Mostly. Despite all the briefings I know there are some gear deficiencies but none that are life threatening. So on balance I think we are okay, including the fact that all the tents are OK save one but its shortcomings can be managed. The tents are warmer than staying in the remains of the building but I decide we could easily eat down there and keep a good 75m between our dining area and the tents. Despite all this the nagging worry is that some of the group are not good on loose rubble let alone snow covered rubble. Having a twisted ankle or wrenched knee up here, a broken bone or fall resulting in some other injury would make for a very unholy extraction. Without knowing what the weather is doing down below us I figure we would be in improved odds if we got off the mountain now rather than wait to see what happens.
Actually what happens next is quite impressive – the group breaks camp in an orderly fashon with no fuss and fifteen minutes after being called are packed and pretty much ready to walk off the mountain. There’s a bit of finessing of kit and we depart just before 7am after some cautioning about what is unseen underfoot and the avoidance of shortcuts. We pick our way down the mountain in snow falling thick and fast, more than at any point I have seen this morning. I look back and can barely see the end of the line where Hamish is doing a good job keeping an eye on things. On Fireweed Mountain one had confessed to feeling a little bit anxious but I assured them that was a good thing. A little bit of anxiety can give you an edge, keeping you alert. I am hoping that even though there is something wonderful and magical about this snowfall that here is some anxiety mixed with the wonder of what we are walking through.
It only takes half an hour for us to reach the waterfall and only minute later I say to Kavitha that the snow seems to be getting heavier. But having just said that, and as we drop packs the snow quickly transforms into rain. We are right on the snow line. We break for something to eat. I’m concerned that some are feeling the cold so its important that we get cracking again. Soon. I can see the timber framed ‘roll-over’ below us in the misty rain but advise the group that as much as we can we will avoid the mud track that follows the moraine lip and use the rock behind. I anticipate the mud being frozen solid. As it turns out we use a mix of both and we pick our way through rock and light scrub until an hour after we departed we arrive at the vehicle track junction. The rain still scuds through the valley but it’s a little lighter than at our breakfast break. But now our main challenge is that which the dozer created earlier this week when it regraded the track. The fresh earth is now sticky and sometimes sloppy mud and its not long before clumps of it weigh down our boots by the kilo. Nonetheless we march down at a fair clip, into the Spruce and Alder and the fresh and vibrant green corridor which the track becomes. We pass one couple just starting out and they look at us blankly when we tell them they are only twenty minutes away from the top. Its an inside joke courtesy of Dennis who insists every objective is only twenty minutes away, despite how far away the destination really is.
Three hours after we depart we arrive at the Meatza van, his specialty today being Salmon Chowder. Earlier this week it was Lasagne and our group cleaned him out. The proprietor is a qualified chef of European origin and training. How he comes to be operating a café out of the back of a truck in the remotest of places is a source of some wonder. Maybe, as Jaimie suggests, he’s one of the many out here running away from love. (Jaimie passed us on his KTM this morning. He drove up there to check the state of the track, then came coasting down the mountain with his engine off to save fuel. He stopped to chat on the way up but under his helmet no one else in the group recognised him. His cheery demeanour was a dead give away).
We hang at the Meatza for an hour, waiting in the first instance for the business to open. Then we head back down to McCarthy (Hamish and a handful of others walk to The Potato) while the rest of us catch the shuttle back to the foot bridge, driven by a local woman (Diane?) who tells us all the different jobs she has had in McCarthy. It’s a long list.
As we cross the foot bridge and head up to the Lodge three figures dance and wave from the far bank. The rushing roar of the glacial river prevents hearing anything. A couple of kids we figure and wave back. Turns out it is ViLay, Geoff and Louise out for a walk. The orange pack and the Orange Hope beanie of Kavitha are beacons that flag to them who we are. Only later do we realise who was jumping up and down so energetically.
A hot shower, some journaling and then a walk into McCarthy where we play Scrabble with nephews Lachlan and Sam and enjoy a Bonanza Burger at the Golden Saloon which, despite its decidedly twenty first century clientele still seems able to retain a vestige of the wild frontier about it. We play Scrabble until the dinner set depart and are replaced by those who have some to hear the band and to dance. Women get up to dance but the bearded boys from the bush remain firmly in their seats. We leave at 10 pm just in time to encounter most of the rest of our crew coming in to town. It’s just that kind of place. Anything can happen at any time and the fact that the day is still bright at this hour only encourages the idea that its possible to be doing something all day. Indeed the evening is not over yet.
Around the camp fire sit Jaimie and Brad, Sam Gabby and Dennis. Jaimie plays guitar, Brad the harmonica and between them they create some haunting and magic moments with a small exclusive audience that includes Jaimie’s dog Rio, a big docile beast that’s endeared himself to everyone. Half Labrador and half Russian hunting dog, he is a handsome animal that spends more time with Brad then Jaimie given Jaimie works over at Kennecott. Jaimie grumps (good naturedly) that Rio slept through the visit of a brown bear which upended a fridge and a number of other containers at Jaimie’s hut. But when Brad calls “bear” Rio launches into an energetic bark. Jaimie tells us he is impressed we have camped up at Bonanza. It’s a theme we hear on a few occasions during the week. The locals seem to appreciate that we have spent more than just one day here but one whole week. It seems the worst tourist is the one that flies in, has a look at Kennecott, then flies out. However even they are acknowledged to be critical contributors to the local economy.
It’s been a long and full day and by the time we walk away from the fire we are more than ready for bed.