When I researched hikes in Kluane National Park, I came up with a number of appealing options. However, only one of them was compelling. Mount Decoeli, at 7,650’, sits at the northeastern end of the St. Elias Mountain Range. Its position promised great views. In fact, I’d read that Mount Logan, at 19,551’, is visible from there on a clear day. Mount Logan is the highest peak in Canada. That, and the prospect of bagging a legitimate peak in a single day, steered us towards that mountain. It suited me aesthetically, too. Most people are drawn to the largest or most famous mountains. I have a preference for the obscure.
We got up at first light on Wednesday, as we would have to drive a couple of hours to get to the trailhead. The hike itself would probably take a full day. I made breakfast and we broke camp and hit the road. It was another sunny day – our fourth in a row! We enjoyed a pleasant, scenic drive on the Alaska Highway to Haines Junction. Here, the Alaska Highway continues towards Fairbanks, while the other road goes south to Haines. We headed south to the campground at Kathleen Lake. We snagged a campsite, pitched the tent, and then drove back north on the Alaska Highway. The trailhead for Mount Decoeli is not marked, but it is just beyond the crest of a broad pass and there is a large parking area.
We were gathering our gear when another vehicle pulled in. It was another group doing the same hike. Their group consisted of three young women that were either French or French Canadian. An older gentleman was with them. I’m guessing he was the father of at least one of them. They also had a dog, which was not particularly surprising. We saw dogs on most of the hikes we did in Alaska and Canada, with the exception of Glacier Bay. Most of the areas we visited were relatively dog-friendly.
The hike up Mount Decoeli is off-trail the whole way. The first few miles are upstream along the creek that drains the rock glacier below the mountain. After that, the route is a steep ascent, mostly on talus slopes. It is an extremely strenuous hike, as the round trip is 11 miles with an elevation gain of 4,400’.
We were a bit disorganized, and started our hike around 9:45, about five minutes after the other group. We started out on an old roadbed in deep forest. In the first few minutes we passed some fresh bear scat, which is always a joy to see in grizzly country. We emerged from the woods and entered an area of scrubby growth that was close to treeline. We joined a wider road, which was delightful for 10 minutes or so. Unfortunately it completely disappeared when we reached the creek.
Like most glacial streams, this creek is broad and has multiple channels. It is also extremely rocky. In fact, everything about this hike was rocky. We headed up the creek bed, staying on River Right. There were occasional fragments of trail, but mostly we were rock hopping our way upstream. This wasn’t much different from the hiking we do back home, except for the lack of trees. Unfortunately though, this was the easy part of the hike. We would gain only minimal elevation over the first 3 ½ miles. Once we left the creek at the foot of the glacier, the climb would be relentless.
Eventually we reached a point where the creek was all the way against the bank. We bushwhacked for a while, but that was tedious. We gave up on that and found a place where we could rock hop the creek. We continued up the far side, before we were forced to cross again. We were able to do all of these crossings with dry feet, but it took a lot of effort to pick good places to cross. On the return hike, we just walked through the creek. By that point, we simply didn’t care about wet boots.
The creek bed was so tedious that I was actually looking forward to the steep ascent. We reached the foot of the rock glacier around noon. We left the creek there and climbed up into a meadow at the base of Mount Decoeli. That was a great place for lunch. The French family was doing the same thing a short distance away.
While we were eating I was puzzling over the route ahead. I’d read about this hike using a great website (http://www.yukonhiking.ca/decoeli.html). The site describes dozens of hikes in the Yukon and parts of British Columbia and Alaska. However, the description of the route up Mount Decoeli is very vague. Essentially it says to hike to the foot of the rock glacier and then ascend the ridge. The problem was that I could see several ridges leading to the summit. Which one would be best?
One of the young women wandered over and asked me if I was familiar with the route. Apparently she had been pondering the same thing. I told her that I was my first time there. Later, they hung around until we started and then followed us. Apparently she was so uncertain of the route that she decided to take a chance on following a stranger.
The ridge on the right side looked fine until near the end, but there were some big rock outcrops that looked like major obstacles just below the summit. I didn’t like the look of that. The ridge to the left looked less steep, but longer. Eventually I settled on the direct approach. From our vantage, it looked insanely steep. Mountains like this usually do though. I figured that it would probably turn out to be one of those mountains that isn’t as bad as it looks. Ha!
We finished lunch and got started. We crossed two minor gullies but started up a ridge at the top of a third, larger one. The initial ascent was on a steep grassy slope that was actually rather pleasant. That gave way to dirt and scree, which was less pleasant. A few minutes later the talus started. The talus sucked, but we had to learn to embrace it. It would be with us all the way to the summit.
The climb was tedious. Mount Decoeli is essentially a giant pile of rocks. I kept myself going by identifying short term goals. I’d spot a boulder a short distance ahead and focus on getting to it. Then, after a quick breather, I’d pick my next target. We zigged zagged around a little bit looking for the smoothest route, but for the most part we just went up.
I waited for Christy at each stop. We weren’t far from the summit when she caught up to me. She was rattled due to a fall she had taken, and wanted to turn back. She’d slid backwards a short distance, causing a minor rock slide. She’d scraped herself up a bit, but the trauma was more mental. She was sure that she had come close to tumbling down the mountain. I assured her that wasn’t possible. The climb was steep, but it wasn’t THAT steep. On this type of climb it may feel like gravity is trying to pull you down to the bottom of the mountain, but that is wrong. Actually, gravity is what is holding you to the mountain. Even when you slip.
We took a longer break there for my pep talk. I pulled out my phone and showed her the topo map on my GAIA App. We only had 500’ vertical feet to go! Even better, the steepest part was behind us. That final 500’ looked much more reasonable, both on the map and on the ground.
Once Christy had fully recovered from her scare we resumed the climb. The map was right – the final ascent wasn’t bad at all. The last little bit was practically a gentle stroll to the summit. There we were rewarded with a spectacular 360 degree view. The St. Elias Mountains stretched away to the south, while to the east and north was a plateau adorned with immense lakes. The best view was to the west and southwest, into the core of Kluane National Park as far as Wrangell St. Elias National Park in Alaska. Row upon row of mountains and glaciers marched away from us. In the farthest distance, even larger, more jagged peaks crowned the horizon. One of them must’ve been Mount Logan, the highest peak in Canada.
We spent an hour on the summit. That was probably too long, but it was a hard place to leave, and the weather was pleasant. Oddly, it had been very windy at times during the climb, but it was completely calm up top. We shared the summit with a wildfire monitoring station that looked like a giant robot.
The French family didn’t make it to the top. The last we’d seen of them wasn’t long after our lunch break. We’d had a tough time keeping up with them walking up the creek bed, but they dropped far behind us once we started to climb. I’m guessing that the ascent was just too much for them. Their car was gone when we returned to the trailhead. I’m sorry that they didn’t make it, but it was nice to have the entire mountain to ourselves.
It was late afternoon and clouds were moving in, indicating that it was long past time to head down. After all, we were only halfway through our hike! Descending the steep talus fields may have been worse than climbing them. Christy slid again during the descent. This time, I was almost directly below her. Her tumble jarred a soccer ball-sized rock loose. I watched carefully as it bounced down the slope towards me, gaining speed. It was clearly heading off towards my right, but on its final bounce it changed direction and came straight at me. I tried to jump out of the way, but that was virtually impossible in the middle of all of those rocks. The rock hit me in the back of the leg and knocked me off my feet. I landed hard on the rocks, but only suffered some cuts and bruises. When Christy caught up to me, she had another batch of fresh scrapes.
We still had a lot of steep terrain below us. The hike suddenly seemed dangerous to me. I suggested an alternate descent route. From our lofty perch on the ridge, I could see a long, relatively gentle slope of mostly bare dirt leading to the saddle between Mount Decoeli and the unnamed mountain to the south. We could get there easily. From that point, we’d have to descend the drainage at the base of the rock glacier. It was hard to tell how that would be since there was a large, rocky ridge blocking our view. At worst, it would be an impassable cliff – but the topo map didn’t suggest that. It suggested a steep but manageable descent.
We decided to do it. Even if the final descent was awful, it wasn’t likely to be any worse than the route we’d climbed. That was my logic, anyway. The hike to the pass was actually rather pleasant, particularly once we escaped from the endless talus field. We actually took a short cut and started down into the drainage before we reached the pass since we knew we had to go down there anyway. We swung around the ridge that had obscured our view and found ourselves at the top of another steep talus slope. It was ugly, but as predicted, not really any worse than what we had climbed.
We picked our way down slowly and eventually reached the gully at the base of the rock glacier. There was some exposed glacier here, including a small ice tunnel that was interesting. From there, we simply walked down the streambed. There wasn’t much water at first, but the stream grew as dozens of rivulets of melting glacier joined the main channel. Before long we passed below the grassy bench where we’d eaten lunch many hours earlier.
The final hike out was tedious on tired feet and bruised legs, but it was faster than the hike in due to the gradual downhill grade. We also spent a lot less time looking for places to cross the creek. In fact, while the creek curves back and forth through its broad channel, we maintained a straight line to minimize the distance. We walked right through the icy water countless times, but that actually felt good on our sore, swollen feet.
Our final challenge was finding the beginning of the old road that would lead us back to our car. If we missed it we would follow the creek all the way to the highway. That would work, but it would make the final mile of the hike much tougher and slower. Plus, daylight was fading as we worked our way downstream. Fortunately I spotted the area where the old road ended well before we reached it. It was nearing dusk when we walked the final stretch into the woods. We actually passed a pair of elk hunters along here. Hunting season comes early to the Yukon.
We reached the car at 9:30 as the last light was fading. We enjoyed a colorful sunset to cap our 12 hour hike. Then we drove back down to Kathleen Lake, arriving at our campsite at 10:30. We grilled steaks and had potatoes, salad, wine and beer around the campfire to celebrate. We ate dinner around 11:30 Alaska time, which was actually 12:30 local time! It was a nice way to cap off a great day!
Back to Alaska
Back to Hiking and Backpacking Trip Reports
Please remember to Leave No Trace!