This is part 9 in a 17 part series that discusses my experiences during my NOLS Semester during my first summer in Alaska in 2013. We spent 75 days in the backcountry, 25 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound (discussed in parts 1-5) and 50 continuous days hiking and glacier mountaineering in Wrangell Saint-Elias National Park (Parts 6-17). Part 1 of the series can be found here
The morning after arriving on top of the plateau we woke bright and early to walk over to our improvised airstrip. We had selected a 100 yard runway that was pretty flat and absent of any large rocks. After lining the runway with neon orange colored duffel bags and creating an improvised wind sock out of a trekking pole and a wind shirt, we waited for Kirk and “The Hulk” (the name of his plane) to arrive. Soon enough, we heard a soft humming and watched as the plane came up the valley through the mountains. Kirk gave a quick fly over on the first go around to inspect the runway for any potential hazards or risks. He circled and came back around slowing down to a very slow speed before bouncing down on the runway and zooming up towards us and our gear. What a sight! This tiny Super Cub was a work of art and a beauty to behold in the skies. Kirk had built the plane himself out of fabric and there was only one other plane in the world like it. The Super Cub was perfect in this environment as it is able to go at speeds as low as 30 mph and only needs 100 yards to land. We went about our duties of sorting food, refilling spice bottles and fuel, filling up the peanut butter jar (Yum!) and taking our glacier gear out of the plane, which we had brought in so that we could begin mountaineering earlier than planned. After taking off a few bags, I happily moved away from my responsibilities to chat with Kirk and the instructors about his plane and flying in this part of the country. He eventually had to get going so he hopped back in The Hulk leaving us with our gear and food until we saw him at our next re-ration 8 days later. We then lugged our gear back and after eating breakfast we spent the rest of the day learning about various mountaineering knots and harnesses and also reviewing first aid material.
The plateau was a fairly flat, rocky area so when we wanted to dispose of waste (aka poop) we would just have to go a few hundred yards dig our hole and crouch down with no privacy from bushes or trees. That was not a problem for our group as we had become pretty comfortable with using the bathroom around each other so nobody thought it was a very big deal. During the evening, one of the girls went on a “nature walk”, as some liked to call it, and was doing her business when a sheep popped up over the ridge behind her. She had not seen the sheep, while back at camp someone had spotted it and we began pointing and yelling behind her. She had no clue what was going on, frantically looking around in all directions as she jumped up thinking there may have been a bear behind her! The sheep ran off as we laughed and we proceeded to enjoy another cool night out in the wilderness.
The next morning we woke up to rain pounding on our tent and the floor of the tent body wet beneath us. The tents tend to exaggerate how hard the rain comes down, but it had been coming steadily enough to create a flow of water from the hill behind us through the tent area and finally through the middle of our kitchen before falling off the slope towards Mt. Gordon. Wearily, we examined our wet gear and began to set up tarps so that we would not become drenched while we were cooking breakfast. The rain continued to pour down and it was the last thing we needed on what was expected to be a tough day. It was not only our first day in plastic boots, which are pretty immobilizing and tough to walk in on dry land, but we would be double-carrying to our base camp at Mt. Gordon a little over 2 miles away. Essentially what that meant is that we were not strong enough to carry all our existing gear plus the new glacier gear that was dropped off by Kirk (ropes, skis, crampons, sleds, ice screws etc.) and would have to make two trips to carry the gear. We decided it was best to wait out the rain for a little bit as it had become much stronger and was pouring down on our tarps. So far it was a miserable day.
The rain eventually let up and we picked up our heavy packs and began on our way. We began walking across the plateau, our packs loaded down with all sorts of gear, eventually dropping down along a small creek. Here we took a break and learned a few things about glaciers and glacier safety using the base of the glacier a few hundred yards to the side of us as a reference point. A tiny beautiful black and white bird sang and soared through the air as we looked on. It was the first animal we had seen in days and the last we would see for a long time to come.
We continued upwards toward camp now climbing over steep rocky mountainsides and eventually moving onto moraine, where we would set up camp. A moraine is an area where a glacier has receded, leaving debris such as rocks and dirt that have accumulated over a base layer of ice. The moraines can have anywhere from a lot of small dirt pebbles to a few feet of dirt and rocks between your feet and the ice layer beneath the earth. It was very chilly at camp with a strong breeze coming off Mt. Gordon and with an ice field 200 yards behind us. We had to head back for the second trip though, so we could get back early enough to get some rest to prepare for a long day of learning the next day. The instructors split off to scout Mt. Gordon and two sick/injured students stayed behind as the rest of us made or way back to retrieve our gear. It took us almost no time at all without any weight on our backs, only an hour and a half, to travel the distance back to the previous campsite. At the campsite, we rounded up the miscellaneous fuel, ropes and other glacier gear that was left behind and began to schlep it all the way back for the final time. As we moved tension became high, as most people were tired and both physically and mentally exhausted from lugging this heavy gear around, and a few heated exchanges were made before we made it back to camp. We had a long discussion at our nightly s.c.h.l.e.p. meeting (Shout outs, comments/concerns, hot question, learnings, entertainment, plan) before retiring to our tents to get some rest. We woke early the next day to low gray skies, more wind and no view of the summit. Throughout the day we learned and practiced new skills in camp and on the nearby ice field such as rope travel, how to walk in crampons, how to stack rope and related material so that we would be prepared for a potential ascent of Gordon the next day.
My alarm went off at 4:30 am the next morning. I groggily sat up in my sleeping bag as I heard Grayson, one of my more energetic and motivating peers, give a cockle-doodle-a-doo to make sure everyone was up and ready to go. I laughed but the girls in my tent didn’t find it so funny and promptly told him to shut up. We were out of camp by 6, climbing the hill next to camp to begin our journey to the top of the mountain. The sun had not come up over the mountains yet and we began the day feeling a little chilled. The initial part of our climb was over rock and we followed it up and around heading west. Our plan was to traverse across the west shoulder before climbing up the steep north face to the summit (the gnar wall). Reaching the ice, we took a quick break before tossing our crampons on and crunching our way across the shoulder until we reached snow. At this point, we had to break off into 3 rope teams of 5, 4 and 4 (one of the instructors stayed back at camp sick). The idea of a rope team is that members are evenly spaced along a rope and hooked in from their harnesses. If a member falls into a crevasse, the other members can self arrest using their ice axe and prevent their team member from falling all the way to the bottom and likely dying. Although highly unlikely, there have been 140 ft. crevasses that have opened up on glaciers and swallowed whole rope teams. I was hoping none of us would be so unfortunate. With an instructor leading the first rope team, the rest of us followed up as she probed for crevasses every so often. When a rope leader out front sees a sign of a crevasse along the side of the mountain, a dip or a visible crack/opening, the leader uses a 9 foot long steel pole to “probe” deep into the snow for crevasses. If the snow bridge is found to be too thin, the rope leader must strategize and navigate another way around the hazard or set snow/ ice protection (anchors that are clipped on to the rope) to add as a further safety measure. On our way to the top, the instructor placed multiple pieces of protection as we crossed over crevasses where we could see the open cracks a couple hundred yards off to our left.
I anticipated we would be at the top quickly as we were climbing pretty fast and seemed to be making good time. Near the top, we stopped and my student rope team fell to the back of the pack as our other instructor rushed to the front to solve a potential problem. My rope team sat in the back uninformed of what was going on up ahead since we could not see the first rope team over the slope in front of us. I plopped down on my pack and enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley and mountains behind us. You could see multiple sets of mountains in the distance, the plateau where we had our re-ration and even part of the Jacksina River, back where it all began. Hours passed and we became cold from the lack of movement. Along with knowing how to face the other elements, learning how to heat your body up is one of the most valuable skills in the wild. It doesn’t take much for your body to cool off with a lack of food, water and layers when exposed to the cold and high winds at close to 9,000 feet. There is only a small difference in body temperature between life and death. I managed to stay warm by stomping out a platform on the steep face and doing push-ups on my pack but I was anxious to get moving again. Eventually we were told to put our crampons on but we still didn’t have much of an idea what was going on besides that it was something involved with a crevasse. Well after over 2.5 hours of sitting high on the north face we finally proceeded to move up. The problem was that there was a bergschrund (crevasse at the top of the mountain) right before the summit. To reach the summit we would have to step on a 4 ft wide snow-bridge over the 7 foot wide crevasse, then climb up an 8 foot ice wall using ice axes and our crampons. I was not overly excited as I watched my peers move through the anchor system the instructors had built and then up the wall onto the summit. A couple of my peers had struggled getting up the wall and when they fell back down punched their foot through a side of the snow bridge into the open crevasse. As I stepped onto the ice bridge for my turn, I looked down on either side, seeing all kinds of ice shapes stick out of the wall. I wondered how deep it went down but I knew that I didn’t want to be the person to find out! I grabbed the ice axe, kicked into the steps that were no longer there and scampered up unharmed. We had reached the summit.
There was a beautiful 360 degree view of the valley behind us and the glacier and the snow capped mountains that lay ahead of us. Summiting Mt. Gordon was almost like a rite of passage from the tundra to the glacier. We climbed up Mt. Gordon with the tundra at our backs and reached the summit with a view of what lay ahead. In the distance, we could see the majestic glaciated mountains, Blackburn and Sanford. The only problem we faced on the summit was extremely high winds, and that was the last thing we wanted to deal with after being already cold due to a lack of movement for 2.5 hours. After the last member of our team reached the summit we paused for a minute before quickly descending down the other side of the mountain and back into camp. We had bagged our first peak climbing 2000 ft with 10 miles of total travel in 12 hours. Exhausted yet feeling accomplished, my tent group enjoyed a hearty meal of couscous and beans before climbing into our sleeping bags for the night.
We spent the whole next day ice climbing on the ice wall at the bottom of our ice field next to camp. The instructors had spent the morning setting up the anchors while we lazed around camp and had breakfast. I was very nervous to try it for some reason but after strapping on my crampons and tackling my first wall with a couple of ice axes I had found a new activity that I enjoyed! I then tackled steeper walls increasing my level of enjoyment. Everyone was having a blast as some tried out techniques such as climbing with only one ice axe or climbing with no ice axes. It was a perfect follow-up to our peak ascent the day before. We would now enjoy a few more days of dry land before calling the ice and snow our home for almost 3 weeks.