This is part 10 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 excitement was still in the air the morning after ice climbing as we prepared to travel once again. The three day stretch at base camp had been one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip and had largely quelled some of my fears about the coming days of life on the glacier. At our meeting the night before, I had been told to go big today. It had only been three days since the double carry yet we believed that we could now make it in one trip after shedding three days worth of food (a little less than 6 lbs. each) to our next X which was about 3 miles away. After I loaded my pack with my group’s tent, my skis, a rope and whatever other group gear I could fit, I heaved my now 70 plus pound pack on my back. Wowee! Today would be slow going as I felt my pack dig in to my body even before we had left camp. Our plan today was to travel through the pass, gaining 300 feet in elevation, near camp and then move down into the valley, across a creek until we reached camp at the base of the glacier.
We had decided to leave earlier than a typical hiking day because one of our instructors was afraid that we would not be able to cross the creek. I was usually one of the faster walkers in the group, but was unable to move any farther than the back of the group as we began our trek up the pass. As my pack began to really dig into my shoulders, we stumbled our way to the top of the pass. We took a break, taking in the beautiful scenery that lay before us. Looking ahead, we saw the valley with the creek below us and also some beautiful rock formations on the mountains before the glacier. Heading downhill with the gargantuan packs was much easier and we quickly sped down into the valley. We approached the roaring creek fearing the worst. Our odds of crossing did not look good as the creek seemed to be too swift and too deep. Would we have to turn around? Nah, just kidding! The creek was nothing more than ankle deep and we jabbed at our instructor as we splashed our way across. Everyone was in a great mood as we moved the final mile or so through the valley. After setting up camp early around 2 pm, we spent the rest of the afternoon learning more about ice protection (anchors) and glacier travel before caching our gear on the ice. Tomorrow, we would begin life on the glacier with no idea of when we would return to dry land.
On the glacier the next morning, I hooked my pack up to the sled, which carried much of our group’s food, cooking equipment and skis. Feeling like a sled dog, I gave a few barks to my friend Jessie, who was also carrying a sled, and we were off, barking our way up the ice. On glaciers, the lower level is usually ice before turning into fern (a mixture of snow and ice) then finally turning into snow. There is no need to travel in rope teams on ice because you can’t self arrest. If you were to fall in a crevasse in that situation, you would just drag your whole team with you, which we would prefer not to happen. Half our journey was uphill today and I definitely felt it as I struggled in the back of the pack while pulling the heavy sled. We soon crossed into the fern and proceeded cautiously, while we tried to determine whether or not we were on snow or ice. Soon enough, we decided that we were on snow so we created a small perimeter, tossed on our skis and split off into rope teams. Unfortunately the snow didn’t last for very long and we ended back up on ice for another half mile or so. Skiing on ice is very difficult in general and especially with a sled. It’s very frustrating when your sled refuses to hop an ice bump and then flies up right next to you or flips over in a small glacial creek while you are sliding all over the place yourself trying not to fall on the ice. Thankfully, we soon reached snow for good and continued uphill on our journey. After taking a long break I felt a strange heat/tingling sensation from my pinky finger. I happened to glance at my ice axe to find it smeared with blood and immediately took off my glove to find a large cut on my finger. During the last break, I had sliced open my finger with the ad of my ice axe while picking it up. Our legendary instructor, JQ, came to the rescue as her rope team skied up alongside me and she applied some first aid treatment saving me from amputation.
We continued downhill on the glacier but were posed with yet another problem. It was getting late and we had not yet found deep enough snow for camping. Around 5 o’ clock we faced a decision of whether to push on an additional 5 miles and try to find deep enough snow or make the 2-3 mile push off the glacier, back onto dry land. We decided upon the latter due to low morale, as well as a high level of fatigue from the long day of travel already under our belts. Continuing downhill, we reached a point where we were able to abandon our skis and continue the rest of that day’s journey on foot. We happily walked towards the edge of the glacier as we could envision dry land and a warm meal after this grueling day. However, we were faced with yet another difficulty. The route that we looked to take off the glacier was quite steep for walking and we would have to create anchors to rappel down the face of the glacier to the rocks below. While the rest of us waited, a group of students and instructors built anchors so that we could attach a rope and move down this steep face. I was one of the first to move down and I waited over an hour for all my peers to join me on the rocks below. After everyone had moved down and the anchors were disassembled, we gathered up our sled bags, sleds and whatever else we had to carry in our arms and walked the last thousand yards or so through the muddy terrain to our campsite. We were exhausted and everyone groggily set up their tents, had dinner and waited to hear the plan before going to bed. I was leader of the day for the next two days so I went over to discuss the plan for tomorrow with the instructors. Quickly, we decided that tomorrow would be a day-off. No lessons. No anything. It was a rarity at NOLS but much needed after the day’s 8 miles of travel over 13 hours.
Looking outside the next morning, we noticed on almost the opposite section of the glacier, from where we came down the day before, that there was a gently sloping hill that we could have easily walked down without rappelling. It was pretty funny to see and would have saved us quite a bit of time but that’s alright, what we did makes us seem more badass. Most of my peers spent their whole day in the tent inside their sleeping bags. My mindset was that I didn’t come to Alaska to sit in a tent and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us. The instructors were allowing us to explore independently since we were no longer in bear country. I took the time to venture over the hill at the edge of camp and explore the grassy meadow on the other side. This area was absolutely beautiful with the meadow sitting high above the valley below and views of Mt. Jarvis and the Nabesna glacier on the other side. I wandered around for two hours by myself, enjoying the sights and also discovering the airstrip for our re-ration the next day, which featured a cabin at one end. These people with these small cabins sure pick some nice spots to live! I can’t believe they don’t spend most of their time out there, especially in the summer. I know I would.
Later that night, I spent a couple of hours in the instructors’ tent going over our overall plan for our time on the glacier, which would now last 18 days. One of the greatest parts about the trip is how the students had complete input on the route and the overall goals of the trip. We created plans based off what we wanted to do, not some structure that the school created for each trip because that doesn’t exist at NOLS. Anyways, we established our main goal of our trip to climb Mt. Jarvis, a true challenging Alaskan mountain sitting at just over 13,400 feet. In the second ration on the glacier, we thought that it’d be cool to possibly split off and tackle some smaller peaks or make a big push for Mt. Wrangell before making our way down and out on the heavily crevassed Copper Glacier.
The following day we met up with Kirk for the second time as he brought us our ration for our first 10 days on the glacier. This would be the last time we would see him for 19 days because our re-ration on the glacier would be from a different pilot named Paul. In the afternoon, we hit the small slopes (hills) near camp and practiced our skiing skills on these expedition skis which would be our main form of travel on the glacier. During class, we spotted a group of sheep in the distance running through the grassy meadow. After our lessons were finished, we stayed for a while and shredded some pow with our new sick pizza moves. Who knew you could make such big pizza slices in the middle of the wilderness? I proceeded to fall a few times (a lot) as I tried to figure out the heavy expedition skis, which are much different than downhill (either that or I’m a bad skier, both highly likely). Following dinner, we took an evening walk over to the base of the glacier to create a cache so we would have less to transport the following morning. On the way, one of the girls became trapped by the quick sinking sand next to a small glacier creek. We came upon this “hazard” multiple times on our journey and you were always unsure whether the mud was solid or not. If you did find yourself sinking the number one rule is never stop moving! If you stop, you’re screwed and you’ll need multiple people to pull you out from the mess. However, if you are not involved it is quite a funny site to see the person become trapped and caked with mud (don’t worry I’m not that evil, I helped her out).
Our instructors departed early the next morning to ascent a small peak at the edge of the glacier with the goal of bonding and further improving their skills. As we were making breakfast, they arrived back at camp exhausted but thrilled to begin our journey on the glacier. During that time, we felt the wind pick up and eventually someone spotted that the glacier behind us was just a giant white cloud. It was a whiteout and we could no longer see anything on the glacier due to a large snow storm, even the mountains that lay less than a quarter mile from camp. We decided that it was probably best to not travel for our second time on the glacier in these whiteout conditions. Some students were disappointed and wanted the experience but we were assured that it was highly likely that we would eventually face similar conditions.
So instead of travelling, we headed to the slope of a nearby off glacier mountain to practice kicking steps on steep slopes , more snow protection and self arrest techniques on all types of falls. Self arrest was probably the best part of the day. Once you fell, the slope was steep enough for you to gain a significant amount of speed after a few yards. I had some difficulty executing the self arrest from the fall where you are falling headfirst on your back. The technique to stop yourself is to basically complete a crunch to one side, slamming your ice pick in the slope which swings your legs around eventually causing you to stop. If you aren’t skilled enough, like myself, there is potential for you to miss the snow on your crunch and impale your leg with the pick, which I’m guessing would cause some serious damage. I was told by one of my instructors after a few attempts that I was prohibited from practicing at full speed and worked with him on my technique, eventually improving until I was able to execute it properly. Before leaving the mountain, we decided to have some fun and glissaded on our feet and butts multiple times (search glissading on YouTube). We eventually created a chute where we were able to slide down for hundreds of yards at fairly high speeds before self arresting with our elbows and coming to a stop. It was easily the most fun I’ve ever had “sledding” down a hill (I guess it’s pretty hard to compete with a mountain).
The weather had cleared by the next day and we were able to finally move onto the glacier. Leaving the tundra and dry land behind us for the next 18 days. We would soon come to learn of the hardships we would have to face and the huge challenges that lay ahead.