This is part 11 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
For the second time in three days, we would begin our journey into the vast expanse of snow and ice that is the glacier. As we left the comfort of dry land, I would now have to face my fear of crevasses and the unknown. We travelled yet again over the early ice section of the glacier, yearning for the easy travel of firm snow. Our estimation of the end of the ice was too soon, resulting in a lot of frustration and falling as we tried to navigate the icy contours with our skis. Eventually, we made our way out onto the snow and began our long and arduous journey up a long and steep slope. From afar, the large hill looked like it wouldn’t take very long, but after hours of navigating up the hill and over crevasses we realized we were mistaken. Crevasses on slopes are for the most part located so that they are running perpendicular to the fall line. I do not remember the reason for this, if there is one, but it definitely slows travel as the lead rope member must stop and probe when there are signs of crevasses so we don’t end up taking an icy plunge 2000 feet down into the center of the Nabesna. Around 5 pm we were still climbing up the hill and decided that the first flat spot we saw with deep snow and no crevasses would be our campsite for the night. It took us a good bit of time to establish our first campsite because we had to learn to probe out a perimeter, stomp out tent platforms with our skis, build wind walls with snow blocks and create a bathroom. The bathroom is just a probed out area away from camp, next to a crevasse if we are lucky, with a privacy wall of snow. When it was all said and done, we were finally enjoying dinner around 10 pm as we enjoyed a beautiful view of the sun setting over the mountains and low clouds filling the lower glacier.
The next day we awoke to almost no visibility, with fog and snow blanketing the air around us. We packed up camp and were on our way, struggling to find our way in the world of white. Further hampering our travel was the fact that it was a warm day for the glacier, which made the snow soft, resulting in the snow balling up on the bottom of our skis. We stopped early as a group to take an extended break, where we all applied wax to the bottom of our skis so that they would be more slick. After continuing our travel for less than an hour, we stopped early to make camp. The snow was becoming softer as the storm continued to become worse. We could no longer see 100 yards in front of us. Even though our travel was somewhat unsuccessful I considered myself lucky to be in such a peaceful place! There was no wind or sound, besides our skis when we travelled, as the snowflakes fell all around us. How often in today’s day and age does one get the opportunity to experience true quiet? While we were probing out camp, we found a tiny crevasse, lengthening our set up time on our second day on the glacier. The storm continued the rest of the day while we rested in our tents and enjoyed snow ice cream (snow mixed with powdered (soy) milk and cocoa. Absolutely delicious!)
The leaders of the day had decided they would wake up at 4 am to check the weather conditions and see whether or not we would be able to begin travel. 4 am came and went, with the snow still falling peacefully in the air. Checks at 7 and 9 am proved to be unfruitful as well and we decided that we would not be travelling that day but rather meeting with our instructors to check in and learn white out navigation. During this time, one of the tents had come up with the idea to flip our schedules around so that we would travel in the night and sleep in the day. This idea had been tossed around before as one of our instructors had done it on a course in the past. The premise behind it is that the night seemed to be less stormy than the day and the cold conditions provided ideal snow conditions for travelling. After hearing out their proposal, we all agreed to tackle yet another challenge in hopes of achieving our ultimate goal, Mt. Jarvis, which sat about 15-20 miles away. Our journey would continue into the darkness.
After resting and sleeping in our tents for the rest of the day we began our first night of travel at 11 pm. The fog had somewhat lifted and visibility had definitely improved as we glided across the firm snow. The goal for that day (I mean night. This was one of the biggest headaches of night travel as we could never determine how to properly determine day and night and whether a certain time was day or night.) was to travel down the slope that sat 1.5 miles from camp, into the glacial valley below. Travelling down that slope was one of the most nerve-wracking parts of my travel at that point. I was not very confident with my skiing abilities on the 2 inches of snow that lay above pure ice. On top of that, I had to manage the sled of the person in front of me so that it did not crash into their legs. As a first time skier, our rope leader, Asa, decided to take a route that basically went straight down the mountain. That further added to the difficulties that I faced, but I found the conversation between my instructor, Kevin, who is a former ski instructor, and Asa about the direction of the route to be quite funny. There was obviously some miscommunication because my instructor couldn’t seem to convey to Asa why we should weave our way down instead of the straight downhill approach. Eventually we made our way down into the valley where we waited for the other rope teams to catch up. As we waited, the fog finally lifted and we were presented with a beautiful view of Mt. Jarvis and the surrounding mountains in the dark sky. After speeding through the valley, we set up camp next to a small glacial creek. Waiting while others probed proved to be far more difficult at 3 in the morning. We sat on our packs, freezing in the cold dark night, doing pushups and jumping around to avoid hypothermia. The glacier turned out to be a place of extremes because after surviving the freezing cold of the night we found out that the days were burning hot, with the sun reflecting off the snow. We had slept with all our clothes, still freezing, the nights before on the glacier but found ourselves outside of our sleeping bags with almost no clothes and sweating when we tried to sleep during the day.
Rain fell during the day as we slept causing the snow to become softer and more like pure water, not even close to our ideal conditions for travelling. We would wait yet again for the snow to firm up, sleeping and chewing the fat as we added more layers to combat the dropping temperatures. Finally, around 2:30 am we decided that the snow was in solid condition but first we would have a class in camp on a crevasse rescue technique, called team haul. Long story short, it’s hard to pay attention in freezing temperatures when you’re body thinks it should be sleeping and the instructor that taught vowed never to teach a class again in the middle of the night. I led the group (my first time) across the glacier as we moved to our next camp, which we hoped to be on moraine. It was another whiteout and the loss of visibility played tricks on my mind as I thought I saw hills in front of me that did not exist. Thankfully, the navigation was fairly easy as we were only travelling straight about 4 miles so all I had to do was stay left of a rock at about the midway point, which we dubbed free willy. Free willy got its name from its whale like appearance, a large black mound of rocks with two humps that was sparsely covered with patches of snow.
Travelling on a rope team on the glacier was an experience in and of itself. It was almost as if you were travelling by yourself with rope teams fairly spread out and each member of the rope team spaced out anywhere from 30 to 50 feet. There was limited to no talking besides questions and information which were deemed pertinent by each individual. However, I for one found myself to have a ginormous amount of inner dialogue. The isolated travel provided a huge opportunity for reflection and introspection which I thoroughly enjoyed as I pondered about current and past challenges in my life and other miscellaneous thoughts. However, on some days if you were lucky you were placed with Lucas, a friend, who was not one for silence and spent many a travel day loudly singing.
As the fog lifted we began to see our potential destination, a large moraine in the middle of the glacier. We happily discovered that we were able to camp on this wonderful oasis with dry land. After 4-5 days on the snow and ice, we were happy to camp on rocks and enjoy the wonder of dry land. Without having to probe and stomp out tent platforms, we quickly set up camp before having breakfast and watching the sunrise light up the beautiful area around us. Looking back we could see the valley through which we had traveled. From the other directions, we were surrounded by Mt. Jarvis, Mt. Wrangell and Mt. Blackburn, true Alaskan beauties, each sitting over at least 13,400 ft. After dinner we enjoyed some more time together, drowsily playing some games in the early morning hours. Later that morning, I hiked up the hill next to our tents on the glass like sheets of rock to take in all that was around me. I was happy to spend some time alone once again as I looked over the glacial lake below and the surrounding mountains. Life was definitely very very good.