This is part 12 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
It was finally time to leave paradise and continue our journey on the glacier. One of the benefits of the night schedule was that we would wake up much earlier than normal for a travel day, so we would have a lot of free time in the late evening, in which we spent time relaxing and enjoying conversation with each other. Today’s trek would be 6 miles, travelling up about 1000 feet in elevation to our lower base camp at Mt. Jarvis. Shortly before leaving, one of our fellow expedition members became sick and started vomiting. It would be another heavy day as we relieved him of his weight and took on additional weight ourselves. My rope team would be travelling last and we decided to hang out for a while back at camp before leaving. We enjoyed a nice conversation as we watched the sun begin to drop behind the mountains in the distance. I was dragging the sled today and the initial travel was quite tough as we navigated along a side slope to a valley below. The snow was nice and firm on this cool night, perfect for travelling conditions. With little wind, there was no sound besides the swishing sound of our skis gliding back and forth. Quite peaceful, if I may say so myself. Our team sped along as we quickly caught up to the other groups and began climbing the steep hill towards base camp. Upon reaching the top of the hill, now facing a much more gradual incline, we spotted another moraine ahead. At the time we had no idea whether it was a few thousand yards or 2 miles away. It is that hard to distinguish distance out there, due to both lack of detail on the map and the large landscape. After much discussion (and arguing), the LOTD made the decision that we would stop there, 2 miles short of our planned destination, because of how much the moraine boosts everyone’s morale and frees up more activities.
While this moraine wasn’t the same paradise as the last, it was still nice to be on rocks again, drinking unlimited water from a creek of melted snow. One of our biggest “problems” on the glacier was lack of liquid water. There we were, surrounded by miles of water in the form of snow or ice but we had to go through the long process of melting it so that we could use the water to drink or cook. Many of us struggled in this aspect and we ended up only drinking about 1 liter per day, compared to 4-6 liters off glacier. This definitely impaired our abilities and made it difficult to deal with adversity at points. After setting up camp, we spent the rest of the morning relaxing, so that we would be rested for a potential attempt to summit Jarvis in the evening. We woke later that night to discover that we would not be making an attempt on this day, as our fellow expedition member was still not feeling his best. Instead, we would take advantage of the snow field in the center of the moraine to learn and practice crevasse rescue theory. This was easily one of the worst times of the whole expedition. We had class in the middle of the night from 11 pm to about 3 am. People were wet and cold as we waited for the time to pass in the dark so that we could just return to our tents. Layover days on the night schedule proved to be quite miserable. The frigid temperatures, along with the state of tiredness, created an environment that was not conducive to learning. After returning to our tents, we planned to hang out until our meeting later that morning at 6 am. Instead we all happened to fall asleep and showed up late and groggily to the meeting, where we established that we would be making an attempt on Jarvis that night, variables permitting.
All systems were go. It was a beautiful night as we prepared for an 8 pm departure for our ascent of Jarvis. After having breakfast and getting our rope teams set up, we began the 12 mile journey with 4000 feet of elevation gain. I was in the same rope team as the previous travel day and again we enjoyed being the rescuers trailing in the back. Travel would be uphill almost the whole way. We switch-backed our way up the hills and over the crevasses that lay somewhat hidden beneath the snow. We were able to enjoy another beautiful sunset that night, witnessing the beautiful reddish colors on top of Mt. Blackburn and Mt. Wrangell. As we continued up, we were able to see off the glacier, onto the tundra far below, with Mt. Gordon looming in the distance. Upon reaching the base of the mountain, we ditched our skis, beginning the rest of our travel on foot because of the steeper slope. Our first attempt to start climbing up the mountain didn’t go too well as our leader took a route straight towards a set of giant crevasses. Struggling to find a route, one of our instructors advised that she choose a different route, because she did not feel comfortable about her ability to catch her if she was to fall into a crevasse (which is quite a statement). Meanwhile, my rope team was still hanging out back at the ski village (we placed our skis in the ground straight up, thus establishing a ski village) just trying to stay warm doing pushups and even handstands. After a while, the leader found a route off to the side, around the crevasses that would allow us to continue our journey. On our way up we saw some huge crevasses, the largest we had seen up to that point. Openings that spanned 20 feet or more, an entrance to the abyss that went to unknown depths. It was a bit intimidating as you knew you were travelling over a snow bridge and you could see the large opening of the crevasse off to the side. The ground was fairly icy too at that point, so it would have been difficult to catch someone who fell below. As the rope leader of the last rope team, my task was to place bamboo wands every so often so that we would be able to find our way back, especially if we faced whiteout conditions. People thanked me profusely for this task but I didn’t find it very challenging and after a while exclaimed, “expelliarmus!” as I grabbed each wand out of my pack and stuck it in the icy snow (Harry Potter reference for those who are so unfortunate). We faced an even scarier part further along on our climb when we had to climb over this crevasse, with just a little base to place our feet on. One of my peers in the rope team ahead punched through the weak bridge with her whole leg, further intensifying my fear as I climbed across.
During one of the breaks, I looked around to take in the beautiful scenery. I happened to notice that the sun was rising on one side, while it was still dark, with the moon on the other. I could clearly see the line between night and day in the sky. It was one of the most fascinating things I saw on the entire trip. The trek was long and with each turn up the mountain, I became somewhat disappointed in not seeing the top. As we continued to climb, one of our peers began to become severely affected by the altitude. She reported blacking out for 20 seconds or so at a time and did not seem to be in the best condition. Our rope teams moved very slowly together up the last few miles as more of us began to feel affected by the altitude. For myself, I became quite irritated but I’m happy to say that I was able to pinpoint it as not having enough water at the time and tried to rise out of that state. At that time, I was already long out of water and food, only having 1 liter in the time we had traveled, not even close to an adequate amount. A bag of brown sugar was the only food I had left by that point. The slope became much steeper as we neared the top and I tiredly continued to kick in steps for those behind us. The rope teams in front of us had long disappeared from our view. We were only following in their footsteps at that time. Finally, we climbed another hill, reaching a flat plateau. We could see the summit in the distance! While taking a break, the clouds moved from the summit and we could see the second rope team making their last push up the hill, a beautiful sight. After drinking a half liter of water, graciously given to me by one of my instructors, we enthusiastically moved across the snow and up the final hill to the summit. As we broke through the fog, we were greeted with cheers from our waiting peers and moved into the perimeter they had established. We exchanged hugs, shared food and water and reveled in the accomplishment we had just completed. At over 13,400 feet, we enjoyed the views of Blackburn behind us, Mt. Sanford in the distance, Mt. Drum and Mt Wrangell on the other side and the valley far below. After 12-13 hours, we had done it. We had slayed the dragon and accomplished our number one goal.
Enjoying the time at the top was a special treat, as we had not been fortunate enough to do so on Mt. Gordon due to the high winds. About an hour later, we decided to descend back down to the ski village, continuing on to camp. Travel was very very quick down the slopes. The same hills that had taken hours a short time before were tackled in mere minutes. A well placed heel yielded a quick glide of a few yards at a time. The biggest challenge we now faced was the blazing heat. The sun was high in the sky and the snow offered the perfect mirror for the heat. It is crazy how much of a difference the sun makes in temperature. Early in the morning we had been bundled up in all of our layers yet were still cold, while now we were burning and couldn’t take enough layers off. Another challenge we faced on our descent was managing our team member who had been affected by the blackouts earlier. She continued to have blackouts as I followed behind her on the slope. I raced to catch her at one point as she was stumbling and about to fall. After climbing down the crevasse again, we continued to speed and make our way back to the ski village. Strapping on our skis, we embarked on the first part of our expedition where we would have to ski downhill. We fared very well with many novices in our group, limiting ourselves to only a few falls and happily arriving back in camp about 17.5 hours after we had started at 1 pm. Taking off my boots, I discovered that I had acquired a terrible case of salt rashes on the insides of both my feet. This occurs from the salt from sweat building up on your socks and feet, then causing a big rash. It was quite painful to walk, so I was happy to get into my sleeping bag after doing a quick rinse in the creek. In about 16 hours, we were supposed to get our next re-ration 5 miles away. We immediately went to bed and woke up around 6 to prepare for travel after an already exhausting day.
Due to a large number of physically ill members, the LOTD decided to split us up into two rope teams with 6 of us, including myself, staying behind at camp. My feet were feeling even worse that morning and I was happy to stay put. We were planning to leave only a couple hours after the first group, but that changed as others were still not feeling well so I was able to read more of Huck Finn and nap in the instructor’s tent for a few hours. We eventually packed up and sped off around 7 am. Half of the travel on this day would be from part of the route towards Jarvis the day before so we were able to speed quickly along. The earlier rope teams were also kind enough to leave bamboo wands for us so that we would have to do even less navigating. At about the halfway mark, we decided that we needed to speed up to help out with the re-ration scheduled for 10 am. I was not too fond of this idea as my feet burned with each slide of my skis. My skins (attached to bottom of skis for traction) were also not very cooperative on that day, falling off and failing to stick multiple times, further complicating matters.
Thankfully, we were able to make it to camp at right about 10 am. Our quickest travel day yet. Camp was already set up and 20 or so minutes later we heard the plane buzzing up the glacier. We deployed rope teams out to help with depth perception and I waited in camp as the plane landed. Initially, it was heading straight for camp as I was filming the landing. I freaked out and dived to the side. Silly me, the plane simply went around our camp and pulled around to the side, knocking over our poop privacy wall in the process. Out popped our glacier pilot, Mike, and a father and son from Switzerland, enjoying Alaska for the son’s high school graduation trip. As everyone unloaded the gear, I found myself with nothing to do and spoke with the duo from Switzerland, sharing details about our journey and also learning about what they had seen. Many people found it funny that they were taking pictures of us, dirty and smelly people inside a perimeter camp in the middle of the Nabesna Glacier. I enjoyed some pancakes as others slept and a few of us from the late rope team built a large exquisite snow kitchen. Times were great on the glacier and we were having a blast, oblivious to the long, difficult and exhausting days that lay ahead of us as we would begin our battle to get off the glacier.