This is part 13 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
With Jarvis under our belts, we now faced the home stretch of our time on the glacier. From this point on, we would have multiple options which we could pursue, before making our way down and out the Copper Glacier. One opportunity was to tackle some small peaks about 10 miles south, in the opposite direction of the Copper. Another was to make a big push for Mt. Wrangell, which sat 15-20 miles west from our current camp. However, before we would be able to do any of these mini-expeditions, we would have to practice crevasse rescue, as a safety measure in case of certain circumstances. While all these options sounded appealing, a few others and myself made a strong push for a basic scout of the Copper before we proceeded with any other plans. From looking at the map, the upper Copper was laden with crevasses. It would likely take a good amount of strategizing and excellent route finding to manage our way down. In the worst case scenario, where we wouldn’t be able to head down, we would have only 8 days to sprint back to our initial starting point on the Nabesna, in order to get off the glacier. After much discussion and reasoning from multiple sides, we agreed to send two rope teams for an initial scout of the Copper the following day, while the others were to remain at camp. I was placed in charge of the scouting mission, anxious to see this unseen part of our journey that would influence our future days ahead. After gathering 3 other students, to join myself and 2 of the 3 instructors, I discussed ideas and formulated a plan with the instructors before turning in early for the night.
In the morning, we were met with a sky filled with clouds as we exited our tents and began our scouting mission. The route was fairly easy, as there was almost no change in slope over the 4 miles we planned to travel. Our plan was to travel to a moraine, located next to Mt. Jarvis on the east side of the Copper, from which we would hopefully be able to see further down the glacier to evaluate potential route options. We were about a mile from camp when I, out front in the first rope team, spotted some strange indents in the snow cutting across my planned path of travel. Were they human footprints? Who or what would be travelling out here? To my great surprise, the prints turned out to be those of a bear! A big one at that. For the record, bears very very rarely go out on glaciers. What was it doing out more than 15 miles from land in a place where there is no food? I for one did not want to find out. I could not imagine coming upon a (hungry) bear on glacier, especially since we had given our bear sprays to Kirk before the glacier, leaving us defenseless. As we continued our way over the gentle slope on to the head of the Copper, I began to see more and more crevasses that lay further ahead. It was remarkable, yet somewhat terrifying to see these large crevasses in rows every 20 yards or so. How would we be able to navigate through these obstacles?
I began to probe to check for possible crevasses as I saw multiple signs (indents, open cracks etc.) in my path. The gaping openings of the crevasses, spanning over 20 feet wide, did little to quell my fears as I continued on. On multiple occasions, I stuck the probe in the snow about a foot only to have it reach the vast expanse of open air within the crevasse below. No way did I trust that. My rope team would have to retreat, then side step over to check another section. As my team moved further into the center of the Copper I did not have faith in my abilities to lead past this point and called one of my instructors from the other rope team, the legendary JQ, to the front to take over the lead role. She was very understanding but as we were talking, Kevin (the other instructor) interrupted us and posed the question of whether or not we could see our destination. I did not believe so and neither did JQ. My belief was that the moraine we were searching for was located further down glacier. However, after reviewing the maps, we were proved wrong and were now in somewhat of a predicament. To travel to our destination would most likely add 5-6 hours to the 4 in which we had already travelled. As I was still in pain from the salt rashes, I did not believe it was in my best interest to go on. At that point, the instructors and one of my peers travelled on one rope to further scout while the other 2 students and I followed our tracks back to camp. This was something that is almost never done at NOLS. On the glacier, students are to travel with instructors at almost all times. This decision empowered us through the level of trust and responsibility that was given. Before splitting off, Kevin insisted that I examine my tracks while we were backtracking over the crevasses. I had committed a big mistake. During one of the points in which I had chosen to retreat and side step, I had not fully backed out of the snow bridge covering the crevasse. This meant that I had been travelling directly over the crevasse. Luckily, the snow held as I travelled 20 yards or so over the bridge and back on to “firmer” land.
I was very disappointed to not continue the scouting mission, as my rope team had only performed a basic scout and as a result little to report. We moved fairly quickly over the gentle slopes, through our established tracks back to camp. About a mile or so out, snow began to fall pretty quickly and we sped up in order to beat the storm and a potential whiteout. We narrowly made it, heading into our tents as the brunt of the storm moved overhead, creating whiteout conditions. I lounged around camp for the rest of the day, with the rest of my comrades awaiting the return of the scout party. Upon their return, I was informed by Ben, a friend and fellow student, what they had seen and an idea of the potential plan. One of the more shocking things they had seen was more of the bear prints. They had spotted the bear crossing over thin snow bridges multiple times and even a 60 foot wide crevasse! The bear may have survived those trips, but my best guess is that he is now down far below in some crevasse on the Copper.
The team had made it to the moraine but unfortunately it was not campable. They did select a route along the eastern portion of the middle section of the Copper Glacier though, that would give us the best opportunity to make our way off this land of white. There was one caveat. In order to reach this route, we would have to rappel 500 feet (what they estimated) off the moraine to the valley below. Talk about an adventure! I was ecstatic with this idea and could not wait to discuss and formulate a plan. Later on, I met with the instructors in their tent, along with my fellow leaders of the day. We would be travelling to the edge of the moraine tomorrow. From there, the instructors would start prepping our descent. We would rappel the following day.
I led the rope teams again the following day, with Ben in the spot right behind me in order to assist in route finding. Packs were heavy with almost a full rations worth of food on our back, as we made our way through our tracks from the previous day with the sun high in the sky. We had another opportunity to travel independently on the glacier, due to our instructors remaining behind on their own rope team in order to be able to start prepping upon arrival at camp. Travel was very easy, covering most of our tracks from the previous day, before making a diagonal cut northeast towards the moraine, crossing no crevasses in the process. After probing out a perimeter, we spent a few hours stomping out platforms and creating wind walls out of snow blocks, to provide protection for our tents. The instructors had decided during their decision making process that it would be in our best interest to take a couple days off and hang out at this camp. We had been in go-mode for a long time by that point and it would be best to relax before pushing on. Instead of immediately rappelling, we would practice rappelling into a crevasse the next day and the following day would be utilized to practice live crevasse rescue. I enjoyed a beautiful view through the clouds, of light from the sunset on Mt. Wrangell, before heading in to my tent for the night.
In the morning, we awoke to dense fog as we made our way down to the crevasse to practice rappelling. Not only would be rappelling, but navigating through terrain filled with large crevasses that forced us to be on high alert and have effective communication between our rope team members. The instructors led the way as we zig zagged around the huge openings and over snow bridges. I was in both awe and fear of the land that surrounded us. Any mis-step or judgment could leave one injured deep within a crevasse. We finally finished zig-zagging, proceeding down a hill to two more crevasses. Our instructors told us that this part was optional but here we would be doing step overs. A step over is where you move over an open crevasse that is a little less than the length of your skis. The technique is to slide one ski forward, until the front edge is on the other side. Then, you FULLY place your weight on that foot as you slide your other foot up to do the same. At this point, your feet are centered over the opening of the crevasse and you must trust that your bridged skis will hold you above the dark emptiness below. It is quite the adrenalin rush to stand over one of these large cracks with only your skis beneath you. After crossing the first one we were presented with an even more challenging step across. This time it was more than the length of our skis and we would have to place our right foot on a fin (piece of snow that comes out from the wall), place all our weight on that foot while sliding our left foot all the way over to the other side. This was a lot more difficult and many of us barely made it across, with JQ telling many of us to dive forward in order to avoid falling in backwards into the abyss.
It had been a fun day, filled with risks, yet we continued on to another crevasse, where we would practice rappelling and fixed line ascension. The instructors told us that we would be building the anchors today, which we took seriously since we would be ones utilizing them. After setting up the anchors, getting the ropes assembled we began to rappel into the crevasse. About a hundred feet down, there was a large snow bridge where JQ and Kevin waited to assist and manage the process. I was one of the first students to go and prepared to hop off the snow and down the face of the crevasse, like a spy off a skyscraper. It wasn’t meant to be however, as my foot slipped on the lip and I dropped a few feet down, hanging horizontally up against the wall. Not all things are meant to be and I composed myself before rappelling down to Kevin. I spent some time down there, hanging out and just gazing into the dark holes in parts of the snow bridge. The ice formations and depth of the crevasse was simply stunning! I find it amazing how these crevasses were formed by the glacier moving for thousands of years. Switching around the ropes on my harness, I prepared to climb back up out of the crevasse by fixed line ascension. I found this to be fun and much easier than rappelling. I made my way to the top where I pulled up my pack and un-roped. After everyone had gone down and then back up we travelled back to camp, this time taking a much more challenging route. Again, we navigated around large crevasses with snow bridges that spanned over the openings. We faced one final step-over before we reached camp. This time, the crevasse was barely narrower than the length of our skis and we would not have an instructor at our side to assist us. I was nervous even before seeing the obstacle, as I watched my peers move over it while uttering comments about how scared they were. It was now my turn and I moved to the edge of the crevasse. There were no ice formations or protrusions coming from the walls of this crevasse, only a vast emptiness. I could not see any signs of the bottom, only the dark below. I moved the first ski out over the center of the crevasse. It took a lot more time to trust my weight on my foot this time around. Kevin was giving me encouragement but I barely could hear him from 20 feet away, as I fearfully and nervously slid my other ski out over the center. It took me a few moments before I was able to move from my position directly over the center of the crevasse. I was able to get both of my skis across and was more than relieved to make it back to camp. That was easily the scariest part of the whole expedition.
Life at camp had been a struggle due to unexpected high winds coming off Mt. Jarvis. We spent many hours, during our time there, building up large wind walls to fully cover our tents from multiple angles. Thankfully, the following morning the wind had died down, but we found ourselves in whiteout conditions yet again as we travelled over to practice crevasse rescue. Many of us had preferred to skip this practice, but the instructors insisted that it would be beneficial so we reluctantly moved along. We were doing crevasse rescue at the large crevasse we had stepped over the previous day. A team of 3 had left earlier in the morning to begin probing out a perimeter, allowing us to immediately begin building snow anchors for the ropes. After the anchors were complete, I helped Andrew, carve out the lip of the crevasse to make it less harmful as the snow continued to fall. In just a few days, I had become more comfortable with crevasses and noticed that my fear had somewhat subsided. The LOTD had assigned me to catch the fall on one of the ropes. This entailed me self arresting with my ice axe in the snow, to prevent my lead rope member from falling further in the crevasse.
“Falling!” She yelled, as she jumped into the crevasse and I instinctually turned, digging my ice axe into the snow. Catching the fall had been much easier than I had imagined and I waited in position as the other team member went to set up rescue anchors. This process took a lot longer than usual because the knots in the rope were very tight from the previous day of rappelling, making them difficult to undo. I became quite uncomfortable in this position, with my hips feeling the strong pull of my harness. Laying my face in the snow, I tried to think about anything else besides how uncomfortable this position was. Other rope teams quickly pulled out their fallen comrades, but I still found myself cold on the snow, holding the fall. Eventually, the anchor system was set up and I was able to move out of position. What a relief! However, I noticed that I was very cold and likely in the beginning stages of hypothermia. Lying in the snow for over half an hour resulted in a lack of warmth, due to immobility and wet hands from the snow, from the sky and on the ground. Shivering, I helped my team member finish up the last piece of the anchor system and slowly pull our rope leader out of the crevasse. We had done it but I was quite miserable and anxious to get back in my sleeping bag at camp. A majority of us were allowed to move back to camp and we quickly roped up, without even putting our skis on, and marched back to camp. My outer layers and gloves were soaked but I was finally able to get into my sleeping bag and warm up.
The snow continued to fall for the rest of the day and was still falling as we went into our tents for the night. The LOTD was planning on doing a weather check at 5 am to see if it was still snowing. Preferably, we would like to rappel in better conditions to make travel safer and more efficient. Weather checks at both 5 am and 7 am proved futile, with the snow still continuing to fall. They established that we would just spend the day at camp instead, meeting with our mentors to discuss the past couple weeks. Around 11 am, the sun finally came out. JQ suggested that we take advantage of this opportunity instead of wasting the day lounging at camp. The LOTD agreed and we began to break down camp. It was go time.