This is part 15 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
Sleeping for about 10 hours, we felt rested as we left camp mid-morning to embark on our journey down and out the lower Copper Glacier. This section of our travel was a huge question mark because none of us had any idea what laid ahead of us. The only information we could really analyze at that point were our maps from 1960, that didn’t show much detail, and Mike’s, our glacier pilot, word that it looks like someone could walk down. Neither of these bits of knowledge was reassuring, considering we were planning to meet Kirk at the bottom of the glacier for our re-ration in less than 2 days, yet we were still 12 miles away. With that in mind, we continued rope-less across the ice, next to the large moraine where we had camped the night before. There were minimal crevasses and travel was quite efficient for my group, which was comprised all males on that day. Moving along, we eventually heard a familiar sound, one that we had not heard since base camp at Mt. Gordon. It was the sound of a glacier creek flowing into a moulin. Water usually flows into the moulins, which are holes on the glacier that go deep into the earth. Needless to say, they are quite dangerous and we acted cautiously as we moved closer to peer into what looked like the beginning of a water slide. There was quite a bit of apprehension for both us students and Andrew, our instructor, since students have died from falling into these hazards on NOLS courses in the past.
At this point, all travel groups had come together to check out the moulin and discuss how we would continue our route. Continuing ahead on our current route did not look promising due to the start of multiple crevasses which lay perpendicular to our path. After a team had went ahead and scouted the area, we moved to our left (west) to attempt to move ahead through the ice bumps and humps around the central section of the glacier. We moved slowly as a whole group throughout this section, having to stop and scout multiple times because of dead ends (crevasses). About 5 hours after we had departed, we finally moved out of the larger bumps and found an area that offered quick travel with minimal to no crevasses. We were flying now. The main terrain we tried to shoot for on this section of glacier is what we called superhighways. Superhighways are simply just flat expanses of ice that allow for quick travel due to minimal crevasses and smooth terrain. After a while, we entered into some bumpy terrain again and decided to stop and have dinner while another team scouted further ahead. On this night, we had the pleasure of celebrating one of our fellow student’s birthday and enjoyed some cake after dinner, far from civilization on the middle of the glacier. The hour and a half break was a well welcomed rest for my feet, which were still doing quite poorly more than a week after Jarvis.
As the evening progressed, we continued through a mix of bumps and flat ice encountering fewer crevasses as the night progressed. The temperatures dropped with the sun, forcing us to put on our crampons because the ice had become too slippery. I’m not sure what it was but there was something about the crampons that further irritated the salt rashes on my feet. This resulted in more painful travel as I hobbled along in the back of the group. The terrain we were covering at this point was quite spectacular with a multitude of glacier creeks, pools, ice formations and the sun setting over Mt. Sanford in the distance. During this time, a bear spray exploded in one of the bags that was being pulled on the sled. Someone had made the mistake of storing their crampons with the bear spray and the sharp points did not seem to mix well with the spray can. We were happy to continue moving from our position after we were hit with traces of the bear spray in the air. With only one bear spray left, it looked as if we would have to take on any bears with our bare hands. This wouldn’t be a problem for me because I considered joining the wrestling team during my freshman year of high school. Bears would be no match for my skills.
There had been talk of attempting to make it out of the glacier and onto the large moraine bordering the left side of the glacier, but this didn’t look all too promising as the sun continued to set. As we continued to move, I overheard discussions from two of our instructors. They wished to just camp out on the ice and nap for a little bit then continue our travels off the glacier. I absolutely loved this plan and became very excited. I was itching to get off the glacier at this point but this added challenge seemed like it would only add to our adventure. The moon rose up over Jarvis behind us, as we stumbled on to a “highway” and began to make some miles. However, travel was beginning to become quite unsafe as more crevasses popped up and our visibility became quite low. We stopped and sat on our packs as Andrew, Kevin and a student went to scout a place for us to bivy for the night. An intense debate took place during this period between JQ and a few students as they wanted to continue moving for a couple more hours. This didn’t appear like the safest idea and luckily JQ prevailed because I was already fast asleep on my pack, exhausted from the long day. After travelling the final few hundred yards, we laid our tents flat on the ground and slept on the ice under the dark Alaskan sky. The instructors had told us earlier in our expedition how miserable bivying was but many of us remained warm and ended up having our best sleep in days.
After sleeping much longer than we had planned, we had breakfast then quickly packed up camp and continued on our way. Travel was easy from the get go due to finding an excellent flat superhighway that began just a few hundred yards from camp. This large portion of flat ice was the best we had traveled on up to that point, with zero crevasses crossing our path on this smooth route. We stopped after a couple hours in order to have a long break to de-brief the decision from the previous night. The whole decision to stop and bivy for the night was rehashed as both sides spoke from their perspective before reconciling. It was nice to meet as a group as we hadn’t had that much time to just sit and converse since we had been in go-mode for most of the time on the glacier. We continued moving further along the “highway” until once again, we were forced to stop and scout with no clear route in sight. It was only 6:00 pm but we chose to stop and camp for the night since everyone was exhausted and moving slowly after the previous long days of travel. I was not a fan of this plan because I wanted to push and finally get off the glacier. After participating with a couple other members to scout a route for the next day, I realized this was a good choice as it took us quite a while to navigate through large ice mounds and more crevasses. My feet were hampering me as well and I struggled to keep up with the other members, even without a pack, towards the end of our scouting mission. As I returned to my tent, I was met with a nice bowl of dinner before I prepared to turn in for a long night of sleep. Our LOTD planned for us to begin our travel the following day at 9:00 am but that plan quickly changed to 7:00 after Kevin spoke with Kirk (our pilot). He had told Kirk we would not be able to meet him in the morning and wondered whether or not if he could meet us later in the night. He said he would try but if he couldn’t then he wouldn’t be able to give us our food for two days. With no food left besides some brown sugar, spices and butter, we desperately hoped to make it in time so that we wouldn’t have to endure almost 2 days without food. The instructors told us they would take the lead for the day, in order to put us in the best situation to make our resupply.
Rain pounded down on our tents as we groggily woke up at 5:00 am for what we hoped to be our last day on the glacier. With one of our fellow students sick, we would be adding even more weight to our packs that were already loaded down with skis, ropes and the rest of our glacier gear. As we began moving, we were initially able to travel quite quickly because we just followed the bamboo wands that we had strategically placed on our scouting mission the night before. These wands led us to a super large highway that we were able to travel for quite some time. Our travels up to that point had once again passed many aesthetically pleasing sights, such as more moulins and glacier pools/creeks spread out in different areas. Everyone was in fairly good spirits, moving as a large group, hopeful that the end was within our sight. Unfortunately, nothing worth doing comes easily in Alaska and once again we were halted near the bottom of the glacier. The terrain had become quite rugged and large crevasses prevented us from continuing further on our current route. At this point, my feet were in pain on every step and I happily stayed behind to nap on my pack while two scouting teams went to find an alternative route. We came to the conclusion to move from the center to the right side of the glacier and try to exit there since the other routes that were scouted proved to require too much time, effort and skill. I slung my heavy pack on my shoulder, hobbling along in the back of the pack with an empty sled dragging behind me. There were a few of us that were sick and injured and we found it difficult to keep up with the rest of the group. However, after less than an hour we stopped again so Kevin could call Kirk and so we could also do a quick scout of the route ahead. Even though I was in a good amount of pain, I stumbled up the nearby hill hoping to get a vantage point of the route ahead. As I looked further ahead with the instructors, we spotted a spot where we could get off the glacier on to moraine less than around a quarter of a mile ahead. I was ecstatic, rushing back to my pack and informing the others. The route ended up working out and we were able to take our crampons off and finally move off the glacier twenty minutes later. Kirk had said that he could probably come at 8:00 pm but even though we were off the glacier now around 1:00 pm, our journey was far from over.
We continued to move along the moraine, navigating our way through the rock mounds and climbing up rock hills with ice a few inches below. The instructors had executed further scouting missions as we patiently waited back at our packs, hopeful for them to return with good news. After they had returned, we were finally able to move off the moraine and on to the tundra. Climbing another hill of dirt and rock we were met with green moss and plenty of vegetation. Looking down we discovered that there were blueberries! Jackpot! We happily knelt down and picked all that we could before being ushered away by the instructors. Our travel on dry land consisted of us carefully following ridge lines and narrow passages along the hills before cutting in to the trees. Our travel in the dense alder and willow trees took a long time and ended up dampening all our moods significantly. The thick brush made it difficult to move forward with our backpacks and skis protruding a couple feet above our packs. By this point, I was exhausted and had tripped/stumbled multiple times as a result. To make matters worse, the rain poured down on us from above as we struggled through the trees, unable to see more than 5 feet in front of us. Eventually, we made it to a small clearing at the edge of the hill and took a break so the instructors could scout again. This moment qualifies, along with the time spent at the bottom on the rappel day, as one of the most depressing of the trip as I sat on my pack both physically and mentally drained with the rain continuing to fall on my head. Our breaks were usually filled with conversation and laughter but this one was silent, with everyone in low spirits.
Our day’s journey carried us along more rock fields before stopping at the edge of a hill filled with loose rocks. From here, we would be able to get to the bottom, dry land, and travel the final distance to camp. This route was quite challenging however, as we had to traverse across a narrow path, no more than a foot wide, before sliding down the loose rocks like they were a magic carpet. Full attention was definitely required at this point, so that we could safely make it down without falling and injuring ourselves. After everyone had navigated this obstacle, we hoped we could now finally travel close to the gravel bar where Kirk would be landing and set up camp. Not so fast. We found that after moving past the bushes that lay at the bottom that there was a river that we would have to cross. How much does a man have to do to get a bite to eat around here? It was crossable though and we moved individually across what we hoped was our final obstacle. As I neared the other side, I slipped and fell in the river. Right as I fell, I noticed that I lost one of my trekking poles but I quickly tried to grab the rocks on my left to avoid being swept away. Andrew quickly came up and grabbed my pack, pulling me out of the water onto dry land. I think that exhaustion and foot pain may have played a large role in the mishap but I was happy to avoid disaster.
After another 15 minutes we finally arrived at an area that we believed was a good campsite. It was 9 pm at that point but Kirk said that he would be able to deliver our food in a half hour. We crossed two small creeks before arriving at the gravel bar and lining a runway for Kirk. I was happy to see the Hulk once again and enjoy a meal, after yet another long day, on the soft moss. What a feeling it was to have all these plants around us as well as the opportunity to walk in bare feet. Everything seemed a lot more vivid after spending almost 3 weeks in a land of white and brown. I was happiest about finally being able to shed the plastic boots. The long days had taken the toll on my already damaged feet and I was barely able to walk the 70 yards to my tent that night. My friend, Jessie, followed me the whole way, laughing about how I seemed like a crippled old man. I couldn’t help but laugh myself as we moved in the dark. We had done all we set out to do. Climb Jarvis. Make it down and off the Copper. And now after the day’s travel which Kevin deemed, Alaska in a day, we began the second part of our journey into the land of green, animals and blueberries.
Man… I forgot about the search for super highways… those were pretty key haha.
I was just thinking about it the other day. I was reading David Robert’s book Mountain of My Fear and it brought me back. That last stretch from our last camp on the glacier until we got off was the best.