The Final Lump

The instructors had spoken with Kirk (our pilot) the night before, about the re-ration in the morning, and he had said that he would meet us at first light.  While that may be an ordinary statement in most places, it can be fairly surprising in Alaska when the sun rises around 3 am.  We had no idea when he would come, so we made the decision to wake up around 6 to prepare for him to arrive shortly thereafter.  Once again, that familiar buzzing sound soon filled the valley.  Gathering up whatever gear we needed, we headed over to meet Kirk as his floats touched down on the still lake.  I was so fortunate to receive the task of refilling the peanut jars, happily enjoying a few scoops to myself as I went through the process.  Later that afternoon, we planned our routes for our independent student group expeditions (ISGE), which were set to begin the following day.  I volunteered as expedition leader for my group, meaning that I would be in charge of the paperwork for each day as well as ensuring that we stick to our overall plan.  For ISGE, we selected a spot to meet the instructors 4 days in advance.  The rest of the route would be determined by each group.  My group of 7, including myself, decided to split up the 15 mile route evenly, with each day’s travel being about 5 miles.  Each group was hoping that this final stretch would be relatively simple, because the map showed that there were two trails that covered half the journey.  By that point in our expedition, we were physically and mentally exhausted and would have loved to just find a trail from our current site to the road.  But as you have probably figured out, Alaska doesn’t really work like that!

We arose, slowly moving about camp, preparing for our first day of independence.  After hugging and bidding the instructors farewell, we made our way north through the valley towards Tanada Lake.  Moving through the bushes, we continued to scan ahead in hope of finding the first pack trail.  With no luck, we continued out into an open section of the valley where we were met with wet and boggy terrain.  We quickly moved a few hundred yards east, towards Goat Creek, in order to find drier land.  We stopped to grab a few more blueberries before crossing over to the east side of Goat Creek.  Bushwhacking through a series of trees and bushes, we stumbled upon a long series of game travels which resulted in much more efficient travel.  Route finding skills are something of great value in the backcountry.  The difference between easy and exhausting travel may be only a hundred feet.  The trails eventually ended and we found ourselves in thick brush once again.  Our group then moved throughout all different types of terrain, across the creek multiple times, through more thick brush and up a hillside to open tundra, in order to find a good route.  Eventually we came across our final destination, the confluence of Goat and Pass Creek.  We had reached our intended X, 5 miles from our start, finding a gravel bar along the creek to camp for the night.  The surrounding area was spectacular with more beautiful rock formations on the mountains that lined the edges of the valley.  With no sense of time, we spent the rest of the day reading, eating, napping and just enjoying the wilderness.

The second day of independence followed a similar routine.  Arising after a long and deep sleep, we set off north once again in hope of finding an ATV trail that the map had shown.  Heading out of camp we moved northeast towards higher ground in search of the treasure.  However, instead of treasure we were met with yet another boggy area and we slowly slogged our way through the knee deep water.   It didn’t seem like we would find the trail, so we continued on our route through the pine forest, near the base of the mountainside.  Travel turned out to be much easier than expected and we quickly moved along with minimal bushwhacking.  A blueberry rule finally had to be enacted, as people started to hold up travel since the berries were becoming bigger and more plentiful.  The rule stated that one could not hold up the group while picking berries, but anyone could call for a blueberry break and we would drop packs, drop onto the ground and gorge ourselves.  At one point on our journey, we stumbled out of a section of the forest right onto the ATV trail! To say we were excited would be an understatement.  With big smiles, we continued along the hard trail, north to our X.  We stopped for one final blueberry break at the end of the trail, basking in the sun while savoring the view of Tanada Lake and the encompassing valley. During the last half mile, we moved down the hill into the drainage.  Further up the drainage, we found yet another perfect campsite alongside a stream with the clearest water we had seen all trip.  The days of independence had so far been nice but nothing special.  Over the past 40 plus days we had formed a great bond with our instructors and our relationship had evolved from instructor-student to a group of peers and friends enjoying the journey.

The next morning we moved, on our final day of ISGE, up towards the Sugarloaf (highlands above the valley).  Our initial route had us gaining over 1000 feet in elevation over three quarters of a mile.  By this point on the expedition, this type of climbing/travel was not exhausting but rather somewhat delightful, due to the ability to look back at the area where we had traveled, as well as Tanada Lake and the pointy mountain peaks in the distance.  At the top, we saw the other group of students a few hundred yards away, packing up camp from the previous night.  A brief argument soon arose within our group about the pace of travel resulting in the split of our group of 7 into two smaller groups of 3 boys and 4 girls.  The situation probably could have been handled differently, but we moved on, walking quickly up and down over the rolling hills of the highlands.  4 miles and a couple hours later, we arrived at our X, at the base of a ‘lump,” on a hill above a dried up lake.  In the area below, we spotted some type of animal. It was difficult to determine what it was from that distance and we first guessed it was a wolf, moose or even a bear.  It slowly continued to move closer to us, as we made crazy sounds while holding our bear sprays at the ready.  Galloping up the hillside, we finally determined that it was only a caribou.  It came up the hill to about 25 yards from us and proceeded to prance and dance back and forth.  It was a peculiar fellow and as quickly as it came, it bounded back to the drainage area below.  After enjoying some more vegetation and listening to pleas from us to return, it galloped over the far hill and out of sight.

We shared our adventures and what we had seen, with the other group and the instructors as we reunited with both by the following day.  This was another day that most people decided they would spend in their tents, but as I stated before that was not my intention in coming here.  The last thing I wanted to do was sleep and stare at the neon yellow wall on the inside of the tent, especially considering it was one of the final days of the trip.  Instead, I lazed around the kitchen area, delighting in views of the surrounding area and the parting of clouds for brief glimpses of Mt. Jarvis and Mt. Sanford.  As a group, we decided that we should do one last big group activity together, so we chose to climb the nearby “lump.” The lump was simply a very large hill on the Sugarloaf that rose about 1500 feet over 2 miles.  Shortly before sunset, we departed as a group for the final climb of our trip.  On the way up, half of us had a blast playing tag and running up the mountain.  Stumbling upon the rocks at the top, we sat as a group and reflected on our trip, as we watched the sun dip behind the mountains in the distance, with the light reflecting off the hundreds of lakes below.  It started to drizzle and we reluctantly left, making our way down to our tents in the darkness.  A memorable closing to a great trip.

Our initial plan for the final two days was to move 2 miles down into the valley and camp at Jack Lake.  However, we would have to endure more difficulty, like the rest of our trip, travelling 12-14 miles back to the lodge (our starting point), in order to facilitate an easier pick-up.  We moved as a whole group, travelling 6 miles over multiple game trails off the highlands, into the valley below, eventually coming across our camp at Jack Creek.  The blueberries had become huge by this point, the biggest, ripest and tastiest we had seen the whole trip and were found everywhere you looked.  The campsite at Jack Creek may have been the best one we had had yet.  It was a great spot at the gravel bar along the slow moving creek, with mountains towering behind us in the distance.  Later that day, a group of us embarked on a scouting mission in order to find the gravel road for tomorrow.  After crossing the creek, we immediately found an old game trail and followed it, stepping over fallen trees and pushing back branches.  Less than five minutes later, we came out from the bushes onto the road.  That may have been the quickest and easiest scouting mission there ever was.  We moved back to camp, enjoying one last campfire as a group before we departed in the morning.

The 6 miles along the road was the easiest travel we had to date and it only took us a little over two hours to get to the lodge. It was extremely disappointing moving along the road as we realized the end was in sight.  Upon arriving at the lodge, we organized our gear and enjoyed a delicious meal prepared by Kirk’s family, while we waited for the bus to arrive.  I had multiple helpings of a scrumptious fruit salad. along with at least six pieces of chocolate cake.  A feast for the ages.  The bus eventually arrived and I was able to read letters that my mom had sent me, but that had to be the only positive aspect of our departure.  Moving along the gravel road, we moved further and further out of the park, away from the wilderness towards civilization.  There wasn’t much I was excited for besides seeing my family and maybe having a nice meal.  I had found peace, calmness, quiet and beauty in the wilderness. Much of which is rare and more difficult to find in civilization today.

Travelling on the bus towards the airport two days later, I became somewhat depressed as I fully began to realize what was happen.  Cars, stores and buildings filled the area.  I felt very out of place, yearning to return to nature and the wild.  I will never forget the lessons that I learned and the true beauty I witnessed during the expedition.  While I had to leave Alaska and its stunning wilderness, I knew that one thing was for certain. I’d be back.

Looking north up valley

Looking north up valley

Moose

Moose

Goat Creek

Goat Creek

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Cotton like plants with Tanada Lake in the distance

Cotton like plants with Tanada Lake in the distance

The "lump"

The “lump”

Caribou

Caribou

Mt. Jarvis from the Sugarloaf

Mt. Jarvis from the Sugarloaf

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sunset in the land of 3 million lakes

Sunset in the land of 3 million lakes

The End

The End

Advertisements

Bears and Berries

A much needed rest day followed after finishing our exhausting and seemingly never ending trek, off the Copper Glacier.  Morale was high within the group and rightfully so.  The night before we had shed multiple pounds of glacier gear, obtained our next full ration of food and were now preparing for times back in the land of green.  One thing that we did not forget to leave behind though was our adventurous spirit.  After a late breakfast, my tent/cook mates and I set off on our own mini expedition in search of blueberries, for our planned biscuits later that afternoon.  We headed towards to a nearby mountain, hoping to find a substantial patch above the brush line.  Weaving through alder trees and following game trails we made it to the top, but unfortunately our trip was fruitless as we were only able to find small handfuls of the treasured blue delicacy.  Our adventure was not for naught however as we stopped to lie in the sun and enjoy the feeling of the dry ground again, before heading back to camp.  The rest of the day consisted of people doing all sorts of activities such as meeting with their mentor, reading, washing socks, playing in the nearby creek and napping before we all met after dinner for our somewhat nightly meeting.  During the meeting, there was a rustling in the bushes behind us and we all took a quick glance and spotted the tall brown spine of an animal before it scampered away.  We figured it to be a moose, due to the large amount of moose signs we had spotted around our camp.  Nevertheless, we were happy with the probable increase in animal interactions for the rest of the trip, after seeing nothing but the occasional fly or worm in the snow, during our time on the glacier.

Our journey continued the following day with us dropping off any extra supplies at the airstrip, for Kirk to pick up later in the week.  My group then set off, moving across the huge gravel bed in the direction of a lake about a mile away.  Our initial destination was a little over five miles away, with the additional option of adding another mile and a half depending on everyone’s physical state.  How great it felt to be back in our hiking boots on dry land! After wearing the heavy plastic boots for over 3 weeks, we felt as if we were barefoot as we moved across the rocks.  We also happily noticed a big difference in our pack weight.  Carrying 70 plus pound packs the last five days or so on the glacier strengthened our muscles to the point where our now 55 pound packs, which felt heavy previously, felt like we had nothing on our backs!  There was nothing that we thought could go wrong as we quickly moved through small streams and over the gravel bed.

That is, until we hit the dreaded quick sinking mud.  Before the glacier, I was the one who always prodded others to keep moving through our evil nemesis, but my wisdom seemed to have escaped me as I sank almost up to my knees in mud. It takes a fair amount of effort to pull your feet out but I think the hardest part is determining where to put your foot next.  All the mud looks similar and it is often difficult to determine if you will sink or stand.  We were able to make it out and after crossing the main channel of the creek we moved along the opening to the lake.  However, we weren’t out of danger yet.  While crossing the opening of the lake to reach more tundra, we found ourselves sinking once again.  It wasn’t quite as bad as before, but in my opinion, it was a whole lot scarier to be sinking in mid thigh deep water compared to dry land.  After reaching the other side, climbing up to the top of the hill and finding a blueberry patch, we promptly dropped our packs, got on all fours and crawled around eating blueberries for the next half hour.  Talk about a nice transition back onto the tundra!

We continued moving on and after stopping for another blueberry break, we continued on over the hills before slightly dropping into the valley.  The area was stunning with pine forests comprising the valley floor, a view of Mt. Sanford in the distance and majestic rock formations making up the surrounding mountain sides.  We had reached our initial X, but the marshy area did not seem to be very campable, so we decided we would wait for the other groups to arrive before proceeding.   It took a while for the other groups to catch up, so I made myself busy eating more blueberries before taking a nap on my pack (And no, it is not possible to eat too many blueberries).  All agreed to proceed and we made our way through the nearby pine forest before stumbling into a deep marsh.  It was quite the predicament, with us far from our entry point and the water becoming deeper with each step.  I decided that we would push through and we laughed as some of us stumbled over the hummock like bottom into waist deep water.  This extra mile and a half took a bit more bushwhacking through the brush than we had endured earlier in the day.  At one point after coming out of the brush, onto the rocks of a drainage, we glanced up to the nearby mountainside to spot a sow (mama grizzly) and her two cubs moving up the hill.  They looked back at us, as we shouted up to them, before bounding up through the bushes.  I had seen my first grizzlies and 3 of them at that!  Shortly thereafter, we broke through the brush once again out onto a larger drainage, arriving at our camp for the night.  We celebrated yet another birthday during the evening with a rare camp fire, before the celebration was cut short with a downpour that had most of us scrambling back to our tents.  After the rain had stopped, we came out of our tents to find a rainbow over a point further up the drainage.  A perfect ending to our first travel day back on the tundra.

Before heading to bed the previous night, we decided as a group that for the next 5 days we would go without time.  Our watches were placed in the bottom of our packs and we agreed not to look at them.  When waking up, the first person up who thought it was a reasonable hour woke the others who were cooking breakfast and we would begin our day.  Our travel would take however long and the rest of our day would carry on.  I was LOTD once again and the instructors entrusted us with a lot of responsibility.  On this day, we would be travelling independently without instructors for the first time on tundra.  Independent student group travel and independent student group expeditions are two of big cornerstones of NOLS, forcing students to practice their leadership, communication and interpersonal skills we had learned in order to lead and maintain a successful expedition.  Our route would be the most straightforward we had in days, maybe even the whole trip.  We were simply heading 4 miles and 2000 feet up the drainage to a spot that would set us up perfectly for the next day where we would be travelling through a pass. The day was fairly uneventful by our standards, travelling along the rocks with a few crossings through the rapidly flowing creeks before reaching our X.  During our travel, we did find a spot where someone had leveled out the rocks for a tent.  That was quite disappointing to say the least.  There were many places (during the expedition) where we thought that we were likely the first humans ever at that spot but not today.  It’s also unfortunate that people don’t clean up after themselves.  This spot didn’t leave any trash, but for the others: why would you go into some place to enjoy nature only to damage it?

We ambled up to the grassy hill above the drainage, which may have been our best campsite the whole trip.  We were able to see back into the valley behind us, at the interesting rock formations on either side of the drainage and also up at the glacier near the top of Tanada Peak.  The grass was perfect as well with sporadic mounds that made for the most comfortable seats you could imagine. Our first day without time had worked out perfectly.  There was no worry that we were travelling too fast or too slow and it did not matter how many breaks we took.  It certainly took out a lot of unnecessary stress and the other expedition members and I were ecstatic with the results.   A long meeting was held later that night since a lot of both interpersonal and personal problems had arisen over the past couple weeks. During this time, the rocks on the mountainsides danced in the light of the sunset.  Another beautiful evening in Alaska.

I watched the sheep high up on the mountains while eating my breakfast and hanging around camp the next morning.  Some of those fellers do not move or change position for hours.  There was one that I watched that did not do either, from the time I began watching to a while (No time, no worries) later just before we left.  Today was another independent travel day and this time the instructors had left before us, getting an early start up the pass. The initial part of our travel was moving three quarters of a mile and up 1500 feet through a pass to the other side of the mountains.  It took us a while to ascend the steep pass as we moved along a small creek under the hot sun.  During one of our breaks, we paused near a pool of water in the creek and dunked our heads in, the freezing water instantly cooling off our heads and faces.  The views back toward the valley were remarkable, as we climbed higher, with the towering Mt. Sanford peeking out from behind the clouds in the distance.  The grass quickly gave way to a rock filled drainage near the top of the pass.  This final steep ascent was our last obstacle on this side of the mountains and we stood atop the pass, greeted by more mountains and a raging creek on the other side..  From here, we planned to travel another four miles downhill before cutting towards an opening in the mountains to our camp, besides a lake.  Moving downhill, we were forced to zig zag across the raging, but shallow, creek multiple times due to dead ends at each side.  One of our interesting sights of the day was our encounter with a rock ptarmigan.  The ptarmigan is the state bird and they surprisingly did not scatter as we approached them.  One of my peers was following one less than a foot away with the intent to kill the poor bird.  I’m glad he didn’t. Eventually, we moved up the side of the mountain and made a long traverse across multiple rock fields.  This part was actually fairly dangerous because the rocks are usually either thin or unstable, so one has to be pretty particular with where they place each step.  Along with river crossings, rock fall terrain is one of the biggest hazards in most NOLS courses.  In the past, there unfortunately have been a few instances where students have died in similar situations and terrain.  Travelling in a single file line, we wearily continued moving across the rocks, stumbling a few times, before coming across a sheep trail.  After descending into a drainage and climbing a final steep hill we had made it to camp.  There was nothing on the agenda for the evening so I helped set up the tent before heading back to the kitchen.  We had no idea what time it was, but that made it even better as we enjoyed a great meal with views of Mt. Jarvis and other mountains on the glacier in the distance.

Our final day of student travel took us down the drainage into the valley below, five and a half miles to the northern end of Sheep Lake.  We were initially supposed to receive our re-ration on this day, but we had pushed it back a couple days before since we would not have made it on schedule.  For the first time, our hiking groups split off into an all boys and all girls group, and we set off after the girls, leaving the instructors at camp.  A question that one of my friends posed to us while we were hiking was, “Would you do another 50 days of this, for free, immediately upon finishing next week?” I answered, “In a heartbeat.”  This expedition had so far been the adventure of a lifetime and as someone had said earlier in the trip, each day becomes the new best day of the trip.  There were no bad days.

Travelling down the drainage was easy with no creeks to cross over or many trick spots to navigate.  We soon reached grassy area again where we were reunited with our delicious blueberries after a brief stint away from these scrumptious treats.  We continued over relatively easy terrain, crossing a small creek before plopping down in an area filled with blueberries for an official blueberry break.  There is not a day without a blueberry break when they are present. We reached the lake shortly thereafter where we were met with a familiar humming sound.  A plane was coming up the valley towards Sheep Lake.  Was that Kirk? Why was he coming now?  We had told him we were not planning on arriving until tomorrow.  The plane’s floats touched down and the pilot slowly moved along the lake turning towards us, as a member of our group yelled out to him.  As we approached the now “docked” plane, we saw that it was an Alaska State Trooper! Trooper Dan Dahl was kind enough to speak with us dirty and foul smelling creatures for a little while, also letting us look into his cockpit.  He was just flying to the lakes within the park and familiarizing himself with the area in order to prepare for sheep hunting season, just over a week today.  What a cool job! He is in charge of this area and flies around on patrol like he was doing that day.  After a quick picture with us and the plane, Dan went off to speak with the girls, who were at the other end of the lake, before turning back into the wind and taking off.  Soon after watching him soar through the valley, we reached camp after marching through a final boggy section that surrounded the lake.  To cap off the day, we were camping in an area that was filled with the most blueberries we had seen yet!  I gorged myself on these treats while enjoying yet another camp with spectacular scenery.  In the evening, we faced a thunderstorm but the rain and lighting dispersed as quickly as it came, leaving another calm night. With a re-ration in the morning, we were unfortunately reminded that this unforgettable adventure would soon be coming to a close.  But it sure wasn’t over yet!

Gravel bed near the Copper River

Gravel bed near the Copper River

Mt. Wrangell

Mt. Wrangell

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Looking up drainage towards Tanana Peak (back left with glacier)

Looking up drainage towards Tanada Peak (back left with glacier)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Near the top of the pass. Mt. Sanford looms in the clouds

Near the top of the pass. Mt. Sanford looms in the clouds

"Castles" at the top of the pass

“Castles” at the top of the pass

Glacier in the distance. Mt. Blackburn on the left

Glacier in the distance. Mt. Blackburn on the left

Glacier in the distance again. Mt. Jarvis on the right. Mt. Blackburn on the far right

Glacier in the distance again. Mt. Jarvis on the right. Mt. Blackburn on the far right

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Southern end of Sheep Lake below the Mountain

Southern end of Sheep Lake below the Mountain

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Sheep Lake.  Mt. Blackburn visible in the distance

Sheep Lake. Mt. Blackburn visible in the distance

Get Me Out of 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.

The Copper Glacier with Mt. Sanford in the distance

The Copper Glacier with Mt. Sanford in the distance

Ice blocks, crevasses and a glacial pond

Ice blocks, crevasses and a glacial pond

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mt. Wrangell in the distance at sunset

Mt. Wrangell in the distance at sunset

Moon rising over Mt. Jarvis

Moon rising over Mt. Jarvis

The Copper Highway

The Copper Highway

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

The land of green!

The land of green!

D-Day: The Descent

I ambled my way along the probed out walkway to meet with the instructors on the moraine, a couple hundred yards away.  It had only been a little over an hour, but the sunshine that was upon us a little while earlier had already been covered up by gray clouds that now filled the sky. The few of us that were already there started working on the first ice anchor, while the rest of our team continued to pack up and break down camp.  Since we only had three ropes that were 150 feet long and one that was 200 feet long we would have to rappel down to stations at the end of each rope.  From there we would create platforms, plant new anchors and continue further down the face with a new rope.  The instructors were giving us a lot of responsibility in this whole process by giving us the task of building every anchor.  As we screwed in the ice screws to create our first anchor system we discovered that the ice was not of the best quality, but it would have to do.  By this point, it had already started snowing again. Only an hour and a half window of clear sky had prodded us to move.  With the first anchor in place, we watched as Kevin made the first move down the face, dropping out of sight after 20 yards.

We waited for a while at the top while Kevin was stomping out a platform for a new station below.  Eventually, we began to move one by one down the cliff and over one of the four crevasses we would have to cross.  Little did we know how much more waiting there was going to be as we all moved down to the first station.  The next rope was dropped and we watched Andrew go further down, as another student and I waited for the moment where he would be ready for us to come down and build the anchors.  I considered ourselves lucky at our platform because we were able to find ice under the snow.  This enabled us to use ice protection, which took a significantly lesser amount of time than that of snow anchors.  We then began the waiting game for over an hour, waiting for everyone to proceed to our station, then down to the next platform below before further travelling down ourselves.

This process continued for many hours as the snow fell on our clothes and our gear.  By the second or third station, all of our gloves had become soaked.  It was not only a struggle to keep your hands warm but your body as well, due to the minimal amount of activity.  On each platform, you would find people stomping the snow, swinging their arms back and forth or playing some crazy dancing games, all in an effort to stay somewhat warm.  Our rain jackets (that were prototypes from Gore) further hampered some members of our expedition because the jacket did not seem to keep water out, but rather let it sink in, resulting in more layers becoming wet.  Even through all this hardship, there was no complaining by anyone.  It is amazing how after certain experiences one can build up a very large tolerance for hardship and adversity.  At that point, we had already been through so much on our expedition and we just tried to make the best of each situation we faced.

After more hours of waiting, we finally moved down to what we hoped was the last station.  As t snow continued to fall, he day was turning into night, which meant that the cold air was about to become a whole lot colder.  We had already descended more than 500 feet, so we were hoping that the 200 foot rope would allow us to reach the bottom.  It took a while to set up this last anchor as the snow was too wet and soft, which is not ideal for placing anchors.  With time, the anchors were set and Kevin was the first one to travel down to the bottom.  Once again after 50 yards he disappeared over the edge, moving further down the face.  We got the word to proceed.  Kevin also yelled that we should rappel without our backpacks because this section was quite difficult.  Andrew helped me adjust in to the new rope as I prepared to be the first one after Kevin to move down.  This last section had two crevasses, with the final one running about 5-10 feet wide.  I began to move down, nervously jumping over the first 2 foot wide crevasse, safely landing on the other side.  As Kevin had done earlier, I disappeared from view of the group as I descended over the final crevasse.  Kevin recommended a certain spot on a snow bridge for me to land based off his descent, different from where he punched through.  I landed on a snow bridge and moved back before punching one of my legs through the snow as well.  My leg dangled in the open air of the crevasse as I quickly pulled myself up and continued down to Kevin. After 800 feet, I had made it to the end.  I then hooked up to a new rope, to move further down the slope to create a probed area for us to wait as the others descended to the bottom.

I started probing the area around 1 am and thankfully found an area without any crevasses below, so I was able to move rapidly as other members came down about every 15 minutes.  After I had finished, there was nothing for us to do but wait.  Our gloves, as well as the rest of our layers, were still wet at this point with no immediate solution in sight.  Others began digging random holes with the shovels just for fun, but the warmth that resulted quickly wore off once you discontinued digging.   By this time, about half the group had made it down to the probed area and we took turns going through roles of caretaker and patient as many of us slipped in and out of hypothermia. Another group member had brought my backpack down on his descent.  On that day, I was carrying my tent group’s snacks and peanut butter and we decided to share them liberally with the others, hoping that it would result in warmth.  Sharing food is a lot harder than it sounds on these types of expeditions.  With only a snack and two small meals a day, many of us were constantly hungry.  Especially on the glacier as our metabolisms ramped up because of the cold and physically demanding travel.  While the food helped, it did little in the long run so I decided to take action.  In the middle of the early morning, I decided to lead some workout classes to boost morale and keep people warm.  My seven or eight sessions consisted of all kinds of moves like jumping, squats, chopping and shaking your whole body.  Not only were we exercising but I led the exercises with some fun and catchy phrases to make sure people were engaged! When we were doing karate chops with our hands I asked people what they were chopping and my friend Jessie immediately yelled, “Cheese!” Everyone had a good laugh, especially when doing the monkey dance (with monkey noises of course).  The instructors and other students still above later told us that they were jealous of the fun dance party that was going on a few hundred yards below them.   I was also told the next day by a couple students how I had made their night.  If there was one event of the trip that I was most proud of, this was definitely it as I was able to boost morale and keep people relatively warm, preventing them from slipping into hypothermia.

Almost all of the students had now made their way down and now the instructors with the help of Ben would be ferrying the backpacks to the bottom.  A lot of us regretted not taking our backpacks during the final ascent, not realizing that the others would have to transport them.  We tried to do our part to help, attaching our prussics to the final rope and moving up to Kevin to grab the backpacks as he tossed them down to his location.  During this time, the sun was beginning to rise and our hypothermic conditions continued to show as we refused to start making some hot water.  There was ample time and some that desperately needed it but we made excuses until a few of us finally wised up and got started.  Less than an hour later, a group roped up to find an adequate area for camp, just as the instructors finally joined us in the perimeter.  All together again, we exchanged hugs and rejoiced in each other’s company as the misery of waiting had finally ended at 6 am.  I can say with certainty that the 5 hours spent waiting at the bottom was one of the worst, if not the worst, times I felt on the entire expedition.

I drifted in and out of sleep, sitting on my pack as I belayed my friend Asa, who was probing the final section of our camp.  He finished relatively quickly and I moved to set up my group’s tent right away.  With the tent set, I happily shed my wet layers and curled up in my sleeping bag.  The nightmare was finally over.   We had made it after travelling for 20 hours, descending 800 feet and moving only a quarter of a mile.  The exhaustion that everyone was feeling showed in the creation of our bathroom.  Not wanting to take a lot of time, those who built it simply probed out a walkway to a tiny circle that had no privacy wall.  We were all comfortable with each other at that point and nobody had any problems with what we called our minimalist bathroom.  I woke up an hour later to consume my first meal in over 15 hours, wolfing it down before moving back into the depths of my sleeping bag.

I awoke to a voice coming from the vestibule of our tent.  It was Kevin, telling us that we would have to move because of potential avalanches from the hot sun.  Looking at my watch I noticed it was only 1 pm.  We had had less than 5 hours of sleep after a mentally and physically exhausting 24 hours.  It was best that we left the area though, considering that we could hear avalanches every few minutes in the distance and there were signs of previous avalanches at the bottom of the mountain face no more than a few hundred yards away.  Slowly, we proceeded through our usual routine, packing up our gear, taking down the tent, tossing our skins on our skis and finding a spot on a rope team.  While we were waiting to depart, our rope team had multiple falls while waiting in camp.  I, myself, was guilty of a majority of the falls.  After about 5 falls myself, and 8 as a group, only a hundred yards from camp, I decided to take off my skis and just walk the rest of the distance in my boots.  It seemed to be a wise choice as the other members of my team and members of the other rope teams continued to fall on the slight down slope.

After about two miles, we finally arrived at the larger moraine.  But what was that glorious sound? Running water? Yes! We couldn’t have asked for anything more and we, the parched glacier travelers, rejoiced in the bounty and beauty of the clear, ice cold flowing creeks.  I felt so happy at the time to be able to drink as much water as I could and not have to battle thirst and dehydration, at least for the time being.  Consuming only about a liter of water in the past 36 hours, the running water was not only a luxury but a necessity in my case. On this moraine, the rocks that covered the ice were sparse so we would have to create a flat surface with the surrounding rocks in order to avoid sleeping directly on the ice.  This process was fine at first but I quickly became frustrated.  My feet were hurting even more from the salt rashes and I was simply mentally drained from the previous day.  I told my tent mates that I was fine with getting the shorter, incomplete side but I just wanted to be done.  They understood and we quickly erected a tent before moving over to the kitchen to enjoy a nice meal.  The rest of the day we watched from camp as the avalanches rumbled down the mountains behind us until late in the evening.  I estimate that we saw over one hundred avalanches that day and we became so accustomed to them that by nightfall we were acting as if they were no big deal.

We discussed how lucky we were to have that small window of sunlight that pushed us to go because with the high sun today, the potential for avalanches and the heat may have made our journey much worse.  It was nice to relax but beginning tomorrow we would face the unknown of the lower Copper.  With 3 days until our re-ration and 12 miles to go, the long days were certainly not over yet.

Mt. Zanetti looming over snow blocks

Mt. Zanetti looming over snow blocks

Our rappel route. Square box at bottom-right was the waiting area

Our rappel route. Square box at bottom-right was the waiting area

Minimalist bathroom

Minimalist bathroom

Mt. Sanford towering over the Copper Glacier

Mt. Sanford towering over the Copper Glacier

Rappel route

Rappel route

Part of the avalanche amphitheater

Part of the avalanche amphitheater

Mt. Sanford at sunset

Mt. Sanford at sunset

Welcome to the Copper

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.

 

Looking down the Copper Glacier

Looking down the Copper Glacier

Peers rappelling down

Peers rappelling down

Home of the abominable snowman

Home of the abominable snowman

In the crevasse

In the crevasse

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mt. Wrangell in the clouds

Mt. Wrangell in the clouds

Mount Jarvis

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.

Blackburn at sunset

Blackburn at sunset

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Night and Day

Night and Day

On the plateau, with view of the summit

On the plateau, with view of the summit

On the peak! Mt. Sanford in the background

On the peak! Mt. Sanford in the background

Fun times at the top

Fun times at the top

Jarvis.  Our route took us right of the last rope team. We crossed back and forth along the right-center until we were at the top.  Huge crevasses in the center as well as on the left.

Jarvis. Our route took us right of the last rope team. We crossed back and forth along the right-center until we were at the top. Huge crevasses in the center as well as on the left.

 

Night Life

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.

Clouds filing the glacial valley

Clouds filing the glacial valley

Mt. Jarvis just before sunrise

Mt. Jarvis just before sunrise

Mt. Blackburn towering above camp

Mt. Blackburn towering above camp

Blackburn in the distance with camp below.

Blackburn in the distance with camp below.

Glacial lake

Glacial lake

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mt. Wrangell. Appearing deceptively low but topping at over 15,000 ft.

Mt. Wrangell. Appearing deceptively low but topping at over 15,000 ft.