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

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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

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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

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Mt. Wrangell in the clouds

Mt. Wrangell in the clouds