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

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

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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

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

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

Hello Snow!

The excitement was still in the air the morning after ice climbing as we prepared to travel once again.  The three day stretch at base camp had been one of the most enjoyable parts of the trip and had largely quelled some of my fears about the coming days of life on the glacier.  At our meeting the night before, I had been told to go big today.  It had only been three days since the double carry yet we believed that we could now make it in one trip after shedding three days worth of food (a little less than 6 lbs. each)  to our next X which was about 3 miles away.  After I loaded my pack with my group’s tent, my skis, a rope and whatever other group gear I could fit, I heaved my now 70 plus pound pack on my back. Wowee! Today would be slow going as I felt my pack dig in to my body even before we had left camp.  Our plan today was to travel through the pass, gaining 300 feet in elevation, near camp and then move down into the valley, across a creek until we reached camp at the base of the glacier.

We had decided to leave earlier than a typical hiking day because one of our instructors was afraid that we would not be able to cross the creek.  I was usually one of the faster walkers in the group, but was unable to move any farther than the back of the group as we began our trek up the pass.  As my pack began to really dig into my shoulders, we stumbled our way to the top of the pass. We took a break, taking in the beautiful scenery that lay before us.  Looking ahead, we saw the valley with the creek below us and also some beautiful rock formations on the mountains before the glacier.  Heading downhill with the gargantuan packs was much easier and we quickly sped down into the valley.  We approached the roaring creek fearing the worst.  Our odds of crossing did not look good as the creek seemed to be too swift and too deep. Would we have to turn around?  Nah, just kidding! The creek was nothing more than ankle deep and we jabbed at our instructor as we splashed our way across. Everyone was in a great mood as we moved the final mile or so through the valley.  After setting up camp early around 2 pm, we spent the rest of the afternoon learning more about ice protection (anchors) and glacier travel before caching our gear on the ice.  Tomorrow, we would begin life on the glacier with no idea of when we would return to dry land.

On the glacier the next morning, I hooked my pack up to the sled, which carried much of our group’s food, cooking equipment and skis.  Feeling like a sled dog, I gave a few barks to my friend Jessie, who was also carrying a sled, and we were off, barking our way up the ice. On glaciers, the lower level is usually ice before turning into fern (a mixture of snow and ice) then finally turning into snow.  There is no need to travel in rope teams on ice because you can’t self arrest.  If you were to fall in a crevasse in that situation, you would just drag your whole team with you, which we would prefer not to happen.   Half our journey was uphill today and I definitely felt it as I struggled in the back of the pack while pulling the heavy sled.  We soon crossed into the fern and proceeded cautiously, while we tried to determine whether or not we were on snow or ice.  Soon enough, we decided that we were on snow so we created a small perimeter, tossed on our skis and split off into rope teams.  Unfortunately the snow didn’t last for very long and we ended back up on ice for another half mile or so.  Skiing on ice is very difficult in general and especially with a sled.  It’s very frustrating when your sled refuses to hop an ice bump and then flies up right next to you or flips over in a small glacial creek while you are sliding all over the place yourself trying not to fall on the ice.  Thankfully, we soon reached snow for good and continued uphill on our journey.  After taking a long break I felt a strange heat/tingling sensation from my pinky finger.  I happened to glance at my ice axe to find it smeared with blood and immediately took off my glove to find a large cut on my finger.  During the last break, I had sliced open my finger with the ad of my ice axe while picking it up.    Our legendary instructor, JQ, came to the rescue as her rope team skied up alongside me and she applied some first aid treatment saving me from amputation.

We continued downhill on the glacier but were posed with yet another problem.  It was getting late and we had not yet found deep enough snow for camping.  Around 5 o’ clock we faced a decision of whether to push on an additional 5 miles and try to find deep enough snow or make the 2-3 mile push off the glacier, back onto dry land.  We decided upon the latter due to low morale, as well as a high level of fatigue from the long day of travel already under our belts.  Continuing downhill, we reached a point where we were able to abandon our skis and continue the rest of that day’s journey on foot.  We happily walked towards the edge of the glacier as we could envision dry land and a warm meal after this grueling day.  However, we were faced with yet another difficulty.  The route that we looked to take off the glacier was quite steep for walking and we would have to create anchors to rappel down the face of the glacier to the rocks below.  While the rest of us waited, a group of students and instructors built anchors so that we could attach a rope and move down this steep face.  I was one of the first to move down and I waited over an hour for all my peers to join me on the rocks below.  After everyone had moved down and the anchors were disassembled, we gathered up our sled bags, sleds and whatever else we had to carry in our arms and walked the last thousand yards or so through the muddy terrain to our campsite.  We were exhausted and everyone groggily set up their tents, had dinner and waited to hear the plan before going to bed.  I was leader of the day for the next two days so I went over to discuss the plan for tomorrow with the instructors.  Quickly, we decided that tomorrow would be a day-off. No lessons. No anything. It was a rarity at NOLS but much needed after the day’s 8 miles of travel over 13 hours.

Looking outside the next morning, we noticed on almost the opposite section of the glacier, from where we came down the day before, that there was a gently sloping hill that we could have easily walked down without rappelling.  It was pretty funny to see and would have saved us quite a bit of time but that’s alright, what we did makes us seem more badass.  Most of my peers spent their whole day in the tent inside their sleeping bags.  My mindset was that I didn’t come to Alaska to sit in a tent and I decided to take advantage of the opportunity presented to us.  The instructors were allowing us to explore independently since we were no longer in bear country.  I took the time to venture over the hill at the edge of camp and explore the grassy meadow on the other side.  This area was absolutely beautiful with the meadow sitting high above the valley below and views of Mt. Jarvis and the Nabesna glacier on the other side.  I wandered around for two hours by myself, enjoying the sights and also discovering the airstrip for our re-ration the next day, which featured a cabin at one end.  These people with these small cabins sure pick some nice spots to live!  I can’t believe they don’t spend most of their time out there, especially in the summer.  I know I would.

Later that night, I spent a couple of hours in the instructors’ tent going over our overall plan for our time on the glacier, which would now last 18 days.  One of the greatest parts about the trip is how the students had complete input on the route and the overall goals of the trip.  We created plans based off what we wanted to do, not some structure that the school created for each trip because that doesn’t exist at NOLS.  Anyways, we established our main goal of our trip to climb Mt. Jarvis, a true challenging Alaskan mountain sitting at just over 13,400 feet.  In the second ration on the glacier, we thought that it’d be cool to possibly split off and tackle some smaller peaks or make a big push for Mt. Wrangell before making our way down and out on the heavily crevassed Copper Glacier.

The following day we met up with Kirk for the second time as he brought us our ration for our first 10 days on the glacier.  This would be the last time we would see him for 19 days because our re-ration on the glacier would be from a different pilot named Paul.  In the afternoon, we hit the small slopes (hills) near camp and practiced our skiing skills on these expedition skis which would be our main form of travel on the glacier. During class, we spotted a group of sheep in the distance running through the grassy meadow.   After our lessons were finished, we stayed for a while and shredded some pow with our new sick pizza moves.  Who knew you could make such big pizza slices in the middle of the wilderness?  I proceeded to fall a few times (a lot) as I tried to figure out the heavy expedition skis, which are much different than downhill (either that or I’m a bad skier, both highly likely).  Following dinner, we took an evening walk over to the base of the glacier to create a cache so we would have less to transport the following morning.  On the way, one of the girls became trapped by the quick sinking sand next to a small glacier creek.  We came upon this “hazard” multiple times on our journey and you were always unsure whether the mud was solid or not. If you did find yourself sinking the number one rule is never stop moving! If you stop, you’re screwed and you’ll need multiple people to pull you out from the mess.  However, if you are not involved it is quite a funny site to see the person become trapped and caked with mud (don’t worry I’m not that evil, I helped her out).

Our instructors departed early the next morning to ascent a small peak at the edge of the glacier with the goal of bonding and further improving their skills.  As we were making breakfast, they arrived back at camp exhausted but thrilled to begin our journey on the glacier.  During that time, we felt the wind pick up and eventually someone spotted that the glacier behind us was just a giant white cloud.  It was a whiteout and we could no longer see anything on the glacier due to a large snow storm, even the mountains that lay less than a quarter mile from camp.  We decided that it was probably best to not travel for our second time on the glacier in these whiteout conditions.  Some students were disappointed and wanted the experience but we were assured that it was highly likely that we would eventually face similar conditions.

So instead of travelling, we headed to the slope of a nearby off glacier mountain to practice kicking steps on steep slopes , more snow protection and self arrest techniques on all types of falls.  Self arrest was probably the best part of the day. Once you fell, the slope was steep enough for you to gain a significant amount of speed after a few yards.  I had some difficulty executing the self arrest from the fall where you are falling headfirst on your back.  The technique to stop yourself is to basically complete a crunch to one side, slamming your ice pick in the slope which swings your legs around eventually causing you to stop.  If you aren’t skilled enough, like myself, there is potential for you to miss the snow on your crunch and impale your leg with the pick, which I’m guessing would cause some serious damage.  I was told by one of my instructors after a few attempts that I was prohibited from practicing at full speed and worked with him on my technique, eventually improving until I was able to execute it properly.   Before leaving the mountain, we decided to have some fun and glissaded on our feet and butts multiple times (search glissading on YouTube).  We eventually created a chute where we were able to slide down for hundreds of yards at fairly high speeds before self arresting with our elbows and coming to a stop.  It was easily the most fun I’ve ever had “sledding” down a hill (I guess it’s pretty hard to compete with a mountain).

The weather had cleared by the next day and we were able to finally move onto the glacier.  Leaving the tundra and dry land behind us for the next 18 days.  We would soon come to learn of the hardships we would have to face and the huge challenges that lay ahead.

View down from the pass

View down from the pass

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Fellow student trudges on through the valley

Fellow student trudges on through the valley

Nothing but white, a beautiful sight

Nothing but white, a beautiful sight

Looking back at Mt. Gordon

Looking back at Mt. Gordon

Rope team travel

Rope team travel

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Coming down off the glacier

Coming down off the glacier

Plywood cabin with the Nabesna Glacier in the background

Plywood cabin with the Nabesna Glacier in the background

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Mount Gordon

The morning after arriving on top of the plateau we woke bright and early to walk over to our improvised airstrip.  We had selected a 100 yard runway that was pretty flat and absent of any large rocks.  After lining the runway with neon orange colored duffel bags and creating an improvised wind sock out of a trekking pole and a wind shirt, we waited for Kirk and “The Hulk” (the name of his plane) to arrive.  Soon enough, we heard a soft humming and watched as the plane came up the valley through the mountains.  Kirk gave a quick fly over on the first go around to inspect the runway for any potential hazards or risks.  He circled and came back around slowing down to a very slow speed before bouncing down on the runway and zooming up towards us and our gear.  What a sight!  This tiny Super Cub was a work of art and a beauty to behold in the skies.  Kirk had built the plane himself out of fabric and there was only one other plane in the world like it. The Super Cub was perfect in this environment as it is able to go at speeds as low as 30 mph and only needs 100 yards to land. We went about our duties of sorting food, refilling spice bottles and fuel, filling up the peanut butter jar (Yum!) and taking our glacier gear out of the plane, which we had brought in so that we could begin mountaineering earlier than planned.  After taking off a few bags, I happily moved away from my responsibilities to chat with Kirk and the instructors about his plane and flying in this part of the country.  He eventually had to get going so he hopped back in The Hulk leaving us with our gear and food until we saw him at our next re-ration 8 days later.  We then lugged our gear back and after eating breakfast we spent the rest of the day learning about various mountaineering knots and harnesses and also reviewing first aid material.

The plateau was a fairly flat, rocky area so when we wanted to dispose of waste (aka poop) we would just have to go a few hundred yards dig our hole and crouch down with no privacy from bushes or trees.  That was not a problem for our group as we had become pretty comfortable with using the bathroom around each other so nobody thought it was a very big deal.  During the evening, one of the girls went on a “nature walk”, as some liked to call it, and was doing her business when a sheep popped up over the ridge behind her.  She had not seen the sheep, while back at camp someone had spotted it and we began pointing and yelling behind her.  She had no clue what was going on, frantically looking around in all directions as she jumped up thinking there may have been a bear behind her!  The sheep ran off as we laughed and we proceeded to enjoy another cool night out in the wilderness.

The next morning we woke up to rain pounding on our tent and the floor of the tent body wet beneath us.  The tents tend to exaggerate how hard the rain comes down, but it had been coming steadily enough to create a flow of water from the hill behind us through the tent area and finally through the middle of our kitchen before falling off the slope towards Mt. Gordon.  Wearily, we examined our wet gear and began to set up tarps so that we would not become drenched while we were cooking breakfast.  The rain continued to pour down and it was the last thing we needed on what was expected to be a tough day.  It was not only our first day in plastic boots, which are pretty immobilizing and tough to walk in on dry land, but we would be double-carrying to our base camp at Mt. Gordon a little over 2 miles away.  Essentially what that meant is that we were not strong enough to carry all our existing gear plus the new glacier gear that was dropped off by Kirk (ropes, skis, crampons, sleds, ice screws etc.) and would have to make two trips to carry the gear.  We decided it was best to wait out the rain for a little bit as it had become much stronger and was pouring down on our tarps. So far it was a miserable day.

The rain eventually let up and we picked up our heavy packs and began on our way.  We began walking across the plateau, our packs loaded down with all sorts of gear, eventually dropping down along a small creek.  Here we took a break and learned a few things about glaciers and glacier safety using the base of the glacier a few hundred yards to the side of us as a reference point.  A tiny beautiful black and white bird sang and soared through the air as we looked on.  It was the first animal we had seen in days and the last we would see for a long time to come.

We continued upwards toward camp now climbing over steep rocky mountainsides and eventually moving onto moraine, where we would set up camp.  A moraine is an area where a glacier has receded, leaving debris such as rocks and dirt that have accumulated over a base layer of ice.  The moraines can have anywhere from a lot of small dirt pebbles to a few feet of dirt and rocks between your feet and the ice layer beneath the earth.  It was very chilly at camp with a strong breeze coming off Mt. Gordon and with an ice field 200 yards behind us.  We had to head back for the second trip though, so we could get back early enough to get some rest to prepare for a long day of learning the next day.   The instructors split off to scout Mt. Gordon and two sick/injured students stayed behind as the rest of us made or way back to retrieve our gear.  It took us almost no time at all without any weight on our backs, only an hour and a half, to travel the distance back to the previous campsite.  At the campsite, we rounded up the miscellaneous fuel, ropes and other glacier gear that was left behind and began to schlep it all the way back for the final time.  As we moved tension became high, as most people were tired and both physically and mentally exhausted from lugging this heavy gear around, and a few heated exchanges were made before we made it back to camp.   We had a long discussion at our nightly s.c.h.l.e.p. meeting (Shout outs, comments/concerns, hot question, learnings, entertainment, plan) before retiring to our tents to get some rest.  We woke early the next day to low gray skies, more wind and no view of the summit.  Throughout the day we learned and practiced new skills in camp and on the nearby ice field such as rope travel, how to walk in crampons, how to stack rope and related material so that we would be prepared for a potential ascent of Gordon the next day.

My alarm went off at 4:30 am the next morning. I groggily sat up in my sleeping bag as I heard Grayson, one of my more energetic and motivating peers, give a cockle-doodle-a-doo to make sure everyone was up and ready to go.  I laughed but the girls in my tent didn’t find it so funny and promptly told him to shut up.  We were out of camp by 6, climbing the hill next to camp to begin our journey to the top of the mountain.  The sun had not come up over the mountains yet and we began the day feeling a little chilled.  The initial part of our climb was over rock and we followed it up and around heading west.  Our plan was to traverse across the west shoulder before climbing up the steep north face to the summit (the gnar wall).   Reaching the ice, we took a quick break before tossing our crampons on and crunching our way across the shoulder until we reached snow.  At this point, we had to break off into 3 rope teams of 5, 4 and 4 (one of the instructors stayed back at camp sick).   The idea of a rope team is that members are evenly spaced along a rope and hooked in from their harnesses.  If a member falls into a crevasse, the other members can self arrest using their ice axe and prevent their team member from falling all the way to the bottom and likely dying.  Although highly unlikely, there have been 140 ft. crevasses that have opened up on glaciers and swallowed whole rope teams.  I was hoping none of us would be so unfortunate.  With an instructor leading the first rope team, the rest of us followed up as she probed for crevasses every so often.  When a rope leader out front sees a sign of a crevasse along the side of the mountain, a dip or a visible crack/opening, the leader uses a 9 foot long steel pole to “probe” deep into the snow for crevasses.  If the snow bridge is found to be too thin, the rope leader must strategize and navigate another way around the hazard or set snow/ ice protection (anchors that are clipped on to the rope) to add as a further safety measure.  On our way to the top, the instructor placed multiple pieces of protection as we crossed over crevasses where we could see the open cracks a couple hundred yards off to our left.

I anticipated we would be at the top quickly as we were climbing pretty fast and seemed to be making good time.  Near the top, we stopped and my student rope team fell to the back of the pack as our other instructor rushed to the front to solve a potential problem.  My rope team sat in the back uninformed of what was going on up ahead since we could not see the first rope team over the slope in front of us.  I plopped down on my pack and enjoyed the beautiful view of the valley and mountains behind us.  You could see multiple sets of mountains in the distance, the plateau where we had our re-ration and even part of the Jacksina River, back where it all began.  Hours passed and we became cold from the lack of movement.  Along with knowing how to face the other elements, learning how to heat your body up is one of the most valuable skills in the wild.  It doesn’t take much for your body to cool off with a lack of food, water and layers when exposed to the cold and high winds at close to 9,000 feet.  There is only a small difference in body temperature between life and death.  I managed to stay warm by stomping out a platform on the steep face and doing push-ups on my pack but I was anxious to get moving again.  Eventually we were told to put our crampons on but we still didn’t have much of an idea what was going on besides that it was something involved with a crevasse.  Well after over 2.5 hours of sitting high on the north face we finally proceeded to move up.  The problem was that there was a bergschrund (crevasse at the top of the mountain) right before the summit.  To reach the summit we would have to step on a 4 ft wide snow-bridge over the 7 foot wide crevasse, then climb up an 8 foot ice wall using ice axes and our crampons.  I was not overly excited as I watched my peers move through the anchor system the instructors had built and then up the wall onto the summit.  A couple of my peers had struggled getting up the wall and when they fell back down punched their foot through a side of the snow bridge into the open crevasse.  As I stepped onto the ice bridge for my turn, I looked down on either side, seeing all kinds of ice shapes stick out of the wall.  I wondered how deep it went down but I knew that I didn’t want to be the person to find out!  I grabbed the ice axe, kicked into the steps that were no longer there and scampered up unharmed.  We had reached the summit.

There was a beautiful 360 degree view of the valley behind us and the glacier and the snow capped mountains that lay ahead of us.  Summiting Mt. Gordon was almost like a rite of passage from the tundra to the glacier.  We climbed up Mt. Gordon with the tundra at our backs and reached the summit with a view of what lay ahead.  In the distance, we could see the majestic glaciated mountains, Blackburn and Sanford. The only problem we faced on the summit was extremely high winds, and that was the last thing we wanted to deal with after being already cold due to a lack of movement for 2.5 hours.  After the last member of our team reached the summit we paused for a minute before quickly descending down the other side of the mountain and back into camp.  We had bagged our first peak climbing 2000 ft with 10 miles of total travel in 12 hours.  Exhausted yet feeling accomplished, my tent group enjoyed a hearty meal of couscous and beans before climbing into our sleeping bags for the night.

We spent the whole next day ice climbing on the ice wall at the bottom of our ice field next to camp.  The instructors had spent the morning setting up the anchors while we lazed around camp and had breakfast.  I was very nervous to try it for some reason but after strapping on my crampons and tackling my first wall with a couple of ice axes I had found a new activity that I enjoyed!  I then tackled steeper walls increasing my level of enjoyment. Everyone was having a blast as some tried out techniques such as climbing with only one ice axe or climbing with no ice axes.  It was a perfect follow-up to our peak ascent the day before. We would now enjoy a few more days of dry land before calling the ice and snow our home for almost 3 weeks.

The Hulk on arrival

The Hulk on arrival

The Hulk, Kirk (on the right) and myself. Mt. Gordon towering in the background

The Hulk, Kirk (on the right) and myself. Mt. Gordon towering in the background

Looking back from near the summit

Looking back from near the summit

On the summit. The glacier in the distance

On the summit. The glacier in the distance

Descending Mt. Gordon

Descending Mt. Gordon

Yeehaw

Yeehaw

Yukon Cornelius

Yukon Cornelius