(Featured photo credit to Chris Schweikart)
So, as you will soon read, I hope to keep this blog going. Instead of focusing on solely dry cabin living, I’m going to write about different experiences that are unique and sometimes exclusive to Alaska.
For those who follow me on Facebook, you’ll know I recently went on a trip to a glacier in south-central Alaska—the Gulkana Glacier. Three of us set out on a 6 (ish) mile hike over rivers and through moraines and up the icy slope of the glacier to several hundred feet above the firn line and camped out for a couple nights. Our original plan was much cooler. We planned to fly into Pika Glacier in the Alaska Range and spend a week out there. Unfortunately, this summer has been consistent in giving us rain and clouds, and after three days of waiting, we decided to call the trip.
Bummed and downtrodden, we headed back to Fairbanks, but I wasn’t about to let this time away from work keep me from getting out there. So when my friend Chris suggested heading down to Gulkana, I was all in, and so was Logan. The purpose of our trip to Pika was to try some different rock climbing peaks, possibly skiing down to the Kahiltna Glacier, and mainly, practicing how to move as a team on a glacier, and crevasse rescue. Mountaineering is a complicated sport, and I’ve heard it said that the only easy part of it is dying. Along with an intense skill set that must be memorized back and forth, you must have a physical strength and willpower to keep moving—through snowy, icy, rainy conditions, through potential white-outs, through thinning air, all the while, carrying your gear to survive and maintaining a semi-consistent, regular heartbeat.
Part of this skill set is knowing how to move on glaciers, how to self-arrest yourself in case a member of your team falls into a crevasse, how to ascend a rope by yourself, how to route find up different peaks, how to set up different kinds of snow and ice anchors for belaying purposes, etc. The list goes on and on, but these were some of the things we wished to practice with our time on the glacier.
Going to Gulkana, we weren’t able to do any rock or ice climbing, but we were able to practice these skills.
When we arrived to the trailhead, spirits were high, packs were heavy, and I was anxious to get started. About three miles of hiking through shrubs, rocks, and Alaskan wilderness and we came to the base of the glacier. Once we arrived, it had been raining for quite some time, but it was pouring when we got to the base. Our plan was to cross the glacial river at the safest point, stash our hiking boots in hopes that they dried out in a few days, and switch into mountaineering boots and crampons. Getting to the actual ice was challenging in itself! Glacial mud is NO joke. It’s worse than quicksand, swallowing your feet faster than you can move them. It was nerve-wracking, and needless to say, I had grayish sloppy mud up to my thighs. Finally, after maneuvering my hands through the cold rain, I got all the right gear on—double plastic mountaineering boots, crampons, and waterproof (Goretex) gaiters to go overtop of it all, to keep my feet dry. When it comes to mountaineering, keeping your feet dry is pretty essential, especially when you’re dealing with below freezing temps.
The trek up the glacier itself wasn’t that bad. To keep my spirits up (I don’t particularly like being soaking wet and incredibly muddy), I made up little songs or tunes and hummed the whole time. A few hours later, when we were about 500’ or so below the USGS hut we were staying in, things got very tough. I was incredibly hot and exhausted at this point, and my legs were hurting pretty badly, and this was the steepest part of the climb. We could see another storm rolling in a couple miles behind us, so we hauled it up to the hut, and then it became a glorious day. 😉
We immediately got to work melting and boiling snow for water, since we only had brought enough to keep us hydrated for the hike. No sense in carrying extra weight. This is another aspect of mountaineering—melting and boiling water is a must. And luckily, with mountaineering, there’s always a supply of snow or ice around.
Once we got settled in, hung out all our gear and clothes to dry, and ate dinner, we decided to walk up to a ridge behind the hut that overlooked a couple of other glaciers and the beautiful Alaska mountains. This was some of the most peaceful scenery I’ve ever experienced—nobody around for miles, just the sounds of nature and ice outside, ice falling under the surface, rock slides—pure greatness and chaos all from such a serene environment. It is truly an experience to behold.
The next day, we spent some time around our little camp/hut and practiced some glacier things. When a group of people move on a glacier, it’s sometimes necessary to be roped together, depending on the terrain. The purpose of roping up is to keep everyone safe and alive, since there are crevasses on glaciers. Sometimes these crevasses can swallow a bus. They can be HUGE. But they can also be very small. When you are above the ‘firn line’, this means instead of walking purely on ice, you’re walking on snow built up from previous winters, sometimes hundreds of feet above the ice of the actual glacier. And in the spring and summers, the snow melts and freezes and melts and freezes. The snow can also completely cover a crevasse. When this happens, it’s called a snow bridge, and snow bridges can be sketchy, depending on the time of year. We move as a team so that no one person falls into a crevasse that could be unavoidable and deadly. This involves a series of rope management and knot tying, but it’s a relatively simple process to rope up.
We also practiced self-arrest. Self-arrest is a method of crevasse rescue that prevents someone from falling or falling farther into a crevasse. You use an ice axe and the idea is as you walk, if a member of the team starts to fall, they yell ‘Falling!’ and the remaining team members fall into self arrest, by slamming down their ice axe, turning your head away from the adze, and slamming your feet (with crampons), into the ground to form kind of a triangle, with three points of contact to the ground. To practice self-arrest, we didn’t rope up initially. We just climbed a steep hill and would just fall down, gaining some momentum, and then going into self-arrest. When someone falls into a crevasse, you can never tell how exactly you’re going to be falling, so we practiced falling down feet first, head first, upside down on your back head first, and various other forms of falling down. It was fun in a sense, but the idea is to know how to self-arrest properly and efficiently. It would never be fun to actually have to use those skills on an expedition. However, if the need came, you need to be well versed in these skills. On the final day, before we left, we practiced more crevasse rescue things—self arrest, and then building an anchor system, and eventually a 3:1 pulley system used for hauling someone out who has potentially fallen into a crevasse and is unable to ascend their rope. This is the most extreme of the rescue scenarios, and is hopefully never implemented, but again, is a necessary skill to know like the back of your hand. I definitely still need practice mastering the pulley system, but I understand the anchor system pretty well. There are a LOT of little steps involved in a very large process, and any step left out or put out of correct order could mean potential danger. Practicing these skills is a crucial aspect of mountaineering.
One of our potential objectives at the Gulkana was to summit one or two of the peaks out there. While the Alaska Range houses the largest mountains in the country, where we were particularly, in the Deltas, the peaks were only 8000-9800’. Still, in Alaska, since we’re so far north, they say altitude starts affecting you around 6500’. I didn’t find this to be an issue at all, even though we were camping around 6500’ and hiked higher. We set out to summit Minya Peak, which included a lot of routefinding. We kind of trekked all over when we could have taken a more direct route. But when you’re out there, you have to make judgment calls, and you can’t always see closely how the terrain will be. So, taking the safest route that we could see and find, we made it ALMOST to the top. However, those clouds are persistent! We ran into whiteout conditions, where the fog gets so bad, you can’t see clearly, and especially not clear enough to be walking on unfamiliar ridgelines. We weren’t too disappointed in turning back. After all, we are able to come back almost any weekend, and now we have a more definitive understanding of the terrain here.
Once we got back to the camp, we settled in for the night. It was a long day, but the more time I spent out there, the more I learned, and the more I loved every part of it. There’s something really interesting about this sport—how it pushes you farther than you are comfortable going, but you learn to be comfortable despite it. Being tired becomes normal, and you can’t let physical tiredness or hunger or sore legs or backs keep you from continuing. To move means you’re surviving, and if you stop moving (without the proper gear), you won’t survive. I’m a girl who loves food. So I learned even more that food is an incredible motivator for me. Apart from just the pure willpower of wanting to finish the task, I look forward to eating dinners or snacks. I guess to each his own method of motivation…:)
Thank you for putting up with this rather long blog post. If any of you are wondering why in the world any of us would want to put ourselves through these scenarios and call it a vacation, I have some news. It is all for preparation. A few people know this, but I will make it public now by saying, Logan and I are planning to attempt Denali (20,310’) next summer. I say attempt because the summit rate for Denali is about 50-50. There are SO many factors that are involved in this process. But over half a year ago, we made the decision to attempt the highest summit in North America. I will surely be writing more about this to come, but for now, I’ll let you soak all this information in, and open the floor to any questions anyone has. Haha I’m not crazy, I promise.