Editor’s note: We welcome back Mark Loftin with another adventure that ranks high on my jealousy scale. That’s a good thing! I’m inspired to do it! If you enjoy this story, which I’m sure you will, I also recommend his story with some life-changing advice Desolate Highways to Thunder Mountain and Beyond. By the way, this post is filled with pictures, so keep scrolling till you get to the great conclusion.
My one previous visit to Alaska didn’t nearly do it justice; it was purely a fishing trip in and out of Juneau. To make up for this Alaskan deficiency, I decided to do some real exploring this time and had my sights set on a feature of Alaska that few other states have: Glaciers.
To prevent a rookie glacier exploring mistake—like falling down a crevice or sliding down a glacier hole and deep into the earth—I decided it wise to connect with a local guide that knew the lay of the land.
My goal for exploring glaciers was threefold: 1) hike on and around glaciers, 2) ice climb, and, 3) take pics! (Does it go without saying that I was also trying to escape the information overload of my day-to-day life?) After some online research and phone calls, I booked my glacier adventure with Kennicott Wilderness Guides. This guide service made it easy; I told them exactly what I wanted to do, and they put together a two-day exploration tour (including bush plane bookings). Both days would be spent in the nearby largest national park in the US: the 13.2 million-acre Wrangell-St Elias National Park. Shamefully, two months ago I had never heard of this park!
Day one began at the tiny McCarthy airport, where my guide Avery and I hopped on a bush plane for a half-hour flight to Nizina Lake and Glacier. The nimble cub plane flew between the narrow gap between the mountain tops and the thick clouds for an exciting ride. Numerous waterfalls could be seen from both sides of the plane below. After going over a few valleys, suddenly, a lake filled with what looked like a chocolate chunk assortment from a See’s candy box came into view. Noticing my iPhone in rapid-fire pic-taking mode, the pilot did an extended fly-over. After landing on a dirt strip near Nizina Lake, we got the hiking packs on to begin my first hike of Wrangell-St. Elias.
As we began the hike over a long stretch of dryas plants (commonly called “Einstein heads” for their white bushy tops), the first thing I noticed (and welcomed) was a complete lack of any sign of humankind. There was no official “trail network,” and there were no trail signs, facilities or parking lots. Not even a bench. My guide informed us that if we did happen to get on anything resembling a trail, it was not human-made but more likely—bear-made!
We approached the lake to get a closer look at the ice chunks that had broken off from Nizina Glacier — they were in all shapes, sizes and colors. Considering they all came from the same source, there was an amazing variety of them. We then began hiking on glacier deposits (called “moraines”) at the lake’s edge for some stunning views of the lake and glacier. As we climbed over a series of narrow ridges overlooking the lake, my guide occasionally stopped and said, “hear that?” I’d then hold still… and hear a deep thunderous moan combined with what sounded like a massive tree hitting the ground! This was the glacier “calving,” glacier terminology for a large chunk of ice breaking off and falling into the lake.
Glaciers, I learned, have their own vocabulary. Some of the terms are intuitive (blue pools are called “blue pools”), and some aren’t (deep, narrow holes that appear to sink forever are called “moulins” — pronounced moo-lawn). More on this later!
One of the best segments of the day was sitting down to take a half-hour rest overlooking the glacier wall. Fittingly, it was perched in front of us like a theatre stage. We gazed and scanned at the glacier wall and lake below, watching the evolution of the glacier and its broken parts unfold: One minute, an ice chunk would break off and land with a massive “kerplunk,” the next minute, a refrigerator-sized chunk of ice would suddenly turn upside down. The chunk had become “top-heavy” as some of the ice had melted. You truly get a sense of the glacier being a living beast, constantly in motion. With no humans or animals around and no weather to cause the action. It was so unbelievable that I felt like it was CGI generated! This surreal end to the day only left me wanting more, and I could not wait until day two tomorrow…
The next morning, we met at Kennicott Wilderness Guides headquarters near the massive Kennicott Mine (which still happens to be the tallest wooden structure in North America) and began the hike out of town to today’s destination: The Root Glacier.
After an equipment check, we put the packs on and headed out of Kennicott down a dirt path among endless Spruce trees overlooking a massive valley below. After a few miles, we headed down a series of stone steps. Then… off in the distance… a white patch of ice came into view! We were close, and as it turns out, a lot closer than I thought: We stopped to put on the crampons, and this seemed way too early for ice spikes — hills of dirt still lay ahead. But after I took the next step on what looked like a pile of hard-packed dirt, the spikes made a “crunch” sound and sank into the ice. We were now officially on the glacier. I quickly realized how the crampons lock onto the ice, and that instilled confidence for the upcoming challenge around the corner.
After crunching up this dirt-covered “glacier entryway,” a new world came into view. Suddenly in front of us were various shades of white, blue and brown in all sorts of wild formations. It looked like some surreal ice wonderland. Streams of glacier water flowed down ice slots that twisted, turned and circled every which way, usually ending in a blue pool or down a narrow slot. It all looked like some grand design of a waterslide park!
We wandered over some low rolling ice hills and then came to a 30-foot-tall ridge of ice. My guide had me wait at the bottom as she went to the top of the cliff to set up an anchor for what would be my first ice climb. After a quick instruction, she said, “ok, ready?” My pulse jumped a bit… and I started in on the wall. After the first few steps up the wall, I realized how sticky these spikes were and got into a rhythm. There was something satisfying about hammering the hand picks into the wall and feeling it catch hold. I was told that glaciers have endless air pockets, and on occasion, a puff of air would blast out as I slammed the pick down. Reaching the top was an amazing feeling, and I went back for another climb on a higher area before moving deeper into the glacier.
Over every ice hill, new surprises awaited: a blue pool of water, a narrow hole that looked like it might reach China (“moulin”), and random tunnels to hike through were just some of the features we came across. Near the end of the hike, she anchored a rope at the edge of a moulin, and we slowly rappelled down the side to get a view of the water stream hitting the bright blue water at the bottom. It was a perfect way to cap the day and wrap up two days of glacier bliss.
I was awestruck by the glacier exploring experience and quickly realized seeing one on TV or youtube doesn’t do any justice to actually being there. The random discoveries over each crest, the random sounds, and that constantly shifting cool ice breeze all made for an unforgettable exploration. I found it very liberating, peaceful and “cleansing,” and a therapeutic escape from a hyper-paced, technology-driven society that is operating on information overload. Glaciers being an ever-changing and evolving beast, I already look forward to next year’s trip, and what new surprises may await at Wrangell-St.Elias…