"Cryosphere"



- Cryosphere refers to any portion of the Earth's surface where water is in solid form, including glaciers, ice caps, ice sheets, sea ice, snow cover, frozen rivers, lakes, and permafrost. The Cryosphere is closely linked to the Hydrosphere and plays a crucial role in the ecosystem and our everyday lives.
- I've chosen the name because Cryosphere encompasses a wide range of ice around the world. This blog is meant to chronicle not all glaciers, but those that I experience and photograph in my travels. My vision is to visit and write about as many glaciers and other ice forms as possible while I pursue knowledge and share experiences of a beautiful world of ice. I hope you enjoy the photographs and follow along as I go!

* Beware: Glaciers area a dangerous place to those that do not know the risks and have the proper skills to navigate them safely. Do not attempt travel on or near any glacier without proper skills or an experienced guide.


29 January 2018

19. Fox Glacier - 30 Jan, 2018








I had travelled to New Zealand in search of adventures. I wanted a sampling of what the country had to offer, and, while I had little money to travel abroad, I had heard of the rather generous Working Holiday Visa offered by the country. It took less than three hours to fill out an application for the Visa, and within four days I had been accepted, at no charge, to spend up to a year visiting and working in New Zealand.

I knew a few people in the small country already, most of whom I had worked with in Alaska. I had heard of the beauty of New Zealand from everyone who had ever visited, but the most exciting was that I had friends who worked on glaciers there.

Other than wanting to explore a few New Zealand glaciers during my five month visit, I had little resembling a plan when I boarded a plane from Utah on November 1st. I had planned as far as buying a van in Auckland, camping for free whenever possible, finding a job only once I ran out of money, and seeing as much of the country as possible. Nearly a month went by before I left Auckland with my second van purchase – the first being sold back for a large loss when it blew a head gasket the fourth day I owned it. The new van, a blue Toyota, came equipped with 7 seats. And that’s about it. In a day and a half with nothing more than a cheap handsaw, hammer and nails, I managed to outfit it with a wood platform for sleeping on. Next came a mattress, camp stove, basic cookware, and water jugs. Sheets, curtains, utensils, and other essentials would follow as I travelled. In a whirlwind of crazy sites and adventures, a friend and I travelled from Auckland to the South Island in about two weeks. We stopped for climbing with some MICA friends and explored glowworm caves, lakes, beaches and forests. My friend picked up a job with a remote lodge on the northern end of the south island while I pressed on further south. I’d had enough of the beaches, forest walks, and tiny patches of limestone. I needed to find some big mountains and some real cliffs to climb. But first, I needed money. For the next 7 weeks I worked in agriculture in the small town of Ashburton, which was much further from the mountains than the map first suggested. A few weekend trips with little more than a couple hours’ hikes showed me only a brief intro to the glaciated terrain of the Southern Alps. After almost two months of picking weeds and scraping cow shit, I finally made the drive through the mountains to visit the West Coast.

Kelsey, a friend from what seems like ages ago when I worked my first short season in Alaska, was currently working at Fox Glacier Guides and we hoped to do some ice climbing on her day off.  Kelsey and her two roommates generously offered me their couch while I visited, but I assured them a parking spot in the driveway was plenty to keep me happy. We spent the night planning our next two days. Kelsey’s friend James was coming along as well – his first ever ice climb!

The Fox Glacier, quickly receding in the last few years, is actually becoming rather dangerous to walk to, and the guiding company exclusively uses helicopters to get their clients to the ice these days. While the walk is technically possible, it gets a bit scary with massive boulders constantly slipping down the steep valley walls into the river below. As luck would have it, three open seats existed in the tour groups for the next morning. Groups with empty seats meant that guides going up on their days off (and sometimes friends tagging along with them) wouldn’t have to pay full price for a flight. Besides, it would be a good practice opportunity for Kelsey, who was working toward her next level guiding certification to take out her own ice climbing trips. Win-win. We wanted to spend the night above the glacier on the fabled Chancellor Hut, overlooking Mount Cook and the Fox Neve. However, less than stellar weather reports for our second day meant we would likely not have a flight out, and might get rained on most of the day. Oh and as I discovered whilst packing that night, I had lost my rain jacket somewhere working on a dairy farm, so I was not excited about the prospect of rain on top of a mountain. We ultimately decided on a day trip.

Early the next morning, Kelsey sent me up with the first tour of the day, saying she and James would catch a bit later flight and find my group wherever we were on the glacier.

Looking up the valley approaching Fox Glacier


Heli taking off from our drop-off

I spent the morning with two guides and their clients, wandering around looking at features much in a similar fashion of the trekking tour on the Matanuska Glacier. The clients asked the typical questions like “Why is the ice blue” and “Where do glaciers come from” as well as “Is this glacier melting?” It was fun to hear the answers from these guides so rehearsed and flawlessly delivered just like from the guides in Alaska:
“Ice, like water, appears blue because all other wavelengths of light are dispersed deep within the ice.”
And:
“Glaciers come from high up in the mountains where layers and layers of snow accumulate on top of each other, compacting the lower layers into ice until gravity pulls it downhill.”
And of course:
“Yes, nearly all glaciers on Earth are melting faster than snow is accumulating.” Followed by the clients’ discussions of climate change - seemingly more out of amusement than concern.

Ah, guiding. It was just like being back on the Matanuska.


Clients crawling through an ice arch on Fox Glacier

Looking up at the icefall. on the right is the arch we just crawled through

Fox Glacier Guides at work


When one of the guides mentioned the speed of flow of the Fox glacier, I was sort of off daydreaming about something else. It registered in my mind, and I did a bit of a double take.
“Wait; Did you just say what I think you said?”
“The Fox Glacier flows up to 5 meters a day…?”
“Five meters in a single day?”
“Yeah, well these days it’s average is closer to three meters, but we do still measure five at some points in the icefall and on hot days when things move fast.”
I was blown away. Three to five meters per day is fast. Especially considering the Matanuska chugs along at an estimated 1 foot per day – which is already enough to see the changes over only a few days. At 5 Meters, the Fox is flowing up to 15 times the speed of the Matanuska each day. I don’t think the other clients appreciated that bit of information nearly as much as I did! Even more compelling is that here on the Fox, they actually measure things like that. They also know that it’s about 120m (396 ft) deep at the location of the helipads. We once asked a visiting glaciologist how thick the ice on the Matanuska was; he told us “Yeah, we don’t really know. We estimate it to be between 5 meters and 500 meters thick.” Thanks…?

Kelsey and James soon caught up with me, and I thanked the guides and said goodbye to the clients (still learning to walk on flat ice in the bulky crampons) before darting off from the group, the three of us now heading straight up steep terrain to find a good vertical climbing wall.

James crushing his first ever ice climb

Ever watch Vertical Limit? No need to, here's Kelsey reenacting the best scene. 

Mock rescue



Kelsey, James and I all got a few climbs in, then decided to move location to be closer to our flight out, scheduled for 2 or 3pm, depending on seats. Before we moved, Kelsey did a little practicing of a rescue scenario on James, who was fine before she started, but almost actually needed rescuing by the time she got to him to ‘save’ him.


As James discovered, it’s really uncomfortable hanging in a harness for any time at all. And sometimes it cuts off blood flow to your legs. While the training went on, I wandered off to explore more of the glacier.







Wandering about, looking for blue things

 
Water filling station

Once Kelsey saved James from his mostly pretend near-death experience, we packed up and started walking. We saw another cool feature not far from the first wall, and walked into a moulin tunnel, complete with a skylight in the back.

Chillin' in an ice tunnel


Of course we’re going to climb that. Kelsey lowered James down the hole to see if I could see him from inside the tunnel.

James dropping in through the skylight


As James soon discovered, it’s rather difficult to ice climb in tight spaces when you can’t get enough room to swing a tool!

 
Looks pretty narrow in there!

As we continued on, we were notified over Kelsey’s radio that the three of us had seats on a 4:30pm flight out with the last group of clients. Cool, plenty of time to play still.

Trekking across the Fox Glacier

Crevasse climb below massive waterfall...

... and from the other side

As we set up a rope into the steep crevasse above, the plan changed to 4:00 as the last group of clients cancelled. On walking back to the landing pad, we discovered that in fact there weren’t enough seats, and they would have to recruit an extra helicopter (at full price) to pick the three of us up, or there was the walk-off option. Curious to see what the hike was like anyway, I opted for that before I realized I hadn’t brought hiking shoes. I was wearing the plastic client rental boots for ice climbing, and had left my boots at the base before boarding the helicopter that morning. A long hike out in those would mean blisters for sure, at the very least!

My savior, Kelsey, made a call to another guide at the base, who somehow convinced the pilot to load my shoes onto the chopper on his way to pick up a batch of clients. Yep, my shoes got their very own private helicopter ride.

Chopper off-loading the first batch of clients

Now I was excited. Back in proper walking shoes, we made the hike down in about an hour and a half, not stalling through the section they call “Suicide Alley” in which several massive boulders (many larger than the van I was currently living in – some as tall as a three story building) sat perched well above us on a slippery talus slope, likely with some old glacial ice underneath slowly melting away and shifting the cliff side. Kelsey said they see boulders roll down sometimes as much as once a day. Usually most of that goes on when it’s been raining, so we felt a bit safer for the good weather, but still…


Not the scariest part, but still a bit scary

Looking back at the glacier, an enormous exit moulin/cave in the toe, and a small iceberg, stuck on a rock

Later that night we shared burgers and beers with many of the Fox guides at the local pub, and I got a real sense of feeling at home with a group of people. I didn’t even know most of their names, but the fact that we all do pretty much the same thing, just on opposite sides of the planet, and knowing that we all share a love for nature and the glaciers we work on really helped to create a connection that I have felt with few other groups. We laughed about my shoes in flight, complained about the worst of our clients, and joked with each other like we were old friends. It made me really excited to return to the community at MICA next summer. Although, I could stand to go a bit longer without answering all of the same questions each day.

The next day I took advantage of Kelsey’s super fast Wifi (the best I’d had in months) to get some photos uploaded and get some ‘adulting’ done online – paying bills, planning for the future, you know, adult stuff. I was debating on staying around a bit longer, waiting out the coming weather and trying again to hike to the Chancellor Hut, but it looked a bit bleak in the long-term weather forecast. When it started to rain, we were glad we opted not to push for the hut the night before. That night, winds picked up and knocked out the power. Come morning, massive amounts of wind and rain kept everyone inside, and early reports came over the guides’ radios that trees had blocked the road north toward Franz Joseph Glacier. Quickly after that we heard the road to the Beach was closed, with a number of people stuck out on the road. Some of the guides were going out with chainsaws to help attempt to clear the roads. Next came reports of landslides to the south blocking the main road back through Haast Pass. Well, I guess I’ll just stay here a bit longer anyway…

Closed, closed and closed

Little happened the next day as the storm cleared, and signs everywhere urged people to stay in town. The guides helped out with the roads but more of them spent their time explaining to people why they couldn’t get through – anywhere – to their next destination. Most people understood the situation, but there are always a few dramatics in the bunch, some of them demanding they be let through, or given a helicopter ride to Queenstown or Nelson. Presumably, they didn’t like the price of such a flight, and most people stayed in town. The third day without power, or cell phones, or wifi (gasp) and a few seemed like they were going to lose it. I had decided to post up outside the guide building (the biggest building and one few with a generator in town) with my book and watch the chaos. Actually though, most people had calmed down by now and were simply sitting around waiting on any news. I wondered what people were still looking at in their phones by the third day without service, but many sat around, still flicking mindlessly with their thumbs and staring at the screen. Was it just out of habit by now? Surely, they couldn’t be looking at anything informational at this point.

About 10am Kelsey found me and asked if I wanted to tag along on a heli hike. Someone (three non-english speaking tourists) had driven in overnight, managing to get by the barricades, presumably driving around or over a number of fallen trees and landslides, in the dark, and wanted to go to the glacier. I wasn’t doing anything… So up I went.

On the way, I got a good look at what all the fuss was about with the roads:

That used to be a paved road
This one's harder to locate, but the trail we had walked out on a few days before
ran across the lower third of this photo. It can be seen on either side
of the image, but is washed out through the middle section


This time a young man from South America led the tour of three Chinese people, the daughter speaking very little English and translating for her parents, and me. We saw a few similar features to the last time, and being that not many people would be out and I didn’t technically work there, I stayed in line with the group and tried not to look bored of the terrain the rest of the group struggled to walk through. It was fun to see the whole tour and get the guides perspective on everything. Plus he brought us inside of some really cool features, something that is very rare on the Matanuska. We just don’t have the arches and caves that form like those on the Fox.

Client crawling her way out of an ice cave
From deep inside the cave

I finally let the guide take a photo of me...


I asked about glaciers in South America, and he said he’d seen a few there as well. Mostly there you could walk to them, but it took a long time. I made a mental note for later. I will be going there some day to see for myself!

We also got to hear - and see the aftermath of - a collapse of an old ice arch, only a few meters away from where we were walking. The guide reported they were climbing inside of that arch days before, but it recently became too thin to be considered safe. We walked over to check it out, and I could see the main breaking point, weakened by several deep cryoconite holes (bits of dirt and rock warmed by the sun and melted into the ice). When the ice finally broke, it left a number of cryoconite holes split in two. I found this super fascinating.

Collapsed arch
breaking point
and close up of fractured cryoconites in the break


It was around this time our guide pulled me aside and asked if I wanted to see the dead tahr (kind of like a mountain goat), which, of course I did, and he pointed me toward it while he talked to the rest of the clients about something obviously less interesting. I’ll spare you the graphic photos and share this slightly less graphic shot of what happens to an animal that dies on a glacier.

Dead tahr and scattered bits of fur across the glacier


The tour wrapped up with a walk back to the landing pad and we flew back down valley to discover that the road South had reopened, the small town now drained to only guides and employees of other local businesses. It seemed almost deserted. Everyone in town had been eager to leave, and with only one road open and most of the traffic tending to come from the north, very few new visitors had come back in. Cell service had been restored, but no 3G, and still no wifi anywhere in town. For the most part, the town of Fox Glacier was still cut off from the rest of the world. I left that evening, driving back toward Queenstown to buy myself a new rain jacket. Some of the guides had given me some pointers on other glaciers to visit, so I had some planning to do as well, preparing for the next adventure.




Thanks for reading, and many, many thanks to all the great people at Fox Glacier Guides for making all this possible! Look them up if you want to see a New Zealand glacier the right way!

http://www.foxguides.co.nz/ 


Please let me know what you liked/didn't like about this and other entries, I welcome any feedback on writing, photos, delivery, layouts, etc. You can just add a comment below!


Fox Glacier Statistics:

Type: Temperate Maritime Glacier

Location: Tai Poutini National Park; West Coast of the South Island of New Zealand

Source: Fed by 4 tributary alpine glaciers, most notably via the north slope of Mount Tasman

Length: 13 kilometers - or maybe a bit shorter by now

Width: about 1 kilometer

Flow: 3-5 meters per day

Access: Currently the best way is via helicopter at Fox Glacier Guides. Actually, that's the only way until they rebuild the road to the viewpoint. If you wish to play the odds and make the hike plan on 3-4 hours from parking lot to white ice - involves a lot of scrambling and advanced route finding to stay out of the rivers


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18 July 2017

Sea Kayaking to Beloit Glacier - 11 July, 2017

After paddling almost non-stop for the past 6 hours, on top of nearly 11 hours the day before, my shoulders, back, arms, and fingers were all screaming at me to take a break. But there, what seemed like only a few hundred feet from the calving face of the Beloit Glacier, I was suddenly motivated to paddle faster and harder than I had all day - I knew I had limited time to photograph the other kayakers among the crackling icebergs with this incredible backdrop of sheer, blue ice before our guide would turn us back toward camp. I wanted to spend the rest of the day... no, the rest of my life, staring into the deep blue ice of the Beloit, watching pieces of the glacier break free and plummet into the ocean, breaking up into hundreds of icebergs to drift around with me in Blackstone Bay.


Exposure Alaska guide Kailey observing the calving face of the Beloit Glacier in Blackstone Bay

We would witness several small calving events in the time we drifted there - I can't say how long it was, maybe 20 minutes, maybe 2 hours - but nothing of a full-size top to bottom breakage like we all hoped to witness. Each time the ice fractured and fell toward the water there was an explosive crack of a whip breaking the silence, delayed by several seconds after the ice had broken free, then the sound of the splash echoed off the cliffs around us only after the water had nearly settled back around the new iceberg. Such a significant time delay between sight and sound suggested we were quite some distance from the glacier itself. Was the calving face 50 feet tall or 5,000? Well, probably somewhere in between, but with no visual reference between our four kayaks and the massive glacier, it was impossible to truly grasp the size of the frozen beast. My shipmate, Kasih (pronounced Ka-seesh), helped me navigate our tandem kayak among the many floating icebergs so I could capture all the photos of our fellow travelers I could before we would make our way to camp for the night.

Iceberg from the Beloit Glacier in Blackstone Bay


I was tagging along as the photographer on a trip for two clients on an Exposure Alaska 3-day kayaking tour from Whittier out to Blackstone Bay. Culminating with our time staring into the mesmerizing blue ice of Beloit and several other glaciers high up on the cliffs surrounding the bay, the trip would end the next morning with a water taxi back to Whittier. Running the show was our guide, Kailey, and apprentice guide, Kelsey, joined by Kasih, who was a logistics team member from MICA Guides, in addition to the two paying clients, and myself. I had been working closely with the team at MICA photographing ice climbing clients for three seasons now, and the owner, Don, runs both MICA and Exposure Alaska, so guides often work between both companies. In need of some new marketing materials for his Exposure website, I was in the perfect spot to tag along and provide him with whatever I could capture - any time I wasn't paddling like crazy to keep up with Kailey and her two "most fit clients of the summer." Just my luck.



Our trip ran about as smoothly as it could have. I had previously been warned by nearly everyone on the team at MICA that Blackstone often produced, shall we say, less than favorable paddling conditions. Rain is more common than not, and winds can pick up out of nowhere, forcing paddlers to stop where they are and wait out the wind when waves become too much to paddle the small boats through. Whittier, it should be noted, was built in a location chosen by the U.S. military as one of the worst weather areas in all of coastal Alaska. Seriously. It was a consideration during World War II because they needed a naval base in the area, and figured, hey, if the Japanese can't see it through the clouds, they can't bomb it. Mother Nature would hide the base for them. The town is isolated in the back of a fjord and separated from the rest of Alaska by the Chugach Mountains, through which a single lane, 3 mile long tunnel allows passage only once every hour. The mountains surrounding the small port town trap in clouds and storms, often isolated to just the immediate area. As the locals say, "it's always shittier in Whittier." This trip would be my third time through the tunnel, and I was surprised upon exiting to see blue skies, along with mountains and glaciers immediately surrounding the town. I knew they were there, they were on the maps, I'd just never seen them. It was a strikingly beautiful area in the rare sunshine, and it seemed we had entered a completely different town than the previous times I had visited.


Unusually calm waters just before launching from the Whittier Beach

After picking up our kayaks and other gear from the friendly folks at the Sound Paddler, we launched from theWhittier beach into a rising tide of what has got to be the calmest ocean this little town has ever seen. Some headwinds would pick up later on, but nothing we couldn't push through. On our way to the first night's camp at Decision Point, we passed so many waterfalls spilling from the cliffs into the fjord, Kailey finally had to just tell me to put the camera away so the group could make it to camp at a decent hour. What...? It's July in Alaska, it's not like its going to get dark any time soon...






But I turned my attention to paddling and we continued on amidst cruise ships, fishing boats, more waterfalls, rocky cliffs below massive peaks, and several hanging glaciers high above. Roughly 11 miles into our day and after a few welcome rest stops, we arrived to an already crowded camping area at Decision Point. One of few accessible flat areas with a decent landing for miles around, Decision provides the perfect stop for many groups with different itineraries and often becomes overcrowded with kayakers. A pit toilet and several tent platforms make it even more attractive to passing ocean travelers.


One of our rest stops the first day included the shipwreck of an old ferry in the Prince William Sound 


While Kailey and Kelsey put together a spectacular meal, I was mostly focusing on staying busy setting up camp and not complaining about the searing pain in my shoulder and back, hoping not to look like a wimp in front of our active-military-couple clients who were already out-paddling Kasih and I by the end of day one.

Luckily, I would awake the next morning with only moderate shoulder pain and a couple pain pills had me back to paddling shape in no time. After another amazing meal, courtesy of our guides, we carried the boats down the rocky shore to the water, now near low tide, loaded everything inside and continued on, finally entering into the mouth of the legendary Blackstone Bay.

We would soon have to cross open water to follow the opposite shore along to the glacier, and with a bit more wind than the day before, combined with large fishing boats to avoid, we encountered much larger waves than anything we'd hit so far. A little added excitement, but I was surprised at how well the little kayaks handled themselves. Though, by ocean standards these were still very calm waters!

Lunch came shortly after our crossing, and Kailey decided we would push on to the glacier at the far end of the bay that evening. All of us, guides included, wanted a nice leisurely day, but with winds continuing to pick up through the afternoon and a potential storm coming in the next day, she opted to push for the glacier rather than possibly not be able to see it if we waited another day. So on we went, seemingly always into a headwind - tired, sore, and ready to get out of the boats and explore. But instead we paddled. Past more waterfalls, peaks, and glaciers. A few seals would pop their heads up from the blue-green waters to investigate our colorful flotilla. Otters were seen playing near the base of a waterfall - by everyone but me. We all hoped to see a whale or two, but none showed - despite Kelsey's best efforts to call them to the surface - her whale call was nearly perfect, there must have not been any within earshot. And on we paddled. Soon passing the Lawrence Glacier on our left, it looked but a short stroll away from the perfect camping beach. Kailey said they had camped here on a previous trip, some of the group had even walked up and touched the glacier. I desperately wanted to stay here. To walk to the glacier and drink it's perfectly clear water spilling down the face as the sun melted the crystal blue ice that had remained frozen for hundreds of years. I wanted to step out onto the ice, and hike to the top. To witness the Névé, the birthplace of the beauty of the glacier. It was so close! But the beach was full of another group's tents, and alas, we had other objectives - and too short a timeline.

So we paddled on. Passing more glaciers, equally accessible by short hike. It was almost heartbreaking to be so close and not be able to walk up to them. Even more heartbreaking was hearing Don later report that only a few years before, several of these had come all the way out to the bay, some with their own calving faces, dumping icebergs into Blackstone's waters. Now they had retreated well back from the ocean, their ice now simply melting into rivers that are on no map, running over freshly exposed earth that no human had likely ever set foot on. The same fate likely awaits the Beloit in the coming years. A large rock face has begun to melt out below the wall of ice. Kailey said even last summer the rock had been almost entirely hidden by the glacier ice. It's hard to say how long until the cliff holds only a steep waterfall spilling down the rock face that for now holds this truly glorious glacier. But for today, none of that matters. Nothing matters. Nothing but the massive wall of crystalline blue becoming larger and larger as we paddle toward the Beloit. Icebergs begin to appear, crackling - like those old Pop-rocks candies in your mouth - as they melt and release tiny air bubbles trapped inside from centuries past.






We slow down as we approach the glacier, not even Kailey can say how far it is to the ice, but we dare not go too close. A significant calving event would send a massive tidal wave our direction, and we want to give it time to dissipate before rocking our tiny boats. No such event occurs, though, and too soon we must turn our kayaks around and head for tonight's camp on Willard Island, in the middle of Blackstone Bay. In the morning heavy winds will keep us from paddling off the island and Kailey will call in the water taxi to bring us back to shittier Whittier, but for now I will spend a majority of the evening on the beach, sitting on a rock, staring out at a number of glaciers, listening to the occasional distant cracking of the Beloit, and contemplating the future. I wonder about the fate of these glaciers glaring in the light of the late evening sun, of the others I've gotten to know, or just briefly experienced in my three short summers in Alaska, and I dream of the hundreds of thousands of glaciers around the world I have yet to see. I hope to return to the bay soon with my own boat, and a lot more time - though no amount of that will ever seem like enough. I reckon I'd need to spend at least an entire year, or perhaps three, to give proper respect to the beauty of Blackstone Bay.














17 July 2017

09. Raven Glacier - 17 July 2017



Before starting the drive to Alaska for the summer of 2017, I signed up for a Wilderness First Responder medical course in Moab, Utah. The course was full of lively characters, mostly raft guides starting their summer of running tourists down the Daily section of the Colorado River nearby. A few participants though, were bound for Alaska, like me. I made a point to talk to as many of them as I could remember - it was a large class - and at the end of the six day course I invited a few people out canyoneering and climbing, and one of the local guides took a bunch of us on a raft for a two hour trip down the Colorado. Future-Alaska-guide Mandi was there for all of it, stoked and ready to tackle anything anyone could throw at her. She had climbed a few times before, and that was clear, but her sense of adventure and enthusiasm for every new experience was infectious.

Fast forward to Alaska and Mandi was running 4 to 10 day camping trips, shuttling clients all around the state for various activities. Unfortunately that came with very few days off, but she managed to make it up to the Matanuska early in the season for some ice climbing, as well as tagging along on one of my failed attempts at the Gulkana Glacier, this time turning us around for deep snow we hadn't planned on only half way up the trail to the terminus.

Finally in July we shared another off day, so we planned to try to fit in some rock climbing. The weather had other plans though - as it usually does in Alaska - and plenty of rain forced us to rethink the rock and look to glaciers instead. Besides, I had a long list of glaciers to check out and new boots to break in before a three-day backpacking trip only days away. I was okay with the last minute plan change.

I had read about a hike running straight through the Chugach Mountains, a long range of tall, snowy peaks housing many glaciers in Southern Alaska. Weaving through the peaks between Eagle River (near Anchorage) and Girdwood, Crow Pass was the high point of this trail. Historically, when the Iditarod started in Seward (before moving to Anchorage in recent years), Crow Pass was the highest elevation anywhere along the infamous 1,150 mile (1850km) dog sled route between Seward and Nome. What really caught my attention, though, was a closeup of the Crow Pass trail map, supposedly still within a mile of two or three glaciers near the high point of the pass. This high point was only four miles along a steep but well travelled trail from the Girdwood side. I still hope to someday do the entire 21 mile (34km) long trail over a number of days, hiking from Girdwood and ending down in Eagle Creek - with many glacial side trips, of course. For now though, we opted for a day hike up to Crow Pass and back, followed by pizza at Moose's Tooth; absolute best pizza - best meal for that matter - in all of Alaska. Fact.

In classic adventures-with-David style, we got a nice early start of 10:00 a.m., in thick fog but with only a light rain by that time. We made short work of the first steep section of trail, despite my constant photo stops hoping for that perfect hiking-into-the-fog shot - it didn't turn out like I hoped. We continued upward, the fog easing as the day wet on. A few small streams poured down over the trail from steep valley walls and spilled over the trail in wide, shallow, cascades.


From the trail, looking down toward Girdwood over a stream crossing

Not much further and the trail would ease up, now nearly flat compared to what we had come up so far. Mandi brought out a thermos with still boiling hot tea, a great treat for such a damp day. A small hut stood off in the distance, resting over a large turquoise lake, both only visible occasionally through the fog, which had returned thicker than it had been all day.

See the cabin? It's there somewhere!

Behind us, just off the trail, the crystal blue water from the lake ran down into a tight gorge and spilled over a cliff hundreds of feet tall. The roaring of the water only added to mysterious feeling brought on by the dense layer of fog.


Blue glacial river below the lake, just before the waterfall

Now we were just an easy stroll away from the sign marking the official summit of Crow Pass, where the trail began to drop off into the valley leading down to Eagle Creek. We would not go that way today, though. To the right of the trail, just peeking out below the layer of clouds, was the reason the valley below existed at all. The Raven Glacier shined bright white even under all that fog, and it looked far closer than I had anticipated. In the last ice age this glacier would have flowed all the way to the ocean, right over present day Anchorage, cutting a massive valley into the mountain range as it went.

Official high point of the pass, with Raven Glacier just behind the sign


The loose talus slope and piles of late season snow between us and the Raven would make the rest of the journey off trail much more difficult. We scrambled across the talus and I opted to take to the snow to 'boot ski' down toward the glacier, while Mandi took the slower route, carefully working her way down the loose rocks. As she headed for the broken and blue front face of the glacier, I worked my way along the side, aiming for the smoother edge, partially covered in rock which would grant me access to the top of the river of ice.

Terminus of the Raven Glacier


We had chosen to leave the crampons behind, so if I wanted to get onto the ice it would have to be a gradual, rocky route for my new boots to have some traction. I hopped from rock to rock across the steep ice, heading out as far as the moraine spilling in from the side would allow. I tried multiple times to step onto the white ice, but it proved too steep without crampons, dropping me flat every time I attempted.

Supraglacial streams converging on top of the Raven Glacier


I looked far up the glacier for another option, but the trend continued, and even steepened higher up. This would have to be the end of the journey for today. I filled my water bottle in a glacial stream, and walked back around to join Mandi, happily sitting enjoying her tea with a view.

Tea break at the toe of the Raven Glacier


While I ooh'd and awe'd at the blue ice of the glacier's terminus, Mandi started back to the pass. I wanted to stay, but we didn't have all day, and had spent far too much time talking about pizza already. To Moose's Tooth!


Drinking the freshest possible water - from the Raven Glacier

Good example of glacial striations in rock

The hut, finally visible on our way down