- 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!

Aug 21, 2016

02. Athabasca Glacier

The Columbia Icefield, at 325 square kilometers and between 90 and 350 meters thick, is the largest icefield in the Canadian Rockies. Wet winds form the Pacific cross interior British Columbia to bring over 7 meters of snow every year to the high mountain peaks surrounding the Columbia Icefield. Six major glaciers get their start in the icefield, and meltwater drains to the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans. Poised near the highway between Jasper and Banff National Parks, the Athabasca Glacier, one of the six tongues of glacier ice stemming from the icefield, has become the most visited glacier in North America.

When I first laid eyes on the Athabasca, it was the closest I had yet come to stepping onto a glacier. I was bound for Alaska in the summer of 2015, where I would eventually end up working as a photographer on the Matanuska Glacier. The remote Columbia Icefields Parkway in Alberta, Canada rewards drivers with views of many glaciers along the route. Towering peaks high above the valley hold hanging glaciers on their steep cliffs and pristine mountain lakes glisten a beautiful turquoise in the summer sun.

Along the Icefields Parkway, Crowfoot Glacier hangs above paddlers on Bow lake

The Icefields Discovery Center, 185km North of Banff and still 103km from Jasper, offers travelers a rest stop with absolutely spectacular views of the Athabasca Glacier and surrounding 3,500 meter peaks. The 6km long Athabasca Glacier, easily seen from picnic tables on the deck, is only about 2km from the Discovery Center. In the early 1900's, the glacier would have been much closer. Having receded 1.5km in the last 125 years, the glacier has lost an estimated half of it's total mass in that time. A relatively easy hiking trail awaits for those that want a closer look, or giant glacier-adapted coaches await to shuttle tourists onto the glacier 56 people at a time. As with any glacier, travel onto the ice without proper equipment and experience, or a guide, is unwise and unsafe.

Toe of the Athabasca from the short viewing trail.
On my first visit, I was intensely curious, but knew little about glacier travel to risk going alone. Also there was a river between me and the ice. The coaches, while neat, dumping people off onto a smoothed out section of the glacier didn't sound like my style of travel. Plus I needed to save money for Alaska.

After checking out the Discovery center, I wandered out in the rain near the base of the glacier. As it turns out, you can see some cool stuff without getting near the ice.

Self portrait across the river from the Athabasca Glacier

Fast-forward to the end of the summer and I was heading back South from Alaska to Colorado. I passed through the Icefields Parkway again and stopped by. This time, I knew something about glaciers, but still didn't own a pair of crampons of my own, and I had been fighting a stomach bug all the way from Alaska. I was still interested in checking out the glacier more closely, but the information desk seemed unimpressed or unconvinced that I knew what I was doing and offered no tips on access to the glacier, aside from the crowded motor coach.

Finally, on the third visit while my girlfriend, Lizzie, and I traveled back to MICA this summer, we would get onto the glacier. Or, rather, into the glacier...

Lizzie and I in an Athabasca ice cave, Spring 2016
We had heard rumors of ice caves on the Athabasca, so we made it a goal to get onto the glacier and search for the fabled ice caves. Now we had plenty of gear and experience on ice, though now the game had changed. The glacier was still covered in snow! Snow adds an entirely new element of danger to glacier travel, as crevasses and other massive holes are invisible to travelers under the cover of snow. I knew from visiting the year before and from online photos that the very toe of the glacier tended to be free of large crevasses, but it wouldn't be worth risking traveling up very far to find any cool features like walls to climb or say, ice caves.  Lizzie suggested that this glacier would have to wait until our return trip in the Fall, but I at least wanted to get more information before moving on.

I wasn't in the mood to put up with the usual crap that information centers provide to keep people from wandering off the path, so I made it clear to the guy behind the counter at the Icefields Discovery Center right away that we were both glacier guides and were well versed in glacier travel (may have left out the fact that neither of us knew a damn thing about snow-covered glaciers). Luckily, the Parks Canada employee on the other side of the counter seemed grateful to speak to someone who knew what they were doing, and offered tips on accessing the ice safely. For the same reasons they don't like to hand out this information, I will keep it out of this post. If you are interested in glacier travel either learn the skills required to do it safely, or go with a guide.

Our hike out to see the toe of the glacier was without the majority of our gear, because even with the helpful information from the Center, we weren't sure we would risk traveling on the glacier this time until we checked out the condition of it more closely. However, a lightweight scouting trip was just what we needed to stumble upon the location of the ice cave, and let us know that it would actually be possible to get to. I was ecstatic at the possibility of going inside an ice cave of the glacier. Lizzie, much less so, it turned out. I wasn't sure she would go inside but ultimately, she too, wanted to check it out. Stability of the ice is always a concern when anything is overhead, especially in unknown areas. However, being early spring when temperatures were only beginning to rise, this seemed as good a time as any we would have - winter would be ideal with everything frozen and unlikely to move at all. We discovered the ground inside still to be frozen - great sign for an ice cave - and it only went back 30 meters or so. I set up the tripod and speedlights for some photos in the dark cave before we quickly made our way back out. The ice inside was unbelievable. This cave had been carved by water moving under the glacier, the way most ice caves are formed, and any air bubbles in the ice had long since been squeezed out by the massive pressure of the thick ice above. Since it was toward the bottom of the glacier, no sun had touched this ice since it formed, and it was as clear as glass. Filtered sunlight broke in through the wall near the entrance, filtered by ice to a gorgeous crystal blue. The back of the cave received no light but from our headlamps.

Lizzie exiting the ice cave
The feeling of being inside such an incredibly unique environment is really something inspiring, and I am lucky to have experienced it. Many people seek out such places ad few ever get to see them in person. I am also grateful for my wonderful girlfriend Lizzie and her patience, and for her always looking out for me.

Athabasca Glacier Statistics:

My First Visit: 24 July 2015 (not on the ice)
First Time on the Glacier: 02 May 2106
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Icefields Parkway, Alberta
Source: Columbia Icefield on the border of British Columbia and Alberta
Length: 6 km
Width: 1 km
Flow: Several centimeters/day
Status: Rapidly retreating, 10-20 meters/year currently
Access: Massive 56 person coach, or short hike to viewing area. Walking access onto the glacier is limited for anyone not experienced in glacier travel and with proper equipment. Nominal Day Use fee to Parks Canada for access to the Icefields Parkway.

Further Resources:

www.canadianrockies.net Parkway and Glacier Facts

Geovista Brochure on the Athabasca Glacier

Aug 19, 2016

A Foggy Morning on the Matanuska

A rare quite time for me. I write this because I can't keep my mind still to simply enjoy the calm morning. I sit by the side of a kettle pond, waiting.  I have over an hour until the group I will be photographing today begins ice climbing, and I'm in no hurry to move from this cold rock as the fog rolls over me. I'm not just waiting for the group to get moving, or for the fog to clear to reveal the glacier I know hides behind it, I'm waiting for the morning's calm to find me. When it does, it is a rare feeling at this point in my life. So much hustling between groups or rushing to a climb, I rarely take time on the glacier to just sit and enjoy this beautiful place. Now I stare into this wasteland of the moraine filled with nothingness with a mere outline of the icefall above the fog. Below, nothing but rocks, dirt, and calm, clear-blue water of the kettle ponds. The only sound is the faint noise of the river a quarter mile to my right.

I've left my group temporarily to walk out to a location I've never been, though I look out to it as I walk past every day. The mystery of the fog brought me out here, but the silence keeps me. The summer is coming to an end, trees are changing, frost covers the leaves in early morning hours, and in a month I will be back in Utah searching for work once again. The uncertainty doesn't concern me now, though - the summer has been one of the best I've ever had.

My stomach still queasy from motion sickness, the calm, cool morning is exactly what I need to absorb the previous day's events. Lizzie and I have been trying to get a flight above the Matanuska to see where it all starts, but the weather almost never cooperates in Alaska. Yesterday was a beautiful day as we continued work on our hand-built 10'x12' home for next summer. An oddly urgent radio call toward the end of the day from our friend Emily, and before we knew it we were pulling into the airfield at the base of the Matanuska. Emily had been invited to go flying and bring 4 friends along for the ride. Lizzie and I were ecstatic to be asked along.
The glacier we've come to know so well was suddenly entirely unfamiliar from the air. We had our first glimpse of Mt Marcus Baker, where the glacier originates, as well as many other high peaks of the Chugach. As we barraged our pilot, Bill, with questions about the names of glaciers, peaks, and valleys, it seemed every third or fourth feature was simply unnamed. Whenever Bill reported something had no name, he seemed to do so with a bit of excitement in his voice. Toward the end of our flight we passed over a large glacier which also reportedly had no name, and Emily suggested that Bill, more than anyone, could in fact give it a name. Bill chuckled and quickly remarked that he rather liked when things didn't have names. "It makes it feel more wild." For the rest of the flight, no one asked him what anything was called, we just enjoyed the truly Alaskan experience. This State is so big and so wild it feels like a place that is meant to be seen from the air. For now, though, a cold rock by the pond on a foggy morning will do.

This is my second entry from the Matanuska, more information for this glacier can be found in my first post, here. This was written entirely on the morning of the 19th as I sat in this spot, though I have since edited it to flow more smoothly.

Our pilot, Bill, runs Glacier Park, which maintains access to the Matanuska. While Bill rarely flies commercially any more, several companies offer aerial sightseeing of the Mat. I highly recommend it.

More Photos:

Mt. Marcus Baker and the head of the Matanuska
Looking down the Matanuska Glacier
Just after the fog cleared, from another pond close by

Aug 10, 2016

01. The Matanuska Glacier

The Chugach Mountain Range of the Southern Alaskan coastline receives an average of over 600 inches of snowfall every year, and contains over one-third of Alaska's glaciated land - over 800 square miles. Mount Marcus Baker, the range's tallest peak, measures 13,176 feet high and spawns numerous glaciers. One such glacier begins on the high slopes and runs 27 miles, terminating just shy of the Glenn Highway - making the Matanuska Glacier the largest car-accessible glacier in the United States.

4:00am Sunrise on the Chugach Mountains - looking up the Matanuska Glacier from Lions Head

The First Steps

I followed Ben down the trail from the parking lot and onto a line of boards and grates floating on top of squishy, quicksand-like mud. As the boards bounced with each step, I was enthralled. Ben was eager to get climbing after a long day of work, and with barely over 2 hours until we had to be out of the park gate, he moved quickly. I tried to keep up as I took in the new sights all around me. I had taken several steps off the boardwalks before it registered that I was officially on top of my first glacier.

The sun-cooked white ice crunched under the solid plastic rental boots I was borrowing for my first ice climb. They were uncomfortable, to say the least - clearly made for climbing and not hiking - but I didn't care about that now. I felt like a child in Disney World trying to keep up with mom but eagerly trying to experience everything around me at the same time. After a short hike over hills of white ice and gray mud, we rounded a corner to see 15 other people already gathered with ropes up and starting to climb. This was a majority of the MICA team, of which I knew one other person in attendance. I wasn't sure what to expect, but everyone was super welcoming and encouraging as I got on my first ever ice climb.

MICA family climb night, and my first day on a glacier. Not a bad start!

After one climb I started wandering around a bit, and Ben told me about the lake not too far from the climbing site, so I started that way. It was late evening in August, so the sun was getting low and the sky was clearing from recent rains just enough to light up the icefall behind the lake. The beauty of the glacier was absolutely breathtaking. I was only supposed to visit for three days, but I knew already it would be hard to leave... I was falling in love with the Matanuska, and it would change my life.

My first view of the lake and icefall on the lower Matanuska Glacier as the sun broke through thick clouds

A New Direction

As I write this, it's almost exactly one year after my first steps on the ice, and I've had over 100 days on glacier ice in that year, almost all of them on the Matanuska. Every day on the glacier is something special for me, and after 100 days, there is still something new and exciting every day. Glaciers do not just sit idly. They are changing all the time, and exciting new features may appear and disappear in days, or even an afternoon.

My fascination with glaciers is developing into something I've rarely had in my life: Focus.
The last few years have been spent wandering aimlessly. Seasonal work; new towns almost every year, if not every season; long road trips; looking for something. Like so many others, I wander because I don't know where I belong. I don't know where I want to spend my time, I don't know what I want to do with my life.

After the last year, I now know a few things:
I know that I want to see and experience as many glaciers as possible. I want to learn everything I can about them. I know that they will not be around forever. I know that we, as humans, can do a lot to affect our environment, and I hope through my photography I can help spread the beauty of these wonderful and essential pieces of our planet's ecosystem, in hopes that others will be inspired to change their perspective and learn as well. For the first time I can remember, I know what direction I want to take my life.

To Alaska!

When I left Utah in July 2015 and started the 3,000 mile journey north to Alaska, I had never set foot on a glacier, though I had seen a few from a distance on a recent trip to Iceland. I knew nothing about the Matanuska Glacier, aside from hearing the strange name from a few employees in Steamboat Springs three years before. Ben, Phil and Katie had worked for me as photographers when I managed the Sharpshooter Imaging photography venue in Steamboat, and they had since continued inviting me to do some summer ice climbing with them in Alaska. The trio were among many other friends who had moved to Alaska recently, and by 2015 I had friends in Seward, Anchorage, Denali, and more all enticing me with stories and photos of tall craggy peaks, immense glaciers, and fresh-picked berries by the bucketful.

Beyond getting to Alaska, I had nothing resembling a plan before setting out. My goal was simply to see as much of Alaska as I could before I ran out of money. Then, hopefully, I would find a job so I could afford to drive home in the Fall.

My 3,000 mile journey became 4,500 miles after side-trips through Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Glacier National parks, as well as several stops in the beautiful Canadian Rockies and beyond. I crossed into Alaska around the end of July, and my mom planned to fly in to Anchorage the next week for a quick vacation to see some sites with me.

Along the Glenn Highway I stopped by the MICA Guides (Matanuska Ice Climbing Adventures) base to see who was in, but Ben, Phil and Katie were all out guiding trips. I met a few other guides and told them I expected to return to visit my friends in a day or two after I got to town for groceries (the nearest grocery store being an hour away). Engine trouble on the steep windy road shortly after sent me to Anchorage for repairs instead. Of course, it was Friday night, and I was forced to wait around until Monday to get the vehicle to a shop to have it assessed. By the time it was fixed up and ready to go, my mom was due to land in Anchorage the next day, and I was much shorter on cash than expected.

I picked up mom from the airport and she and I visited a cousin of mine in Seward after a whale watching tour out of Kenai Fjords. We saw Exit Glacier from the viewing area and listened to the ranger talk about the glacier and the ecosystem. I was fascinated by the glacier and depressed by the posts marking the recession over the last couple hundred years. After Exit glacier, we drove far north to Denali for a couple days before circling back to Anchorage and touring the city before mom got on a plane back to Utah.

Alone I traveled back to MICA. I had planned for a few days there while I contemplated my final destination to search for a job. I would probably end up in Denali, or maybe Seward, likely working in a restaurant or hotel or something...

MICA Guides

The afternoon I arrived at the MICA base Ben greeted me, set me up with a campsite, and invited me ice climbing with him and several other guides that night after work. I was outfitted with plastic rental ice climbing boots, crampons, and other gear for our quick trip onto the glacier. That first ice climb was cool, but I was quickly distracted by the beauty around me. I wanted to see so much more!

The next day I had the pleasure of tagging along on an Advanced Trek with guides Ellie and C.J., and their clients. The typical "Icefall Trek" with MICA is mostly a walk on the ice with an interpretive guide full of cool facts and information about the glacier, and Alaska in general. The "Advanced Trek" is very similar, except the guide brings along a rope and ice screws to secure the clients so they can get closer to the really big stuff.

A crevasse in the lower icefall of the Matanuska.

Our guides brought us out around the base of the icefall, and later up to the top of the for some truly spectacular views.We got to peer over the edge into a deep, narrow crevasse, the kind you would likely never come out of if you fell in without a rope. We also experienced the power of a moulin. A moulin (French for mill) is a hole in the ice carved by running melt water. The water finds a weakness in the ice and mills out the ice until it either finds it's way under the glacier, or flows out the sides. Water from the river running across the top of the glacier vanished with a thundering roar as it poured down into the darkness of the moulin. Then, when we thought that was as awesome as it could get, Ellie used the rope to get us up a short slope to peer into the side of a crevasse. This one was an old crevasse, nearly 80 feet deep, and the down-glacier wall was slowly falling over the icefall causing it to open up. It absolutely blew my mind. A trip onto a glacier is something everyone should experience at some point in their life.

Steph climbing over a river on the glacier, Ben on belay
The third day of my visit, Ben and one of the logistics staff members, Steph, were going out ice climbing and invited me up glacier with them. I wasn't sure what that meant but was definitely ready for more ice climbing. Up glacier is really just their way of saying "further past the stuff we see every day with our clients."

A solid hour of hiking in the plastic climbing boots before we even got onto white ice and my feet were screaming, but I tried not to complain and followed the two up onto a plateau on the ice, then down into a river-carved canyon to find some big walls. I couldn't help being reminded of the sandstone canyons of Southern Utah where I've spent so much time over the last few years.

Home Base

Day four was spent hanging around camp most the day and contemplating my next move. I needed money, and soon. It was already mid-August and I would need to leave Alaska sometime in September to beat the snow. I kept thinking back to what I know - Photography. I had spent years photographing people on ski slopes in Utah and Colorado, and even rock climbers, though never making any money with the friends I had been climbing with. MICA had something unique though, they had people paying to go with an experienced guide on a trip that was probably a once-in-a-lifetime experience for most of them. I talked to Ben and Phil about a new idea. They both loved it, and got me a meeting with Don, the owner of MICA.

Before I knew it, I was out on the ice with lead guide Chris learning how to build climbing anchors and safety aspects of walking and climbing on glaciers. I scrambled to gather or purchase new gear I would need. I remember a particularly interesting phone call trying to describe to my mom what an ascender looked like, as she kindly gathered up various pieces of gear that I would need out of storage. I would spend the rest of the season there as a sort of trial run as the official MICA photographer. I had found work, and it was nothing like what I had expected. I was taking a huge gamble, because if I couldn't sell photos, and a lot of them, I would be in debt in a bad way. But, hey, it was a hell of a lot more fun than waiting tables.

In about 5 weeks I spent a total of 30 days on the ice. I learned a lot of new skills and met some amazing new friends. MICA is a small community of great people who are a ton of fun to be around and easy to get along with. One particularly awesome (and cute) guide, Lizzie, even came back to Colorado with me after the summer was over. All it took was a cheesy Ferris Wheel ride under fireworks at the fair and we've spent nearly a year doing everything together.

I guess everyone at MICA was happy having me around because they invited me back for another full season, and I get to spend nearly every day on the Matanuska photographing people in one of the most unique and incredible places imaginable.

This is how I spend a majority of my work day
The guides here at MICA know how to work hard, spending 6 days a week guiding, but know how to play hard on that one day off, too. Most days off are spent exploring the glacier, climbing, or lowering into holes just to see where they go.

Phil's idea of excitement - 30 ft down in a moulin barely wider than shoulder width
Being on a glacier nearly every day for an entire summer has given me some interesting perspective on how the ice moves and changes. The melting is constant, and brand new crevasses and moulins open up within days, or even hours. One feature we called the Rabbit Hole, a near-vertical tunnel opening into a crevasse, opened up within two days, and we had four days we were able to climb through it before it collapsed.

Lizzie climbing through the Rabbit Hole

Other exciting glacier activities include ice climbing in crevasses, ice climbing in moulins, climbing up seracs, and occasionally even rigging up a highline over a water-filled crevasse...

Brett M. walks the highline while Brett W. lead climbs out of the crevasse. Shot from inside an old moulin.

While there will inevitably be many more incredible experiences on many more glaciers in the future, The Matanuska will always be my first, and continue to hold a special place in my heart, along with all the awesome people I've met working here.

Matanuska Glacier Stats, as of 2016

My First Visit: August 10th, 2015
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Chugach Mountains, South Central Alaska
Source: Mt. Marcus Baker
Length: 27 miles
Width: 4 miles at the widest section
Flow: 1 ft/day
Status: Slowly retreating, rapidly down-wasting
Access: 1/4mi hike to ice after access from private road, $25/person access fee in 2016

More Photos:
Ryan climbing out of a 30 meter deep moulin

Old Moulin Tunnel

Canyon carved by metlwater on the Matanuska Glacier. Fall colors appear in mid August.
Terminus of the Matanuska


Panorama of the Matanuska Glacier from Lions Head