- 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.

May 18, 2017

08. Illecillewaet Glacier - 16 Sep 2016

When looking over a map of Canada’s Glacier National Park, the Great Glacier Trail instantly caught my attention. The trail was ranked a ‘moderate’ by their system, and was a measly 6.4 km round trip. Of course, it said right there in the description it no longer accesses the Illecillewaet Glacier as it did when it was constructed in the 1890s. I figured that the trail would at least get me pretty close to a glacier, though, and indeed an internet search returned many photos of people next to the ice of the Illecillewaet Glacier, via the Great Glacier Trail. No one really noted how much further they had to hike after the trail ended to get to the glacier, but a number of people appeared to have seen it up close, so how hard could it be?

Illecillewaet Glacier from campground road in Glacier National Park, Canada
Illecillewaet Glacier (left) as seen from the campground road.

Glacier National Park, Canada is acknowledged as the birthplace of mountaineering in North America. 1888 saw the first technical recreational climb in the Selkirk Mountains, later the home of Glacier National Park. The climb was completed by two British mountaineers - Rev. William Spotswood Green and Rev. Henry Swanzy. Starting in 1899 the park boasted two Swiss mountain guides offering safe travel up mountains and glaciers. The Glacier House, accessible only by train at the time, sat where the Illecillewaet Campground now exists and offered guests tremendous views of the surrounding peaks and the "Great Glacier" as the Illecillewaet was named at the time. In those days, a short trail lead awestruck visitors right to the edge of the tremendous glacier towering above. Those brave enough ventured out onto the ice and the high mountain peaks above.

Warming climate over the last 100 years has changed the area greatly. In fact, there is no point anywhere along the 3.2km Great Glacier Trail that you can even see the glacier that the trail was named for. Hiking around switchback after switchback, suddenly there was this sign post in the middle of the path that said "End of Trail." That was it, it just stopped. There was no viewpoint or information, just a post halfway up a slope in the middle of the mountain.
From the trail's end, the gentle grassy slope soon became a steep, rocky scramble with no definitive direction. It quickly became obvious that the 3.2 km trail had been the easy part, getting Lizzie and I only about half way to the glacier itself. Scree fields prolonged our fight upward and steep, mossy rocks presented an even less appealing alternative. Finally, we came over a rise to see the glorious white of the glacier glistening in the sun. Several pools filled depressions carved into the rock by the glacier over thousands of years, now exposed for the first time since before the last ice age.

Illecillewaet Glacier reflected in pond
Illecillewaet Glacier

The area below the glacier presented many signs of wear from the giant glacier of the past. Much of the rock had been scraped and plucked by the moving ice as gravity had forced it downhill over hundreds of years.

Channel scraped into bedrock by the moving glacier, exposed after severe melting

The edge of the ice was fractured and broken by rapid melting with several blocks of ice having broken free, now resting on their own tens or hundreds of feet from the rest of the ice. A number of small caves and tunnels appeared under the ice as we walked along the edge of the glacier. These types of features are common near the edge of the ice where water flows out from underneath the glacier.

Tunnel under the toe of the Illecillewaet Glacier
By the time we found a way we could climb onto the ice, we were already exhausted from the long hike. Determined to explore a bit of the ice, we pressed on up the steep slope.

Lizzie coming up the lower glacier - the highway below Roger's Pass can be seen below
On the way up we discussed the possibility of finding another route down. We had seen on the maps that there was another trail above the glacier, a sort of overlook that might be relatively easy to get to from further up the glacier. Another option circled around the left side of the glacier, behind another ridge. We desperately wanted to find another route that would allow us to go around the steep section we had climbed on the way up. Either option would add a lot of time, though, and require some serious route finding until we hit a trail. We opted to make our way up glacier and around a nunatak to attempt to gain access to the upper viewpoint trail. However, after walking roughly half a mile on the ice, any hopes of getting around to either alternative trail were dissolved by a covering of snow over the rest of the glacier. We had reached the firn line much sooner than expected, and any crevasses would be thinly veiled by the autumn snow. We would not be going any further.

We filled our bottles with freshly melting glacier water before starting back down in the shadow of a looming storm cloud.

Fresh water straight from the glacier

weaving our way between shallow crevasses on the way back down
The return to the trail was certainly faster than the hike up that morning, with almost as much time spent jumping and slipping down rocks as walking. With a light rain everything was even more slick as we picked our way down, and a muddy trail was a welcome sight for the last 3.2 km back to the truck. By the time boots were removed, both of us suffered from multiple blisters, and it would be several days before our muscles were relieved enough to even walk normally.

Illecillewaet Glacier Stats, as of 2016

My First Visit:16 September, 2016
Type: Alpine Glacier
Location: Glacier National Park, British Columbia, Canada
Source:Illecillewaet Névé, Mount Sir Donald vicinity
Status: Retreating
Access: ~7km (one way) hiking starting with the Great Glacier Trail, good route finding skills recommended after that.

More information:

Mar 26, 2017

07. Salmon and Bear Glaciers - September 2016

Salmon Glacier - 11 September, 2016

Lizzie and I weren't sure what to expect when we rolled into Stewart, B.C. at 9:30pm. We were headed from Alaska to Utah, and had traveled less than half way when we stopped over to explore some glaciers near the small port town of Hyder, Alaska. Hyder is a stone's throw across the border from Stewart, or about as far south as you can get in Alaska. Requiring a boat or long drive through British Columbia to reach the town, it rests near the very tip of the Alaskan panhandle.

That night had been incredibly foggy so far and we saw none of the steep mountain peaks taht surround the small town on our drive in. We had read about the Bear Glacier, supposedly visible from the road, but could see nothing to prove it tonight. The other objective for this stop was the Salmon Glacier, which apparently granted terrific views from a parking lot overlook on a steep mountain pass twenty miles above Hyder, technically back to the B.C. side of the border.

By the time we had dinner at the only place open in town, it was 10:30pm when we decided to head on to find camp. Knowing there was a parking area overlooking the Salmon, I wanted to try and camp there, allowing us to wake up to the view of the massive glacier. As we crossed into Hyder, the fog thickened. When we reached the dirt road heading toward the glacier, visibility was down to about 6 feet in front of the truck. Slowly but surely I felt my way up the steep windy road, stopping numerous times to get out and verify the road still continued ahead of us. Near the top of the pass the fog was so thick I could no longer see the road in front at all. I've never seen Lizzie so stressed, but I was having a great time navigating by feel of the road at 5 mph. We began thinking the road would never end but, finally, we reached a flat area that opened up into a parking lot. A single motor-home waited at the top, lights glowing inside, sending beams of amber out into the dense fog. Walking around the dirt lot we determined this must be the overlook parking, and made camp. By which, I mean we crawled into the back of the truck and our waiting bed; Complete with full size mattress, blankets, and pillows, this was truck camping at its finest!

Comfortable as I was, I slept very little that night, dreaming about the glacier below us - if only I could get a peek at it now...

My favorite way to see new places has always been to wake up to a view after arriving late at night. It sounds funny, but there is something magical about experiencing something for the first time by starlight, and then watching it slowly form in the gathering light of morning before a perfect golden sunrise. Given the complete lack of any visual cues of where or how high we were, aside from the truck's GPS screen, I was giddy imagining the surrounding peaks and glacier I knew so far only as topographical lines on a flat screen. Some time in the early morning hours, I stirred and noticed a faint glow of light. I could see from inside that the fog had lifted and I could just make out a horizon with a pale blue glow from the approaching sunrise. Below us I could now see a massive valley, glowing with white ice under the dimly lit sky. I jumped out and put on every layer of clothing I could possibly fit under my down jacket and set up my camera. I waited outside in below freezing temperatures for hours as the light slowly got brighter, until finally the sun peeked over the horizon for one of my most memorable sunrises to date:

Sunrise over the Salmon Glacier

Waiting in this spot, I watched the sunlight work it's way closer. It wasn't until after 10:00 am that the light and warmth finally crept over my rock overlook, and only then did I bother turning away from the mesmerizing view. In the parking lot above, many cars and people had started to gather. Lizzie made breakfast and we sat at the overlook watching as countless people drove up, snapped a photo, and turned back toward town. There seemed to be little appreciation for something that was so far out of their way to get to. A nearby construction project had brought a security guard to the overlook, the road beyond closed during the construction. The work being done on the shiny new power lines above drew more attention and questions from visitors than the majestic river of ice and incredible view they had driven here for.
Perhaps it's human nature to be interested in "progress" and advancement, but it was upsetting to see so little attention paid to such a wonderful thing that is disappearing because of exactly this type of "progress" by mankind.

The security guard, Allen, was a nice fellow. Stationed at the overlook every day for the last two months, the duration of the project, he had seen many people visit and told us of a few who had gone down to the glacier. That got my attention, as I had been trying to locate a trail down since we had arrived. Nearly 1,000 ft below us, the ice would not be easy to reach. Allen showed us the easiest way, though it would not be easy. The last group, he reported, took around two hours to work their way back up from the ice at the bottom.

Lizzie looking out over the Salmon Glacier roughly 300-400 ft below

We slipped and skidded our way down steep scree fields and rocky terrain for some time until we reached an old road cut about 300 ft above the ice. That's where we stopped. There was little more than cliffs below us no matter how far we walked the road, and we saw no way to make the descent without roping up and rappelling large sections, or sliding down the steepest scree field we had ever seen. Lizzie was not comfortable with the slope and we didn't have enough rope to make the descent on rappel, so, after much deliberation, we turned around and made a long, steep trek back to the parking lot. The exploration of the Salmon would have to wait for another time. The glacier had still given me an incredible experience, something I will never forget, and we would spend another night there at the overlook before attempting our next objective - the Bear Glacier.

That night brought mostly clear skies accompanied by stars like I've rarely seen outside the spotless skies of the Southwest Deserts. The white ice glowed faintly under the starlight and the milky way lined up perfectly for a shot over the glacier:

Salmon Glacier by starlight

Morning came with yet another incredible sunrise, and we headed out early to make our way to Bear Glacier. Just one more stop along the windy road for a view of the terminus of the Salmon:

Bear Glacier - 13 September, 2016

Terminating less than half a mile from the highway into Stewart, the Bear Glacier would be one of the most accessible glaciers in North America if not for a lake between the ice and the road. The previous year, I had driven through to Stewart and tried to find a way to cross the river below the lake with the idea that I could walk around to the glacier. Swift, ice-cold water kept me from attempting it alone, but this time we had come prepared. Equipped with a canoe, getting across to the Bear would require nothing more than a calm, relaxing paddle over the lake, leaving us a couple hundred feet from the ice.

Paddling toward the Bear Glacier
Bear Glacier from the edge of the lake
This was glacier exploration at it's finest! Upon reaching the far shore, we had a simple hike through recently de-glaciated land that, from the looks of things, had been visited by very few people, if any since the Bear receded away from the nearby lake.
At the edge of the glacier, massive fins of ice reached out to welcome us and invite us up onto the ice. We took our time, exploring the recently exposed rock below the retreating glacier, and photographing the toe of the Bear before donning our crampons and heading uphill to explore the surface of the glacier itself.

Lizzie (lower left) below a large fin of ice reaching out from the toe of the Bear Glacier.
The slope of the ice became apparent once we came close to the glacier, it would be a steep hike once we hit the ice, and very slow going. Likely we would not have time to go very far before we would have to turn around to make it back to the truck by dark. We pressed on, though, eager to set our eyes on whatever lay ahead.

Hiking up the steep Bear Glacier - a large braided river of melt-water feeds into Strohn Lake below

The steep hike soon revealed many wonderful blue ice features, a few animal bones - including vertebrae and the horn on a mountain goat - as well as a good sized colony of ice worms, yes, ice worms are real! (visit the link to see Alaska Center's explanation and video of ice worms)

Ice worms in a pool on the Bear Glacier
Look closely at the photo above; all of the dark squiggly lines in this pool of water are ice worms! The dark black pebble on the left size is about the size of a U.S. dime.

Continuing on up glacier, we located the perfect place to break out the ice tools and take some vertical laps before starting the hike back to the boat. An old moulin had melted out a nice flat-bottomed nook with a 40 ft (~12m) perfectly vertical wall in the back.

Lizzie peers into a canyon-like feature cut into the Bear Glacier

We were able to walk around to the top of the vertical section so we figured set-up should be easy from there. However, cutting the anchor was a lot more work here than at our home glacier, the Matanuska, as the ice of the Bear was rotten deep down and we cleared ice almost 30cm deep to find something more dense to screw our anchor into.

Lizzie climbing on the Bear Glacier
We were feeling great after the climbs and decided to call it a day and head back to the truck. We started the hike down quite satisfied with our day of exploration and excited we got to climb on a new glacier. It was on the way out though, that we ran into one of the coolest and largest features we've yet experienced on a glacier. We came to a large ledge that ran probably 100 ft (33m) across, and straight down to unknown depths below. A massive moulin lay before us, carved by surface meltwater milling it's way down into any weakness in the ice below.

Deep inside the dark moulin was a macabre reminder of the dangers of such features:

Animal remains deep inside a large moulin on the Bear Glacier

We walked the length of the enormous moulin and looked on in awe at the size and beauty of such a feature. Waterfalls disappeared into the depths on all sides with a deafening roar echoed through tunnels and amphitheaters carved out of pure ice. Meltwater cut into the walls leaving massive blades of ice jutting out into the air. All around we walked and peered into the abyss that seemed to go down forever. Indeed, the water falling into the tunnels below us would be transported below the glacier and out to Strohn lake, probably in a matter of minutes. Any person or creature falling into these depths would face almost certain death. 

While the dangers of these icy beasts can be high, when treated with respect and explored with proper training and skills, they present some of the most incredible experiences to be had anywhere on Earth. Each time I visit a new glacier I seem to have a life-changing experience, and come away with a new story of another profound place that is too great to put into words. 

So you'll just have to get out there! See for yourself these incredible places, and if you don't have any training, there are plenty of guides and outfitters willing to share these unique experiences while keeping you safe!

That's all for now, thanks for following along and remember you can subscribe to receive the next story in your inbox by entering your email on the right. Also, check out more photos on my Instagram feed: @dcranephoto

Bear Glacier Stats, as of 2016

My First Visit:13 September, 2016
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Bear Glacier Provincial Park, British Columbia, Canada
Source: Cambria Icefield - Boundary Range, Canada
Length: ~ 2mi/3.2km
Width: ~ 2,000ft/670m (estimated by Google Earth images, little information found)
Status: Retreating over 30 meters/year in 2015 (CBC News Article)
Access: Paddle across Strohn Lake near Stewart, B.C.

Dec 15, 2016

Valdez Glacier - Paddling into an ice cave

This is part of Lizzie and I's trip to Worthington and Valdez Glacier, you can read about the first half, here.

Since I have also written about the Valdez once before after my first trip there, we'll keep this short and focus on the fun part: ice caves!!

We awoke after a rainy night to terrific views of Valdez Lake and steep, foggy mountains all around. Lizzie and I had spent the night just outside of the parking area and boat launch for Valdez Lake, in anticipation of paddling around the lake and hunting for ice caves.
While we geared up in the parking lot, a friendly guide from Anadyr Adventures arrived with several clients, getting ready to head out in the company's inflatable kayaks for a day on the glacier. A super nice fellow from Montana, he was working in Alaska for the summer, like us, guiding first timers on ice and sharing the beauty of glaciers with the world. We talked briefly while his clients got themselves ready to head out, and he gave us a hint of where we might find what we were looking for. He also warned that their company had ceased to bring clients into the cave because in the very back was a very thin section of the roof, dark with rocks and debris overhead. We thanked him and invited him up to the Matanuska for some ice climbing before heading out in the canoe. We quickly located the hidden entrance to the cave, something we probably would have overlooked without help from the friendly guide. It looked too small to even fit a canoe or kayak into at first.

Narrow entrance to the flooded cave
At the entrance, both sides of the canoe skidded along the walls on either side, but it easily slipped through. Even more brilliant than in the Athabasca ice cave we visited a few months prior, the inside of the glacier was a perfect, clear, azure blue. We were deep enough below the surface of the ice that only blue light is able to reach through.

Paddling inside the pure blue Valdez Glacier
Upon turning the canoe around inside the cave, I was able to look back and see the roof the guide had warned us about. Thin ice revealed dark black boulders the size of microwaves and larger, just waiting for the ice to give way. I shuttered to think of the power of that amount of rock hitting the water all at the same time. Even steering clear of the area, we would be in for a wild ride inside the small cave if it collapsed.

We kept our time inside short, not wanting to take a swim if something did fall. Even after a short time, the bright light of a cloudy day came as a shock as we neared the exit. We made a stop onto the top of the glacier to explore and saw many cool features, but nothing could compare to the experience of paddling inside the glacier.

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