- 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.

Oct 31, 2016

03. Three Glaciers in Three Days Pt. 1 - Valdez Glacier - 24 May 2016

Valdez Glacier, just outside of the town of Valdez, Alaska is known as the All-American Route. Used by thousands of gold miners and explorers in the early 1900's, it provided access into the Chugach Mountain Range before roads connected Valdez to interior Alaska. Despite the harsh conditions and average of 600-900 inches of snow each year, the glacier provided access to explorers and miners wanting to try their luck in the Last Frontier. As the glacier retreats, however, it has become more difficult to access since the early exploration of Alaska.

Iceberg filled Valdez Lake now limits access to the glacier

I started work for the 2016 season on the Matanuska Glacier in May and shortly thereafter made a new goal of exploring as many glaciers as possible. I started the Cryosphere Chronicles as a way to share my stories and photographs of what are sure to be a series of exciting adventures along the way. Back in May, I knew very little, however, about how many glaciers were actually accessible, or where to begin to find them. I knew Alaska alone has over 100,000 glaciers though, so there ought to be plenty to choose from, right?

As it turns out, the problem with getting anywhere in Alaska becomes clear when you look at a map of this enormous state. At over twice the size of Texas, there are only a few roads intersecting the vast wilderness. If you want to get anywhere in Alaska, you need a plane.

Alaska Road Map
Road Map by Alaskacenters.gov
Being pretty short on extra cash, I decided to start small and find glaciers I could drive to first. Also short on downtime, I was hoping to find as many as possible within short hiking times of a road.

With those criteria, it proved rather difficult to put together a list more than a handful of easily accessed glaciers. Alaska.org publishes a brochure listing several “roadside” glaciers, but even some of those are in Juneau or Cordova (mandatory flight/ferry) so I still can’t just drive there.

The Worthington and Root glaciers popped up early on in my searches, and they are relatively close together (only about a 4 hour drive apart). So, when I had a few days without work in late May, I decided to check out both in one trip. 

Digging deeper into the area I found Anadyr Adventures out of Valdez that leads clients to the Valdez Glacier. They access the glacier via kayaking day trips across Valdez Lake. Sounded awesome; I added Valdez to my list. Root Glacier, near McCarthy, has a close neighbor, Kennicott Glacier, which was less publicized but closer to the road, so I figured I’d give that a shot, too. I had three days off and four new glaciers to attempt. Not a bad start!

The day before my 3-day weekend, I finished up work on the Matanuska and hurriedly tossed my gear, food, and water in the truck. It was already after 8:30pm but I wanted to drive as far as I could that night. After all, it was summer in Alaska, so there would be plenty of light! At this time of year the sun sets around 11:00pm, the short summer nights only turning a dim twilight for a few hours before the sun returns to the sky. As I journeyed to a new part of the state, I was greeted by a colorful sunset and knew I could easily make the Worthington glacier the next morning.

The next morning was cloudy and gloomy as the road curved higher and higher toward Thompson Pass. Finally the twin tongues of the Worthington came into view below the low clouds and shone a bright pure white with a disappointingly thick snow coverage. A snow-covered glacier was well beyond my current skill level or equipment, so the beautiful Worthington would have to wait until later in the season (I did eventually return with Lizzie in August). It suddenly hit me that May is still very early in the season as far as alpine travel is concerned, and I now wondered if the other three glaciers I was after would be covered as well...

From the top of the 2,805 ft. Thompson Pass, the road descends steeply to Valdez, at sea level. Just outside the small port town is Valdez Lake. As I pulled into the dirt lot next to the lake I was greeted by a spectacular view of massive icebergs floating in the deep blue water. The glacier, thankfully free of snow, was barely visible around the corner.

The glacier is just visible in the valley behind the round-ish white iceberg on the right

My grandfather’s old green canoe had been borrowed/rescued by Lizzie and I from the dried-up pond on my uncle’s property at the last minute for our trip to Alaska.  The long drive mostly saw the canoe sitting atop the truck with only a couple of lakes in Montana and British Columbia coaxing us into unstrapping the 80 lb. beast. It had not been so simple as to just slide the canoe off and put it in the water, since there were duffel bags, oars, and a gas-can tied on under the canoe as well. Every time we wanted to paddle, all that extra gear had to be dealt with too. In short, it became so much of a hassle to get on and off the roof we wondered if it had been worth bringing the boat on a 4,000 mile journey to begin with.
Now, as I paddled away from the shore and into the iceberg filled Valdez Lake, I couldn’t have been happier that we had brought it along. I also couldn’t help but think of my grandfather, who had passed just over a year before, and how much he would have loved to hear about the adventures his old boat was a part of.

As the wind pressed the smaller icebergs toward shallow water near the launch, and I had to paddle through an accumulation of “candle ice” crystals between bergs to access the open water of the lake. Candle Ice is a crystal ice form of numerous vertical columns that easily fracture and fall apart, making a 'clinking' sound as they bump into one another. I felt like a human-powered icebreaker of the arctic smashing through the ice sheets ahead. But, you know, much, much slower.

Candle Ice floating in Valdez Lake

Finally breaking through the barrier, I had the lake entirely to myself as I paddled among the ice giants. The further I struggled into the headwind, the more of the glacier became visible, inviting me closer. I maneuvered the canoe around a corner of the cliff and massive walls of ice sprung into view, standing 50 feet high straight out of the water. Who knows how much ice lay hidden below the surface of the water. Not wanting to get too close to the icy ramparts, I steered out toward the center of the lake where the moraine covered ice seemed to bow down to the water level. I nervously steered the canoe up a channel where the ice was below the water and “landed” where I could see moraine on the water’s edge. I had no idea what to expect landing a canoe on ice, but I figured if there was a company bringing clients to do the same, they believed it to be safe enough. I poked and prodded various places with the oar and finally stepped a foot onto the rocks. Solid, though slippery, I stumbled across the flat pieces of moraine - shale from tiny pieces to as big as dinner plates - as they slid across each other and over the ice below them. 

'Landing' area of the glacier - moraine covered ice

I spent some time wandering the rock-covered medial moraine of the glacier and let my mind wander as well. I wondered about the vast mountains above me and the glacier running ahead, winding through the mountains and disappearing into the distance. It seemed to go on forever.

Returning to the canoe, I pushed off carefully and returned to the water. Paddling the remaining length of the terminal face I saw many water filled channels running up the glacier, likely old crevasses or river valleys that happen to be below the lake's water level now. A few channels appeared to run at least a half-mile up glacier from the terminus.

The far end of the glacier was pressed up against a vertical cliff face with several waterfalls spilling snow melt from the high peaks above. I made it all the way to the cliff side before starting back toward the parking lot, now rather tired of paddling. Much to my dismay, the wind shifted into a headwind once again, this time stronger than on the way in. Even though I knew I would be exhausted, I took the long way around, following the opposite shore to get a close view of a tremendous iceberg floating on that side of the lake. Though the berg was not overly tall – maybe 30 ft. of ice stood out of the water – it was massive. At probably 150ft wide and 400ft long, I suspect it would have been a sight to see that floating island separate from the glacier. This was not one of the icebergs you see in the movies, all crystal blue, clear ice, though. It looked much like the rest of the Valdez glacier, covered in a thick, black moraine. Still beautiful.

A small part of the iceberg in front of a valley which used to contain another glacier

I paddled on into the wind to return to my truck, and along the way apparently came too close to a gull’s nest somewhere near shore. I turned to look over my shoulder as I heard the screeching coming at me, and almost rolled the canoe when I saw the bird not 5 feet from my head! She continued her assault as I paddled away as fast as I could, continuously swooping and diving closer to my face each time she flew past. I barely escaped and returned to the parking lot as the wind subsided. As I prepared to load the canoe I was attacked again, this time by the Alaskan Air Force. The mosquitoes here have been known to drive animals mad, and cases have been documented of caribou leaping off cliffs for no apparent reason except to escape a cloud of the tiny predators. Relentless, and the worst I have yet experienced their attack, they made loading the canoe myself absolutely maddening as I stopped to squash one biting my face every couple of seconds. I looked like a bandit, or bank robber, bundled up with a handkerchief around my face, covering every bit of skin I could. Still they found their way through all the clothing and bug spray to leave welts on my knees, arms, nose, and cheeks for days afterward. Finally with the gear loaded and still wet, I made my escape to the highway after one final look back to the beautiful Valdez Lake, icebergs drifting in the deep blue water. The day had been an exhausting one, but then, most of the best days are.

More information:


Valdez Glacier Statistics:

First Time on the Glacier: 24 May, 2016
Type: Valley Glacier, Lake Terminating
Location: Valdez, Alaska
Source: Chugach Mountains
Length: 20 miles
Width: 1.25-1.75 miles
Status: Retreating
Access: Boat across Valdez Lake; 3 to 4 glacier guide services offer day trips onto the glacier.

Oct 30, 2016

Saving Glaciers

Every person alive and connected to the world has heard the bad news: The ice is melting, sea levels are rising, droughts and famine have already begun. And wait, we're still debating the idea that climate change is real, and that humans are affecting the environment!?

I'll save you the ranting because if you haven't already tuned it out, I'm sure you will soon.

Studies already show that the majority of Americans believe that human affected "Global Warming" is real and a threat to our future. Still, very little is being done to actually address issues and begin to slow the effects. Politicians bicker as they always do, but the real trouble comes in from multi-national corporations turning huge profits from oil, gas, and coal. These Fossil Fuels are quickly worsening the problem of CO2 and other greenhouse gasses invading our precious air and warming the climate. Every gallon of fuel we use and every watt of power we suck from the grid means more money for them. All they have to do is postpone the weaning of the public from their products via confusion about the problem; the longer we wait the more money they make.

Corporate greed aside, there's another powerful issue: Most people don't see the direct effects of their inaction, and don't grasp how the consequences will effect them. I'll admit, this is a problem I still face. Sure, global warming is bad, sea levels rising will displace millions of people in the near future, icecaps are melting and air quality is a concern. But how does it affect me, now?

Personally, I don't want to miss out on any opportunity to experience the raw beauty of glaciers, and I think every human being should have the right and ability to do so as well. One of the reasons I started the Cryosphere Chronicles is to spread the word of how incredibly cool and beautiful these rivers of ice are, and to encourage others to see them in person. Can't do that if they all melt.

That's not to mention the fact that glaciers are the number one reservoir of fresh drinking water on Earth. We all need drinking water.

So yes, I know, you've heard it all before: we must cut carbon emissions and stop driving and go vegan. NO, that's not what it takes! Yes, changing a lifestyle is difficult. The good news is, it doesn't have to be. Taking a small step is better than no steps, and as renewable energy sources are pushed for and explored, it will continue to get easier, but we have to make the initial steps.

The single best thing you can do to help is actually pretty painless: Vote.

Do your research on who is running in local elections. Vote out climate change deniers in favor of those who will listen to your voice and make the changes necessary to begin to turn the tides.

In everyday life there are many small actions you can take to reduce carbon emissions as well as save you money!

Check your thermostat - you shouldn't be cold inside in the summer, or hot inside in the winter. Dress for the season and put on a sweater if your cold.

Check your lights - turn off lights when you don't need them, and change out old bulbs for efficient LEDs. Seriously, why have you not done that yet? It sounds small but 1/4 of ALL power usage worldwide goes to lighting.

Drive efficiently - That's right, you don't have to park your car permanently or trade it in for a Prius, just be smart about driving habits. Walk, bike or bus if possible, and when driving, just avoid sudden accelerating and breaking which waste fuel. By driving smarter you can save a lot of money on gas. And don't idle your vehicle while waiting for someone or running inside 'just for a second.'

Unplug unused appliances - Phone chargers, coffee makers, computers not in use - turn them off and unplug them when possible to save money on your energy bill.

Warm vs. Hot - use warm or cold water settings to wash clothes. If my clothes can come clean in cold water, yours surely can too!

Check for heat/cooling leaks - air leaking from windows and doors wastes energy and money, weatherstrip or caulk them. Incense smoke is a great way to locate where air is getting out.

Conserve water - A separate and serious issue of it's own, especially in the Western U.S., water usage is still a threat to climate change. Think about companies running pipelines to ship water across the Rockies to Denver, or from Nevada to L.A. - huge waste of energy. Heating water for showers? Do you really need to shower every day? Do you need to flush 1.6 gallons of drinkable water every time you pee? Cut out grass for a rock garden or natural vegetation from the area.

I know this last one will be tough, but here goes:

Eat less beef - Wait, Wait, don't go! I didn't say don't eat meat!
Seriously though, beef is one of the largest problems of energy and land wastage in the world, and even eating pork or chicken instead of beef reduces the greenhouse gas emissions of the same amount of meat by 80%! 80%!! From the Smithsonian Magazine - "Beef requires 28 times more land, six times more fertilizer and 11 times more water compared to those other food sources. That adds up to about five times more greenhouse gas emissions."

There, those aren't so hard, right? Thanks for helping to save the glaciers!

This post has been in consideration for some time, but finally brought about in inspiration to the video put out today by National Geographic and Leonardo DiCaprio called "Before the Flood." It's worth your time, I promise!

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