- 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.

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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06. Worthington Glacier - 7 August, 2016

Back in May, I had returned to MICA from my solo trip to the Valdez Glacier (which you can read here) with stories of paddling between icebergs and photos of the icy giants all around me in the deep blue lake. Lizzie was itching to see the icebergs and glacier, and I had since heard rumors of an ice cave that could be accessed only by boat. We began planning for another trip almost as soon as I had returned. As a second year guide, Lizzie would work six days per week all summer, but would get one two day weekend in August, and we knew that would be a great time to get to Valdez. On the way, we planned to stop over at the Worthington Glacier, which was still too snowy for me to get to during my first visit. I was excited to see another new glacier, but probably even more eager to find that ice cave in Valdez.

As the days got and closer, though, the weather forecast looked less than ideal; Heavy rain was projected for both days across much of Alaska. Many alternative hikes were considered, but the weather looked worse everywhere else across the state. We decided if we were going hiking in the rain, it may as well be on glaciers - so we loaded up the canoe and started the drive first thing the morning of the 7th. Sure enough, the rain came in early that morning, and only intensified as we drove toward the Worthington.

Worthington Glacier from the road - taken later in the day when the weather calmed down enough to see the glacier
By the time we reached the parking area, the rain was so intense we considered coming back later, or not at all. We decided to stick around and see if anything changed, and by the time we had eaten lunch and packed our gear, the rain had calmed to a steady drizzle.  So off we went, into the rain. The beginning of the trail was easy, leading to a heavily visited viewpoint in front of the glacier about a half mile from the parking area. Once we left that trail, though, paths quickly became wet, slick, and much harder to follow through the rocks.

Lizzie considers the best option to access the glacier.
We scrambled up the lower moraine-covered ice over loose shale of all different sizes. When we finally reached the clean, white ice, things became much more smooth, but also super steep. The view was fantastic, even from the toe of the glacier. Waterfalls flowed from both sides of the steep valley and cut into the edges of the ice. The glacier contained many small, beautiful blue holes from old moulins and resealed crevasses, but very few large features down low.

Waterfall over the broken bedrock, carved out by the glacier. Also shows just how steep the lower glacier is.
With such a steep hike in the cold and rain - not to mention constantly stopping to take photos - the next half mile took us quite some time. We made it to where the pitch leveled out to almost flat, but the glacier there was severely broken up into thousands of crevasses. As glacial ice accelerates toward a drop like that at the toe of the Worthington, it begins to break apart into a field of crevasses. Imagine sitting in a raft as you go from a calm river to approaching a waterfall. Closer and closer to the drop, the water becomes much faster and more turbid. The same thing happens with glacier ice, except that it flows more slowly than a river and, instead of rapids, you get pressure fractures forming crevasses.

Looking up to the firn line and icefall of the upper glacier
As we wound our way around and between massive cracks up to 60 feet deep, snow began to appear - first in holes and shaded areas - then covering much of the ice above us. We realized we had reached the firn line - the level where snow covers the glacier all year - and it would be dangerous to go much higher. The plan was to circle our way around from the left lobe of the glacier, above the rocky outcrop of the former nunatak, which separates the two lobes of the lower glacier, and hike down the right side, bushwhacking our way back to the parking lot.

The glacier had other plans, though, and sent us back the way we came after we struggled to find a way through the broken crevasses in near-hypothermia-inducing weather. Before we turned back, the clouds lifted just high enough that we could see the flanks of surrounding peaks, nearly all of them containing glaciers that spilled down to join the Worthington. I desperately wanted to explore every channel and peak, but the ice caves of the Valdez Glacier were waiting. The upper Worthington would have to wait for another time. On the way down, we passed close to the edge of the ice, broken against the rock and full of cool features and waterfalls. 

A cold, wet Lizzie hiking down
In the crevassed and broken ice, we also found an old cable. We later learned that there is a research station higher up on the glacier, likely the origin of such artifacts. The cable we found was partially melted out, nearly 200 feet worth of it, with each end still frozen into the ice for unknown lengths.

Left: the cable disappears into the ice in the top left corner; Right: close up of said cable
Further on down, we met up with the trail, and decided to walk around to the viewpoint. A fantastic display of a waterfall and river filled ice cave awaited us: a perfect photo op to end the day!

Toe of the Worthington Glacier

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Worthington Glacier Stats:

My First Time on the Glacier: 07 August 2016
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Thompson Pass near Valdez, Alaska
Source: Chugach Mountains
Length: 3.8 mi (6.1 km)
Width: about 1 mi (1.6 km) near the top.
Flow: up to 30 m/yr (research from 1960's)
Status: Retreating
Access: Pangaea Guides offers tours, don't miss the view from the Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site in Thompson Pass

Dec 4, 2016

05. Three Glaciers in Three Days Pt. 3 - Root Glacier - 26 May 2016

Look back to Part 1 - Valdez Glacier, and Part 2 - Kennicott Glacier.

Life in McCarthy, Alaska is, to me, the definition of determination and grit. Their tiny town is home to only 30 year-round residents. 60 miles into the Wrangell - St. Elias National Park via a dirt road, they are engulfed in wilderness with limited access to supplies from the outside. Like many small towns in Alaska, there are a few hardy long-term residents and many seasonal visitors. In summer, the population swells to over 300 with summer employees, and tourism brings people from all over the world to witness the beauty and wilderness surrounding the town. In May, it is a quiet little town full of construction and restoration work gearing up for the coming summer tourism boom.

I was surprised, then, when I walked into McCarthy to see a television production crew filming all over main street. Many new "Reality" television shows have been popping up about the wildness of Alaska in the last few years. This one, "Edge of Alaska," apparently portrays the small town as a lawless wilderness, and has many residents upset with how the town has been made to look on camera. I haven't seen the show, but when asked about the film crew, the locals gave me an earful.

I wasn't here for Hollywood drama, though, I had a glacier to explore. The shuttle driver charges $5 each way to and from Kennicott, 5 miles away from McCarthy. Since I knew I had to walk 2 miles from Kennicott to get to the Root glacier anyway, I was happy to pay the seasonal employee to shuttle me up the rough dirt road to the old mine. I briefly admired the restoration efforts to the old buildings, but had limited time until the last shuttle returned to McCarthy, and since I had to be back to work on the Matanuska the next day, time was limited. 

Approaching the old Kennicott Townsite and mining area

The path from Kennicott to the Root glacier is well traveled, with guides providing glacier treks, ice climbing, camping trips and more in the area. After hiking out to the Kennicott Glacier the day before, the packed trail was a welcome relief. I made quick time to the glacier, and was happy to see some clean, white ice almost all the way to the edge of the glacier. As I strapped on my boots and crampons, I noticed a group of boys with a guide doing the same. I was reminded again how good the visitors and guides have it on the Matanuska, where we jump out of a van and walk for 10 minutes downhill to access the ice. 

Up on the Root Glacier, I was awarded with terrific views of the peaks of the Wrangell Mountains and numerous glaciers all around. I can only imagine what a plane ride would be like over the park, and make a mental note to return for one of those fly-in backpacking trips they offer.

The ice of the Root was almost pure white and had a fragile, chunky texture of Styrofoam to it. That sort of ice makes climbing on lower angle terrain easy and predictable, and I was itching to get a climb in. I came to a nice, not quite vertical wall only 10 meters or so high, and contemplated the climb. With several other people around and a number of guides with groups out, I wasn't exactly on my own, but may as well be. Most likely any injury here would require a helicopter. I contemplated the condition of the ice and spent some time traversing to test the ice down low. Everything felt great and I felt focused. I ascended the wall quickly and walked around to make a few more laps. The steeper section to the left tempted me, but with this sort of ice, overhanging climbs would be risky. I stuck to what I knew was well within my ability and still had a blast.

After the short climbing session, I ventured out with camera in hand to explore more of the glacier. The Root, like every glacier, is full of interesting features of waterfalls, moulins, and crevasses. I also came across a deep blue pool with air bubbles surfacing from below. 

Calm, clear glacier water

The blue hole was beautiful, but the bubbles immediately caught my attention because they appeared to be moving sideways, not up. I watched for some time as a bubble moved away from me further and further until it finally broke the surface of the pool. It wasn't that they were moving sideways, the water was so perfectly clear and so deep that it was impossible to tell far below the surface the bubbles were. A sort of optical illusion of clarity. I watched the small bubbles rise and wondered about what was creating them for some time before moving on. A simple dripping of water off a snowbridge over a crevasse similarly captivated me.

Things went on that way for some time, until I looked around from a high point and saw that the other three groups that I had seen earlier had all disappeared. 

Waterfall and crystal blue stream

Shadow portrait over a roaring waterfall

I looked at the time and realized I was way past my planned turn-around. The consequence for being late would be an extra 5 mile hike out, after the 2 mile return to Kennicott, and I was already sick of walking with a heavy pack. I hurried back to the mine, only to arrive 40 minutes before the last shuttle. I took those 40 minutes to photograph the old buildings around the mine and and to curse myself for not making more time and bringing the camping gear to stay out a few extra days. Next time, I suppose.

Root Glacier Statistics:

First Time on the Glacier: 26 May, 2016
Type: Valley Glacier, tributary to Kennicott Glacier
Location: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Source: Regal Mountain (13,845 ft/4,220m)
Length: 15 miles (24 km)
Width: about 2 miles (3.2 km)
Status: downwasting
Access:Via McCarthy and Kennicott
Guide Services: St. Elias Alpine Guides; Kennicott Wilderness Guides


More info:

National Park Brochure on McCarthy and Root Glacier