|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.
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...
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|
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.
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|
|Phil's idea of excitement - 30 ft down in a moulin barely wider than shoulder width|
|Lizzie climbing through the Rabbit Hole|
|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.
My First Visit: August 10th, 2015
Matanuska Glacier Stats, as of 2016
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
|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|