- 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!

04 December 2016

04. Three Glaciers in Three Days Pt. 2 - Kennicott Glacier - 25 May 2016

Look back to Part 1 - Valdez Glacier.

Wrangell-St. Elias is America's largest national park, ranging in elevation from sea level to 18,000 ft, spans 13.2 million acres, and averages around 70,000 visitors a year. That means it is a full 6 times larger than Yellowstone (2.2 Million acres), and receives 1/57th of the number of visitors - over 4,000,000 a year visit Yellowstone.

With only two small roads entering the park from the North and West, it is a wild place, to say the least. This is a place for adventure.

Although I would not be traveling too far off the main trails of the park on this trip, it doesn't take long to feel like you are truly out there. I turned down the 60 mile dirt road to McCarthy and immediately felt engulfed in wilderness. It takes most people over 2 hours to drive the 60 mile stretch, and with many scenic views along the way it often takes much longer.
When I reached the parking area at the end of the road, it was already almost 3:00 pm, so I was uncertain if I'd still be able to keep up my goal of a new glacier each of my three days out. In fact I was uncertain if I'd even make it onto the Kenniccott at all, given the minuscule amount of published material about it I'd come across.

I knew from my research that the Root glacier takes some time to access; It is a 3/4 mile walk to the small town of McCarthy from the end of the road, and from McCarthy it is another 5 miles to the old mining town of Kennicott. Luckily, a shuttle will drive you from McCarthy to Kennicott, but the Root is another 2 miles walk after the shuttle. Oh and the shuttle runs once every two hours from 9am to 5pm. If you're out after 5:00, you're walking the extra five miles back, making a one-way trip 7 3/4 mile hike.

Since I had arrived pretty late in the day, I opted to attempt to find access to the larger Kennicott Glacier that night, and save the Root for the morning when I could catch the first shuttle.

The Kennicott Glacier creates this unique logistical situation between the parking area, McCarthy, and Kennicott mine. The river of ice carved the valley, and still separates the parking area from the mine, with the massive amount of water from melting ice keeping cars from accessing McCarthy. Only a foot-bridge allows visitors to begin the hike across, and from there a narrow road connects McCarthy to Kennicott Mine. The 30 year-round residents (and more seasonal summer residents) of McCarthy have built a private bridge get some vehicles on the opposite side of the river and offer the shuttle service to Kennicott.

Instead of hiking east toward McCarthy, I begin by heading north, along the west side of the Kennicott glacier. A "west glacier viewing trail" is easily spotted not far from the main parking area, but the trail ends or just disappears in less than a mile. I continued on with a number of stream crossings, looking for a place to access the glacier.

The first view of the Kennicott, which is covered completely by tan colored moraine near the terminus.
I hike over two miles before I think spot a place I can get onto the ice, but it is difficult to distinguish where the glacier ends and solid ground begins. The moraine is thick, and I even uncover some dead ice (presumed dead as it is detached from the main glacier and has vegetation growing above it) on a rocky hillside as I slide down toward the final approach.

The vertical walls of ice are clearly still an active part of the glacier, but as for where I stand for this photo, I'm unsure if there is ice below me or not.
I change into my boots for one last shallow stream crossing. The opposite side is clearly glacier, and I immediately begin sliding with every uphill step as the moraine slips over the ice below. I marvel at the resemblance of the moraine to the tan and red colors of Southern Utah. Vegetation ends and gives way to the barren wasteland feel living glaciers. The feeling is familiar as it is similar with any glacier, next to nothing can adapt to live on moving ice. The occasional overhanging wall gives off a deep blue color, a stark contrast to the browns and reds of the moraine covering most of the ice.

I manage to gain some high ground and take in the view, though the main flow of the glacier is still out of site. Travel is tough up a steep scree slope again resembling loose desert rocks. The classic 'one step up, two steps back' made even worse by the ice only inches under the loose rocks. I debate the use of crampons, but decide against them. They would make walking up a slope like this easy if it were only ice. Trouble is, the rocks would keep the spikes from entering the ice - not to mention dulling or breaking the points - so I stick to the belly-flop method assisted by an ice tool for the short climb.

At the high point, I can find no way to connect my location to more of the glacier. Water separates much of the lower glacier here, and without a swim I will make no more progress. A narrow slot-canyon-like feature makes me feel even more like home in the deserts of Utah and Arizona, except that the walls are blue ice instead of red sandstone. Other than the color difference, the resemblance is striking. I try to follow the canyon but it instantly drops off to another lake below.

Icy slot canyon
At another high point, as if to hammer in the desert theme, I spot a number of towers below me. Straight out of the Escalante wilderness of Southern Utah, they are perfect frozen hoodoos and towers. I begin to wonder if I'm still in Alaska or if someone painted Utah blue and white.

Looking down into pools, towers, and broken ice.
Apparently having gone as far as I'm going to without getting wet, I wander back toward the descent, and spot the first life I've seen on the glacier. Tiny leaves of green, normally unnoticeable in their size, stand out in this land of brown, red and blue.

A tiny addition of green to the wasteland-like colors of the moraine
As I return to the lower level I wonder if I'm actually on the main glacier, or if this entire area is something of a lake of massive icebergs floating too near each other to tell the difference. They could have been completely separated by the water, or it may have been a series of surface lakes and rivers on top of the glacier. Hard to tell.

Even though the sun is still hours from setting, it's getting late, so I head back to the truck. I spot a porcupine on my way out, who quickly seeks cover under a nearby boulder. I look back across the glacier as clouds part and the sun highlights the far peaks and restored buildings of Kennicott Mine that I will visit tomorrow.

Kennicott Glacier and the mine from which it gets it's name.

Kennicott Glacier Statistics:

First Time on the Glacier: 25 May, 2016
Type: Valley Glacier
Location: Wrangell-St. Elias National Park, Alaska
Source: Mt. Blackburn 16,390 ft (4996 m)
Length: 27 miles (43 km)
Access:Via McCarthy road
Guide Services: St. Elias Alpine Guides; Kennicott Wilderness Guides

Though there was little info online about Kennicott, the two guide companies listed are good resources for travel to Kennicott and Root Glaciers. As usual, anyone wanting to access any glacier should have the knowledge and experience required, or go with a guide.

More Info:

This is an awesome short video series by the National Parks in Alaska; several of the videos feature the Kennicott Glacier and McCarthy:

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