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)
Access:Via McCarthy and Kennicott
Guide Services: St. Elias Alpine Guides; Kennicott Wilderness Guides
National Park Brochure on McCarthy and Root Glacier