Fog settled across us like a blanket dropped over our heads. We slowed our pace and stayed close, but Joe was still little more than a shadow six feet behind me. Even my boots began to lose detail to the mist. I could have never imagined a fog so thick. We were already wet from the constant drizzle of rain, but the moisture of the fog seemed to carry extra weight as we walked, long since losing any sign of a trail. I glanced down at my phone's screen, which had been tracking our movements through GPS. Oh, look, we're heading the wrong way. Again.
No wonder so many people get lost when visibility drops away. As we made another 180 degree turn the thought occurred to me that without this tiny, fragile, battery operated device, we would likely wander through this fog for hours trying to regain a trail back to the backcountry hut where our sleeping bags were waiting. We were nearly two miles from the hut through steep, Alaskan terrain, and from the hut it was over 9 miles to our exit trailhead. We weren't expected at the trailhead until the next evening, so getting truly lost would mean a long night in the cold if the fog failed to lift. Getting hurt would mean two long nights before anyone even started looking for us. I focused on keeping the phone safe and dry, only taking it out of my zipped pocket while standing on flat ground.
As we walked along, suddenly the fog ahead of me darkened - oddly. My eyes couldn't perceive the cliff above me until I could nearly reach out and touch it. Damn. We deliberated briefly about which direction to walk along the cliff face, and decided to go uphill and try to get on top. We picked our way around smaller ledges and finally got above to more manageable terrain, heading in our desired northwest direction once again. Of course, even that was a shot in the dark at this point. We were looking for a glacier in the fog on a 1980 USGS map (the last time Alaska was mapped). The Mint Glacier is now a sliver of it's former self, and we had no idea where that sliver currently lay inside it's latest mapped boundaries. We had seen the glacier from a thousand feet higher and two miles away at the pass, so we knew it was here somewhere. Now, we had no idea where we were, let alone the glacier. But it was getting late, and we agreed if we didn't find it soon we would turn back, maybe trying again tomorrow if the clouds cleared. Luckily soon is a very vague time frame, and we wandered for at least another hour before the fog ahead seemed to brighten just a bit, as though it would clear up any second and let in some late evening twilight. But it didn't clear; it stayed just as thick as before. However, the ground downhill from us began to glow in an odd way as well. We were only 15 feet from solid ice before we realized the glow was from the ice of the Mint Glacier, still somehow reflecting an incredible amount of light through the thick dark fog. It was absolutely radiating in the relative darkness of the evening twilight.
As we trekked across the ice, it seemed that the glacier itself was giving off the only remaining light that night. The fog began lifting almost as soon as we stepped onto the ice, as if it had given a great effort to conceal the glacier from us and was now relaxing, having lost to our stubbornness. It refused to give up entirely though, keeping close and glowing above the white ice as we explored the gentle slope and often rocky surface of the glacier. Boulders would materialize out of the fog in front of us and dissolve into the mist as we walked away. There was a strange, ethereal feeling of mystery to the entire night, but that was only a few hours of our three day traverse, every minute seemingly full of adventure as we walked through postcard views, over four glaciers, and slept inside backcountry huts placed throughout the area.
Joe and I had met about a month before, when he and three friends came on one of MICA's ice climbing tours on the Matanuska Glacier. While I was out photographing the group, Joe mentioned he was living in Anchorage for the summer, and looking for ideas of other glaciers he could go and explore, asking many questions about glacier travel and safety throughout the day. I gave him a list of a few I had been to, and mentioned I had similar goals to see as many as possible, so we exchanged info. A month later we both had some time off, so when I mentioned the Bomber Traverse, hiking over at least two glaciers in the Hatcher Pass area, Joe was more than happy to tag along. We decided two wasn't enough, though, and figured by the maps we could get to at least 3, if not 4 or 5 glaciers in a 3-day span. With each of us driving in, we would have two vehicles making for an easy shuttle between the Reed Lakes and Gold Mint Trailheads. Joe stayed out late fishing the day before, and started his drive from Soldotna at four a.m. to make it to our 8:30 planned meeting at the Gold Mint Trailhead. We left my truck there and took Joe's car to Reed Lakes in a light drizzle just below a dense fog. The forecast had called for steady rain that morning, clearing to two beautiful days ahead. As we started the hike, we quickly realized we would not need the rain jackets just yet, and the fog layer seemed to rise as we ascended the steep trail toward Snowbird Pass.
We passed a number of abandoned mining buildings and other various artifacts left by miners at the Snowbird Mine, one of several mineshafts of the historic Independence Mine. Remnants of the mining operations, halted in 1951, appear all around the Talkeetna Mountains with leftover pieces of machinery, ore carts, buildings and plenty of trash. The main “town,” or Independence Mine State Historical Site, is just a short drive from the Reed Lakes Trail, now a large tourism draw and perhaps one of the main reasons people still visit the Hatcher Pass area. At its peak in 1941, the summit of Hatcher Pass was home to over 200 people year round, with wood tunnels connecting buildings to shelter residents from the harsh Alaskan weather.
|Remnants of operations near the Snowbird mine|
Continuing up the steep
trail, we pass above Lower Reed Lake. I recall a story of a former MICA guide
hiking the trail to Reed Lakes, finding the fresh mountain stream water to be
refreshing and delicious. Further up the trail, a beaver dam came into view,
and he began to question his decision to drink from the stream. Sure enough, he
would come down with the old Beaver Fever (Giardia) a few days later and be
incapacitated for days.
Joe and I continue on, finally topping out on Snowbird Pass 4 miles and 2,800 vertical feet from our starting point. The view is spectacular. Massive jagged peaks stretch out to the horizon, many covered with snow and blue ice of hanging glaciers. Below us stretches the Snowbird Glacier. It is a dirty, silty glacier, but the setting among steep rocky cliffs more than makes up for the grayish tone of the ice. Something about it seems off. I can't quite place it, but I have a rather somber feeling mixed in with the excitement of exploring one more glacier. It's almost like visiting an elderly relative in a hospital - when you're happy to see them, but there's a thought that it might be the last time. I feel like the glacier is dying. I have seen photos of the Snowbird, it's tell-tale Nunatak (a peak surrounded on all sides by glacier ice) jutting out of the ice like a massive shark's tooth. I can't seem to locate the supposedly obvious feature as we continue down to the ice. At first I am convinced that I'm mixed up, that I had been seeing photos from another glacier, or perhaps the glacier wraps into the valley below, out of view, and we are seeing only a small portion of it.
|Snowbird Glacier from the Pass|
We cross the ice, exploring a number of features as we go. Crevasses, though small, glow with a blue light from within. A large moulin catches our attention for longer than we should be milling about with so far to walk today. I glance now and again at a close by peak that seems to have another glacier coming in from the other side. The mountain looks rather familiar, but I can't place how.
We wander farther down, speculating based on the map where we should begin hiking up the boulders to our right. Somewhere above us lies the Snowbird Hut, rebuilt in 2010 by the American Alpine Club as a backcountry ski shelter. We search for an easy path up among the boulders and something further down the glacier catches my eye. Oh, I found the trail... A massive red arrow, painted straight onto a boulder the size of a small house, points the way.
I'm not sure how I feel about such markings. On one hand, at least it would be hard for people to get lost looking for the hut, but on the other it seems a distracting and unnecessary break from the natural, a reminder that even the Alaskan wilderness is no escape from humanity's reach. But then again, the 12-person bunkhouse on top of the mountain is pretty unnatural as well.
|and the extra tall mailbox|
We will bypass this hut
today, in favor of tackling more mileage early on, but curiosity demands we
check it out since we are already so close. We step inside to find stoves,
pots, pans, fuel, eatery, and sleeping mats ready for the unprepared traveler.
It seems odd to me to have such things waiting for you above a glacier six
miles from a parking area. Of course, if caught out in an unexpected storm, it
would be the most welcome of sights. Speaking of sights, the view out the
massive bay windows rivals that of any multi-million dollar home I've ever
seen. The iconic view of the Snowbird is laid out before us in panorama. The
designers of the hut were wise to dedicate a quarter of the building to
windows. We waste plenty of time there staring out at the scene.
It is only here in the hut that my mind collects the obvious details of the glacier before me. The Nunatak I had seen in the photos is no longer. It is merely a ridge and sharp peak. No longer does the glacier flow around the tooth-shaped point, the recent and rapid melting has split the upper glacier in two, flowing on either side of a new ridge line. Photos from the hut confirm that only a few years earlier the ice wrapped all the way around the stunning rock feature. Now I am heartbroken staring out at the beauty in front of me. It is clear, now, that this is a dying glacier. It is smaller than any glacier I have visited thus far, I can see almost the entire glacier from the hut, and its only snow covering is just beyond the former Nunatak, high on the ridge. I can see from here that it is shallow snow, this year's snow. It's still early in the season and I doubt it will make it through the summer. That would mean a certain and rapid death for the glacier. With no snow surviving the summers, there would be nothing to contribute to the mass of the ice. With no mass being added, the glacier will soon stop flowing, if it hasn't already. I wonder how long it will be before the Snowbird is declassified as a glacier. In my mind it is only a matter of time.
|Iconic view from Snowbird Hut of the glacier|
I try to snap out of such depressing thoughts though, and enjoy my time here in the moment. We wander out behind the hut, beholding yet another miraculous view. A massive U-shaped valley leads into the distance. It's at least 2,000 vertical feet to where the river winds through the grass in the bottom. The valley was carved out by what is now the Snowbird Glacier at a time when there was much more snow than could melt in a summer. This is the product of ice ages. The once mighty Snowbird would have cut the valley deeper and deeper as it flowed through the Talkeetna Mountains over thousands of years. The same process that cut the canyon in front of us is still in play today, each and every glacier continues to grind away at the rock below and around it, carving out its own scenic wonders that are yet unimagined.
|Behind the Snowbird Hut|
I tell Joe I'm glad we
don't have to walk down through that massive, steep valley
before pulling out the map. Oh. Well, nevermind. We start down toward that
|Down we go!|
2,100 vertical feet of
boulder hoping, scree skiing, and moss sliding bring us nearly to the river. We
try to escape thick brush by skirting the side of the valley wall, slipping and
sliding on wet moss and thick grasses on the slope. We are unable to avoid the
entirety of the thick alder, and are at times lost within, yelling at non-existent,
or at least non-visible, bears to stay out of our way and not eat us. Much of
the bushwhacking is done with bear spray at the ready, aimed in front of me as
I walk through. That is, when I don't need both hands to fight my way through
the alder thickets in order to move forward. This is some true Alaskan
|Trails...? Yeah we have none of those here.|
Upon our return from hike,
a friend will tell me a story of a group of people attempting the Bomber
Traverse. They passed very close to our current location near the bottom of the
valley, miscalculated the route, and continued down stream instead of turning
right into the next valley and climbing toward the pass. They took the following
valley instead, more than 5 miles too late, not understanding how they went wrong.
An aircraft finally located them days later along the Kashwitna River some 20
miles off course. We manage to avoid this mistake and turn into the adjacent
valley, immediately beginning to climb in elevation once more. Before the end
of the night we will have ascended nearly to the level we just came down from,
gaining, losing and now regaining nearly 3,000 feet of elevation. For now,
though, the route gradually slopes upward and we come into view of an actual
trail for the first time since Snowbird Pass that morning. The trail soon leads
into more alder thickets and, from the looks of the berry-filled scat dotting
the path, it gets used more frequently by bear than by human. More “Hey Bear!”
yelling and pointing the bear spray at nothing, and luckily finally clears into
an open valley.
At long last, our goal comes into view in the distance: The Bomber Hut. The small silver structure sits neatly atop a green hill still far in the distance on the opposite side of the wide, cold river. We search for a decent place to cross over, but find nothing. By the time we pass the hut we have still seen nothing for a crossing that doesn't risk a swim, and we decide to turn up the next valley to visit the Bomber Glacier before we make camp. We're tired and sore already, but if we go now, we can sleep in and still have plenty of time to explore one or two more glaciers tomorrow. The new plan is to find a way across the bit of river coming in from the right, from the Bomber Glacier, leave the majority of our weight there, hike to the glacier, then worry about the second, smaller stream crossing on our return to the hut.
The first crossing is a success, and almost as soon as the ice comes into view ahead we can see the namesake of the glacier.
|Bomber Glacier - The wreckage can be seen about in the middle of the ice to the right of Joe|
Back in November, 1957 a B-29
Superfortress bomber was flying low through a storm, out on a routine mission
but 27 miles off course. The crew was likely unaware of the mountain in front
of them, suspecting they were flying through an open valley when the plane
quite abruptly came to a stop on an unnamed glacier at 5,600 ft. 6 of 10
crewmembers died on impact, but the remaining 4 would be rescued by helicopter.
The mangled aluminum aircraft was left on site, too expensive to fly out.
Glacial processes further disassembled the aircraft and have now spread debris
over almost the entire glacier and into the river of meltwater below.
|Wheel from wrecked Bomber|
|Bomber Glacier Wreckage|
|More wreckage of the Bomber Glacier|
|Plaque put in place on the wreckage|
Joe and I rather enjoyed exploring the bits and pieces of airplane, imagining what this was for and what that could belong to. It was quickly getting darker, more from an approaching cloud than from actual night, but it was also getting late. We turned back to our packs and arrived at the Bomber Hut just in time for an 11:00 p.m. dinner. We had walked upwards of 12.5 miles. Breaks and shenanigans included, we had been at it for over 14 hours the first day.
We shared our cozy accommodation with two couples, 3 of the 4 people already in bed (though claiming not to be asleep) by the time we showed up. The hut officially sleeps 4 in the loft above the table, so we moved a bench aside and slept on the floor - happy to not be using our backup plan (curled up under a tarp outside). Lucky for us, the other 4 had decided to sleep in the next morning as well, and no one rose until after 10 a.m. Now about half way through the required trail distance, Joe and I knew we could take our time for the next two days. The others quizzed us about getting to the Bomber wreckage, saying they had no crampons for proper ice travel, but were interested in seeing the wreckage. Afterward, they planned to stay another night in the Bomber hut and head on to either the Mint Hut (they way Joe and I were going) or to the Dnigi Hut, but seemed only moderately concerned about the fact that they all lacked any extra traction for crossing ice, an inevitability of either route. We told them accessing the wreckage required a good bit of ice travel, though not any more than any conceivable way out from here, and they headed off to explore the bomber.
Finally coaxing our knees into continuing with the journey some time around noon, Joe and I made good time getting up to the base of the PennyRoyal Glacier. The planned route took us up the sloped glacier ice and above it to a small pass called the Backdoor Gap. It was an infamously narrow and crazy steep section of the route, but the only real option to connect us with a trail returning to the truck. All we had to do was get to the Gap, and just down the other side was tonight's goal: the Mint Hut. From there, the final day would require only a straightforward, 9 mile downhill walk to the parking lot. For now, we focused on finding a way to the Backdoor Gap.
|PennyRoyal Glacier reflected in small pond|
glacier in front of us started out with a gradual slope, steepening as it went
higher, then it was covered in snow for the last few hundred feet below the gap.
We comfortably walked the first few hundred feet of sun cooked, flat ice before
stopping to put on our crampons. As I secured the last strap I heard something
sliding, like Joe had thrown something very large across the glacier, and as I
looked up I saw a massive boulder sliding from it's glacier table perch,
grinding away a layer of ice and coming to rest 20 feet from where it started.
Glacier tables are created when a large boulder comes to rest on the ice. As
the sun melts down the glacier with its warm light, the boulder shields the ice
it rests on top of. Melting much slower than the ice in direct sunlight, the
shaded ice becomes a bit of a pillar, taking the weight of the rock for as long
as it can hold. Eventually, something will break or melt to the point that
gravity will coax the rock from its perch to begin the process over again. In
this way, a boulder can slowly slip and slide its way around the glacier. I've
occasionally pushed over what I thought were 'large' glacier tables, maybe
4 or 5 feet in diameter. When out on a glacier with clients, these perched
boulders pose a safety risk, and guides take great pleasure in taking
preventative measures of pushing them over, at the risk of looking very silly
to unknowing clients every time a boulder refuses to be pushed aside. The
boulder on the PennyRoyal Glacier was easily the biggest table rock I've ever
witnessed move, and it was 30 feet away from me! It seemed impossible that such
a behemoth could move so easily, but large scrapings in the newly exposed ice
made it clear where the boulder had started only moments before. I was
disproportionately excited to have witnessed the actually very common event. I
made Joe sit next to it for scale.
|3 images of a large table rock that slid off its pedestal|
excitement of the boulder slide, we made it almost nowhere before I spotted
another boulder almost the size of the first. This one was still high on its
perch, two feet above the surrounding ice. The table’s stand, as it were, was
split in half by a river running across the surface of the glacier, making the
whole thing look very unstable. It was almost ready to go. I set my camera to
record video, and captured around 45 minutes of Joe and I looking very silly
trying many times to push over a massive boulder. When it wouldn't budge, I
swung my ice axe at the thin column of ice until I was uncomfortable standing
close enough to hit it with the tool. More leg and back straining trying to
push it over. Still nothing. Next I tried throwing water from the stream up at
the stand, thinking only a tiny bit of melting would be needed to coax the
boulder down from its high point. Still nothing. In the end, we were defeated,
having spent nearly an hour in total trying to push over a rock that weighed
more than a bus. We joked that it would probably fall over before we got out of
|Looking out over the PennyRoyal Glacier|
continuing toward the Backdoor Gap, we walked up the ice to the snow line. This
particular glacier didn't seem to have many large crevasses, but it still made
me nervous walking across a glacier when I couldn't see the ice. Slowly pushing
forward, utilizing my ice axe to prod the ice below the snow before each step,
we made slow progress up the last section of glacier. Finally, near the
top, there were suddenly footprints everywhere, the rest of the hikers clearly
picking the more direct, but steeper route straight toward the pass from the
middle of the glacier. I felt much more at ease with so much traffic through
this section, but continued to check where I was stepping. Once we reached the
rock, there was a rope draped down from above, presumably anchored to something
relatively strong somewhere above us.
|Steep slope up to the Backdoor Gap|
Joe led the way up and gave a joyous holler from the top of
the Gap. I hadn't even thought about what the other side might look like, but
it brought into view the next massive valley, more rocky peaks, and a few more
glaciers, including the Mint, which we would nearly miss in the thick fog that
night. We had lunch in the sun on top of the narrow gap, between two
|Looking down into the Gold-Mint Valley with the Mint Glacier on the high left.|
|The perfect lunch spot!|
Quite rapidly, a cloud rolled in, casting a shadow over us and pushing us to continue on our way. From the top, we had spotted the Mint hut in the valley below. It was a bright red and green building, less than a mile away on the map, but 1,300 feet below us. Down we went, boulder hopping the entire way. Literally hoping for a good portion of the descent, we lost 1,000ft elevation in under a half mile of horizontal travel. It seemed like hours of knee grinding, ankle twisting drops down boulders of varying stability. We spaced ourselves out to avoid rolling boulders on top of one another, remarking about how glad we were to be going down this section, not up. All the way down the long steep hill, the fog followed behind. It lowered as we did, always seeming to be right behind us. Before we reached the hut, it began to rain, and still the cloud lowered, hovering just overhead as we stepped inside to unload our packs and make dinner.
We ate inside and milled around a bit. It was still early, by our standards. We talked about the next day. We both felt that it would be uncomfortable to hike up to the Mint the next morning if it were raining, adding extra distance and wetness to our walk out. I think I was half joking when I said we should just go now, but Joe said, yeah let's do it. So we emptied our bags to the basics: Cameras, some snacks, layers, crampons and axes. The rain had subsided to a drizzle as we stepped out of the hut, no problem for our rain jackets. We had seen the glacier and, sort of, seen the way to get there from the pass above. With GPS and a decent trail heading out from the hut, we should have no problem getting there and back. As the steep trail above the hut leveled out it got more and more faint, splitting into many trails going every which direction.
Fog settled across us like a blanket dropped over our heads...
We exited the glacier half a mile downhill from where we began, through thick glacial mud the consistency of quicksand, but luckily only deep enough to cover the tops of our boots. Hopping across the river of meltwater coming straight out of the Mint Glacier, we made our way back toward the hut. A few minor corrections from the GPS kept us from walking down the wrong slope and avoiding a very long night, and we found the trail in short order, returning to the hut, once again, after 11:00 p.m.
|Mint Hut in Hatcher Pass Wilderness|
morning would see sunshine all around, and we couldn't resist returning to see
the Mint in the morning light. We retraced our steps, and were completely
baffled at our route the day before. We laughed at our delusional orange line
squiggled around the GPS screen, circumnavigating the lake that we had entirely
failed to see through the fog. At one point, standing on the line the GPS had
traced the night before, I could have spit into the deep blue lake from where
we had walked. Three separate times, our line crossed within 20 feet of the
|The massive lake we somehow missed the night before in the fog|
dumbfounded that we had not seen any hint of the lake when we had walked so
close to it three different times. Here in the daylight it seemed impossible
that we couldn't have seen something so obvious and so close. The fog had been
absolutely debilitating to travel through. All sense of direction and distance
gone. The path was so easy to find, how could we nearly have been lost is such
easily navigable terrain? Laughing at ourselves, we walked around the 'cliff'
we had stumbled into the night before, a short rocky section we would have
missed entirely if we were a few feet to the low side, opposite where we turned
uphill the night before.
|Many other glaciers surrounded us|
|Mint Glacier Panorama|
|Back down toward the hut. The valley below Joe is our 8 mile walk out|
walk back to the hut left us only one thing left to do now. The walk out would
be a "steep" half mile or so, followed by about 8 boring miles of
easy, gravel trail all the way back to the truck. We were left with plenty of
time to reflect on the last three days:
Three days totaling four glaciers, 30+ miles, three mountain huts, and two steep passes, with far too much boulder hopping, scree sliding, moss slipping, and alder bashing to quantify. That pretty much sums up a trip through the Alaskan Wilderness!
|Return to Mint Hut|
|The way out - down Gold-Mint Valley back to the trailhead|
Afterthoughts:The Bomber Traverse is an excellent introduction to travel in the Alaskan Wilderness. The route we took is recommended in four days, adding a night in the Snowbird hut that we bypassed the first day. However, other shorter (or longer) routes are possible as well, utilizing the Bomber Pass, near the wreckage, among other options. It is recommended that you have crampons, or for some options later in summer Microspikes or Yaktrax may be sufficient if you know what you're doing. So long as the snow is completely melted (it wasn't yet on PennyRoyal), any deadly glacier obstacles will be plainly visible.