Before starting the drive to Alaska for the summer of 2017, I signed up for a Wilderness First Responder medical course in Moab, Utah. The course was full of lively characters, mostly raft guides starting their summer of running tourists down the Daily section of the Colorado River nearby. A few participants though, were bound for Alaska, like me. I made a point to talk to as many of them as I could remember - it was a large class - and at the end of the six day course I invited a few people out canyoneering and climbing, and one of the local guides took a bunch of us on a raft for a two hour trip down the Colorado. Future-Alaska-guide Mandi was there for all of it, stoked and ready to tackle anything anyone could throw at her. She had climbed a few times before, and that was clear, but her sense of adventure and enthusiasm for every new experience was infectious.
Fast forward to Alaska and Mandi was running 4 to 10 day camping trips, shuttling clients all around the state for various activities. Unfortunately that came with very few days off, but she managed to make it up to the Matanuska early in the season for some ice climbing, as well as tagging along on one of my failed attempts at the Gulkana Glacier, this time turning us around for deep snow we hadn't planned on only half way up the trail to the terminus.
Finally in July we shared another off day, so we planned to try to fit in some rock climbing. The weather had other plans though - as it usually does in Alaska - and plenty of rain forced us to rethink the rock and look to glaciers instead. Besides, I had a long list of glaciers to check out and new boots to break in before a three-day backpacking trip only days away. I was okay with the last minute plan change.
I had read about a hike running straight through the Chugach Mountains, a long range of tall, snowy peaks housing many glaciers in Southern Alaska. Weaving through the peaks between Eagle River (near Anchorage) and Girdwood, Crow Pass was the high point of this trail. Historically, when the Iditarod started in Seward (before moving to Anchorage in recent years), Crow Pass was the highest elevation anywhere along the infamous 1,150 mile (1850km) dog sled route between Seward and Nome. What really caught my attention, though, was a closeup of the Crow Pass trail map, supposedly still within a mile of two or three glaciers near the high point of the pass. This high point was only four miles along a steep but well travelled trail from the Girdwood side. I still hope to someday do the entire 21 mile (34km) long trail over a number of days, hiking from Girdwood and ending down in Eagle Creek - with many glacial side trips, of course. For now though, we opted for a day hike up to Crow Pass and back, followed by pizza at Moose's Tooth; absolute best pizza - best meal for that matter - in all of Alaska. Fact.
In classic adventures-with-David style, we got a nice early start of 10:00 a.m., in thick fog but with only a light rain by that time. We made short work of the first steep section of trail, despite my constant photo stops hoping for that perfect hiking-into-the-fog shot - it didn't turn out like I hoped. We continued upward, the fog easing as the day wet on. A few small streams poured down over the trail from steep valley walls and spilled over the trail in wide, shallow, cascades.
|From the trail, looking down toward Girdwood over a stream crossing|
Not much further and the trail would ease up, now nearly flat compared to what we had come up so far. Mandi brought out a thermos with still boiling hot tea, a great treat for such a damp day. A small hut stood off in the distance, resting over a large turquoise lake, both only visible occasionally through the fog, which had returned thicker than it had been all day.
|See the cabin? It's there somewhere!|
Behind us, just off the trail, the crystal blue water from the lake ran down into a tight gorge and spilled over a cliff hundreds of feet tall. The roaring of the water only added to mysterious feeling brought on by the dense layer of fog.
|Blue glacial river below the lake, just before the waterfall|
Now we were just an easy stroll away from the sign marking the official summit of Crow Pass, where the trail began to drop off into the valley leading down to Eagle Creek. We would not go that way today, though. To the right of the trail, just peeking out below the layer of clouds, was the reason the valley below existed at all. The Raven Glacier shined bright white even under all that fog, and it looked far closer than I had anticipated. In the last ice age this glacier would have flowed all the way to the ocean, right over present day Anchorage, cutting a massive valley into the mountain range as it went.
|Official high point of the pass, with Raven Glacier just behind the sign|
The loose talus slope and piles of late season snow between us and the Raven would make the rest of the journey off trail much more difficult. We scrambled across the talus and I opted to take to the snow to 'boot ski' down toward the glacier, while Mandi took the slower route, carefully working her way down the loose rocks. As she headed for the broken and blue front face of the glacier, I worked my way along the side, aiming for the smoother edge, partially covered in rock which would grant me access to the top of the river of ice.
|Terminus of the Raven Glacier|
We had chosen to leave the crampons behind, so if I wanted to get onto the ice it would have to be a gradual, rocky route for my new boots to have some traction. I hopped from rock to rock across the steep ice, heading out as far as the moraine spilling in from the side would allow. I tried multiple times to step onto the white ice, but it proved too steep without crampons, dropping me flat every time I attempted.
|Supraglacial streams converging on top of the Raven Glacier|
I looked far up the glacier for another option, but the trend continued, and even steepened higher up. This would have to be the end of the journey for today. I filled my water bottle in a glacial stream, and walked back around to join Mandi, happily sitting enjoying her tea with a view.
|Tea break at the toe of the Raven Glacier|
While I ooh'd and awe'd at the blue ice of the glacier's terminus, Mandi started back to the pass. I wanted to stay, but we didn't have all day, and had spent far too much time talking about pizza already. To Moose's Tooth!
|Drinking the freshest possible water - from the Raven Glacier|
|Good example of glacial striations in rock|
|The hut, finally visible on our way down|