Wrangling the Wrangells: Part 2

Having just been air dropped next to the Kennicott Glacier, we walked along the moraine until we found a point where we could make our way down to the icefield. Moraines are basically piles of rocks, deposited by the glacier as it flows downhill. Whenever you want to get on or off of the glacier you need to cross the moraine. Moraines can also occur in the middle of the glacier, remnants of rocky protrusions far upstream. A McCarthy local described travel on the moraines as “heinous” and I think that’s the perfect word for it. They are steep, loose, rocky, muddy, generally extremely variable, and strenuous to walk on.

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After picking our way down the moraine we donned crampons and kicked steps up a short steep section and onto the glacier. We took a breath and dove headfirst into the ocean of ice. Impassable lateral crevasses quickly pushed us out towards the middle of the icefield. Even though the ice is solid you get a similar feeling to that of swimming away from shore. Over the morning the cloud cover dissipated, and the views of Mount Blackburn and the Kennecott icefall were absolutely spectacular. The features were of a scale that I had never seen before. The Kennecott glacier is as wide as most glaciers I have travelled on are long.

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By early afternoon we were way out on the icefield. But we had made no progress down glacier, which we would need to do in order to reach our planned campsite. Impassable crevasses spanning hundreds of meters had us repeatedly crossing back and forth on the glacier to try to find a way through.

Small crevasses can be stepped or jumped over, but if they are too big then the only option is to go around (unless you have equipment to bridge the gap, which we did not). Jumping over crevasses is always exciting. Using and trusting the crampons takes practice. For the brief moment you’re air born you glance down into the abyss and ponder its depths. There’s strong incentive to stick the landing. We are carrying a 30-meter rope and rescue gear, but some of these crevasses are many times deeper than the rope is long. You never jump unless your 100% sure you can make it.

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Despite crossing back and forth many times the glacier would not yield and we found our selves surrounded on three sides by cracks that we could not cross. It was 4pm and dark clouds were gathering to the West. Our planned objective for the day was clearly out of reach, so we paused to discuss our options. We could either push across the glacier to an alternative campsite called the panhandle, or backtrack to our start point and camp there. I was tempted to go for the panhandle, but the ice looked complex out that way. As the rain started Jessa had the good judgement to suggest that we backtrack and try again tomorrow. Backtracking wasn’t a walk in the park either though. The wind was in our faces and the rain was bitterly cold. Not to mention we had to climb back up the moraine. But we put our heads down and got it done. Exhausted we set up camp and hastily made dinner before retiring to the mercifully warm and dry tent.

Lying in bed I partly pondered tomorrow’s route, but mostly I wondered how the hell I was lucky enough to find this women lying next to me. Even faced with hard days doing completely new things in abysmal weather she had been nothing but determined, level headed, warm and supportive. Particularly at the moment that I realized that we could go no further and that I had failed to navigate us to the day’s objective.

It brings me back to Jessa’s first ski touring trip. The two of us toured out from Mt Baker resort to Table Mountain. Having never skinned before, 300 meters into the trip Jessa started sliding backwards down a steep icy slope. Her hands literally left trails of blood as she clawed at the snow and I scrambled to try to get below her and help to arrest the fall. It must have been great entertainment for the large group of snow showers ascending next to us. Later that day on the decent we encountered a steep chute that was icy and chunky. Challenging conditions for any skier. My heart skipped a beat as I watched her make two turns before getting tripped up and careening out of control down most of the slope, kicking her skis out of her path as she caught up to them. I was a hundred meters away watching from a safe zone, but I could easily see that as she came to a halt she was smiling from ear to ear. That evening she was already making plans for the next trip.

Since then we’ve been on more than a few adventures, and her confidence and stoke in the mountains grows every time we’re out. It’s a great reminder that with the will to go outside our comfort zones we are all capable of much more than we might think.

Jessa takes in the view at our second campsite

Stay tuned for stories from day 2, when we go for round 2 with the Kennicott Glacier!

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