Blue sky, a summer day, and an invitation to walk around on a glacier. Such grand adventure! Yet, walking around on glaciers is precarious. Advancing or retreating ice edges are in constant flux, creating crevasses, hidden snow bridges, and steep, slippery traverses.
We went to Alaska in June 2022 to visit family and touch the expansive wilderness of this northern continental rim with its raw edge of climate change. In my previous blog I wrote about paddling near one of the fastest melting tidewater glaciers in the world. In this blog I write about hiking on the Root Glacier in Wrangle St. Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in the United States, 20,000 square miles. Six Yellowstone Parks, or the states of Vermont and New Hampshire could fit within its boundaries, and only two dirt roads run into the park’s vast interior.
Christina’s brother, Ric, and sister-in-law, Kathy, drove us 60 miles on a dirt road from the SW entrance to our cabin. The morning of our adventure we walked across a foot bridge over glacial silt-laden waters, runoff from the expansive peaks of the park. Mt. St. Elias at 18,808 feet is the second tallest peak in North America. Mt. Wrangell (14,163 feet) is one of the three largest active volcanoes in the world. Nine of the tallest sixteen mountains in North America are located here, as are thousands of miles of glaciers and the largest ice field in North America (Bagley Icefield).
A van from the St. Elias Mountain Guides picked us up in McCarthy, population 100, at the edge of the park, and took us lurching along the one-lane, five-mile road to the old Kennecott Copper mine where we would begin our hike to the glacier.
Our adventuring troop consisted of the four of us, a couple from Texas, and a couple from France. Our two young guides gave us a safety talk, fitted us with the crampons we would later need to walk safely on the glacier, and we headed out of basecamp. A two-mile trail to the glacier’s edge undulated through a young aspen, subalpine fir forest filled with wildflowers amid a distant backdrop of towering snowy mountains. The air temperature had warmed to 65 degrees F. and mosquitoes were beginning to hover. Our guides kept a steady, doable, “just ahead of the mosquitoes” pace. We stepped over the fresh droppings of both moose and bear, counting on the guides’ assurance that bears were not a problem in groups of eight or more.
After two miles, the forest trail opened to a view of the moraine, a blast of cool air, and the disappearance of mosquitoes. We zigzagged down the wet, gravelly footpath to the glacier’s edge and donned our crampons.
The spikes of the crampons gripped the melting, slippery glacier, giving us confidence to hike on the ice. With each step up the gradual incline, the vista became larger and grander. Mt. Blackburn (16,800 feet) to our Northwest towered over us—a snowy giant standing aloof and seemingly inaccessible.
In 1912, a young east coast scientist and adventurer named Dora Keen climbed Mt. Blackburn in a skirt and lace-up boots! It took two tries for her and her party to summit, and no one has ever repeated their technical ascent of Blackburn’s south face. Here are two accounts of her achievement: 1) https://www.steliasguides.com/blog/alaska-spotlight-on-advenure-dora-keen-1912-first-ascent-mt-blackburn/ 2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Keen
From a distance a glacier appears white and relatively smooth. Up close, the surface is dense, uneven, and in summer it is scattered with blown dirt. Occasionally there are small colonies of “glacier mice.” Not really animal matter, the “mice” are a conglomeration of life forms from bacteria to mosses. Palm-sized, oblong moss balls, they always occur in groups, and actually “move” in tandem with one another—albeit at a barely discernible pace. The Root Glacier is one of the places these life forms are being studied, including miniscule radio tags used to monitor their movement even under mounds of snow. This article explains the studies in greater detail, including showing the radio tags: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/22/858800112/herd-like-movement-of-fuzzy-green-glacier-mice-baffles-scientists
The encouragement to alternate our views from grand vistas to miniscule life forms emphasized the complexity of the glacier ecosystem. As neophyte adventurers, we would only venture about two miles up the toe of the glacier
Beyond the area where we ventured, the glacier had cracks and crevasses and snow bridges dangerous to traverse. Six or seven miles beyond us rose the Stairway Icefall. A wall of ice 7,000 feet tall! It is second in size only to the Khumbu ice fall on Mt. Everest.
We spent several hours meandering over the terrain of this immense glacier toe. At lunch hour, we sat on ensolite pads while the guides dipped a pot into the aquamarine blue glacial pools to make tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.
Language goes mute in the face of this much grandeur. Pictures do it some justice. Stories elucidate my experience a bit more. But feelings of humility, awe, and respect are the jewels that I will carry in my wilderness heart forever. It was one of my most spectacular “God moments:”
As long as I walk this earth, I will do everything I am capable of to protect and love this precious planet. I shall focus on efforts large and small that contribute to earth-tending—whether in gardening the tiny parcel of land that I am privileged to live on, filling my soul’s reserve by walking or paddling in places of beauty, or sharing earth’s beauty with the next generations.
Post script: It was a great privilege to do this trip. We had planned it for summer 2020 and then came the pandemic and my mother’s death. Originally, we had hoped to focus on Denali National Park, but in the summer of 2021 an underground rock glacier closed the road half-way into the park, which remained closed in 2022. When we first dreamed of this trip, I had no thoughts about back surgery. In two weeks I will have back surgery. Life keeps offering up changes. When big dreams call, answer them as soon as you are able.
Knowing that I would face back surgery at summer’s end, I was careful yet able to physically meet the challenges of the trip. I am ready for the surgery and in good shape and optimistic that my trekking and paddling days shall continue for some time. We also know this trip elevated our “carbon footprint.” We do not casually overstep our sense of sustainability. We constantly reassess the balance between remaining life dreams and remaining climate capacity. This year, Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humanity has used all the biological resources the Earth can regenerate in a year) occurred on July 28. Our actions contributed to that AND our daily life choices have helped keep that date at bay.