Wrangell-St. Elias NP, 2018
A friend had canceled some plans to come visit over Memorial Day weekend, so I had a long weekend with which to get outdoors. As I started thinking about what I could do, my mind kept wandering back to my time in Denali and how beautiful Alaska was and of Brian telling me of Unit 19. As I looked at maps of Unit 19 online, it was clear that I would need to cross a glacier if I ever wanted to get there someday, something I'd never done. So...time for glacier training! A search brought up a wilderness course by the St. Elias Alpine Guides...and Memorial Day was their opening weekend! Seemed karmic and a great excuse to see a new national park too.
I'd never before flown into Anchorage, and seeing the Chugach mountains from the plane was breathtaking in and of itself. Little did I know that this would turn into one of the most stunning trips I've ever taken. After picking up a brand new Wrangler JL (only 33 miles!), the next day I started my drive out to McCarthy. Along the Glenn Highway around every bend I just had to stop to look at these gorgeous, huge mountains and wide rivers snaking through the valleys. Every turn was a postcard. After all the stories about the McCarthy Road, turned out not to be all that bad at all, but that probably was more due to the Wrangler than the road. After chatting up the owner of Base Camp and sharing his stories about Santa Barbara (what a small world!) I got my gear and headed on over the footbridge into McCarthy. And that was when I first saw the huge icefall of the Kennicott Glacier. I had no idea just how massive and beautiful it would be. The third largest icefall in the world, and the other two are in the Himalyas.
McCarthy is a nice little town, full of friendly people that seem to know each other quite well. Being so small I can see why, but the few bars and restaurants have great character. I met a fellow there that was also travelling alone, up there looking at property on which he would eventually build his cabin and move. I think he phrased it well...seems like a place where people choose to live there for a reason.
My first full day there I decided to go out on a hike. After going through some of the historic buildings in Kennicott, I started off on the trail, more a road than a trail. I missed the sharp left as I was searching for a trail instead of a road. After sketchily crossing the creek above the falls (and then seeing that there were some pretty falls!) I doubled back and saw the road I had mistaken for another driveway. Except coming down it were moose! A mother and cow! Wow, are moose big! I asked them nicely to get off the road in both English and French, but they didn't seem to understand and kept moving towards me. Slowly, I retreated towards the top of the mill and onto a bridge, cornered. After a bit they lost interest and meandered towards the creek where I had just been, so the road ahead was clear. Right at the trail junction things started to get snowy, so time to don some snowshoes for going over some really heavy wet snow. Some straps broke on both snowshoes, and my legs were definitely tired due to the weight of slush on the decks, but uphill I wenty to get more views of the banded earth toned moraine fields of the glaciers and just gorgeous 360 degree views of these majestic tall mountains. I've been to the Alps...these are like them times a factor of ten. So large and beautiful! After taking the shuttle back to town, a great meal and more than a few drinks, it was time to set up my backpack for training.
The morning brought the sound of rain on the roof of the hotel, so donning the shell jacket and pack cover loaded up and went down and met my instructor and guide for what I thought would be a wet day of training. The rain would not matter as I'll probably see rain on the trips I want to do in the future. And my instructor was great! We started off by looking at the maps of Unit 19 and looking at exactly what I might face, talking about the different rivers and looking at the extent of the glacier, as he got a feel for what type of training I should get. It was the start of a wonderful day, continually exchanging stories of great trips we'd been on and recommendations of places to go and shared experiences. Then it was up into the van and heading up to the glacier.
As we hiked our way in, the rain stopped and soon things would turn into a gorgeous partly cloudy day, blue skies and sun peeking through. And then it was off onto the terminal moraine. What looked like dirt and rocks from above was qutie the opposite...it's just a thin layer of rocks and dirt immediately over ice! The melting glacier creates all kinds of little creeks and rivers that carve canyons into the ice. We hopped onto it, the goal being finding a way onto the glacier itself. It's like finding a trail through mountains that have no map; constantly looking for saddles, thinking of whether a gully will be turning into a canyon, lots of winding around, doubling back, finding safe places to cross, testing each step to see whether your boots and the pebbles will grip the ice or slip out. I learned so much about how to read things and pick out a line through the terrain...and how much patience it needs to get from point A to point B through rugged terrain. But after a few hours we finally made our way to a great crossing point across the creek, and it was time to hop onto the clear ice.
I had no idea how versitle crampons really were! After some basic instruction soon we were easily going up and down 30 to 40 degree slopes in the ice. I was not prepared for how varied and magical the glacier really was. The deep blues and turquoises of the newly exposed ice were magical, almost like the waters of the Medeterranian or the color of the waters by Willows. All kinds of little rivers, lakes, and streams dumoing into moulins, it's an ever changing landscape. And of course, vertical walls of ice to climb and caves to explore once the water drains. I never thought a glacier would be so stunning. And again, surrounded by these gorgeous mountains, it really is a unique and otherworldly place like no other I've yet seen.
After such a great learning experience, I did not want to leave but I had to. Driving along the road I had seen a sign and made sure to look for it on my way out, and I found it. It was a wonderful trail through the spruce forests along the Crystalline Mountains. The forest was eerily silent on this lovely hike, interspersed with a few birds and a squirrel here and there, but silent except just the signs of moose activity (thus the appropriately named "Moose Lake"). In the back was the after effects of a landslide that created a gorgeous waterfall, exposing a lovely variety of rocks, some of which looked like fine marble. And though I had not seen many flowers on the trip, on my way back downhill I came across an adorable group of wild orchids and was so happy to finally grab a picture of flowers for a friend.
Back in Anchorage, after a great pizza at Moose's Tooth (recommended by the guide, and, yes, incredibly tasty and also with great beer) I had to say goodbye to the Wrangler, the new snowboarding and skydiving chef I met at the bar, and repack. And early the next morning, say goodbye to Alaska. But it is only a temporary goodbye. I know I will be back to Alaska again soon, and back to Wrangell-St. Elias again, for there is so much yet to see and do in that spectacular land of mountains, rivers and glaciers, probably more than one could experience in an entire lifetime.
Picutres were from the a900 system with the 24-70 and 70-400 lenses and an iPhone SE.
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