“Buy this book and read it on the plane (!)”
This was David’s advice to me for our upcoming expedition to Alaska’s Harding Icefield, sent with a link to Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue.
I am no stranger to mountains, having grown up in Colorado and spent several seasons in its stretch of the Rockies, building trail, doing biological research and living and writing in various mountain towns. I am happiest with a heavy pack on my shoulders and several days of hiking before me, or basking on a tundra-furred slope while gazing out at the headwalls, valleys and tarns that Ice Age glaciers carved here.
But glaciers themselves were a mystery to me. And the Harding is the largest icefield in the United States. Together with the more than 30 glaciers that pour off of it in all directions, it covers 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula. It may be up to a mile thick in places. I found pictures on the Internet that were both alluring and bowel-watering, but no travel accounts, probably because only a handful of parties venture onto the icefield each year. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into when I gleefully accepted an invitation from HCN contributing editor Craig Childs to accompany him, David Stevenson, John McInerney and adventure photographer James Q Martin on the first research trip for Craig’s book project exploring ancient human migration?
I wrote back to David, an experienced mountaineer: Should I do anything else special to prepare? Probably not, he replied. Then, “Full disclosure: McInerney says that my default answer is, ‘It will be fine.’ When he hears me say that, he interprets it as, ‘Stevenson is a lunatic, who has a death wish.’ ”
Great, I thought, and bought the book.
So it is that in the last days of May, after an epic last minute shopping trip in Anchorage, a winding drive south to Seward, and a benedictory encounter with a woman who gifts us a ukulele at the Kenai Fjords National Park visitor’s center, I find myself postholing two heavy loads 3,500 vertical feet up a snow-covered trail along the flank of a steep ridge to our first camp. It feels good, the weight – a confirmation of my strength on a journey that is otherwise so unfamiliar and new that I can’t help feeling uneasy. When I finally release it from my shoulders, the icefield sprawls before me. Its vast whiteness gathers and scatters light, compresses and stretches distance, pillowing around the lonely peaks of submerged mountains and pouring in a blocky, blue-and-black-streaked cascade to the Resurrection River Valley as the Exit Glacier. My breath stops, then stutters back.
The book informs me that this is the sort of whiteness that can literally devour you. You may have to negotiate crevasses, which can form anywhere ice passes over an obstacle or changes elevation, and are sometimes disguised by snow. You may have to cross cracks called bergschrunds where ice pulls away from mountainsides, which can be hundreds of feet deeper than crevasses.
But this whiteness will swallow us in a different way. The snow ramping onto the icefield turns out to be smooth, consolidated and unbroken. David and Q decide we’ll be okay without ropes. As we kick steps, passing a small unearthly blue lake and eerie melt holes left by rocks shed from the ridgeline above, I pester David about various cracks and depressions in the snow, trying to learn to read it as hazard-free the way he has. After an uneventful hour of travel, I realize that I have been running over the names of people and places I love in my head, whispering thankyou and thankyou and thankyou. I laugh at myself, wondering how long it’s been since my mind was clear of all save the things I am grateful for.
By the time we begin setting our second camp, clouds and flurries have merged sky and snow into a horizonless world – a blank sheet of paper marked only by the dark lines and dots of our bodies, our tents. We hunker down and wake to the same the next morning and the next, joke about the absurd brightness of our gear: “Hey, have you seen Craig? He was just here a minute ago. But then he put on that orange jacket and poof!” Q and Craig grow restless, skiing in circles around camp and testing what it’s like to drag sleds and navigate by GPS alone. I watch them blur to smudges within a hundred feet, then blink out. When they are back, we make stupid movies in the tent, scribble in our journals, grow sick of the way we smell, stuff our faces with sausage and cheese.
Who crossed places like this thousands of years ago, when the Ice Age opened the Bering land bridge onto North America from Asia? Craig says the people who came may not have even known they were migrating, may have simply been exploring or following animals to hunt. How different, how much more dangerous, their experience must have been without the tools we enjoy – crampons, nylon, GPS, white gas, dehydrated food. And yet Craig surmises that they were far better prepared for this than we could ever be. I laugh that our mantra should be WWABD: What Would the Ancient Beringians Do? Would they have waited out the storm? I ask. He’s not sure.
To us, he says, this world is alien and inscrutable. But their survival would have depended on knowing its scents and signs, its weather and wind, living it and learning its ways and shape as they moved. Maybe they could smell the direction of the sea licking into Resurrection Bay, of green things growing, would have known they were closer to food and shelter by animal tracks in snow, a blown leaf melted into the crust.
Then just like that, the weather breaks, the clouds spreading and dispersing into a string of clear days that John dubs “the blue window.” We finally make headway a few miles onto the ice, ski pack-free to the nunataks (those lonely mountains), whooping from the top of a small one where we sit on bare earth for the first time in a week. While Craig, Q and David break off to climb a larger peak, I hunker with John in the lee of the first to draw – trying to travel with my eyes and pencil those mountains and glaciers too far to reach in our brief visit, trying to remember them as if I had laid against their sun-warmed rock, or sunk hip deep in their snow.
Late that night, as the sun sinks low over the horizon and we pass around a Nalgene of tequila, Craig hands me a baggie of coppery brown dust from Utah’s bright angel shale. He loves the desert so much that he has brought some with him, has thrown a handful from the top of the second nunatak. As he tells me this, I mix some with melted snow in my palm and paint it across my sunburned cheeks, then his, then Q’s – the distance of our passage, from the redrock Southwest, where we live, to this icy, beautiful wasteland, closed to nothing in a few lines of mud, a red handprint in the snow.
A few days later, as we labor back down the trail towards our minivan and a few good Seward bars, I remember something I wrote my last season of trail crew about fetching tools from a worksite at 13,000 feet in the wake of a heavy winter storm. “After us: silence. Wind-sifted snow filled our tracks. When I glanced back at the mountain, my cold hands seemed suddenly small. And beneath my skin, the bones – nothing but pebbles in this place of vast time, grinding down to wind and dust.”
But instead of fearful, I feel elated. How strange and wonderful the tiny, brief enterprise of each our lives, the way our everyday moments somehow add up across weeks, years, generations, eons, to movement across mountain ranges, icefields, continents. How strange and wonderful that journeys that once took so long now happen in a matter of hours. That you can drift to sleep on a frozen sea with the desert still smeared on your cheeks.
Sarah Gilman is High Country News' associate editor. Drawings courtesy of the author.