The Blue Window

Journeying from redrock desert to an icy wasteland: an essay.

  • Author and adventurer Craig Childs, with Utah desert sand smeared on his cheeks, on Alaska's Harding Icefield.

    Sarah Gilman
  • Nunataks emerging from Alaska's Harding Icefield

    Sarah Gilman
  • Essayist Sarah Gilman, with Utah desert sand smeared on her cheeks, on Alaska's Harding Icefield.

    Sarah Gilman
 

"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, emailed along 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 building trail, backpacking, doing biological research and writing in the state's stretch of the Rockies. But glaciers were a mystery to me -- and the Harding is the largest icefield in the United States. Together with the more than 30 glaciers that flow from it, it covers 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula and may be a mile thick in places. A Google search yielded pictures that were both alluring and bowel-watering, but no travel accounts. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into when I agreed to accompany author Craig Childs, David Stevenson, John McInerney and adventure photographer James Q Martin on a research trip for Craig's book exploring ancient human migration?

I wrote back to David, an experienced mountaineer: Should I do anything else 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 final days of May, after last-minute shopping in Anchorage, a winding drive south to Seward, and an encounter with a woman who gives us a ukulele like a blessing at the Kenai Fjords National Park visitor's center, I find myself post-holing two heavy loads 3,500 vertical feet up a snow-covered ridge to our first camp. It feels good, the weight -- a confirmation of my strength on a journey that is otherwise so new to me that I can't help feeling uneasy. When I finally release my pack from my shoulders, the icefield sprawls before me. Its vast whiteness gathers and scatters light, compresses and stretches distance, pillowing around the peaks of submerged mountains called nunataks and pouring in a blue-and-black-streaked cascade to the Resurrection River Valley as the Exit Glacier. My breath stops, stutters back.

The book informs me that this sort of whiteness 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 tend to be hundreds of feet deeper than crevasses.

But the Harding will swallow us in a different way. The snow ramping onto it appears smooth and consolidated, so David and Q decide we don't need ropes. As we kick steps, passing an unearthly blue lake and eerie melt holes left by fallen rocks, I pester David about cracks and depressions in the snow, trying to learn to read it the way he has. After an uneventful hour, 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'm grateful for.

By the time we set 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 and tents. We hunker down and wake to the same the next morning and the next, joke about the absurd brightness of our gear: "Have you seen Craig? He was here a minute ago. But then he put on that orange jacket and poof!" Q and Craig ski restlessly in circles around camp to test our sleds and investigate what it's like to navigate by GPS alone. They blur within a hundred feet, disappear. When they return, we mug for each other's cameras in the tent, scribble in journals, grow sick of our stench, eat too much sausage.

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 known they were migrating, may have been simply exploring or following prey. How much more dangerous their experience must have been without the tools we enjoy -- Gore-Tex, precise maps, white gas, ice axes. And yet Craig suspects they were far better prepared 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. 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 clouds dissolve 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, 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 climb a larger peak, I hunker with John in the lee of the first to draw -- traveling with my pencil those mountains and glaciers too far to reach in our brief visit, trying to remember them as if I had leaned against their broken rocks, struggled through their snow.

Late that night, as the sun sinks low 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 it with him, has flung a handful from the top of the second nunatak. As he tells me this, I mix some of the dust 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 red-rock 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, eventually, the bars of Seward, I remember something I wrote during my last season of trail crew about fetching tools from 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 now I feel more elated than fearful. How strange and wonderful the tiny enterprise of each our lives, the way everyday moments 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 fall asleep on a frozen sea with the desert still smeared on your cheeks.

High Country News Classifieds
  • CARPENTER WANTED
    CARPENTER WANTED. Come to Ketchikan and check out the Rainforest on the coast, HIke the shorelines, hug the big trees, watch deer in the muskeg...
  • AUDIENCE ENGAGEMENT EDITOR
    High Country News (HCN) seeks an audience editor to attract and acquire new audiences and deepen engagement with them - in our newsletters, on our...
  • COMMUNITY MARKETER
    High Country News (HCN) is looking for a Community Marketer to build and strengthen relationships between HCN and other organizations and individuals, with the aim...
  • FINANCE & OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Job Announcement: Finance and Operations Manager Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August...
  • DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
    Job Announcement: Development Director Announcement date: July 16, 2021 Applications will be reviewed on an ongoing basis and first review will begin: August 9, 2021...
  • HECHO POLICY AND ADVOCACY MANAGER
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • HECHO NEW MEXICO SENIOR FIELD COORDINATOR
    Hispanics Enjoying Camping, Hunting, and the Outdoors (HECHO) was created in 2013 to help fulfill our duty to conserve and protect our public lands for...
  • IDAHO STATE DIRECTOR
    The Wilderness Society is seeking a full time Idaho State Director who will preferably be based in Boise, Idaho. This position is part of our...
  • CAUCASIAN OVCHARKA PUPPIES
    Strong loyal companions. Ready to protect your family and property. Proven against wolves and grizzlies. Imported bloodlines. Well socialized.
  • DEPUTY DIRECTOR
    The Nature Conservancy in Alaska is dedicated to saving the lands and waters on which all life depends. For more than 30 years, TNC has...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, CLIMATE AND ENERGY PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-climate-energy-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Climate and Energy Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Climate and Energy Program Director Location: Helena, Montana; other...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY, WILDLANDS AND WILDLIFE PROGRAM
    STAFF ATTORNEY POSITION OPENING https://westernlaw.org/career-opportunity-wildlands-staff-attorney/ ************************************************** Position Title: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Staff Attorney Reports to: Wildlands and Wildlife Program Director Location: Portland or Eugene,...
  • DISCOUNT SOLAR PANELS
    New w/25 year warranty. Shipped anywhere in the lower 48. Minimum order of 10 units. Call, text or email for current prices. .50-.80/ watt
  • SWEET MOUNTAIN HOME
    3.8 acres in pine and fir forest on a year round creek. Custom home, 2x6 framing, radiant heat, wrap around decks and established berry patch....
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • LEGAL DIRECTOR AND STAFF ATTORNEY
    Friends of the San Juans' Legal Director and Staff Attorney ("Legal Director") leads our legal advocacy and litigation practice and participates in many other organizational...
  • SPRING-FED PARCELS ON THE UPPER SAC RIVER
    Adjacent parcels above the Upper Sacramento river, near Dunsmuir. The smaller is just under 3 acres, with the larger at just under 15 acres. Multiple...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Wilderness Volunteers Wilderness Volunteers (WV), a 24-year leader in preserving our nation's wildlands, is seeking a motivated person with deep outdoor interests to guide our...
  • POEM+ NEWSLETTER
    Start each month with a poem in your inbox by signing up for Taylor S. Winchell's monthly Poem+ Newsletter. No frills. No news. No politics....
  • CANYONLANDS FIELD INSTITUTE
    Field seminars for adults in natural and human history of the Colorado Plateau with lodge, river trip and base camp options. Small groups, guest experts.