I have lived near Alaska's glaciers for twenty years. My living room windows look east and south and when I am sitting in my chair, like I am now, I count ten glaciers that inhabit the hanging valleys above town. When I was younger, I worked at a visitor center dedicated to educating people about glaciers. Every afternoon I led hikes to the face of the glacier, explaining their history, their movements, and the associated geological features – u-shaped valleys, moraines.
But, glaciers scared me. They were foreboding and cold. Slick and dangerous. Unstable. Stories circulate around Alaska about tourists who got too close to a glacier only to be crushed when a huge piece of ice fell on top of them. And of inexperienced people who slid into a bottomless crevasse, with a caveat that the next time they will be seen will be in two hundred years when their body is expelled by the glacier.
I was happy to view glaciers from a distance.
Matt, my husband, guide, and traveling companion, sees them differently. All winter, he skis up and down and across glaciers. He has done expeditions that take in multiple glaciers in a single trip. To him, they are pathways to the high country. At times, as we’ve trekked through Alaska’s backcountry he will say to me, “If we just had a piece of rope and crampons, we could cross this [glacier filled] valley and get to that beautiful ridge [or bowl]”. In your dreams, I would think.
But then, last spring, we started talking about glaciers as we planned a trip to Iceland. Ice Land. Land of Ice. Matt had the idea that we should hike on glaciers there, and when he showed me pictures of the glaciers, they were like contact lenses covering an eyeball. No crevasses. No looming, leaning, craggy ice wall to navigate. It began to look like something I might be willing to try.
He bought us matching crampons with tidy orange stash bags from Black Diamond and we took them with us to Iceland. Where we did not use them.
Thus, it came to be that, on a gorgeous June Saturday during what turned out to be the sunniest summer in Alaska’s recent history, I sat on a mushy gravel moraine at the foot of the Root, fitting my crampons onto my hiking boots. The crampons are one-size-fits-all and require the user to fit them to the boot – similar to old fashioned roller skates. Then, you criss-cross the straps and hook them into place around your ankle. They are somewhat rigid, but allow the foot to move relatively naturally.
We headed up the glacier carrying day packs and wearing hats, sunglasses, sunscreen, and standard hiking clothes. I used ski poles for stability.
My cleats sunk reassuringly into the ice as I took my first step onto the glacier. I tested my traction. My foot held. I took another step – both feet on the ice now – I wasn’t slipping at all. I took another two steps, then four, then we were off, heading up the smooth pebble strewn apron of the Root. The sun was bright and the sky brilliant blue. Shallow rivulets of melt-water ran downhill, trickling peaceably.The glacier climbed gently up the eroded face and then leveled off as we reached the main body. Here, the glacier spread out ahead and to both sides, undulating, blinding, magnificent.
We wondered across the Root in a northeasterly direction, heading generally toward Mount Blackburn and the Stairway Icefall. The Root, like all glaciers, is like a river. It has a point of origination, like a river’s headwaters. The Root’s source is the great ice fields of the Wrangell peaks. The ice pours out of the fields and then, like a waterfall, cascades over the steep mother rock under the Stairway. We wanted a closer look.
I kept getting distracted from the grand views of mountain peaks and rock walls around us by the micro features. I was enchanted by dime-sized holes where a tiny black rock that once lay on the surface had heated up enough to melt its way a foot down – a tubular hole that I could have slid a pencil into up to its eraser. Frisbee-shaped indentations held ponds of blue water. The ice sported stretch marks. Angled pockets appeared in the ice and I knelt to peer inside.
As we walked further up-glacier, the terrain became more varied. I thought that glacier travel was really just like all our backcountry treks – we follow the land’s contours, up and down, avoiding obstacles.
On the Root, a rushing creek formed a braided channel that blocked our way. We made our way down into the creek’s bed at an oxbow, jumped across – barely making the other bank without getting our feet wet, then climbed back out of the drainage to a bench. We circumnavigated a deep funnel-shaped hole filled with sapphire water. I stood at the edge of a columnar pit with water gushing into it from the surface, gravel plinking against the icy walls. I could not see the bottom.
Several miles into our hike, we encountered the medial moraine. To me, it looked like a paved walkway. The rocks that made up the moraine were mostly flat shards that ran uniformly and conveniently another mile up valley. We took off our crampons and continued our walk.
The day was giving way to evening. The moraine had petered out and the Stairway Icefall lay ahead, an imposing tongue of jumbled ice. We turned around and headed back to the foot of the Root.
Under my feet, the glacier was solid like the earth. It did not give or quake or crumble as I walked. It was like the mountainous terrain all around -- changing, but ever so slowly.