Crossing the Icefield

Southeast adventurers dodge crevasses, fight sunburn on nine-day trek

Posted: Sunday, January 05, 2003

How to keep cool on a massive block of ice. That was the unlikely problem confronting the 14 members of the Juneau Alpine Club as we skied across the Juneau Icefield last spring. For most of the trip, the weather was extraordinary warm and sunny. Frequent application of sunscreen and use of wide-brimmed hats and deep-tinted sunglasses with nose shields were essential. And despite those precautions, our nostrils and tongues were still sunburned from reflected light.

The trip began in late March. Our group shuttled to the toe of the Llewellyn Glacier, just south of Atlin Lake in British Columbia. Ward Air provided three flights using a plane fitted with skis. Three rope teams were promptly formed and we set off for Juneau.

Four group members were women and 10 were men. One lived in Sitka, the rest of us in Juneau. For some group members, this was our first meeting. But despite some initial unfamiliarity, almost everyone was remarkably well-matched in temperament and pace and quickly formed a cohesive group.

The lower glacier was heavily crevassed but covered with a deep snow. As a precaution, we roped together. In the weeks before, the club had conducted several training sessions, including crevasse rescue skills that were fortunately unneeded.

On the upper glacier, the hazard was less pronounced. Ropes were kept close at hand, but not worn. Without ropes, skiers spread out across the wide-open terrain.

For the first few days, we gained altitude while traveling at four to six miles per day. At the U.S.-Canada border, the downward slope promoted skiing and we covered up to about 12 miles in a day. And except for a day along the Taku Range, the rest of the trip was downhill to Juneau.

Camp life was quickly established. In the evening, the routine was pitching the tents, melting snow for water, cooking dinner and eating. Afterwards, a few hours of free time was available for relaxing or exploring. Those of us who ventured out at night were rewarded with the sight of northern lights and the sound of honking geese. And in the morning, the routine was airing-out the sleeping bags, cooking breakfast, breaking down the tents and packing.

As we were traveling one morning, an unexpected figure appeared on a nearby ridge. Despite unlikely odds, we had chanced upon someone in the vast wilderness. Greetings were exchanged and he was soon followed by five other Canadians who were skiing from Skagway to Juneau. After a short break together, we parted ways.

On the first of May, a change was in the air as the wind shifted from north to south. The next morning, we awoke to a raging snowstorm and low visibility. Travel would be too difficult and hazardous, so we quickly built snow walls around the tents to break the wind. After the tents were secured, the day quickly passed by visiting and sharing hot drinks. The storm subsided that night and the following morning was gorgeous, with dramatic lighting.

Most of the terrain was gentle with superb snow for skiing. The only challenging terrain was found east of the Mendenhall Towers. There, the snow and ice made a sharp descent and downhill skiing techniques were required. Those with heavier alpine skis and randoneé bindings, which release at the heel, more easily negotiated the slope than the others with light touring or telemark ski gear.

At familiar surroundings on the Mendenhall Glacier, we camped a night, then split into two groups. One group skied out and its members were home by evening. The rest of us camped another night while waiting for North Star Helicopters to fly out one group member and unneeded gear, such as extra food and fuel.

Shedding weight made crossing the heavily crevassed lower Mendenhall Glacier easier. Snow still filled the crevasses and provided good footing, but a breakable crust made travel difficult. The additional weight of skis on the pack, traveling as a rope team, and an uncertain route added to the challenge. Reaching solid ground on the West Glacier Trail was a relief.

After nine days on the icefield, everyone had safely returned home and contacted U.S. Customs. The total travel distance for the trip was about 60 miles. A week later, we shared a potluck and slide show and reminisced about the pleasant company, gorgeous scenery and exceptional weather.

Greg Bledsoe is a Juneau photographer, writer and member of the Juneau Alpine Club. To learn more about the club, visit groups.yahoo.com/group/juneaualpineclub/.

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