Connected by an umbilical cord of rope, two men glided blindly across snow bridges and around gaping crevasses.
They were skiing through a white fog that blended perfectly into the snowpack on their third day of crossing the Juneau Icefield. At times the visibility was so poor River Lee-Elkin navigated along the edge of an icefall by sound, rather than sight.
"That was probably the scariest, because we couldn't see much," said Lee-Elkin. "I was at the end of the rope and I would push snow down and listen to where it went."
The trip had started much better. Originally planned as an Alpine Club trip, Bill Forrest and Lee-Elkin decided to go it alone when the weather turned nice a week early in April. The sky was blue and the snow sparkled as Ward Air landed them on the Llewellyn Glacier, the icefield's northern terminus. With sun reflecting off the ice, the temperature was about 70 degrees.
As the plane took off Forrest and Lee-Elkin looked ahead at 50 miles of skiing and navigating. Both of them have experience on the glacier. In the summer, Forrest leads tourists on short glacier walks for Northstar Trekking. Lee-Elkin is a climbing guide from New Hampshire and previously had climbed on the Mendenhall Glacier.
They covered the first six miles easily, gliding across two inches of powder on top of hardpack. They purposely packed light so they could cover the distance easily. Instead of a full winter tent they carried a Megamid, a pyramid-shaped, floorless shelter weighing only 3.5 pounds. The lack of floor allowed them to dig a living space below the shelter, with a footwell so they could sit up.
Lee-Elkin carried about 45 pounds and Forrest had about 10 pounds more.
"It's always a balance between how safe you want to be and how comfortable," said Lee-Elkin, who carried less extra clothes because he planned to just crawl in the sleeping bag if they stopped and he was cold.
But they never got cold. The first two days of the weekend icefield crossing were clear and hot. Sun reflecting up from the snow brought the temperature into the 70s.
Forrest and River Lee-Elkin skied across the icefield in April.
PHOTO by RIVER LEE-ELKIN
"There wasn't a breath of wind either," Forrest said.
As they skied along, Lee-Elkin ogled spires of rock rising from the ice, looking for climbing routes.
"The south side of the Spirit Range has some great climbs and the area they call The Wall," said Lee-Elkin, who plans to come back and try some. He also admired some peaks by the Thiel glaciers. "They're striking, sharp, rocky."
Forrest and Lee-Elkin weren't completely alone. Along the way they crossed lynx prints, wolverine tracks and a ski trail. They met four other groups of people on the icefield, three from the Canadian side.
Having so many people crossing the icefield in one weekend is rare, said Juneau customs agent Ken Koelsch.
"In the 20 years I've worked here we get maybe one every three years," Koelsch said. "It's great, but it's very unusual."
The third day the clouds came in. Navigating with map and compass, Forrest and Lee-Elkin tried to glimpse bits of rock through the white clouds. They ended up about a mile off-track and turned down the north arm of the Mendenhall Glacier instead of the south arm.
"Sunday was terrible actually. We had our biggest day in a total white out," Forrest said.
Even in whiteout, the skiing was all downhill and faster. They went 20 miles, from the north end of the Taku Range to Suicide Icefall on the south side of Mt. Wrather.
The next morning was an easy hike off the glacier and out on West Glacier Trail.
"In this expanse of icy and craggy wilderness there is a lifetime worth of exploring and climbing," Lee-Elkin e-mailed home when the trip was over.