“I can’t talk right now!” Kelly, a bush pilot for 37 years, barked over the PA system as Diane tried to engage him in a conversation. He was about to bring down the Cessna 185 on a roughly 550 feet long airstrip next to the Kennicott Glacier, with Diane, Naiko and me on board. We would land here, meet up with Mike, Diane’s husband, and Bryan, our guide of St. Elias Alpine Guides, for our five-day trip through a small part of the Alaska wilderness.
Flying for Wrangell Mountain Air, Kelly had to make two flights in his red and yellow painted fixed-wing aircraft; one just was not enough with the amount of gear we brought. He had dropped off Bryan and Mike on the previous trip and then picked us up from the airstrip in McCarthy, a hamlet at the foot of the Wrangell Mountains and about 300 miles east of Anchorage.
“It is like playing pool when you are trying to make a play,” Kelly explained after another successful landing while we were unloading our backpacks, hiking poles, and crampons. “You really have to concentrate.” We snapped some pictures of our group and the plane, and before long, we were by ourselves, just west of the Kennicott Glacier in America’s largest National Park, Wrangell-St. Elias.
1.5 miles north of the airstrip, we found a spot to set up camp for the next two nights on a lush green slope with a small creek nearby, spring-fed by glacier water. “There was never a reported case of Giardia in this park,” Bryan assured me since I was surprised we did not have a water filter to purify the water from the creek. “I have been drinking this water for the past two years and was always fine.” It was not the last time he would be right during our trip.
With lots of daylight left (in August, you could still read a book outside at 10pm), we went up the “fosse,” which I learned is “the level area between the base of adjacent mountains and the lateral moraine of a glacier,” a little more to get even better views of the glacier and Mt Blackburn in the north, dominating the landscape at 16,390 feet, making it the fifth highest peak in the US. Talking a bit about the itinerary over the next few days, we noticed that Alaska’s vastness impacted our way of judging distances. Crossing the Kennicott and Gates Glacier, slated for day 3, we thought it could only take around four to five hours (it ended up taking us eight, including breaks).
“When I first came to Alaska, I noticed that my judgment when it came to distances was way off,” Bryan mentioned. “I met this older guy who had been in Alaska for many years, and he gave me the following advice: whatever your guess is in terms of distance, take that and quadruple it.”
Hidden Creek Lake sits, when it is an actual lake fed by Hidden Creek, right next to the western edge of the Kennicott Glacier. This time of the year, however, there is no lake. All that is to be seen, apart from Hidden Creek flowing into and disappearing underneath the glacier, are icebergs ranging in size from compact cars to two-story houses. What causes this is a series of events that repeat every year. At this particular location, Kennicott Glacier has drain holes in its ice massif that, like in August, are melted out and let water flow freely underneath it.
In winter, however, when the temperatures drop to way below zero, those drain holes freeze, and throughout spring, the lake slowly fills up with water until it is almost level with the top of the glacier. Rising temperatures cause large chunks of ice to break loose from the glacier and float in the newly formed lake.
Eventually, those drain holes cannot withstand the pressure of billions of gallons of water, and commonly, in June or July, the lake drains completely within twenty to thirty hours. The icebergs sink to the bottom and create a surreal scene where one can walk amidst ice sculptures the size of single-family homes, slowly melting in the summer sun. When the lake drains, it’s party time downstream. “In June and July, the bush pilots would radio it into town if they see the lake draining. Then, it is just a big party in town. Masses of water are flowing down the Kennicott River, and people are rafting it. It’s a lot of fun”, Bryan told us.
For our group, exploring Hidden Creek Lake meant about a four-mile hike from our base camp south along the moraine and a scramble up a steep ridge and through thick alder brush to reach the lake on the other side. We did it as a day trip, returning to our base camp around 5pm.
A hearty breakfast involving cheese and bacon grits, as well as another sunny morning with no clouds, raised our enthusiasm for our first glacier crossing. We vacated camp and headed south again, down the fosse and past the airstrip, when Bryan found a nook in the moraine which would give us easier access to the glacier. Upon reaching the glacier’s edge, though, the first few hundred feet did not create the impression of walking on ice. It resembled stepping into wet cement, which, the further we went, gave way to ice hills and cliffs covered by shale rock. Eventually, we reached a section towards the middle of the glacier that presented us with pure ice underneath our feet and a good reason to mount crampons onto our boots. What followed was a traverse over a series of hills, trying not to lose our footing on the slippery terrain.
About halfway across the glacier, a rumbling sound from underneath the ice caught our attention. Moving along further, the rumbling grew louder, and soon after that, we would stand on the edge of our first moulin, one of many we would encounter throughout the rest of the trip. A moulin, the French word for “mill” is a vertical hole in the glacier ice formed when melting glacier water, flowing downstream, reaches a drop and, over time, carves a hole into the layers of ice. The roaring sound and the image of water disappearing into this vertical tunnel, which can get 40 to 60 feet wide and up to 1000 feet deep, makes for a terrifying sight. “If you fall into one of these, you are done. Nobody will ever find you again”, Bryan cautioned us not to step too close to the edge.
As much as I was bothered by the “dirty” appearance of the Kennicott Glacier in the morning, the river of ice made more than up for it in the afternoon. Our sugar reserves refilled by peanut butter and Nutella on pilot bread (locally made in McCarthy), we made it over hill after hill of white ice, negotiated our way around moulins and admired the views of Mt Blackburn and the glacier upstream.
Before crossing the considerably shorter Gates Glacier, we had to hike south for about two miles to avoid traversing over a sea of ice cliffs, each up to a hundred feet high. Our guide nailed the spot perfectly, and shortly after, we were across and off the glacier, back on solid ground. The camp was just a short stint over another moraine away, in the form of a small alpine lake, whose shore provided a flat, albeit dusty terrain to pitch our tents.
Bushwhacking to Camp 3
By now, the weather situation had gotten almost boringly predictable. The amount of clouds we had seen up to this point we could count on one hand. Day 4 was no different. Packing up and leaving camp at 10:30am, we made our way towards and around another alpine lake through the marsh on its western and southern shoreline.
Navigating the tundra without a hint of a trail for the past three days, we were pretty surprised when Bryan led us onto an obvious pathway through the brush, which would guide us for the rest of the day’s hike. Thick alder shrubbery hindered our progress significantly; had it not been for the trail, it could have been much worse. Bushwhacking through the maze of alders along the north side of another alpine lake, we eventually popped out on the ridge of a moraine at the foot of Donahoe Peak, the masses of ice belonging to the Root Glacier right in front of us. Only .4 miles further south, we came across signs of an established campground, with sturdy bear lockers for our scented items and apparent spots on the moraine around us for setting up tents.
The day concluded with a hike to a roughly 20 feet high ice cave carved into the glacier wall by our water source, a fast-flowing creek in a little canyon close to our camp, dropping down a few hundred feet towards the glacier.
The Best for Last
After a rough night, courtesy of some unidentifiable call and mating sounds outside our tents at 3am, we stroke tents and set out to cross Root Glacier, our last glacier crossing on this trip. Root Glacier provided us with the purest ice conditions of all three glaciers. In addition to multiple moulins (at one point, we encountered three close to one another), we came across cracks in the ice filled with light blue water, creeks in the valleys between the dunes of ice, waterfalls as well as ankle-deep pools with an azure blue glow around the edges.
In no rush, we took our time with the two miles we had to cover to cross the glacier. As soon as we bumped into a group of day hikers, we knew that the return to civilization was inevitable. Reaching the glacier’s edge and almost feeling uncomfortable having that many people around us, we took off our crampons and packed them away. They were useless on the dirt trail up the embankment to the tree line in what seemed like a hundred degrees.
The primarily flat Root Glacier Trail then brought us back into the former mining camp of Kennecott from where we hitched a ride back into McCarthy.
Remote but Connected
McCarthy is a small community of two hundred people during the hiking and climbing season between May and September. The population declines significantly when the days get shorter, and the temperature drops way beyond freezing. “I would love to stay here in winter,” Bryan told me over burgers and beer at the Golden Saloon in McCarthy, where our group recalled the highlights of the trip later that night. “But only about twenty people are living here in the winter. Your social contacts are pretty limited.”
McCarthy is an outpost, a town where people don’t end up by accident but by choice. “We are not getting rich doing this,” Bryan refers to himself and his guide colleagues. “Everyone is here because they want to be here.” Amidst the handful of newer, log-cabin-style houses, you find ramshackle huts and shacks, some without electricity or running water. The next stretch of paved road is about sixty miles away.
I had taken Gaia Marrs, who owns St. Elias Alpine Guides together with her husband Wayne, up on her offer to stay with them for the night at the “Power House,” the guide company’s headquarters, aptly named because of its history as the home of the Mother Lode Power Company.
With its vaulted ceiling, it holds the company offices, a climbing wall, storage for all sorts of (freeze)dried food and snacks as well as hiking, climbing, and rafting equipment, a kitchen and lounge room as well as a set of bunk beds in the attic, one of which I called mine for the night. Lacking running water, I washed in their outdoor sauna, scrubbing and rinsing myself with a mix of cold water from the river and water from tin buckets heated up by the sauna oven.
There is no TV or internet unless Gaia and Wayne decide the business needs it to function. The guides who work for the outfit live in shacks on company property around the Power House, just a stone’s throw west of the Kennicott River. It is very basic, rustic living. However, one has to wonder whether the absence of digital distractions and the fact that people converge in this town to do exactly what they love to do, make them connect and bond in a different way.
Wandering around the grounds, I encountered different faces belonging to women and men in their twenties, all of them fit, slender, built, and ready to have fun. Which here might mean to either scale one of the many 14000+ft peaks, raft down the Kennicott River, or ice climb a 700-foot cliff. A commune of a different kind in a remote corner of the United States where people come together to do what they hold dear. Be out in nature and play.