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Alaska! Wrangell St Elias NP Southern Traverse

I like to go BIG. I like to go all out, get swallowed whole by my surroundings, fall headlong into landscapes that I can never ever outgrow, or see all of.  I like spending my time planning and preparing complecated schemes to pull off BIG crazy expeditions, in the wildest, rawest places you could imagine.   BIG places call to me. I think that maybe Im looking for a place I can finally get lost in, finally go over the line, find that limit. Ive been searching all over, for that place, that could easily provide that kind of challenge AND over the top mind blowing scenery, day after day. 

ALASKA CALLED.  

So I planned a 150 mile route in the worlds BIGGEST wilderness, Wrangell St. Elias National Park, a place that could offer the most diversity, ultimate beauty and ruggedness, and more challenge than one could possibly imagine.

I expected a hard hike in ruggedly beautiful and very remote country.  I expected to go where no one else has trod, explore the true unknown, and bring home unique images and maybe even an interesting story from this expedition. I expected to feel slightly uncomfortable in a new environment, to test my route finding skills, and push my mental and physical tolerances with lots of hard obstacles to work my way through or around. I expected to get a proper lay of the land, walk and crawl and crash over glaciers bouldersand passes, through the creeks and brush, up valleys and (hopefully not swim!) across rivers.

What I didn’t expect: to be stunned by this amazing place, especially the glaciers. I didn’t expect to lose my trekking pole in a crevasse on day 2 of 16.  I didn’t expect 2 hour sunsets, resplendent with alpenglow in contrast to a sea of sharp black peaks and cool blue ice and snow.  I really didn’t expect to run into angry hornets nests while going through the brush, and getting stung multiple times, even in the face. I didn’t expect to only find 2 decent places to sleep during the whole trip (all of the land was sloped, lumpy, or both). I didn’t expect the creek crossings to be as easy as they were. And, I definitely didn’t expect to find myself so enamored, completely blissed out, feeling the raw power and magnetic pull of this place, very much like I do at home, the Grand Canyon.

Aerial view of the Tana Glacier. During the planning process the folks at Wrangell Mtn. Air said no one had ever crossed the Tana near the face, and they didn’t know if it was even possible. Our route, being a first known traverse of the Tana near the face went quite suprisingly easy, even getting on and off  (which we quickly learned is the tough part of glacier crossings).

I was very pleased with my gear choices for this trip, I had everything I needed and not anything extra, and my pack was fairly light even with the bearcan.  Everything held up really well except for my backpack.

Seen here: Five Ten Guide Tennie Mid, Gore Tex   * Kahtoola KTS Aluminum Crampons * Outdoor Research Crocodile Gaiter, Gore Tex

There were vast sections of the Tana Glacier that were a most sublime deep cerulean color, like staring into the deep blue sea. My favorite part was the chunks of brownish shale sunk into the ice, giving dimension and contrast.  

The edge of glaciers are a kind of scary, very active, transitional zone. Here in this narrow corridor moving quick was key, as there were rocks and ice chunks falling in from both sides and a raging river which every 1/4 mile or so would dissapear under the glacier. The snow chunks along the ground were so soft that I used a sort of chimneying technique on the gulley walls (putting as much weight as possible on my hands) and gingerly moving in sidestepping fashion. I definitely fell into my waist several times…. Fun Zone! 

Day 2- A solid class 4 scramble to access a land bridge onto the massive unnamed glacier, which would take 20 hours to  cross. The entire North face of the glacier was heavily crevassed with knife edges, I spent hours trying to find a way across, then finally backtracked a mile or so, then crossed the whole glacier to the south, where the walking was easy. Every time I cut North again to try and exit the glacier, I was stymied again by the deep crevasse network along the edge. After walking along during a spectacular sunset, we finally came to within 500 yards of the edge. The only thing was, I was not seeing anything possible to get me over that last (minute!) stretch to Iceberg Lake. After thorough scouting from several high vantages, it was getting dark (something I hadn’t seen yet in Alaska) so decided to camp right there on the glacier. The  only flattish spot I could find was right near a crevasse, and I kicked out some of the ice with my crampons in a feeble attempt while Liam cooked dinner. The next morning it took me 4 more hours before I finally scouted out the last tiny stretch, dubbed “miracle mile”. It involved a sweet chimneying move, then a little climb up a narrow ridge to get up the other side, then a steep uphill climb, and even steeper downclimb, right on to solid ground, at long last! We celebrated with hot noodle lunch at a small clear lake at unnamed glaciers edge, victory never tasted so good.  That was by far the hardest route finding puzzle I’ve encountered so far. 

The best camp of the trip: Iceberg Lake. Unnamed Glacier is in the background. 

The Tana Lobe of the massive Bremner Glacier. The descent down to the glacier was very steep, the crossing suprisingly easy, especially after the unnamed glacier. 

This is what the easy walking looks like!  Very grateful to have escaped the brushy lower confines of the valley and be hopping on rock. 

lunch spot, Day 7. I love it where its mostly rock, and not much else. 

Upper Monahan Creek, a spectacular destination on it’s own.

Arctic Cotton Grass: my favorite of all the wildflowers. 

Beautiful little canyon on Monahan Creek.

Wide Pass near Bremner Mines

Post resupply and layover gear drying: Bremner Mines. 

Shovel Glacier

I spent A LOT of time waiting around, often cold. Here I am spooning with my pack to stay warm. Still happy!

Shovel Glacier was funnel shaped, and had the most beautiful slot canyon, carving its path in front of my very eyes. As a lover of slots, seeing one all in shades of blue and white was really cool compared to the red sandstone ones I’m used to.

One of many sub optimal camps along the way. In the brush, wet, trying to avoid the masses of mosquitos. 

My brand new pack on Day 10. Zipper broken and seam blasted. That very seam blew out from top to bottom by Day 13. 

Sidehilling in the upper Klu valley saved us a few miles and avoided the rest of the brush. Plus, gave a spectacular high view from the pass. Yay routefinding to make your life easier! GET HIGH STAY HIGH

The headwaters of the Klu Valley, which took a few days of bush bashing to reach the top, but the views from there made it all worth while. Here, in a bowl, 5 glaciers pour in. They create their own weather system, and the pass was shrouded in clouds and fog as long as it was in sight (days).

 Bivy site high up in the cliff. Amazingly, I slept pretty warm that night. 

One of the best climbs of the trip, this bowl was 3,000 ft of talus hopping fun! 

These are the places we hang out

 Where the light is reflected, and the rocks glow. Where the redwall is the reddest and the shade is the deepest. Where the canyon wren sings and cliff rose blooms. 

 Somewhere between where everything drops out below you, and a jagged skyline closes in above you. Where the stars are innumerable and there’s room for all your thoughts. 

  These are the Places we hang out. 

We are of the Canyon. We are along the rim, but never for long-for it pulls us in, downstream, downcanyon. 

 We are at the springs, the creeks, the River, dipping our bottles. We find our way through the breaks, tearing through brush and dancing along loose slopes. 

 We are swimming with our backpacks on, floating downriver, enjoying a hard won or luckily found beer. We are on patios and under ledges, laying out and snacking, lost in time and space. 

 We are of the Canyon-with a common bond, unspoken yet undeniable.

 We know what it’s like to want, to work, to sweat and bleed for what we love. 

 To reach out and grab something, go over the edge, drag yourself out, and still want ever more.

Grand Canyoneering: Getting in Deep

Grand Canyoneering: stretching the mind, testing capabilities. Turning the key, dropping in and unlocking secrets, hidden treasures folded into the cracks. Feels so good, to get ever deeper into the Grand Canyon. Truly, a place that one can never outgrow, or see all of. But I’ll keep trying.