Alcan to Ocean Icecap Expedition: Night on the Kaskawulsh

“Dig the side of your boot in! Dig it in!” Jon shouted, his arm extended toward me over the mound of dirt and rock separating us, the steep hill sloping sharply downward. “I am!” I shouted back. “I’m sliding!” I shrieked, my gloved hands soaking in the ice-cold water as I tried to stop myself from sliding down the bare ice. We’d been traveling over enormous mounds of rubble for hours, picking our way slowly around glacial lakes and up huge gravel hills. The glacier had churned the rock into bits, spitting them out at its toe, heaping them up so it looked like a construction zone or a gravel pit.

I shifted my weight further to the right, bringing my left foot under my body and trying to find a perch with the edge of my Garmont boot. The rock below slid further away, revealing another foot of ice. My hands fumbled for something -anything- that wouldn’t slide away, but it was useless. My arms shook under the weight of my 80lb pack, and without the strength to maintain my awkward position, my knees thudded against the freshly revealed, hard, blue ice.

“I can’t move.” Pinned down by my own backpack, every muscle strained against gravity to keep my precarious hold, cold water seeped into my clothes. With one shaking hand I unbuckled my hip belt and wiggled out of my pack as Jon grabbed it from the top and hauled it over the mound of debris separating us. On hands and knees I slid and crab crawled onto more solid rock, those still half frozen into the ice. A thin layer of rock and dirt covered the hillside, which turned out to be an enormous chunk of ice the size of a building. The further up we traveled towards the toe of the glacier, the more ice we encountered.

“Thanks” I breathed, gasping for air. We looked up ahead for J., but he was nowhere to be seen. I was thankful to not need the first aid kit, which was imprudently in his backpack, and he out of sight or earshot.

It was day three of the month-long glacial journey, and we continued on until we could no longer see the Slims River or the glacial lagoon. The rubble faded away, the mounds turning into fins of ice extending up ahead as far as we could see. Sharp, jagged ice walls surrounded us, enormous exposed crevasses on both sides. A huge labyrinth of ice, and just the beginning of the Kaskawulsh glacier, only one of the glaciers we’d cross during our month in the wilds.

J., with a ten pound lighter pack due to wonderfully light boots and skis, and proportionally much lighter pack to his 175lb body, bounded between the fins and narrow crevasses like a snow bunny. I felt like a bear coming out of hibernation, stiff, weak and hungry, my body aching under the 80lb load to my 145lb frame. Jon’s 135lb body strained under his 90lb pack, and we stopped regularly to patch up blistered feet or pad bruised and scabbed hip and back bones. His pack was cutting into his body, and he’d taken to taping his entire lower back. “I can take a few more pounds if you need, Jon”, I offered during a tape-up stopIMG_0029. It was exhausting work, but not as hard as those first few miles, three days before. “It’s all right for now”, he replied. We’d quickly learned how to help each other as best we could, making the journey that much easier, and his patience was immensely appreciated. I was a complete noob to glacier travel, but strong enough, thanks to the training I’d done beforehand. He had a couple decades of experience, and it wasn’t his first time carrying far more than half his body weight. He knew to take it slow and easy, conserve strength when possible, and think about the long-term. I had a lot to learn, but followed his lead. J. was still far ahead, seemingly not needing as many water or snack breaks, and I wondered how long he could keep it up, even with less weight.

The day before, we’d stood on the top of a forested hill, our first sight of the Kaskawulsh glacier ahead. “We should be on that glacier in an hour. Hour and a half, tops”, J. announced. “I don’t know a thing about glaciers”, I sighed, “But I know about hiking, and that’ll take hours to reach”. “Once we’re on the snow, we’ll fly up”, said J.

Thirty hours later, much more than anyone had anticipated, we finally made our first camp on the ice of the Kaskawulsh. “That was the hardest hiking I’ve ever done”, J. breathed.

And the journey was just beginning.

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