Alcan to Ocean Icecap Expedition: Alone on the Kaskawulsh

The 3:30am night air bit into our exposed skin as we dismantled camp and prepared for the long ascent of a 15 mile day. Lynne would be dropped off at 5,500 feet, where the snow was more stable. Just the day before, Jim had punched through a very well-hidden crevasse while we traveled unroped, incredibly lucky it hadn’t been wider. To avoid the hazards of that section, and to meet Lynne before nightfall, we caught a few hours sleep before waking up for the big push.

At that hour the snow was frozen solid, making travel easier and faster. “Start cold”, Jim called out. He was right, but starting cold was always difficult. We all knew how quickly we would warm up once moving, but taking off the thick down jacket under those bright cold stars was painful. I reversed it, slipping my arms in, the puffy hood fluttering under my chin. It would keep my back cool, but help block the cold wind coming down the Kaskawulsh glacier.

We counted our progress by the passing of mountains. Soon we were half way across the base of one, then between two, and finally at the foot of the next. And the next, and the next, and so on up the glacier. With dawn came the heat, beating down on our heads, burning our mouths and nostrils, the wind chaffing our chins.

Jon was a machine. With his girlfriend Lynne’s imminent arrival, he powered up the mountain, determined to make the best time possible and rationing our breaks to 10 minutes per hour. As the sun climbed higher and exhaustion built, I called his name. “Jon! Jon! I need a break!” I yelled weakly. I used my whistle to signal him, with no luck. Unclipping my harness, I wiggled out of my ski boots and sat heavily in the snow. We’d unroped hours before, as conditions were good. Jim approached, following suit. “I’m almost out of water”, I said, eyeing my bottles, of which I didn’t have enough. “I’ve got some extra”, he said, reaching into his own pack and handing over a bottle of the pristine glacial meltwater. Melting snow was a tedious process, and one we avoided until evening if possible, and I was grateful to him.

“Jim, you drinking enough water?” Jon said later in the day. “Doesn’t seem like you’re taking much in.”

“Yeah, I’m fine. I drink about two liters a day”.

“Ok, well gotta make sure we’re staying hydrated out here”, Jon said skeptically but in his usual cheery manner. I could hear concern in his tone; Jon and I drank a minimum of four liters a day as a general rule, and in those conditions, still felt dehydrated. With the constant sun beating down on our brows, and the wind and heat sucking all moisture away, dehydration could be fast and dangerous.

Late that afternoon, a low hum came from down glacier as we set up camp. Standing, we looked at the horizon, waiting for the first glimpse of Tom the pilot’s little airplane, yellow against the bright blue sky. “There it is!” Jim pointed. Tom was flying low, straight for us. Seconds later he buzzed past, giving us a blast of excitement and energy. Lynne waved from the passenger seat, but the plane didn’t land.

“Where’s he going?” I asked, watching the plane disappear into the horizon in the distance, obscured by the rolling white hills. “Maybe he’s turning around”, Jon murmured. We waited, confused, checking our GPS coordinates again until Tom buzzed by a second time, this time alone. “Where the hell’s Lynne?” I cried, looking back over my shoulder at where the plane had come from. “Maybe the crevasses are too close by for him to land”, Jon wondered aloud, scanning the horizon. From the ground, it was difficult to know exactly where they were, and what appeared flat to us didn’t appear so from the sky.

“If I go out there, I can’t come back”, Jim announced, fatigue etched in his face. “I can go with you, but not as fast as you’d like, Jon”, I replied to both as we discussed our plan to find Lynne in the vast sea of undulating white.

It was finally settled. I would stay behind at camp with our gear, being the slowest skier, as Jon and Jim skied quickly into the distance. Each carried one bag and the team satellite phone, while I remained with the GPS DeLorme inReach, with its texting capabilities.

Tom couldn’t have taken her far, could he? He wouldn’t leave her alone in the mountains, even if she did have a month’s supply of food for 3 people with her, plus her own provisions.

“If you’re not back by noon tomorrow, I’m going to start getting worried” I said to both. “We’ll be back early in the morning”, Jim said confidently. “Okay, but just in case… No later than noon, does that sound good?” I said to Jon, knowing his propensity towards late starts.

As I watched them ski off towards a crevasse field in the distance, my stomach gave a nervous squeeze. As quiet settled in over everything, a little bird appeared from nowhere to keep me company, cold and huddling in the vestibule of my tent, having likely been blown into the mountains by a storm. The only sound was the rumbling of avalanches on the nearest mountain, my constant companion for the evening.

As the sun began to sink, I crawled into the big empty tent, eerily alone on the icefield.

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