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Refuge Notebook: Crossing the Harding Icefield

Posted: July 18, 2013 - 2:58pm
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Photos © Heather Thamm Climbing an unnamed nunatak near Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park on May 19.
Photos © Heather Thamm Climbing an unnamed nunatak near Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park on May 19.

Another climber once asked me if I knew the definition of mountaineering. There are a lot of possible answers to a question like that, but nothing came to mind.

“What is it?” I asked. “Moving slowly uphill while not feeling very well,” he replied.

Moments like this tell me two things about climbers. First, our chosen activity and its inherent unpleasantness indicate a slight imbalance in our collective brain function. Second, we are aware of the first fact, and we have a sense of humor about ourselves.

These two characteristics aptly describe the students of Alaska Pacific University’s Expedition Mountaineering course, which took place this past May. Our class spent the first half of the course in the Talkeetnas, where we spent nine days learning basic mountaineering skills on Mint Glacier from Heather Thamm and Joe Stock. The morning of May 11, we loaded our still-damp gear into the APU vans and made for the Kenai Peninsula, where we embarked on a 13-day traverse of the Harding Icefield led by Heather and Mik Jedlicka.

Skilak Lake, on the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge where our journey began, did not appear to be anywhere near an icefield. The first leg of the trip was a water taxi to the Alaska Wildland Adventures lodge, where we cached some gear and nearly all our food and began the first half of a double carry up to treeline. On that dreary day, the quaint lodge sounded much more pleasant than battling hummingbird-sized mosquitoes with seventy-pound loads in our packs, but we started up nonetheless.

The steep, muddy trail leading uphill from the lodge was made less navigable by the fact that all nine of us had skis strapped to our packs. Our giant antennae caught on every possible overhanging branch. Even the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other was impaired by our bulky ski boots, which plunged into knee-deep mud puddles and slipped across the icy trail as we gained altitude.

Soon enough, the pleasant trees of the boreal forest gave way to alders, and I found myself wishing desperately for ice and snow. By the time we’d completed the second leg of our double carry on Day 2, I’d had about enough of all this flora-and-fauna nonsense and was ready to reach the Harding. Unfortunately, although I didn’t know it at the time, five days still stood between me and ice.

Since the definition of mountaineering includes the phrase “not feeling very well,” it’s probably not a surprise to learn that some aspects of this masochistic sport are even less glamorous than others. A tiny percentage of mountaineering involves standing on the summit and smiling for photos. Most of it is much less pleasant, and a great deal of it involves carrying gear from one destination to the next.

Of course, the longer the approach and spicier the objective, the more gear one has to carry, necessitating the dreaded double carry or — a fate worse than death — the hauling of sleds. Long days of hauling sleds over alpine passes were kept entertaining by such practical jokes as engaging the brakes on one another’s sleds. This, along with locking the heels on one another’s skis while traveling uphill, became cherished pastimes.

After five days of travel and another three spent in a storm too burly to risk getting on the crevassed toe of Skilak Glacier, we finally arrived at our first campsite on the Harding Icefield. With only four full days left, we had some miles to put behind us if we wanted to leave time for climbing. We put in a 12-mile day on May 19, then set up a base camp a few miles from Exit Glacier.

Bluebird skies and a gentle breeze the following day allowed us a shot at an unnamed nunatak near our campsite. It was an ideal objective for our large party, which included climbers of varying skill levels. A narrow, corniced ridge to the main summit prevented us from climbing past the broad south summit, but an hour of sun bathing was enough to keep spirits high.

We spent the remainder of our trip making our way to the pickup point. Poor snow conditions and abundant vegetation made for complex route finding next to Exit Glacier, and we spent as much time hopelessly stuck in the snow as we did skiing down it.

On our last day, we had to walk a half-mile of pavement to reach a spot the vans could access. With skis and sleds strapped to our giant packs, we probably looked as exotic as much of the wildlife one might encounter in Kenai Fjord National Park, a fact that had escaped me until I noticed tourists snapping our picture as we marched down the road. We must have looked pretty crazy, I thought, hiking along with all that gear, the Exit Glacier and the tracks from our rowdy descent as our backdrop. I remembered my friend’s definition of mountaineering and smiled. I guess we are pretty crazy.

Emma Walker is a student at the Alaska Pacific University. You can find more information about the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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