Friday, August 28, 2009

100 Miles on the Harding

APU student Todd Tumolo and I are just back from a hundred miles of skiing back and forth across the Harding Icefield, one of the most amazing places in all of Alaska. I guess counting a crossing as once across, and an out-and-back as twice across, these would be like my 10th and 11th crossings since 1983. This trip was collecting iceworms for a genetic study that might shed light on how iceworms disperse from glacier to glacier.

What makes the Harding Icefield so amazing is the play of light and weather on the assortment of nunataks and the expanse of ice and snow. So vast and disorienting can the Icefield be, that in the the pre-GPS days it was a terrifying crossing!

I once skied from Skilak to Chernof solo during a Wilderness Classic and was afraid of getting lost and/or being hit by a storm. I had nothing but a pin-on compass and a bivy sack. Cody Roman (then 14), Jazz (then 12) and I did a big week long loop in 2001 when we were hit by a storm of ferocious winds and rain. There's simply no way to dig into the hardpacked firn and with such a long fetch, the wind speeds are tent-flattening. I had to put on a face of total calmness while inside my head I feared the tent would be ripped apart and we soaked in freezing rain at 50 miles an hour.

But now with GPS, my familiarity with all of its glaciers and peaks, and a good kit I feel comfortable up there.

My favorite way to cross it is north to south, skiing into the warm sun. One May we skied from Exit to Nuka and I never put on gaiters or gloves so warm was the ski. Skiing south one looks at the icy north faces of the nuktuks, nunataks, and mountains and they are so picturesque. Skiing north you see the barren south faces of choss-heaps. Most of the rock is schisty country rock but the nuktuks of the central Nunatak Plateau are granite and the route to the Chernof passes across the granite and schist contact. The precipitation gradient is so steep that standing above the Chernof Glacier and looking at the McCarty Glacier peaks one sees a view of mega-glacier draped mountains like the Antarctic Peninsula while looking toward Truuli Glacier you see peaks bare of snow.

The geography of the Icefield is singular. The Icefield proper stretches between the Chernof and Exit Glaciers. South of the Chernof are a series of range crossing glaciers separated by rocky ridges. These unique "saddle-passes" are broad passes from big glacier to big glacier that have steeper cols above them that cross the ridges. Late in the season, like last week, the ridge crossings have deep and nasty, roof-ripping bergschrunds, whereas the stretch from Exit Glacier to Tustumena has nothing but "guppy" sized cracks. In other words, from Exit to Tustumena is rope-free travel on a flat, flat, flat icefield with distant peaks. Whiteouts and blizzards make for what Todd calls "full-on iPod conditions". From Tustumena south to Nuka Valley is more typical mountainous terrain with steeper hills, rocky passes, and cracks.

One measure of how great a place is for adventuring is whether you'd go back or not. As we returned to Exit Glacier after six days, Redoubt's ash wearing the fishscales off my skis, I thought about what my next trip up there might be: "Ski to Sea", a ski tour across the Icefield followed by a fjord-hopping packraft paddle back to Seward.

Anyone interested?

No comments:

Post a Comment

/* Use this with templates/template-twocol.html */