Waiting in Cloud

By Jeff Kavanaugh

As anyone who has spent time in coastal Alaska will tell you, weather here pays no heed to schedules or the wishes of its inhabitants (or itinerants).  Nowhere is this more true than at Camp-17, which often sits in cloud even when the surrounding landscape is clear.  Currently, the weather is engulfing not just that camp, but also Camp-10 – where I sit typing this – in the very heart of the icefield.

The first of three student groups was scheduled to begin the two-day traverse from Camp-17 to Camp-10 on July 6th, with two other groups departing on the 7th and 8th.  As that morning dawned, the decision was made to wait: wind, rain, and poor visibility made the prospect of negotiating Nugget Ridge too risky to contemplate.  These weather conditions remained until well past 10:00 am, the cut-off time for departure from Camp-17.  (The first day of this traverse is long, generally taking 10–12 hours to reach the tents and food of the Norris Cache, which is established in advance from Camp-10.  A late departure from Camp-17 therefore makes for a very late arrival at the cache.)

Poor visibility persists at Camp-10 and across the icefield, delaying the students’ departure from Camp-17. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh

To minimize the impact of the weather delay, two actions were taken.  When the weather improved slightly later in the day, a group of field safety team members (including Jeff Barbee, Annie Boucher, Stanley Pinchak, and Adam Toolanen) put their experience to the test by marking the route through the toughest sections of the traverse.  This was accomplished using both the high-tech (waypoints marked using handheld GPS units) and the low-tech (bamboo wands, which were driven into the snow to mark points of safe travel or, if crossed as an “X”, hazards).  The following morning, a subset of the staff (including Field Logistics Manager Scott McGee, Mechanic/Carpenter Ben Partan, and myself) boot-skied to the lowest reach of the Ptarmigan Glacier, which sat below the cloud deck.  From here we were picked up by helicopter and flown across to Camp-10 – thus being granted incredible views of the icefield’s terrain, but denied both the challenge and the reward of traversing it under our own power.

We’re now two days past these actions.  Both mornings we’ve awakened to rain and limited visibility; both mornings we’ve further postponed the departures from Camp-17.  We’re well-set to take advantage of any positive change in the weather: the students are primed and ready to depart Camp-17; a safe route has been established up and over Norris Ridge; the Norris Cache supplies are packed and ready to deploy; and Camp-10 is open and functional.  Additionally, four more participants have fleshed out the skeleton crew at Camp-10: Jay Fleisher, JIRP Director Emeritus and glacial geologist; Bill Isherwood, geophysicist; Bill Peterson, MD; and Ben Slavin, a JIRP ’11 alumnus who has returned to investigate the genetic variability of a particular insect species across the icefield. (You’ll read about each of these individuals in later blog posts.)

Over the next few days, the weather will surely clear sufficiently to allow the trail crews to depart Camp-17 for the broad views and spectacular peaks that await them on the “high ice”.  In the meantime, students will continue to practice their skiing (both roped and unroped) and crevasse rescue techniques, write a few more letters to family and friends, and master the art of brownie baking.   We’ll soon be reunited at Camp-10.