By Kamil Chadirji-Martinez and William Jenkins
Last night the students and staff members of JIRP 2013 were all reunited after several days of travel. This year 31 people completed the traverse from our first camp, Camp 17, to Camp 10 on the edge of the massive Taku Glacier – a total distance of 36 kilometers.
The first 10-person trail party (with co-author William) left at 9:00am, under beautiful sunny skies, and descended the Lemon Creek Glacier in 45 minutes. A day later, the second 21 person trail party (with co-author Kamil), left at 5:45am, in thick fog. The fog created a treadmill sensation, as white-out conditions in all directions created the illusion of skiing in place. Under these conditions it took us 3 hours to descend the Lemon. Some skis were very slick, and allowed one to easily shoot down the glacier. Other ski types and comfort levels forced people to shuffle down the glacier, so we could only start moving until the person behind us was visible. As we approached the margin of the Lemon Creek Glacier, rocks, patches of red algae-stained snow, and areas of grooved blue ice emerged from the fog.
From the base of the Lemon Creek Glacier the trail parties ascended several steep slopes, gaining approximately 1,000 vertical feet in elevation, in order to arrive at an area known as “Lunch Rocks”. The outcrop served as a nice resting spot and offered an outstanding view of Devil’s Paw, the tallest peak on the Juneau Icefield and a popular destination for alpine climbers. This peak lies on the Canadian border, and stands as a staunch reminder of the long distance that we have yet to travel. From this point, we traversed the upper Thomas Glacier to the base of Nugget Ridge. We climbed up the steep and rocky ridge with skis on our packs, until we could gain a safe access point to the upper Norris Glacier.
As the second trail party tied into their rope teams, the wind started to blow and moved the fog in and out, providing short glimpses of the mountains around us. It began to rain lightly, but horizontally. Some of us tied parachute cords around our skies as brakes, while others used climbing skins. We carefully wound our way down through crevasses, crossing snow bridges over large crevasses. Looking outward, the snow dipped away at a sharp angle all around us, revealing mountains below. Nearing the end of this descent, the wind ripped Jai Beeman’s rain fly from his bag. Because we were roped up, we had to watch it fly into the distance. At the end of this slow descent the weather finally cleared up. Our group descended to Death Valley with ease, listening to music on Adam Toolanen’s speakers while enjoying the blue skies.
The name “Death Valley” implies a far more ominous scene than the seemingly flat and expansive glacier which laid before us; however, we rapidly came to the conclusion that the sun cups were enough to kill at least one’s forward momentum. After a several-hour traverse across the valley, we encountered the final obstacle before the cache camp, the Norris Icefall. The ascent up the icefall involved hours of negotiating a maze of crevasses while divided into rope teams. Once on top of the icefall we followed the fresh snowmobile tracks left by Scott McGee. He had established the nearby Norris Cache, where we would spend the night in tents set up on the snow.
After dinner we hit the sack. The snow’s cold presence was felt even through a tarp, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag. The next morning we slept in and woke up, feeling a little sore and packed up our gear at a leisurely pace. From the cache we made a final steep (if short) climb. Most of the rest of the day was spent gradually skiing down the gradual slope of the Taku’s Southwest Branch towards the main trunk of the Taku Glacier. On this final 18 kilometer stretch of our traverse to Camp 10, we became familiar with the phenomenon known by some in our group as the “Alaska Factor”, which describes the extreme scale of things here on the Icefield. From the beginning of the second day, we could practically see Camp 10, and spent the major part of the day skiing towards it.
When we reached Juncture Peak (at the juncture of the Southwest Branch and main trunk of Taku Glacier), we knew that we were approaching our goal, and that we only had to cross the main Taku Glacier to reach Camp-10. Given its size, this took an additional two hours. Both groups traversed the glacier in the sun, a welcome change from the conditions at C-17. Both parties also experienced the katabatic winds that commonly flow down the Taku, resulting from the densification of air cooled by contact with the snow. A couple large clouds hovered around the camp, about a hundred meters from the glacier surface. Upon emerging from this strange scenery, we were met with familiar faces and a warm dinner.