Get Them to the Cache

Get them to the Cache

Joseph Wolf, Minnesota State University, Mankato


Tuesday, July 14, 2015

From day 15 on the Juneau Icefield


            Trail Parties consisting of five to six students along with two staff members started their traverse to Camp 10 from Camp 17; two days and 23 miles in total.  The first day started at Camp 17 and finished at the Norris Cache.  This traverse was an obstacle course, full of both expected and unexpected challenges throughout. 

            Our journey started at 6:00 AM. Waking to the sounds of rain, we packed our 50 lbs. backpacks, made trail lunches of cheese, lettuce, and peanut butter sandwiches, two Snickers bars, and a half dozen granola bars, and ate a wholesome breakfast of oatmeal and peanut butter.  At 7:00 AM, we started our descent of the Camp 17 ridge, which lead to the Lemon Creek Glacier.  We started skiing down glacier until we were stopped by a large section of exposed blue ice.  At the blue ice we transitioned to crampons, metal spikes that strap around hiking boots.  This was one of the first years JIRP students had to crampon down the blue ice on the Lemon Creek Glacier due to the record breaking low snowfall this past winter.  Walking across the blue ice and weaving around open crevasses was an amazing experience.  A loose crampon had my nerves on edge and I watched each foot step carefully. 

Exposed Blue Ice on the Lemon Creek Glacier

Exposed Blue Ice on the Lemon Creek Glacier

When our trail party finished traversing the maze of blue ice, we started up the south facing slope of the Lemon Creek Glacier and then across the plateau of the Thomas Glacier. The weather was fierce--strong wind, thick fog and drizzling rain made it hard to see more than 10 yards in front of us.

 The next part of our journey had us boot packing up Nugget Ridge over loose rock to reach a safe snow patch where we would continue skiing.  There has been a light-hearted argument ongoing betweenfaculty member, Seth Campbell, and head safety staff , Ibai Rico, if we should call our journey up Nugget Ridge boot packing or simply, walking.  Seth Campbell is in support of “boot packing up Nugget Ridge”, while Ibai Rico is in support of “walking up Nugget Ridge.”  Keep in mind Seth Campbell has a Ph.D., teaches Wilderness First Aid classes, and is an avid mountaineer; Ibai Rico has a master’s and is a professional mountaineering guide in the Alps, Scandis, and the Himalayas. If you ask me, they’re the same thing. Just plain semantics.  

The next leg in our journey descended the Camp 13 slope.  With the white out conditions continuing, starting down the slope was becoming difficult while dodging deep crevasses. Our route was safely staked out by a couple of staff members a few days before.  Before this descent, the crevasses I have seen were never that wide or deep but the ones I saw here contained large holes the size of small houses, spider-webbed with snow bridges.  Two hours later, around 7 PM, the Camp 13 slope lead us into Death Valley, a wide-open flat plain of snow about 3 miles across.  This was not a difficult ski per se, but I needed to keep up my endurance, grit, and perseverance for this long ski and the following scramble up the Norris Icefall.  

In Death Valley, looking at the Norris Icefall in the distance

In Death Valley, looking at the Norris Icefall in the distance

The Norris Icefall was the toughest part of this whole traverse.  Our trail party arrived at the base of the icefall at 9 PM and had two hours left before we arrive at the Norris Cache, where tents and hot canned soup were waiting for us.  Annika Ord, one of our trail party leaders, stated we would have to be focused and give our full attention to the next mile.  Broken ice, full of large crevasses, and very narrow walking paths were waiting ahead of us.  A couple of times on the icefall, we had to walk on a thin patch of snow with deep crevasses on either side – very nerve-racking.  By the end of the trek through the icefall, we were alert and wide awake, even though we just spent the last 16 hours skiing and hiking through the most treacherous of terrain and weather conditions.

Our arrival at the Norris Cache was one of the best feelings I have experienced on JIRP.  To have completed the hardest portion of the 2 month traverse, was a great lifetime accomplishment – having never cross-country skied and having never experienced Southeast Alaska weather before this summer.

Looking onto the Camp 13 Slope leading to Death Valley.  From the vantage point of Norris Cache    (All photographs taken by author)

Looking onto the Camp 13 Slope leading to Death Valley.  From the vantage point of Norris Cache

(All photographs taken by author)