A Home on a Mountain Ridge

By Isabelle Henzmann, University of Zurich

On the ridge between the Ptarmigan and Lemon Creek glacier, the weather changes every few minutes. The winds are cold and rough. The only thing that makes this wild ridge hospitable is Camp 17, built around 1953 by the first JIRPers, under the lead of founder Dr. Maynard Malcom Miller and his wife Joan Miller.

One day, I left the cook shack - the only heated building in camp - and the sky started clearing. For the first time I spotted the beautiful, huge Lemon Creek Glacier. On the other side of the ridge, in between the many clouds, I saw the ocean. I ran inside to grab my camera.

Going back outside, I found myself again stuck in a misty cloud. What I saw only few minutes ago nothing more than a “sucker hole” - an ephemeral parting of the clouds that quickly closes, dashing the hopes of us "suckers."

Why are the conditions at Camp 17 so rough? In the same way that us JIRPers hiked up from Juneau a few days ago, the humid air climbs from the ocean to Camp 17. Water condenses to form clouds during this rising process. But when it rises, air cools, and cool air has less ability to store humidity than warm air. Once the saturated clouds reach the Camp 17 ridge, they are happy to rain out. The vegetation here is sparse because of this exposure to the weather and winds, and our elevation at 1340 meters.

This landscape is also relatively young. It's assumed that parts of this ridge were covered with glacial ice back in the Little Ice Age, hundreds of years ago. While we have to hike down to the glacier from Camp 17, because the ice is receding, back in the days they could ski right off the nunatak.

The glaciers around Camp 17 were not the first objects of interest on the icefield. The pioneer JIRPers, focused primarily on the Taku glacier. But when they realized that the Taku's large scale made it difficult to observe the glacier's dynamics, they migrated to the Lemon Creek Glacier, a much smaller and manageable research area.

For this reason, Ed LaChapelle and Austin Post started building Camp 17 with a group of JIRPers on this beautiful, exposed ridge between the Ptarmigan and the Lemon Creek Glacier. The first building - the Jamesway, now living quarters for students - was built in 1953. Now, more than sixty years later, there are five buildings and two outhouses. JIRPers, like myself as I write this, gather in the warm cook shack, grateful for the shelter from the turbulent weather. This place is magic and I have already fallen in love with it.