Welcome to the JIRP Family

By Annie Boucher and the student alumni of 2015 and 2016

Students usually come to JIRP for either the science education or the promise of adventure (or both). With 16-hour days and seven day weeks spent pursuing both, we hope most leave with a good taste of whatever they sought.  At the end of August, however, when students talk about what they’re most going to miss about JIRP, they tend to look to the people. While we all have more science and more adventure in our futures, saying goodbye to the expedition team is difficult. JIRPers are extraordinary people, and every summer they seem to form a community that is unusual in its acceptance, its support, and its ability to challenge its members to be their best selves.

While every season brings its particular quirks and inside jokes, the program is run along lines of decades-old traditions and surprisingly durable culture. These traditions and culture bind together the JIRP family across years - certainly at any Earth Science conference one will find a group of JIRPers, but they tend to come out of the woodwork on buses, in foreign countries, and, once, the father of a friend whose house I happened to visit for dinner.

This year’s students are taking their first steps towards joining the JIRP family. Soon enough we’ll be steeping them in the well worn adages that provide structure to every icefield traverse: Nature is screaming at you! - Always ski in the snow machine track. - No coupling. - Our priorities, in order, are: look good; look good; go big; look good; safety; and (last) personal hygiene! - Beware the center of the Llewellyn Glacier! - Whatever happens on your traverse, it’s not as bad as the crew that bivvied on the ridge for three days in a white out! - Always carry your ten essentials! - Tape your feet as soon as you feel a hot spot!

As a first step towards welcoming the 2017 crew into the wide open, often smelly, and usually sunburnt arms of the JIRP family, the students of 2015 and 2016 offer up the following advice for preparing and packing for JIRP.

Warning: A few things on this list are contradictory, and many come down to personal preference. Perhaps the first lesson of the Icefield is that there isn’t always one good or right answer, and the only way to figure out what works for you is to jump in and be ready to learn by experience.

Bring a journal, and be vigilant about keeping up with it as much as possible. I was very diligent about writing every evening, and not only did this time allow for self-reflection, but it was also tangible evidence of my evolution as an individual over the course of the program. I still return to my writings when I want to remember a particular feeling, or remind myself of why I care so strongly about action on climate change. I also laugh A LOT when I re-read certain sections, and that alone is worth the extra effort of writing often.
— – Donovan Dennis, student 2015
Bring light shorts, they were the last thing I thought to bring to a glacier so I ended up borrowing them off people!
— – Ellie Honan, student 2016
It's a bit counterinuitive, but you will likely wind up wearing shorts a LOT when on an Alaskan glacier in the summer. Photo: Kellie Schaefer

It's a bit counterinuitive, but you will likely wind up wearing shorts a LOT when on an Alaskan glacier in the summer. Photo: Kellie Schaefer

One thing I absolutely regret not bringing was a small field thermos for tea or hot chocolate.
— - Jacob Hollander, student 2015
JIRP 2015 staffers Annika Ord and Adam Toolanen enjoy an espresso at Camp 26 - demonstrating the luxury of a hot beverage from a small thermos. Although we don't recommend packing the Handpresso and pounds of ground espresso all summer, we sure did appreciate Adam making the effort in 2015! Photo: Matt Beedle

JIRP 2015 staffers Annika Ord and Adam Toolanen enjoy an espresso at Camp 26 - demonstrating the luxury of a hot beverage from a small thermos. Although we don't recommend packing the Handpresso and pounds of ground espresso all summer, we sure did appreciate Adam making the effort in 2015! Photo: Matt Beedle

Begin journaling before you get to Juneau! I wished I had written down the process towards JIRP as well as my time in it.
— – Victor Cabrera, student 2016
1. Bring a backpack fly (aka cover)! They are cheap and worth the money especially if your pack is older.
2. Keep a journal. It’s a great way to make sure you slow down and take some time for yourself each day, and is an excellent way to relive JIRP memories after the summer is over.
3. Not sure if eye masks are on the packing list, but if you are uncomfortable sleeping when it is light outside make sure to bring one.
4. If your rain gear is older, re-waterproof it!
5. Bring a waterproof /shockproof/drop-your-phone-down-a-rock-crack-of-unknown-depth-and-abandon-it-to-the-elements-proof phone case if you bring your phone onto the icefield. (*Note: Riley did get his phone back, but it took a couple days.)
6. Go easy on your skis, they can break.
— – Riley Wall, student 2016
Cheap dry bags will suffice (you can get 3 for $10 at Walmart)! I liked having one truly waterproof one, but was glad I didn’t spend $100+ on the other 5 that I used to organize my gear. Also I would suggest not bringing/investing in a pack cover: a trash bag liner will keep the inside of your pack dry (and your ice axe will quickly shred the pack cover, anyway).
— - Olivia Truax, student 2016
Bring music!! (Note: There may be speakers available for group use that have aux cables. Please don’t bring your own speakers, and you will be expected to abide by JIRP rules on appropriate and safe use of headphones.)
— – Kenzie McAdams, student 2016
Commit to good gaiters or you may very well find your rain pants shredded!!!
— - Matty Miller, student 2016
If possible, thoroughly test the waterproofing of your rain gear in advance.
— - Eric Kittilsby, student 2016
The 2015 mass-balance team readies for their departure from Camp 10 to Camp 9 - in the rain. Note the variety of wet-weather apparel - from full rubber, to Gore Tex, to plastic bags to compensate for a jacket that perhaps isn't as waterproof as desired. Photo: Matt Beedle

The 2015 mass-balance team readies for their departure from Camp 10 to Camp 9 - in the rain. Note the variety of wet-weather apparel - from full rubber, to Gore Tex, to plastic bags to compensate for a jacket that perhaps isn't as waterproof as desired. Photo: Matt Beedle

When booking flights, consider giving yourself a couple extra days in Juneau after the program. (NOTE: This suggestion was seconded by ten others!)
— - Chris Miele, student 2016
Don’t skimp on getting a good pair of sunglasses or a good raincoat.
— – Hannah Marshall, student 2015
It's perhaps impossible to overstate the importance of having good sunglasses for eye protection during a summer on the Juneau Icefield. Photo: Matt Beedle

It's perhaps impossible to overstate the importance of having good sunglasses for eye protection during a summer on the Juneau Icefield. Photo: Matt Beedle

Write down your AGU username and password and bring it with you! Makes the abstract submission a bit easier.
— – Molly Peek, student 2016
If you’re on the fence about buying rubber tips for your ice axe (20 or so bucks) invest! I did and it totally saved my pack cover.
— – Kenzie McAdams, student 2016
My main piece of advice is to bring a bunch of extra plastic bags! A couple trash bag size ones and some ziplocks. Icefield life is so much drier with plastic bags. Also, don’t forget to eat plenty of blueberries on the hike up to Camp 17!
— – Isabel Suhr, student 2015

Are you a previous JIRPer or an intrepid adventurer with advice for the JIRP 2017 cohort? Please chime in on JIRP's social channels with your suggestions for those things that a JIRPer should be sure to have along for the expedition.

The Many Lessons Learnt by JIRPers

Kellie Schaefer

Michigan Technological University

It is fair to say that the majority of students participating in JIRP this year have never been on a glacier before. I thought it was insane that a large group of 20-somethings was going to be transported via skiing throughout different locations on a large ice sheet in Alaska. Through trial and error that broadened their range of knowledge (and perhaps developed some “character”), the students began to learn a few lessons on their JIRP journey.  

Crampon training on the Mendenhall Glacier. Photo by Kellie Schaefer.

Crampon training on the Mendenhall Glacier. Photo by Kellie Schaefer.

They first began their quest through the famed “vertical swamp”. While most of the trek consisted of slogging through dense blueberry bushes and boggy muskeg, there were a few short moments of excitement. While crossing a large stream, Chris managed to drop his bright green roll of duct tape into the rushing water. The duct tape was eventually fished out of the stream with a ski pole, much to the excitement of the trail party. Two lessons were learned during this episode:

1) Don’t “Christmas Tree” your pack

2) Duct tape is a crucial piece of gear that must be saved at all costs

About halfway up the vertical swamp, Victor hiked past a stump, and promptly began to hoot and holler, yelling “Stinging!!! Stingers!!! Aaahhhhh!!” Having no idea what was meant my “stingers”, I continued to slosh through the muskeg, only to hear a buzzing sound. I glanced up to see a swarm of angry bees. I quickly changed my course and escaped with no bee stings, while Victor managed to receive three. About three weeks later, I was collecting Isotope samples along Profile A. Unfortunately, I was paying more attention to the GPS path than the terrain. Before I knew it, I had toppled face first into a rather large sun cup. Maybe I was not being as observant on the icefield as I had been with the bees. In short:

3) Be aware of your surroundings at all times

4) You don’t always have to follow the exact GPS path

The weather had treated us JIRPers unusually well during the voyage up to Camp 17, with the exception of one night that consisted of 60 mph winds and everyone in the camp running outside to lean into the wind. Clear skies and impromptu outdoor nights of sleep continued throughout the week at Camp 10. The staffers continuously reminded us of how spoiled we were in terms of weather. When the clouds rolled in and the rain began to patter on the corrugated roofs of the various camp buildings, the students began to panic. Clothes that had been laying out on the granite rocks for days had suddenly become sodden. Boots left out to dry were now soaked again. People scrambled for their rain gear, which is pretty unserviceable on the icefield (unless you utilize the rubber rain jackets in the cook shack). When mass balance or GPS teams returned from their daily excursions in the rain, their faces were freshly sunburned and contoured with even more tan lines. The recent precipitation has taught us many things:

5)    Rain is wet

6)    The driest sock is sacred

7)    You can get sunburned all of the time, even when you’re in a cloud 

Shawnee and Alex being the "victims" during crevasse rescue training. Photo by Kellie Schaefer.

Shawnee and Alex being the "victims" during crevasse rescue training. Photo by Kellie Schaefer.

Due to the change in weather, most of the student’s free time is now spent in the kitchen area. If they are feeling particularly observant, they may find entertainment in witnessing the exploits of the creatures known as “the cooks”. The cooks are extremely vigilant of “vultures”, swooping in on anyone who takes one too many slices of fried spam. Only the bold will enter their domain to seek a certain spice, or if they are feeling particularly cocky, exit/enter the cook shack through the cook’s door. The cooks can become frazzled after a long day of catering to hungry FGERs, and can sometimes do silly things. Take Joel for example, who turned on the stove, struck the match (after a brief period of time), and lit the stove. Joel did not realize that propane gas is quite flammable, and proceeded to scorch all of the hair off of his hand in the flame that ensued. Kate-CO forgot to drain the water after cooking the mac n cheese noodles, and ended up making a mac n cheese soup.  Eric somehow got bit by a carrot. The cooks frequently make too much oatmeal in the morning, and creative new recipes are born from the leftovers. A few very important life lessons can be obtained from the experience of being a cook:

8)    Light the match before turning on the burner

9)    You love oatmeal and oatmeal loves you

10)    SPAM® is a beautiful thing 

Cheers from 'Taku B'!!!

Cheers from 'Taku B'!!!

The Traverse from Camp 26 to Atlin

By Sarah Cooley

The final traverse from Camp 26 to Atlin Lake was definitely an epic and exciting way to end our trip across the Juneau Icefield. With the constantly changing scenery and gradual descent into greenery, it is a favorite of many of the returning staff and faculty. Though we were all sad to leave the Icefield, there was definitely excitement in the air when we set off in the morning. We did the traverse in three groups: two the first day followed by one final group the next day. I was in the second group, so we set off at 9 am, two hours after the first group’s 7 am departure. After seeing them off and eating a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and pilot bread, we packed up, attached our skis to our packs and headed down the nunatak to the ablation zone of the Llewellyn Glacier. Once we hit the glacier, we began an easy few hours down the ice on the side of the medial moraine. After weeks in the accumulation zone, it was amazing yet very strange to be on bare ice, walking amongst melt channels, crevasses and the occasional moulin. We were all fascinated with these ablation zone features, and many pictures were taken as we reminisced about our summer while hiking across the ice. As the crevasses grew deeper and larger, we needed to put on crampons so we all could have a little bit more stability. Traversing the crevasses was slow, and we all worked together to get ourselves through the toughest parts, cutting steps and providing support to each other as we maneuvered through each ice bridge. A few hours later, we all were extremely relieved to be able to take off the crampons and return to flatter ice.

JIRPers hike down the lower Llewellyn Glacier. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh.

By mid-afternoon we had reached the toe of Red Mountain.  After scouting a route, we left the ice for a quick climb to the top of the ridge followed by a long and difficult descent through scree and alders. The combination of tired legs, heavy packs and unwieldy skis added a significant challenge to the hike down, and again we all pitched in to help each other down the steep and slippery sections. When we had finally reached the bottom of the hill, we were somewhat tired, scraped, bruised and covered in mud, but all in good spirits, telling lots of jokes and stories as we waited for our trail party leaders Jeff and Kate to scout a route onto the ice. Once we had successfully gotten back onto the Llewellyn Glacier, slippery ice meant crampons became quite necessary, so we spent one last hour in our crampons before finally exiting the glacier for the last time. Leaving the icefield after seven weeks of amazing experience was quite emotional for everyone, and we took a few last pictures, filled up our water bottles with one last gulp of pure glacial water and put our feet onto dry land. I think we all are still struggling to process leaving the glacier, but in the moment we had no choice but to keep our goodbyes quick and continue the long hike to the inlet.

Approaching the Red Mountain Ridge on the lower Llewellyn Glacier. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh.

The next part of our hike included a beautiful segment known as the Ball-Bearing Highway. With the sun setting over the Llewellyn Glacier behind us, we followed the lake at the terminus until we hit the trail exactly as we lost daylight. After a quick break to get out our headlamps, we continued our hike around the lake in darkness. The surrounding trees and greenery were a welcome change after two months without large plants, and the smells of the flora overwhelmed us. Above us were some of the most beautiful stars I had ever seen, and our journey through the unfamiliar woods in darkness was almost magical. After two hours without much rest, we took one final break at midnight, exhausted but still in good spirits and excited to reach Llewellyn Inlet. As we all sat on our packs, contemplating attacking the remaining few miles after such a long day, the sky suddenly lit up with a fantastic display of aurora borealis. We all sat in silence for a few minutes, turning our headlamps off, all amazed at the wondrous timing of the first aurora of the summer. After searching all summer (and in summers past), it was the first northern lights I had ever seen, and combined with the emotion of leaving the amazing icefield, it was a really poignant and unforgettable moment. With the northern lights in front of us and shooting stars sweeping across the sky above us, we all felt prepared and excited to tackle the final few miles.

The final stretch of the trail includes multiple swamp crossings and some bush-whacking. Bush-whacking with skis on is, well, interesting, and for many of the parts we all assumed what we called ‘narwhal position’ which entailed squatting and bending over so that your skis come to a point a few feet in front of your head. It was tiring, but it was quite successful. With sore backs and our legs and feet wet up to our knees, we all sang and talked up the final hill towards camp, screaming and laughing at 1:30 am when we finally reached the inlet. Given the lateness of our arrival and the presence of another tired trail party who had arrived a few hours before us and were already asleep, we opted not to jump in the lake as is JIRP tradition, unlike the two other trail parties. However, despite the exhaustion, we all began to process the fact that we had completed the entire traverse of the Juneau Icefield, and our sense of personal accomplishment was palpable. We quickly pulled out our sleeping bags and all laid down right on the beach, just a few feet from the water. As we laid there in silence, the aurora reappeared, even more magnificent than before. The green lights curled with columns shooting upwards towards the stars, and with one last glimpse at the incredible sky, we all quickly fell asleep.

Awaiting the early-morning boat shuttle across Atlin Lake from Llewellyn Inlet to Atlin, BC. Photo by J.L. Kavanaugh.

After barely three hours of sleep, we were awakened the next morning by the arrival of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who checked each of our passports and allowed us to officially enter Canada, despite the fact that we had crossed the border days before. The first trail party then promptly left for Atlin via boat. We returned to our sleeping bags for an hour or so, then cooked ourselves a breakfast of beans and Spam over the fire as we waited for the second boat to come pick us up. When it finally arrived, we quickly loaded up and headed for Atlin. The boat ride was fantastically beautiful but also quite emotional as we watched the high ice of our beloved Juneau Icefield slowly slip out of view. The excitement of trees, waterfalls and islands kept our attention as we moved closer to Atlin. After such a long journey, we were so excited to finally reach the small town on such a beautiful sunny day. 

The Traverse to Camp 18

By Adam Toolanen

The summer’s third big traverse is the ski from Camp 10 to Camp 18. As a former JIRPer returning as staff member, I have knowledge of the magnificence of Camp 18, which is what kept me going during the 18 mile ski from Camp 10, whereas the students only had my description of the splendor of Camp 18 to ponder as we skied. The excitement of seeing the vast icy expanse on a gorgeous summer day made the journey as rewarding as the destination.

Uwe Hofmann skiing down the hill at Camp 10 for an early morning departure. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms

In the days leading up to the traverse, it was unfortunate that we could not see the Taku Towers - the iconic landmarks of Camp 10. Luckily, the weather cleared on the day that our group left for Camp 18. The first few hundred feet of the 18 mile day consisted of a steep downhill pitch covered in suncups, which always takes awhile to navigate.  Just as we thought we would have a smooth start to the day a ski binding broke on that first, steep slope. Not wanting to have everyone wait at the bottom of the hill, I sent the group on their way and headed back to Camp 10 with Will Jenkins and his broken binding. Luckily, the binding was fixed quickly and we skied back down the hill. I remember being a student on JIRP and never wanting to be behind the group. No different than I, Will cruised ahead of me and soon we caught up with the others.

The trail party takes a snack break, changes some layers and rests for a minute before hitting the trail again. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms

As we traveled up the Taku Glacier towards the Matthes Glacier, we took many breaks to adjust our gear. It is not always obvious how to dress for travel on the glacier. The effect of the sun heating your body is amplified by the solar radiation that reflects off the glacier. Naturally, skiing with a big backpack keeps you toasty as well. On the other hand, there is the massive body of snow under your feet and the cold katabatic winds that cool you off as you ski. Katabatic winds are created by cold air flowing from high to low elevations on the glacier, and can really chill you on a hot summer’s day. Depending on the combination and prevalence of these factors, people have to change clothes constantly. The other challenges are hotspots and blisters. As potentially day-ruining afflictions, these need to be addressed immediately. During the breaks to bandage foot sores and adjust outfits, we also snack to keep our energy levels up and joke together as we rest our feet for a little while.

Author Adam Toolanen on a sunny day on the Icefield. Photo by Jeff Kavanaugh

When I was a student I skied the traverse in a whiteout, so I couldn’t see anything other than the ski tracks from the person in front of me. The staff member leading my group told us about the views of Devil's Paw and the Storm Range, but we could only imagine them. Coming up the trail to Camp 18 this year we were all captivated by the stunning ridgelines and mountain glaciers set against the backdrop of the blue, blue sky and did not have to rely on our imaginations.

The group slowly rising over the final crest of the Matthes Glacier headed towards Camp 18. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

As with many things in Alaska, the size and scale of icefield features is deceiving. Setting small personal goals is both rewarding and challenging on such a long ski trip. Promising yourself that you will eat that chocolate bar once you crest the next hill can mean waiting an hour instead of the 20 minutes you were planning on. However, when you finally stand on that hill enjoying your chocolate bar and take in the views offered by the massive slope you just conquered, you can be all the more content with reaching your goal. Some of the students started inquiring about the location of Camp 18 and although I can point out the peaks surrounding the camp, it really takes the whole day for the scale of the journey to really dawn on them.

A group of four carries on in good spirits on Matthes Glacier. Mt. Moore - with Camp 8 on the ridge of rock pointing down towards the first skier - is in the background.  Photo by Sarah Bouckoms

As the group crested the last hill of the Matthes Glacier, we could finally see down into the basin alongside the daunting ridge of the Storm Range. Huge black rock faces towered above us as we pushed through the remaining two miles to camp. The sun was setting behind this ridge and the soft snow froze over, creating a fast and slick surface for our skis. As we neared our destination, the Camp 18 buildings glimmered in the last sunlight, perched high on the nunatak. The final push to Camp 18 offered a view of the mighty Vaughan Lewis Icefall. The top of the icefall billows down a ridge where it breaks up into large crevasses. These crevasses stretch, become bigger, deform and transform into even larger crevasses. When these start to collapse due to the steep slope they are passing over, the icefall really shows that it is in slow, albeit chaotic motion. As my group crested the hill and we started the final downhill glide into Camp 18, the grandiose Gilkey Trench opened up before us. Only as we skied the final quarter-mile to camp did we really see the backdrop which is the surroundings of Camp 18. After 11 hours skiing uphill on the glaciers leading to Camp 18, the group made it just in time for a sunset over the Gilkey Trench. Being back at this magnificent Camp after a long day of skiing is just the reward I was hoping for.

The scale of the Icefield is shown with two skiers dwarfed by their surroundings as they ski up Matthes Glacier. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms

The real treat for me as a staff member was to be able to lead first-time JIRPers on this trip, to one of the most beautiful spots I have ever been to. The students were excited and positive all day, but what they saw upon arrival exceeded all of their expectations. Even I who knew what was in store was in wonder at the realization that this place is still here, that it is real, not just some past dream. I felt like the mediator or the guide who took the students to this place and when we arrived I could just sit back and smile as I watched them explore their new home, giddy with excitement.

After a long day of skiing from Camp 10 to Camp 18, the sun sets on the glaciers and peaks of the Gilkey Trench.  Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

The Z-Pulley Crevasse Rescue System

By Mary Gianotti

[NOTE:  Pictures will be added to this post when they are available.]

One of the main safety hazards in crossing the Juneau Icefield is that posed by snow-covered crevasses.  Crevasses are cracks in the surface of a glacier caused by stress from moving ice, and vary in depths up to many tens of meters.   They often occur at the edges and lower extents of glacier, at the outside of bends, and areas where the glacier surface steepens.  Given that even the safest route takes us through some crevassed regions, JIRP field parties rope up into groups of four or five team members and move in unison.  In the event that a team member falls into a crevasse (which has rarely happened on the icefield!), JIRP trains students to implement the Z-pulley system. This system uses a simple set of tools: a climbing rope, a few loops of cord or webbing (called slings), sit harnesses, and a small number of carabiners.  Additionally, skis and ice axes are used to build a safe anchor, which can be used to haul the team member to safety.  The system is efficient and lightweight.

To simulate a rope-team member falling through the snow into a crevasse, we took turns dropping off of the moat’s lip.  Immediately, all other group members dropped into the self arrest position, securing themselves to the snow with their ice axes and bodies to stop the fall. The first order of business is to communicate with the victim: Are they alright? Do they need medical attention? Can they climb out by themselves, or should we build a Z-pulley system?

After establishing the physical state of the victim and determining that they need assistance, the next task for those up on the surface is to build an anchor.  A couple members hold the weight of the victim; this frees another member or two to begin digging an anchor. Fortunately, Alaskan snow is almost always wet, thanks to the wonderful rainforest climate of the region.  It therefore provides a secure hold for the anchor: usually a pair of skis, clove hitched together by a sling and buried.

Once the anchor is completed, the rope is connected to the anchor using a sling, into which a special, friction-generating knot known as the “prussik” is tied.  This sling is then clipped into the anchor with a carabiner.  After this is accomplished, the weight of the victim can be safely shifted to the anchor.  Other  team members can also clip into this anchor, either directly or by securing themselves to the climbing rope via another prussik.  This allows the rescuers freedom to safely move about, check on the victim, and, if possible, prepare the lip of the crevasse (by knocking off snow, if safe, or putting an object under the rope so that it doesn’t cut deeply into the snow). Ideally, a team member stays at the crevasse’s lip to monitor the victim.

Now it is time for the rest of the members to set up the Z-pulley. The system is named this because the rope is folded back onto itself like the letter “Z” using additional prussiks and carabiners.  This arrangement provides a 3:1 multiplier in force – thus making rescue of the victim possible.

We first built the Z-pulley in one of the biuldings, then outside in the sunshine, and then in an icy rainfall that was blowing sideways. Students practiced being at all positions of the rope line.  We all lead the team at one point or another. We worked through nearly every possible  scenario until we came up with a solution. “Mr. Backpack” and other inanimate objects were great at being non-responsive dead weights.  Sometimes, unknown to the pull team above, the weight of one person in the moat secretly became that of three, as others joined in to challenge the haulers and test the system.

So as of now, we feel ready to conquer any crevasse that dares to cross our path.  I know now that crevasse rescue is an important tool for glacier travel. On our traverse from C-17 to C-10, there were times when we had to travel in rope teams over crevassed terrain and we crossed the areas with confidence and security.  While there were lighter moments in our training, I trust my fellow expedition members to realize the gravity and weight of the situation if I fall into a crevasse and that they will pull me to safety.

The Traverse from C-17 to C-10

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.

Members of Trail Party Two wave goodbye to Trail Party One.  Photo by Adam Taylor.

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.

Looking back up towards Camp-17 from the lower Lemon Creek Glacier, as seen by Trail Party One.  Trail Party Two reached this point in fog.  Photo by Adam Taylor.

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.

Nugget Ridge was a pleasant ski-break for some of us. Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

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 teachings of Camp 17 come into play as we skied roped up down from Nugget Ridge toward Death Valley.  Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

Sarah Cooley skis by a crevasse during the descent from Nugget Ridge.  Photo by Adam Taylor.

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.

Skiers approach the Norris Icefall, which looms above Death Valley.  Photo by Adam Taylor.

Skiers make their way up to the Norris Icefall.  Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

Sarah Bouckoms smiles at the sight of the Norris Cache after a long day.  Photo by Jamie Bradshaw.

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.

A humorous sign informs the trail party of the next day’s travel distance.  Photo by Sarah Bouckoms.

Learning to Prefer Holding a Pointy Metal Ice Axe While Falling

By Annie Cantrell


It was a sunny afternoon as I was hiking up a steep slope with my fellow JIRPers when I saw field safety staff member Adam Toolanen slip and fall down the hill. I remember thinking that it was strange how relaxed and calm he was. It wasn't until he used his ice axe to stop himself that I realized he was demonstrating self arrest technique. It looked easy and natural to him, but when I reached the top of the hill, it seemed ridiculous to slide off on purpose.  (In fact, when hiking up the slope I was worried about falling unintentionally – a funny thought when our entire purpose for being there was to throw ourselves down that slope!)

Students practicing their self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak.  Photo:  Mira Dutschke

Ice axes look like weapons: at one end of the shaft they have a metal spike, and at the other they have a head consisting of a serrated metal pick and a shorter blade called an adze. Despite their threatening appearance, they can save your life if used properly. To arrest a fall on snow, you fight to get onto your stomach with your feet downhill of your head – which is not always how you start out. You maneuver your axe so that it lies diagonally across your torso, with one hand on the shaft near the spike and the other gripping the head. You then drive the pick into the snow near your shoulder and lever the shaft against your chest with your full body weight, while simultaneously kicking your feet into the snow. This is a lot to put together in the few seconds you have to stop your fall, so repeated slides down the hill were necessary.

Mira Dutschke, Justyna Dudek, Molly Blakowski and Annie Boucher practicing their self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak.  Photo:  Jeff Barbee

We started off slowly on a gradual part of the hill, practicing the correct position. At first, this portion seemed steep enough, and had me questioning my abilities. Adrenaline was coursing through me as we started by practicing sliding down on our butts. Matt, a staff member, had said that he was confident we could stop ourselves, but also assured us that there was nothing to harm us even if we did fall all the way down the hill (aside from a long walk back up). I was surprised when I was able to stop myself. This wasn’t so hard after all.

Even though I successfully managed to self arrest going down quickly on both my butt and belly, I still found it difficult to trust an ice axe over my own body. Prior to this moment, every fall I’ve taken in my 21 years of life has been arrested using only my body, and now I have to control, use, and trust a threatening piece of metal while flying downhill. When we began to slide head first on our backs, trusting my ice axe became a problem.

Justyna Dudek, Molly Blakowski, Mira Dutschke, Annie Boucher and another practicing their self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak.  Photo:  Jeff Barbee

This time I couldn’t see what was going on around me, and I was going much faster than I had in the other positions. I did a variety of things wrong, all of which happened really quickly. Apparently I kicked my legs uphill, afraid to let myself swing down. I was flailing wildly and only managed to stop myself halfway down the hill. Another time, I almost ended up at the bottom of the hill, after trying to stand up before I had slowed down sufficiently.

Annie Boucher and Mira Dutschke practicing self arrest on the side of Cairn Peak with Lake Linda far below.  Photo:  Jeff Barbee

After a few scary moments, I figured out how to stop myself quickly and reliably. This proved to me that in moments of real panic and danger, I could stop myself from falling. In fact, one of my teammates told me that she gained confidence in her own abilities after watching me fall such a great distance, self arrest, and hike all the way back up the hill.

Justyna Dudek ready for action practicing her self arrest skills on the side of Cairn Peak  Photo:  Mira Dutschke

The next day we practiced an even more complicated scenario: stopping a fall while roped together as a team. Here, one member would pretend to fall off of a hill, and it was our task to catch both ourselves and our teammates. I was successful: I remembered the technique, I knew the position, and I trusted my ice axe. While learning how to self arrest had its terrifying moments, I gained confidence in my abilities to safely travel across the icefield.   

Tied to a String

By Stephanie Streich, Photos by Mira Dutschke and Jeff Kavanaugh

Chrissy McCabe, Alistair Morgan, William Jenkins, Adam Taylor and others practice their knots at Camp 17 on the Juneau Icefield.  Photo:  Mira Dutschke

At Camp 17, students have been roped in and all tied up, becoming familiar with various knots. A critical part of our daily routine has been learning and practicing the knots that are crucial to travel safely on the icefield. The Figure-8, the Butterfly and the Double Fisherman are just some of the knots that will protect us against the dangers of crevasses and ice caves that are hidden within glaciers. The Prussik knot and the climbing harness are sometimes the only lifeline that attach you to the other members of your trail party as you travel across this vast white wilderness of snow and ice. Before we expose ourselves to the real life dangers of the field, we developed our climbing skills in a safer and warmer environment: the kitchen.

Climbing ropes hanging to dry in the cookshack at Camp 17 on the Juneau Icefield.  Photo:  Mira Dutschke

For practice all the students piled into the cookshack to climb up ropes attached to the ceiling. Using the knots we learned, we used two Prussik slings and attached them to the ropes and our harnesses. I have to admit, I was pretty hesitant to get up the rope as I was standing in line waiting for my turn. I was unsure if two skinny strings attached to a rope would actually hold my weight and enable me to elevate myself high into the air. Once I got attached to the rope I realized that the harness did a lot of the work for me, and I started having a blast. The harness loops around our waist and legs, linking us to the main line with a carabiner. With a long Prussik for the legs and a short Prussik from the harness to the rope I was able to hoist myself up the line. It was a great feeling of relief hanging in thin air by a string, gradually climbing up, knowing that I was not going to fall down. It was so easy! Climbing was definitely not as difficult as it seemed watching my fellow JIRPers tackling the rope. Getting down, however, was another story and quite a challenge. It would be rare to need to Prussik down a rope, but I'm going to have to work on that.

Author Stephanie Streich at the top of the rope after practicing with her prussiks in the camp cookshack.  Photo:  Jeff Kavanaugh