This is an installment of Cautionary Tales, an ongoing series about lessons learned the hard way in the Alaska outdoors.
DENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE — I remember how I felt when I saw Denali’s glaciers with my own eyes for the first time.
It happened on a flightseeing tour out of Talkeetna last summer. The first glacier that came into view was the Tokositna, a dramatic ribbon of ice feathered with crevasses and streaked with dark silt. As we inched along, jewel-toned pools dotted the surface, and I was captivated by the bright bursts of color against the dazzling white of the snow.
By the time we reached the iconic Ruth Glacier, lined with towering peaks like sentries standing guard, I was already vowing to come back and explore.
Last month, I got my chance. Adventure partner Matt Cress and I joined our friends Andi Schweers and Steven Claggett for a six-day trip to Root Canal Glacier, a prong of ice that branches off the Ruth Glacier in Denali National Park and Preserve. Root Canal is nestled at the base of 10,335-foot Moose’s Tooth — the peak, not the pizzeria — on its south side amid a cluster of “tooth” peaks in the central Alaska Range. Among the others: Bear Tooth, Broken Tooth, Eye Tooth and Sugar Tooth.
Our expedition name? Glaciers Gone Wild 2019.
We were dropped off by Talkeetna Air Taxi in a 1957 de Havilland Otter after poor weather kept us grounded in Talkeetna for about 30 hours. By the time our feet hit the glacier, we were just happy to be out of town and in the mountains.
From our camp at about 7,000 feet, we had head-on views of the Moose’s Tooth, the Bear Tooth and a curious fin of rock called the Incisor. On clear days we could see the hulking mass of 20,310-foot Denali and wondered whether anyone had summited yet this season. (The first climbers to do so — the Hoogendorn brothers from Nome — wouldn’t get there until May 19, two days after we left Root Canal Glacier.)
In the mornings, we’d layer up to brave the cold and eagerly wait for sunshine to sweep across the glacier and reach our campsite. The sun blazed hot during the day. Our ears and noses turned a fiery red, and in the evenings we’d compare the raccoon-eye tan lines left behind our glacier glasses. At night, temperatures dropped precipitously, freezing unattended water bottles and boots.
Most days, we’d hear natural avalanches like small explosions and the cracking and clattering of ice falling from seracs, huge blocks of ice that clung precariously to the granite walls surrounding us.
Snow camping is about 20% setting up and 80% digging. We became attached to our shovels because they were the only way for us to build what we wanted — by taking snow away. We dug out platforms for our campsite. We buried anchors in the snow to secure our tents, and even ourselves as we lowered one another down exposed ridges or into a crevasse. We dug an L-shaped pit for our camp kitchen so we could stand upright under the canopy of the cooking tent.
We dug privacy areas where we could pee and deposit human waste in Clean Mountain Cans without others having to bear witness. Before we skied, we dug a pit so we could perform snowpack stability tests and assess the avalanche danger.
Every day, we dug.
Andi and Steven were there to tackle a serious objective: Ham and Eggs, a famed 2,900-foot mixed climbing route involving snow, ice and rock on the south face of the Moose’s Tooth. We watched from camp as other parties inched up the narrow couloir one at a time, calling out to each other when snow sloughed down the route and hit them. Conditions weren’t ideal, and hadn’t improved by the time Andi and Steven took their shot at the route. By the end of our trip, the farthest any of the climbers went was 11 pitches out of 18.
The four of us were pretty new to glacier travel: how to set up rescue systems, navigate around crevasses, manage a rope team. I’d never done so much studying for a trip. We read books and watched video after video. We practiced setting up haul systems in the living room or garage. Matt and I spent an afternoon at Hatcher Pass practicing our rescue and anchor-building techniques, and then we studied some more.
Glaciers cover about 1 million acres of Denali National Park, and each year, they move hundreds of thousands of tons of ice, according to the National Park Service. Knowing how to travel safely on a glacier was something I’d wanted for a long time, to get to the next level of mountaineering. But in the past, I had always hesitated. Out of doubt, or maybe out of fear. With dozens of hours of prep work, coaching from experienced mountaineers and partners I trusted, I took the plunge in the Alaska Range — and it was thrilling.
Each venture out of camp gave us a new perspective to appreciate. Early in the trip, Matt and I roped up and skied to the Incisor, climbing higher so we could get a better vantage point of the technical ice fall that leads down to the Ruth Glacier. We were rewarded with terrific views of Mount Dickey, fringed with delicate drips of ice and dusted with snow like confectioner’s sugar. When we later traversed a ridge east from our campsite, our jaws dropped when we saw the other side of that gentle snow slope we were camping on: a vertical drop along an impressive wall of striated rock.
Our trip wasn’t all seriousness. On that first morning, Matt and I headed up the slope above our campsite on a splitboard and skis to sample the snow. Giving the cornices along the ridge a wide berth, we ripped the skins from our boards and rode downhill. The snow was so deep and soft, it was addicting. We went back for more and whooped with glee as we carved turns into the untracked snow. Later, Steven and Matt brought up our expedition sleds and raced face-first down the slope, tumbling and laughing along the way like kids at the neighborhood sled hill.
Under the heat of a scorching sun, the snow around our campsite melted down as our trip progressed. It was as though the morphing landscape was reminding us that soon, we’d have to leave. The snow covering the bergschrund — a gap where the glacier was peeling from the rock of the mountains — started opening up wider along the base of the Moose’s Tooth, allowing us peer into its cavernous depths. The dimpled snow contours on Root Canal Glacier that hinted at crevasses below grew more pronounced. Even our camp kitchen started deteriorating; the central tent pole began tilting as it, along with our stoves, pots and bottles, sank farther into the snow.
At the end of our trip, while we waited for our plane at the glacier airstrip stomped into the snow, I thought about where we would all be in a few days. Steven was preparing to deploy to Kosovo for nine months with the Alaska Army National Guard. Andi would be in Seward for her summer gig as an ice climbing guide at Exit Glacier. I had to catch a flight to Florida for work. Matt would remain in Anchorage, getting back to work later that weekend.
We’d be scattered.
As our plane took off, I looked back toward our campsite beneath a slope now covered in the squiggles of our ski tracks. The flight back to Talkeetna had us cruising above Ruth Glacier as it spilled out into the landscape. Pockets of rain cascaded from the occasional gray cloud above the valley. We circled the Talkeetna Airport, the bright planes looking like toys from above.
We reached Anchorage that evening. Matt and I met up with Andi and Steven at Moose’s Tooth — the pizzeria, not the peak — for celebratory beer and pizza. We hadn’t even showered yet, so we all showed up with smelly clothes, greasy hair and grimy faces.
And then we got to work plotting out our next Glaciers Gone Wild expedition.