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Rivers of water and ice: The dangers and beauty of Alaska glaciers

  • Author: Carl Battreall
  • Updated: November 27, 2016
  • Published November 27, 2016
 

The following is excerpted from Carl Battreall's new book "Alaska Range: Exploring the Last Great Wild."

I hate cold water. Always have. No matter how high the outside temperature is, I loathe cold swimming pools and swimming holes. When I moved to Alaska, my dislike of cold water intensified. Possibly the most hazardous thing in the state, more dangerous than bears or avalanches, frigid water is an unforgiving killer. I swore to avoid it as much as possible.

And I had, until now. We were a group of four on a two-week, 50-mile glacier traverse of the Neacola Mountains in the southwestern corner of the Alaska Range.

On our second day, we came to a glacial river that needed to be forded. It was typical July weather, dark and rainy. The rivers had swollen after weeks of precipitation. After multiple attempts to cross in different locations, we were shivering. My feet were lifeless bricks, the cold having sucked all feeling from them.

Finally we found a decent spot to cross, 10 feet wide but moving fast.

Frigid conga line

Quickly, we set up a pack line: Andy, then Patrick, with Colin and me at the tail. "Left, right, left, right!" Andy commanded. I kept my head down, swearing to myself that I wouldn't swim. I held onto Colin's pack, pulling it down, keeping him from floating away. We were hardly moving. Meanwhile, the boiling water was rising higher up Andy's body, nearing his naval. Colin and I were shaking. In slow motion, Andy went under. Then Patrick. Six feet 4 inches and 250 pounds, gone.

Colin and I held our ground, but it was useless. Down went Colin. Screaming, I realized I was going to die, via cold water. I was pulled under.

Proper river-swimming etiquette goes like this: Unbuckle your hipbelt and sternum strap before crossing. Take your pack off and sit feet up, facing downriver. Use one arm to paddle to shore, the other arm to hold onto your pack. Rolling sideways down the river, like a big rock, I was in the proper position all right — proper position to drown. Underwater then above, under then above, I called for help each time my head was up. Stupidly, I had kept my sternum strap on. I tried to unsnap it while rolling, but my hands were unresponsive. I was panicking.

Shut up, Carl, no one is going to save you, I told myself. Save yourself. After I struggled to point myself downriver, I realized I was floating near the shore. I flipped, swam like hell, and clawed the bank. I made it.

Not all expeditions go as planned. That is the single scariest experience I have had in 15 years as a professional mountain photographer and explorer. In the end we were all fine. I broke two toes, sprained a wrist and bruised my ego.

Slither, crush and grind

Alaska's rivers are notorious for abruptly ending adventures; even groups of hardy, experienced mountain travelers get shut down. Massive glaciers that descend from glorious mountains are the source of most Alaska Range rivers. As these glaciers slither down the mountains, they crush and grind the underlying rock, creating thick, brown flour. This pulverized rock, or glacial silt, rushes out of the underbelly of the frozen beasts in a milky torrent.

Silt-laden rivers are tricky to cross because you can't see the bottom. The depths are deceiving: a huge braid may be only ankle deep, while a small, 3-foot-wide channel could be over your waist. You won't know the true depth until you're halfway across.

Another issue is that the sides and bottom of the rivers are in a continual state of transformation. The silt does not allow for stability. Rocks are always shifting and can often be heard rolling in the water, unseen. During that fateful crossing, our ford across literally reshaped the river. New braids formed, and the channel where we had our trouble split into three variations.

Yes, I despise glacial rivers, but my fascination with their source — the glaciers — borders on obsession. The glaciers of Alaska and the Alaska Range are awe-inspiring. They can be gentle giants, meandering through the tundra, or wicked, fractured icefalls that impossibly defy gravity as they cling to vertical cliffs. A glacier is also a river, a frozen, slow-moving one. Gravity and the water that travels under the glacier allow it to slide, twisting around mountains, pouring over cliffs as great icefalls. Strange formations created by wind and the endless summer sun dazzle and amaze. Twisted turquoise streams rush into inviting pools or into frightening holes that drop into the glacier's belly. Each glacier has a unique character created by its environment. Weather, terrain and gravity mold a glacier's personality. Some are dirty, aggressive and destructive; others are gentle and contemplative. All are beautiful.

More than just a fun phenomenon to explore and photograph, glaciers are a frozen trail for the mountain explorer. All the big mountains of the Alaska Range are glaciated, and glacier travel is required if you wish to visit them up close. Many of the Alaska Range glaciers are riddled with gaping crevasses. The only way to cross them is during the late winter and spring, when the crevasses are packed with deep snow and the rivers are frozen. Many areas of the Alaska Range can really only be visited during the snowy months of the year. Traveling via skis, a person can cover great distances using the rivers and glaciers as trails.

44-mile glacier trip

One of my memorable glacier trips was on the mighty Kahiltna Glacier. Descending 44 miles, beginning at Kahiltna Pass, on the west flank of Denali, it is the longest glacier in the Alaska Range. Its northeast fork is the home of Denali Base Camp and the overpopulated West Buttress route up North America's tallest mountain.

During the climbing season (May to mid-July), hundreds of tents litter the landscapes. I have never had an interest in climbing Denali, but I have always wanted to go to the Kahiltna Glacier, which squeezes its way between the Alaska Range's three tallest mountains: Denali, Foraker and Mount Hunter — some the best mountain scenery on Earth.

I figured the only way to get a true wilderness experience on the Kahiltna was to go there in March, when it's empty. I convinced my partner in mountain crime, Sy, and our good friend Chris to try and ski the length of the Kahiltna Glacier in March 2013. We would have the mountain sanctuary to ourselves, but we would pay the price for our solitude. A wicked storm trapped us in a miserable whiteout, delivering deep snow and high avalanche conditions on the lower part of the glacier. Freezing wind forced us to cover every part of our bodies at all times.

But the most challenging weather came after the storm. It was our first clear day of the trip and the sun felt like a gift from the mountain gods. As if we had gotten a shot of Prozac, our mood changed, our spirits soared. Dazzled by the incredible mountains that loomed all around us, we were not prepared when the sun gently dropped behind Mount Foraker. Like a match being snuffed, when the last ray of sun vanished from the mountainside, harsh reality set in. Our thermometer read 20 below Fahrenheit (29 below Celsius). Soon the temperature was minus 30 F (minus 34.4 C). Armed with two hot water bottles, I climbed into my icy sleeping bag. Before Chris crawled into his bag, he looked one last time at the thermometer: it had reached the bottom, 40 below F. Chris tried to read but his book was too cold to hold, even wearing his down mitts.

I knew the next morning would be spectacular, clear with Foraker basking in the rising sunlight. But I couldn't get up, it was just too cold. Chris and Sy mocked me: "What kind of a mountain photographer are you?" I wondered. Am I tough enough to do this? We broke camp after the sun had thawed us. Temperatures would improve as we descended the glacier. The following year I returned to the Alaska Range again in March, but I couldn't convince Sy or Chris to join me. The memory of the cold was still too fresh.

In the summer months and in the early fall, glaciers offer a reprieve from the thick, relentless brush of the mountainside. They can allow quick travel through otherwise miserable terrain. Unfortunately, as the glaciers of the Alaska Range retreat with alarming speed, they become more and more difficult to access. The "green line," as I call the brush line, chases after the glaciers as they cower farther up the valleys. The glacial silt and newly exposed soil is extremely fertile, and growth happens quicker than you would expect in such a northern latitude. Many of the large glaciers that were used by Alaska's early explorers are 10 or 20 miles back into the mountains. And because the Alaska Range is primarily a trail-free wilderness, that can mean miles upon miles of bushwhacking to reach the glaciers and their mountain arena.

Vanishing glaciers

From Patagonia to Yosemite, glaciers have shaped and carved mountain landscapes we know and love. The world's glaciers are a stockpile of freshwater. As they melt, the ocean levels rise, threatening to devour islands and shorelines around the world. With many mountain regions becoming drier and receiving less snowfall, glaciers could become a vital source for freshwater, but they are vanishing quickly. Mountain glaciers may only hold 1 percent of the world's glacial ice, but they contribute about 30 percent to sea level rise.

As reported in Alaska Dispatch News, a study published in the July 2015 issue of Geophysical Research Letters found that Alaska contains 11 percent of the world's mountain glaciers, and Alaska's glaciers lose approximately 75 billion tons of ice each year (most from mountain glaciers). The water that pours from their base has and continues to be the life source for Alaska, but what about the world's glaciers? Every few years, politicians and entrepreneurs joke about building a water pipeline from Alaska to the Lower 48.

As ridiculous as that sounds, the joke becomes less humorous with each passing year, especially since much of the western United States is in a constant state of drought, with wildfires raging several months out of the year.

Alaska's glaciers produce enough water annually to fill 30 million Olympic-size swimming pools. That could irrigate a lot of crops and lessen the burden on the West's tortured rivers and lakes.

The melting of the world's glaciers affects us all. We must consider the changes of our warming world in a global way. What happens in our own backyard, the decisions we make locally, could affect people 1,000 miles away.

A book launch event for "Alaska Range: Exploring the Last Great Wild" will be held at the Bear Tooth Theatrepub on Monday evening, with proceeds benefiting the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group. See event details here.

Carl Battreall has been photographing mountains since he made his first ascent of California's Mount Shasta in 1996. He's worked in Nepal and moved to Alaska in 2001. His work has earned him a Rasmuson Artist Fellowship, and the Daniel Housberg Wilderness Image Award. His first book, "Chugach State Park: Alaska's Backyard Wilderness" was published in 2011. 

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