A Day in the Life: Glacier Mountaineering

[This post describes the worst day of a recent trip for me personally. Lots of great stuff happened too, but its not all fun and games. Pictures courtesy of Shay Nolan and Spencer Adams.]

That’s me in the center. From one of our breaks. As the Alaskan spring progressed there was less and less “nighttime”.
That’s me in the center. From one of our breaks. As the Alaskan spring progressed there was less and less “nighttime”.

Its day 5 of 28 that we will spend learning mountaineering skills, including glacier travel and climbing. We are camped in a small circle of wands on the Matanuska glacier which we have systematically probed to find any hidden crevasses. We wake up at 3:30am, start heating up icy water for breakfast, and pack up our stupendously comfortable sleeping bags. When we step into frozen boots, out of our tent, and begin to load our packs its -8°C; not bad if it weren’t for the early morning darkness, and the light yet consistent headwind. Once the rope is prepared for group travel and our hands and feet are thoroughly chilled, we wait impatiently for the final man to get in position. It’s easy to think heinous thoughts towards the slow team member and we do so without remorse, kicking our feet and shaking our fists as much in anger as in an effort to rewarm.

My stomach is churning as we head out from camp guided by the orbs of our headlamps. The morning’s oatmeal is disagreeing with me just as every meal has yet on the trip. The likely antagonist is poorly cooked ground beef the night before we began the expedition, and it has been relentless in its destruction of a coursemate and my bowels. Unexpected potty breaks are not easily undertaken on the slab of ice, tied to three other people, while wearing a harness. Not to mention that we have to gather our “solid” waste in bags and carry it with us. We therefore direct all our mental energy on controlling the flood gates until we reach camp. Pressure and discomfort builds.

Forever slogging. We ended up climbing the peak left of center later in the trip.
Forever slogging. We ended up climbing the peak left of center later in the trip.

We slog along the glacier in our snowshoes for hours, racing against time, once the sun reaches the snow it turns to quick sand and progress becomes slow and dangerous. I spend our breaks trying to drink, eat, vomit, belch, and keep my underwear clean, with various levels of success and failure.

We start moving perpendicular to the ice flow, heading for the ribs of loose rock along the glaciers edge formed through thousands of years of persistent grinding. A nearby mountain protects us from the rising sun in a pyramid of dwindling shade, keeping the snow hard and us on its surface.

It’s my turn to lead as we travel through a heavily crevassed area. We walk along the frozen sea, apparently smooth and rolling, but with countless cracks veiled by thin snow. I sweep my head left and right as I look for signs of one of these cracks. I prod the snow bridges with my ice axe feeling for… something, I’m not quite sure, at this point ignorance is bliss, and I strut across the bridge excited to see what happens next, learning with each crossing and waiting for the feeling of air that never comes.

A look at the glacier from earlier in our approach. Moraine is the rocky stuff.
A look at the glacier from earlier in our approach. Moraine is the rocky stuff.

By the time we reach the lateral moraine, limbo between glacier and ground, we are no longer in the shade and the snow is reluctant to hold our weight. We post-hole frequently despite our snow shoes, often up to our thighs. We shout “Zero!”, “Fuck!”, or “Aghhh!” to notify our rope mates of our stagnation, as if they would drag us along without noticing something amiss. With less than 10 meters to solid ground someone punches through the snow well up to their waist. I look down at the ground and back up to see a hole where they just were. Our first crevasse fall. He’s not too deep, just above head level, and his teammates drop to the snow and anchor themselves. We decide to haul him out the old fashion way, tying our team to theirs and pulling. With everyone’s harness pinching skin, closing arteries, and cracking nuts, we manage to get him back on the surface before continuing to solid ground.

From our new position off the glacier we un-rope and climb a steep hill of soft Styrofoam. It’s the last 300 meters before the days resting place and my brain, body, and sphincters are begging to relax. I crest the hill and collapse on the snow in the now raging sunshine. Rising occasionally to relieve myself disappointingly.

[This expedition was a part of The Mountain Training School’s Guide Training Program. We made attempts on Norway, Finland, and Denmark Peaks in the Scandinavian Peaks Region, Chugach, Alaska. More on those on the Climbing/Expeditions page.]


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