Before arriving in Alaska I can’t say with much certainty that I knew what a glacier was. I’m only slightly sure that I was aware of their existence (but not entirely sure I didn’t just think they were large icebergs) and definitely sure that I didn’t grasp their many faces. And so, my first time on The Glacier was a complete slap in the face and every time since has been another awakening unto its own.
You see, my first time on The Glacier I went ice climbing.
Me. Ice climbing.
If you’re beginning to think I’m some sort of badass you can stop yourself right there. I can say for certain that I did not know what ice climbing was, but with my girlfriend’s encouragement (and the loan of her dog) I let her sign me up with her guides.
I’d never even been rock climbing before (a likely introduction) but there I was, gearing up with boots and crampons and an enormous backpack full of gear for a ten-hour day of hiking and climbing on our friendly neighborhood glacier, followed by crashing an ice climbing course meant solely for the guide company which I had no business attending (but was too afraid to leave on my own since it would mean traversing solo across a glacier which I had just met and then finding my way back to the trailhead and then back home. No thank you). And so I climbed, and despite the fear of heights that I thought I had, I felt safe and secure and successful, followed by completely out-of-place, cold and tired at the training but hey, at least I was in good company.
My second time on The Glacier was with the encouraging girlfriend. We explored a bit, I got my first solid lesson in using crampons and we ate curry for lunch. It was a beautiful day and again, I didn’t have to hoof it alone.
That was last year. Now, I’ve lived here for a year. I’ve been through Winter in the cold, dark north. I can handle The Glacier solo, right?
Well, sort of.
It was a beautiful sunny day at the tail end of a wind event a few weeks ago and so, despite the sun and the sights, I was still feeling a little off-kilter from the ever-present gusts of dirt in my eyes and blow-back winds pushing me about. Still, when it’s sunny and you are free, it’s time to get out. Some friends only had a few days left in Alaska and they invited me along to go out on The Glacier. I hadn’t been on it all Summer and had been scolding myself for not having done so. And so, despite the blustery day, I headed out to meet them.
The Chief and I drove across the river into town with a friend to jump our truck (which I had been stranded with the night before) and she fired up quickly. All set. And so I sent a message up the hill to let my comrades know that I was on my way. Even though it was my day off I was in a bit of a hurry to get going. This town is notoriously slow going since things always seem to go wrong or take longer than planned. It’s not uncommon to hear someone come in late for work because their batteries were about to die and they forgot to run the generator and then the generator was out of gas so they had to pump gas and then spilled it and had to change and…you get the point. Things come up. And so I was trying to stay ahead of the game. The truck was running and I was on my way. Plus, I had a massage scheduled that day (best day off ever) and I wanted to make sure I would be back in time.
I helped Cinda into the truck and off we went. We were listening to our favorite Cocteau Twins song when the truck chugged to a halt. Thinking that the battery had given out again (the battery in it is a wee bit small for the truck) I called The Chief to see if he could jump it (again) with our friend’s truck. He left work and borrowed the truck and 20 minutes later, when I should have been arriving to meet my friends, The Chief gallantly arrived. He quickly deciphered that it wasn’t the battery. Thankfully he had a can full of gas that we filled our tank with and the new infusion in what we think is simply a bad fuel mix was enough to start the babe right up. He followed me up to the Hill Town even though he really needed to be at work because, well, he’s amazing like that. We bid adieu as I successfully glided into the Hill Town.
Finally, we made it. But where are they?
My friends were heading down from one friend’s house and after a few confusing texts and calls we found one another at the guide shack (I had forgotten that we would need crampons, remembering The Glacier as only being a sweet little thing requiring hiking boots alone. How quickly we forget). We all geared up and headed out The Glacier Trail. An hour and a few miles later we started to descend and I felt totally lost. The creek between the hillside and The Glacier had shifted enough that the “entrance” onto The Glacier, the spot where everyone would come off the hillside and find their way onto the glacier had completely changed from the two times I’d seen it the year before.
I wish I could say with certainty that if I had gone alone earlier this Summer to The Glacier that I would have figured this out and not just “cliffed out” at the old entrance but I’m not really comfortable with lying. I can hope that I would have figured it out, that my stubbornness would have helped me find the way, but as a serious creature of habit and lover of comfort I’m not totally sure that I would have pushed that hard. Maybe. I hope so. I think in reality that I hadn’t made it to The Glacier yet this year out of fear of the unknown and so a hurdle like that could have derailed me, had I made it that far.
We scaled down the hillside, the dogs far ahead of us and already begging from tourists camped at the base of The Glacier.
Our view from the base. The Glacier lay ahead in all its glory.
We stumbled immediately upon an ice creation.
Melted out ice caves
I ran in, excited to see it from the inside and just barely dodged falling rocks. Whoops! I forgot my glacier manners and ice cave rules. Look before you leap.
Little rocks (thankfully) and water falling from to top of the ice cave
Manners in mind and footing in place we headed up and onto The Glacier. One member of our group lost her manners quickly. My sweet pup decided to let nature call in the number two fashion upon the pristine glacier. I picked up her little gift with a newly available Costco sized M&M bag (we had to eat the remaining M&Ms in a hurry to free up the space, which, while delicious, kind of lost their appeal due to the situation) sealed it tight and placed it into my backpack. The backpack which held my food.
We were off to a good start.
Hiking up the first icy hill of The Glacier
And we actually were off to a great, albeit stinky, start. For the first fifteen minutes we were fine going simply with our hiking boots but once the terrain turned a bit tougher it was time for crampons.
I’m not a fan.
I know that they make it more feasible to hike up and down into places in the glacier which would otherwise remain unseen to me but they also make me feel like a toddler wearing platform shoes. It’s as if I’ve attached bricks to my feet, lost all flexibility and then, decide to attempt the scary stuff.
This was the part I had forgotten about. The scary parts. The year before when I had gone ice climbing we had hiked the mildest parts of The Glacier (the simple up and over route instead of into the depths) and put on crampons only to scale into the basin where we would set up camp to climb. I barely needed instruction because they were necessary for moments only and the fall would have been into a soft obvious location not into some wormhole into the heart of The Glacier. The second time, as I had conveniently forgotten, we had taken a more hilly route, jumped over little rivers within the glacier and climbed sheer sides. I had been afraid but I had forgotten that fear.
Key words being “had forgotten”.
Suddenly the fear came upon me like a whisper from behind as we veered away from the easy route on top of The Glacier and immediately started sidehilling down it. We stopped to put on our crampons and layers as the already present wind began to pick up and up and up. I watched Cinda’s fur blow in the breeze and then suddenly her whole body jolted back as a powerful gust of wind hit her. Everything had shifted in an instant. Suddenly, I had high heel things on my feet, extra disorienting wind and more challenging terrain.
Our first move in our newly acquired garb? Cross an ice bridge between two moulins (a tubular chute, hole or crevasse worn in the ice by surface water which carries water from the surface to the base far below, like a sudden sinkhole which appears with little to no warning). They were substantial holes on both sides, both tunnels leading in opposite and unclear directions into the stomach of the glacier. You fall in and…good luck. My girlfriend shouted to me through the wind:
“You might want to watch Cinda on this one. It’s a little sketchy.”
Just as I was about to grab her and find ourselves another route, she scampered across with the utmost ease and so, my excuse to find a better route now gone and my better judgement aside, I started to cross. My stomach dropped into my feet and my heart up into my neck as my body slowly and awkwardly carried me across. I did not feel centered, I did not feel competent. I felt like a wet rag trying to dance a tango. Not my most graceful of moments.
On the other side I caught my breath.
I told my friends and I nervously stopped to eat a snack. I felt like I was going to be sick. You see, I try and try and try again to fool myself but my body reminds me. I am afraid of heights. In my mind I see the path but my body reacts. Wanna look down into a moulin? I can’t. My feet literally won’t take me.
This I can handle.
Peering down into this? No thanks. These pop up out of nowhere.
And so, after crossing (sorry, I couldn’t take a picture but just imagine two huge tunnel slides to each side of you and a maybe two foot wide expanse to cross over them) and remembering the fear I had felt before, though not to this level (and never during ice climbing (perhaps the harness had something to do with it)), it suddenly dawned on me that I would be doing the return trip alone.
Since the truck had died and our meet up had been slow, time had been moving despite our still trying to catch up with it. We had been on the glacier almost 40 minutes before we even put the crampons on and now, I had 20 minutes before I needed to head back. We had basically just gotten there, just gotten to the “good stuff” (read: scary but more beautiful and worth the challenge) and now I needed to turn around.
We traversed a few more creeks within the glacier and went up and down hills that seemed impossible to ascend or descend any other way than on hands and knees or slide down like penguins but somehow I remained upright (and awkward). Finally, tucked away from the gusts in a little alcove I announced my need to depart in order to make it back in time for my massage (a statement that sounded unbelievably swanky and out-of-place while standing in the middle of the wilderness).
Beautiful Jess. Wanna come back?
I had already stated that, of course, they probably wouldn’t want to head back when I had to, but secretly hoped that someone might want to. At the same time, I knew the challenge would do me good and in a way hoped I would fly solo. It was divided 50/50. Though I was scared I said my goodbyes and whistled for my Lou and turned to head back the way we had come (though already planning to avoid the Ice Bridge of Doom) when I looked back and couldn’t decipher up from down.
The last views of my friends
Where in the world had we come from and how?
I had purposefully been paying attention (I thought) to our route but when I looked back it all looked the same and the hilly landscape seemed unrecognizable in reverse.
Oh well, they were moving one way and I had to head the other.
A last goodbye from the Buddha
I cannot explain how grateful I was to have our Cinda Lou with me. She was like a little ice fairy, floating along the face of the glacier, jumping over moulins like a professional hurdler. She made it look easy, and so, as I have done so many times before, I channeled her confidence and picked a route forward.
Lou smiling at the moulin
Within minutes we were nowhere we had been before and facing crossing fast flowing waters and climbing an almost 90 degree incline. I looked to the right: even worse. I looked to the left and could only assume that it turned into a sheer drop-off to the moraine (the rocky below) since all the rest to the left had been as such.
How had I gotten us here?
I had simply gone in the same-ish direction back and now, we were somewhere completely unknown, out of sight and alone.
That’s the thing about a glacial terrain, one minute you’re walking on flat ground, the next there is a sheer cliff at your feet. Another, you’re protected from the wind storm, the next you’re basically windsurfing, trying not to lose footing. Next you’re looking down a moulin into the mouth of the glacier and next you see a turquoise lake appear, calm and pristine. It’s forever changing and after two trips one year ago prior to completely different spots on the exact same glacier, I was feeling completely lost and completely out of my league.
Oh well. There was no other way but forward.
I found a narrower crossing and planted my feet in order to make the big jump to the other side of what now was become a river in The Glacier in order to climb up the face to the other side. I looked and then leapt and…
I made it. Safe and sound.
The water was 3-4 ft. wide
Cinda did not follow.
Suddenly, my trailblazer was stunted. She didn’t trust the jump. I walked to the narrowest point and urged her to follow suit on the other side. I cooed encouragement at her and promised I would grab her. She didn’t budge. Then she started pacing back and forth, starting twice by trying to walk the divide, the water which would have been up to her shoulders and the current which would have swept her up and sent her who knows where in the blink of an eye lapped at her paws and she quickly retreated.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
We both let out a little whimper and I allowed myself a moment of panic. And then I grabbed my breath back and called her back as she started walking towards the ledge. We are doing this. You can make it Lou.
I called her to a different narrow spot and steadied myself to grab her if she didn’t land the jump. She gave me a look of utter displeasure but also of trust (yes, I’m anthropomorphizing but I’m comfortable with it) and then, she jumped.
And she made it.
And then she was off with me scrambling behind her.
She ran towards the hill. It was so steep that she had to lean as far forward as possible while still having to sidehill up the face it. I got down low and hands and knees and crampon toed my way up. We both stopped at the top, breathing heavily and looked at one another with a sort of It Can’t Get Worse Than That, Right? type of look. I hugged and kissed her and spent a moment more just breathing while trying to plan the remainder of our route (while still avoiding the Ice Bridge of Doom). I surmised that it couldn’t be much longer (though I couldn’t see the exit) and decided to hug the Easternmost route for the remainder of the return. Thirty minutes later we were off The Glacier and back to finding the elusive trail. I had created mental markers for myself but in the end, it didn’t matter.
A big rock (in front of the far away Castle Rock) was my beacon towards the trail
My Cinda knew the way (even though she had never taken it before that day). She led me back and up the steep hill, circling around every few steps to smile at me. I’ve never seen her do that before. One, two, three, four steps, circle, look at Mom and head forward for four more. She checks on me when we are out together but never in such a rhythm, with such consistency.
Four steps forward…
…one circle to look back.
For a dog whom isn’t always overtly forthcoming with expressions of love, this less than subtle check in warmed my heart. I felt like crying. I had truly been scared. Scared of falling, scared of picking the wrong route and sliding into a river of ice, scared of losing my dog. Seeing her look back to me I suddenly let it go. We were off the glacier and we had gotten off of it together.
Crossing over a raging creek and looking back at The Glacier
The rest of the hour-long hike back she checked on me every few steps. She even took a shortcut (which I knew and planned on taking) and when she realized I hadn’t made it to the entrance yet, she circled back to show me how.
Fall was in the air and the winds had started to die down a bit and an ecstatic calm (if that dichotomy can somehow exist) came over me as we hustled back.
We got back just in time to grab a snack and water us both before going into a greatly appreciated massage. I was physically tired from the hike but also emotionally tired and simultaneously elated by the journey.
We had made it.
To many out here, it would be nothing to simply turn back alone. It would be nothing even to go out alone and come back alone. To find a route and follow it with confidence. To me, it was a challenge. To choose my own route, completely on my own (or at least without other humans) is a new practice. To trust and to expand past the comfort of the known into the discomfort of the unknown isn’t my first choice, but in a way, at this point in my life it’s the only one.
I may not be the first to try a new route or to scale a mountain. I am still cautious and careful and perhaps overly so, using my respect for the grandiosity and potential danger of this place at times as an excuse. But that’s O.K.
I’m learning to stretch.
I’m so grateful to live in a place and among people whom share their adventurous spirits with me. People who prance across an ice bridge like it’s nothing, who find their own way when lost in the woods, who set out to summit a mountain they’ve never been to. This place and the people within it both intimidate and inspire me in such a combination that I consistently find myself a little outside of my comfort zone but in very good company, be it scenery or people or animals or, simply my new self who’s learning, day by day to trust again in the intuition we all have within.
I hope that next year and every year from now on that I remember the fear and embrace it rather than tuck it away. I hope that I push forward with or without invitation from others to see this land. I hope that as my confidence in myself grows the fear will realize it can start to let go.
Thank you for the endless challenges and chances to expand, Alaska. You sure keep me on my toes (and, when the going gets steep, my hands and knees).