It was after midday by the time Eli left. It had been a late night at the local saloon, even later for the others who had stayed much longer than I. There had been some good music, though the two guys playing guitar and harmonica were probably more enjoyable for me, not to forget the humerus winter puppeteer! It was the cigarette smoke that eventually drove me away, and I retreated into the lodge before retiring for the night.
We had all slept in. I prepared my duffel bag with items I figured wouldn’t be necessary and figured it would be easier to hitchhike and took up the courier service Eli had offered.
Time for some more serious exploration. I had felt a little limited for the past couple of days, Eli simply put was probably a more mainstream tourist and wasn’t interested in doing a traverse of the glacier, checking out the Erie Bunckhouse, or camping at Donoho Lakes. I had decided to stay in McCarthy longer rather than visiting Valdez as initially planned…
My first destination: the ice tunnel that I had first noticed from Kennicott. Brady had brought up the idea of going together, but decided to have a relaxation day – probably well deserved. And so it was with my sketch map that I headed out alone.
|The ice tunnel on the far side of the glacier is visible from Kennicott|
Starting from the West Kennicott Glacier Trail I followed the narrow track as it wound through the lush vegetation. Walking along I tried to identify the berries around me; I had been reading Diana’s book which included a chapter on edible berries. I was trying to distinguish between High/Low Cranberries and Red Currents. I didn’t understand why the bears would go for Soap berries rather than the more tasty currents?
I soon met back up with the road that is probably a more direct route. It was very muddy and reminded me of a walk we did on Malta were the clay stuck to the soles of your shoes, layer upon layer. It also clumped on the bottom of my walking poles. It was quite annoying but you could also turn it into a bit of fun which is exactly what I did!
Soon the trail began to peter out and I followed some interesting flats before running into some people on a level below me. They gave me some advice on getting to the ice tunnel and soon had my shoes and socks off and was fording the stream below the rapids. The water was freezing and I found myself again thinking that it would be funny if Dad was here and also had to cross 🙂
I quickly put my socks on rubbing my chilled feet to warm them. The tunnel soon came into view and my excitement rose as I passed between the mountains of impressively sculpted ice.
It was huge! Unfortunately there was a pool of water in the tunnel meaning I couldn’t make a comfortable through-trip. It was probably to be expected as I later learnt that the tunnel is a remnant from an under-glacier stream. I didn’t go as close as I could as pebbles and rocks would fall intermittently from the melting edges.
I decided I wouldn’t return the same way, I still had too much adventure in me for that. Instead, I would attempt a traverse across the moraine covered glacier toe and see how bad it really was. I lost some time following a dead end and learnt the value in assessing routes from a high vantage point. After this one setback I don’t think I had to backtrack once and made good time to the other side of the glacier. It hadn’t been that bad and I felt it hadn’t taken long to get off the glacier.
As I was heading towards the lake, I noticed that a nosy stream seemed to disappear… Locals I had talked to said that one of the best ways to find ice caves was to follow streams that ran down towards and into the glacier. You could often find old passages down-glacier as the ice slowly made its way down the valley. I thought there might be a chance I could find an ice cave here and when I went to explore I was far from disappointing. I followed a small passage at first, marvelling at the colours and patterns sculpted into the ice, but this paled in comparison to the next passage I took, after about ten meters it opened up into a daylight hole complete with a mini waterfall. It didn’t end here, and I continued down the passage way further before it became dark… I photo pfaffed with my camera using the 12 second timer, and after several attempts positioned myself were I wanted.
Adrenalin still buzzing in my veins I headed back teaming up with a couple who were on a short walk to have a look at the glacier. One of them had got married here not that long ago, but the location had completely changed they claimed. That is the nature of glaciers I guess, apparently the ice tunnel won’t be there next year. And I may be the only one to visit the ice cave I found before it also is changed beyond recognition.
As we were looking along, something out of place at the edge of my vision caught my attention, perhaps it was movement, in any case I looked up and there beside the trail I saw two fluffy black ears attached to a bear. I cried out and everyone lunched to a halt and bear canisters came out. The bear didn’t want trouble and bounded off. We turned around as we crossed the flats and saw it pass across. It was huge, much bigger than I had expected, larger than the three of us put together.
I was soon back and after some dinner I packed for a multi day trip, planning for four days (three nights). I wasn’t sure on exactly were I go, but decided I would first head back to the ice cave I had found with a light. Then, probably head out along the Root Glacier Trail checking out another ice cave that had been recommended, continuing along to the Erie Bunkhouse and up to the Stairway Icefall.
The next morning I headed back to my cave and headed in deeper. I had to crawl in places and even had to flatten out further as it flattened out. I located the stream again, the dry section I had come over reminded me of some of the caves we had discovered in New Zealand. I managed to find a way around the water on the left and could see light filtering in from an opening on the other side. I was surprised that much of the floor I was on was actually ice. There were a few sections that weren’t covered and I could see far into the highly compressed ice. Now and then I would illuminate it with my headlamp, pressing it up against the ice and watch the floor glow beneath me.
I paused I couldn’t really go further without groveling in the mud or entering the streamway. This is as far as I would go. I figured I could locate the hole from the outside and have a look if there was anything there. After some more photo pfaffing, I went around to the flat opening, I had found the spot. I took a GPS reading and later determined the cave to be over 100m in length.
I headed back to the road and tried my luck at hitchhiking up. Quite quickly a lady riding a quad bike pulled over for me. She had a baby strapped to her front and in a hesitant voice I asked if I was to site behind her, she confirmed this and I jumped on my heavy pack feeling funny as we continued along the heavily pot-holed road. We talked for the short distance up the small township, she was on her way to work in one of the small shops who’s existence was brought about by the tourists who visited.
I stopped in at the National Parks office to let them know of my trip intentions. They were more disinterested than I would have expected, maybe it was just the person I spoke to. I filled out a form with some rough trip intentions and went to have a quick chat with one of the guiding companies. I met with the proprietor who was the only person in the small one room cubed structure. He gave me some tips on routes and wished me luck asking me to check back in when I returned. I agreed and thanked him for his help.
My first stop was Bonanza stream. As Diana had accurately described, there was a small track leading from the main pathway shortly after the river crossing. I followed this down to the side of the glacier and dumping my pack began exploring the holes in the side of the ice. I quickly found an impressive phreatic passage that wound its way steeply down into the ice. There was some fun scrambling and even a small climbdown before it started becoming quite small. I decided not to go further though you could have continued, sliding along on your belly – if only I had my cave suit… but it also might be dangerous, I wasn’t really an ice cave veteran.
I explored the cave created by the main stream, spending quite a while throwing small boulders into its flow to create a crossing that would allow me to keep my feet dry! It was fun but the cave remained out of reach protected by the rapid water.
I headed back up to the Root Glacier Trail and followed it past were Eli and I had reached a couple of days ago. The bunkhouse was visible high up on the mountain side. I figured this scree slope was the way and wearily I began trudging up… and up and up. In many places I had to use my hands and it soon got so steep I was pretty much climbing. I looked down at the loose pieces of rock that I had sent tumbling down drop below me. It was a scary sight and reminded me what would happen if I fell. Further down I could make out the shapes of black bears. I saw one, than a group of two… and eventually worked out that there were three separate bears. That’s at least ten I have now seen.
I climbed higher the rock near vertical. I did an exposed traverse the rock comprising of my potential handholds often coming loose from the wall… I was tired and decided I shouldn’t continue. I was annoyed at all the height I would loose, but was convinced it was what I should do to stay alive. Besides, I was fairly confident this wasn’t the ‘official’ way up.
Going down was tricky, I would have to squat holding carefully onto the rock whilst I made places for my feet by brushing rocks away and kicking others to dislodge them. It was a slow process, but I made it down feeling some sense of relief.
I made my way back to the main trail getting a closer look at the black mama bear with its cub before continuing along the trail towards the illusive bunkhouse.
Soon I spotted what was an obvious trail heading up the next major gully. I continued a bit further to convince myself it was the correct way, as well as decided if I really want to go up there now. I reached the old cable car and headed back and began climbing up through the gully. I would sleep in the bunkhouse tonight I had decided. It was drizzling again and I was soaked from pushing through the wet shrubs. It would be nice to have a roof over my head.
Up and up I climbed yet again, the trail soon fading. Worried I was going the wrong way I had to really push myself not to give up hope. Why was I so tired? I didn’t understand it but I felt as if all the energy had drained from me and I could almost collapse on the spot. I picked some blueberries as I climbed: magic energy to keep me going I told myself unconvincingly. I soon reached a bluff and there off to my right was trail, maybe it was a goat trail, but it was heading along beneath the cliff line which sloped downwards towards the bunkhouse. Excitedly I headed towards it quickly finding obvious signs of travel. Yay! I was pretty sure I was on the right path. All downhill from here!
It was a precarious path that wound down, but it was nothing compared to the first gully I had tried to ascend. Soon the bunkhouse was before me. I tried one door, but the floor was collapsed into a lower level just within, so I continued around to another entrance on the opposite side. Here I gained entry.
I fell in love with the building almost immediately. Made entirely out of wood, with a corrugated iron roof there was something magical about it. I dumped my pack and quickly explored some of the building comprising of three levels (as well as an attic). I was impressed, but also ridiculously weary. I made a quick dinner and crashed inside the tent I hastily, and incorrectly set up inside the dilapidated structure.
It must have been midday when I finally roused myself. I recall calculating that I’d had around 11 hours sleep. I wasn’t sure what to do. I didn’t want to have another long day, thinking it best let myself recover from whatever had caused my weariness the day before. I decided to see if I could find any water as that would be my main limiting factor for staying up here another night.
I decided to try the spot under the cliff-line that I had filled up at yesterday and then perhaps follow the pipe I had noticed; maybe there had been a small dam constructed up above it? I drew a blank on both accounts but decided to keep on climbing up to the ridge, at the least I should have good views and then I could return and move down to Erie Lake.
I was still so tired, and I needed to stop often before I gained the top. I remember wondering if I had some form of chronic fatigue syndrome and could get tested by the new biological markers that have been recently published. The views were worth it. It wasn’t the true top, but you could look down into the next valley. I the distance I could see a small waterfall dropping from the cirque to be lost beneath the snow. I needed water, but it was further than I was prepared to go.
I began heading back down, wondering what I should do. I realised I wanted to stay out another day. But a lack of water would force me to move. The rain solved the dilemma, and when I returned I set up a couple of sheets of corrugated iron and put my cooking pot beneath the water the began dripping of the low end. Soon I had more water than I would need.
I explored the bunkhouse and surrounding constructions, locating the mine not far from the building. I also explored the bunkhouse more thoroughly impressed with the man power it would have taken to construct it.
I was soon siting reading by a roaring fire, drying out my still soaking boots and socks. Hopefully I would feel better on the morrow.
I felt much better the next day and after taking some photos, began packing to continue the trip. I would head back down and then go have a look at Erie lake were I could find water and then I could visit the icefall.
|The newspaper I found by the fireplace was a mix of English and Russian|
The trail ended not much further on than the collapsed cable car line. And I slid down the steep slope to the moraine, half way down thinking I must have been stupid to go down this way. I made it without incident and continued along the moraine for some time before being forced onto the ice. Rocks were pressed into the ice so I didn’t need to wear crampons. I soon reached the location the lake should have been, but there was only a hole… I read lately that the lake is a glacially dammed lake, it must have already emptied and I saw was I large hole with large blocks of misshapen ice. I wasn’t overly impressed and decided I didn’t want to camp there.
I continued towards the ice fall, dodging the crevasses before reaching a medial moraine that looked like a good direct path I could follow. It required more and more weaving, and eventually I could go no further with out leaving the moraine. Crampons went on and I continued on the white ice.
As I continued I paused to drink from the small pools and streams scattered about the surface of glacier.
|Erlie Lake; a glacially dammed lake that had already emptied via a jökulhaup|
|Strange dirt mounds on the glacier moraine. I inspected these and found small domes of ice beneath the layering of soil.|
It took a long time to get close to the icefall. I think there was a bit of optical illusion in involved due to sheer size of the icefall (apparently the second largest in the world) and the fact that the glacier gradient increased the closer you came to the icefall creating a kind of ramp.
I soon got “close enough” and it was a still long and unknown way to were I would be camping for the night so I thought it would be best to start heading the other way.
I retrieved my pack from the small rise on the moraine and continued along the white ice making good time. I had to weave around crevasses here and there but in general it was easy navigating. There was one section that was heavily crevassed but the main challenge soon became concentration as it was getting really late.
|Eerie clouds moving ghost-like over the Root Glacier.|
After perusing a dead-end trying to get off the glacier, I turned around and was more lucky on my second attempt. It was about 11pm when I got of the glacier. My luck continued and I picked up some boot prints and soon located a small trail and then a sign pointing me in the direction of the food storage box.
I started dinner and set up my tent trying not to disturb the others in a nearby tent. After a hasty meal I was quickly asleep.
The next morning I woke late and after a lazy start began looking for the trail to Donoho Lake… I went up several trails but they all became overgrown and eventually ceased to exist all together. I became a little impatient and soon decided to bushwhack my way to the lake. After pushing through some thick scrub I finally reached a ridge above the stream and continued along through more navigable vegetation complete with tasty blue berries.
I soon reached the lake which was an amazing spectacle and I found myself wishing I had another night to camp here.
I found some icebreaker socks. I put them in my pocket hoping they would fit once I cleaned them. and continued around the lake following a discernible trail.
The lake was amazing and I continued along the trail along a small stream. I passed a junction and pressed on to the next lake. I had planned to go further but changed my mind thinking of the junction I had passed. It was pretty obvious it was used to access the base of Donoho Peak and I figured summiting the peak would offer the best value for effort.
I made my way back and took the trail leading to the peak and started up the steep scree slope. I quickly tired of the three steps up, one down nature and scrambled up the spur on the left feeling much more comfortable on this terrain despite the increased exposure.
I was surprised to spot to see a mine under the peak. I found out later from the guides who gave me a lift down from Kennicott that the mine was named Regal Mine, but apparently this mine wasn’t really cost effective and I think was abandoned earlier than the other mines.
I soon reached a flat area and looking up was a little disheartened as I looked like I wouldn’t be able to get up the mountain… I rested a bit enjoying watching a small squall coming in over the glacier.
I soon continued up and soon found that the scree slope to the top wasn’t impossible, and I even located a beaten main trail. I took a selfie with some rock spires and the confluence of the two glaciers.
Crawling up the sharp rocks, I soon reached a saddle at the top of the slope and was blown away by the views. It was stunning!
|In a saddle at the top of the main scree slope. Not far to go now.|
With a final push to the summit I took in the spectacular views!
|Heading back down…|
Heading down was really quick, the scree slopes now working in my favour as I skied down the side of the mountain.
I collected my back from the bear box were I had left it and climbed down to check out the Donoho Ice Cave. It was a huge opening in the glacier and I used the crampons on my hands to get down. This was a good exercise as it highlighted the purpose of the points which point different directions on the toe and heel pieces.
|Looking at the ice cave.|
I was on the home run now and set a steady pace across the glacier. It was getting late but my spirit was still high after the great finish to the trip.
I crossed over a medial moraine and was soon in familiar territory and thought I would soon be off the glacier… but it wasn’t to be as the linking bar on one of my crampons suddenly snapped! In some respects I was lucky: I wasn’t crossing over a crevasse or on a steep slope. If it had broken in one of these situations the consequences could have been really serious.
I couldn’t believe how slippery the ice was. I had to leave half of the crampon on to move somewhat safely, so tightened the strap and in a mechanical motion resembling walking I made slow progress. I slipped over at least twice when crampon fell my foot. Instead of leaving the glacier at the conventional spot, I made my way to the nearest edge and feeling relieved/safer continued along the side moraine. I was soon on the trail, and passed a couple heading in to camp for the night. There were also some motorbikes parked on the trail.
It was getting dark as I walked through Kennicott, and my chances of hitchiking seemed slim, but after a stop to gobble down some raspberries I continued along the road. I stuck my thumb out to the first vehicle. The Wilderness Guides van pulled over and let me in. They were heading down to the karaoke. If I had more energy I would have stayed, but I trudged back to the house instead eager to relax.
I waited for Brady and Diana to return, but eventually tiredness overtook me and I headed into the shed and crashed.
I said farewell to Diana in the morning (she was still in bed after a late night). I left I note in their guest book.
I walked over the bridge and started along the road. At the edge of town, next to the National Park buildings I dropped my pack and stuck my thumb out. I wasn’t waiting long before Bob picked me up. Luckily for me he was heading to Anchorage Airport, almost right to were I was heading, the reason for his trip wasn’t as fortuitous, as he was visiting a friend stricken with cancer in the Lower 48.
I think Bob was happy for the company and provided much more conversation than I. It turns out he studied as a microbiologist and then started working in nuclear power (I think) as a environmental engineer. It sounds like he had an interesting job and was involved in a number of cases.
We talked about the 10 year life cycle of the hare, and how the lynx tend to follow that cycle as the follow their prey, the naming of the Toyota Corona…
Bob shouted me lunch in Chitina and the 6-7 hr ride ended before I new it.
So ends another chapter.