Party: Felix, Anna & James Ossig-Bonanno
I’d been eyeing the glaciers deep in the Chugach on my last six month visit to Alaska a couple of years ago. But without a team to rope-up, it had always seemed too far out of reach to even make rough plans. When I found that my parents wanted to visit, it seemed like a good excuse to drive up through the Yukon and show them around a bit. I picked out a few trips, the Eklutna Traverse being one of them. After a warm up trip on Kesugi Ridge and Troublesome Ck trails, the good weather looked like it would be continuing so we bought gear & food, practised fall-arresting & roping up with kiwi-coils in the garden before packing everything up and calling it a day.
In the morning Jeanne gave us a lift out to the TH at Eklutna Lake. Being a public holiday the day before we hadn’t been able to book the cabin at mile 12 along the old road and decided to try our luck poaching it. Worst case, we had a tarp shelter we could erect.
The lakeside trail is a multipurpose trail and as well as other hikers we saw cyclists and maybe even some ATVers. We all had pretty heavy packs – I think mine was about 24kg – and looking at the lake we found ourselves wishing we had a way to paddle ourselves and gear across the lake!
By the time we arrived at the empty hut Jimmy’s ‘new’ shoes were starting to fall apart. After dumping out gear, one of the first things we did was try to patch them up so they would make it a bit further.
I wasn’t really sure how we would reach the toe of the glacier from here… in the past you could continue following the road for another mile and then take the trail, but the glacier has receded over a mile since 1990 (citation needed – where did I read this?) and apparently access is now much more complicated. From the people I’d talked to in Anchorage, climbing onto the glacier was best on the East side, but I hadn’t really looked into how to actually get to the toe! We’d met a couple of guys hiking out that looked like they’d been on the glacier… unfortunately they weren’t really in the mood for talking and we only worked out that they had forded the river.
Instead of tromping around with heavy packs, we decided to do a bit of exploration. Crossing the bridge, we walked to the end of the road getting some spectacular views of Serenity Falls (It reminded me of some of the valleys I’d visited on the Big Island). At the end of the road, we took the trail as far as we could but soon got cliffed-out where the valley pinches (this is about 61.2770, -148.9802). The water was high. I had a couple of spots I thought you might be able to cross, but with our packs I wasn’t liking the look of it – especially since it would be my parents first river crossing. We looked into setting up a tyrolean across the river but had no way of getting the rope across the narrow section where we’d want to set it up… In the end we decided we’d have a look the East side of the river…
Jimmy was feeling pretty sore and wasn’t keen on carrying a full load so decided to rest whilst Mum and I scouted ahead. We loaded our packs with half loads and dropped down onto the gravel bar (Jimmy is King of the Bar!); at the far end I noticed flattened ground heading up the embankment. Scrambling up it looked like we were on a primitive trail! Sure enough, as we continued there was evidence of people trimming the shrubs. We made good time and were soon scurrying over moraine and then opposite where we had reached on the other side – Yay! It was a real relief. I’d been stressing a little bit about what the right decision was. We’d made really good time and headed up further past a pleasant waterfall and bivy spot guarded by a marmot to cache the gear. There were a couple of mountain goats down by the river.
By the time we were heading back up again we knew the route fairly well and the worst offenders encroaching apon the trail had already been broken or pushed aside.
It wasn’t long before we were at our gear cache. We repacked a little since I would be the only one heading back down to retrieve the cache. Scrambling up some rocky slopes the glacier was soon apon us!
The toe of the glacier was a little steep, but overall easy travelling with no crevasses to worry about. As we climbed we were in the ablation zone all the way to Pichlers Perch. There were plenty of surface streams to drink from, some waterfalls, icy canyons and moulins plunging down to unknown depths. There is something magic about walking around on a giant block of ice, its probably due to its alien nature having grown up in a place I’d be ‘lucky’ to see snow once a year.
(Lots of sheep/goats visible high up on the mountain sides).
As we continued we had to zig zag around some crevasse fields, but the crux was the larger field below the hut. An less technical route would have been to loop around to the West fork below Peril Peak, but it was late in the day so we probed for a route a couple of times before finding a way safely off the ice.
The welcoming red roof in sight, we were soon scrambling up the rocky bluffs. It was warm in side and I grabbed some snacks unpacked a bit and walked around outside a bit as the others joined me in quiet celebration.
The next day we slept in, and I headed off to collect the gear we’d cached below. (The original plan had been to make the trip the day before, but it had been late when we finally reached the hut, and the winds had picked up.) I headed too far over to the lateral moraine originating from Peril and lost a lot of time negotiating the deeper crevasse fields on the far side. Despite the delay I made good time and had plenty of time to enjoy the surroundings once I got back.
We woke early the next morning… the plan was to head out, but strong winds coaxed us back to bed; Jimmy blissfully unaware of the situation until several hours later when he too roused from sleep.
Games of cards ensued as the hut has rattled and shaken. Whiteout Pass was mostly hidden most of the time and occasionally Peril was also obscured. Visibility wasn’t bad, the wind was the main issue sitting at a (estimated) consistent 100km/h and gusting to maybe 150km/h! You had to be careful walking around outside. Horizontal winds carrying light rain with biting force in an attempt to knock you sprawling. Rocks still dry on their Northern side… As the hours turned into days, the toilet (a plastic bag in a bucket) was moved into the hut… the smell was pretty horrendous, but endured so you too could sit on a less wet and windy throne.
I finished a fairly horrible scifi novel and practised rigging hauling systems with Miss Anna, moving plastic totes around the hut. We focused on the basic z-drag, 5:1’s, adding compound advantage and passing a damaged section of rope (or butterfly tied between partners).
The days blurred together… I think we ended up spending 4 nights in Pichlers. We woke on Day 6 and decided what to do… I think Mum was on the fence, Dad was more inclined to play it safe, I think in the end it was my call… what to do? We had consumed a lot of our food, but still had a few days left (…there was also some emergency food we could thieve). Jimmy’s shoes were falling apart, he didn’t have thermals. Whiteout hut was even more isolated; the weather could get worse. Moral was getting lower… I decided to play it safe. We were heading back out, but not giving up! We cached most of our technical gear in the hut along with most of our food (there was some food left in the previous cabin we could use on our way out), and headed off the glacier, the now manageable wind on our backs.
We cached a couple of sets of crampons at the toe – taking Jimmy’s so we could fit them to his new shoes we’d be buying. At the cabin, my heart sank… someone had ‘cleaned up’… no dinner for us. At least the others had brought a breakfast – I’d only brought some snacks for the walk-out… oh well, and involuntary fast it was. At least the rope I’d hidden was still there!
Even with the packs lightened with what we’d left behind, the walk back was grinding. The weather remained overcast and as we maybe half way back along the lake it started drizzling. In a way it was nice as it supported the decision to head back out. The hut we’d planned to have lunch in was occupied so we pushed on. I went ahead to try and arrange a lift back to Anchorage… I tried the kayak and bike rental place first before heading to the parking lot which had several cars and people wandering down to the lake shore… the ranger station.. closed. I wondered into the campground and talked with the off duty volunteer hosts who seemed a little reluctant at first, but then agreed to help out.
I sat at the table charging my phone to get the number I needed. Glen and Sonya trying to get some streaming service working so they could watch a World Cup match. I contacted Jeanne who was apparently down in California, but would get back to us. I went looking for my parents and located them by the fire in the Kayak/bike shop. Jenna had made them some tea. My Dad was lying on the floor, he had fainted, probably due to lack of food/low blood sugar. I got some snacks on IOU and went back to get my debit card. The soccer game was into extra time. Glen had spent a long time living in Costa Rica (where Sonya was from) and there were plenty of interesting stories. Glen and I drove down to collect my parents, and Sonya prepared some food… it felt like we were being saved!
Glen was heading out to check on the Thunderbird Falls facilities and gave us a lift into Peters Creek where Emily would pick us up after her work finished. We chatted with a lady who gave us a ‘travelling rock’ we could leave somewhere for someone else to find and were soon back in Anchorage checking weather to see when we would head up for a second attempt!
(Stopped to return snow shoes, and buy some new shoes for Jimmy. Mum also bought me a hard shell – a birthday present).