Summer Adventure

September 30, 2010

By Kevin Grove, Sciences

Part 1

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”  Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia

Traveling across the Harding Icefield en route from Seward to Homer, Alaska

“What do you think about calling it a day?” I wearily asked my friend Jan after thirteen hours of the thickest, most brutal, bushwhacking I have ever experienced.  He glanced back with sullen eyes and a defeated look after covering just two and a half miles the entire day and slurred, “I’m totally worked.”  Our goal was to reach the Fox River on the third day of our traverse from Seward to Kachemak Silo.  Devils club, slide alder, and hundreds of downed timbers – resembling nature’s version of pickup sticks – impeded our progress.  With the GPS still reading one and a half miles to go, we dropped our skis, unshouldered our beastly packs, and attempted to pitch our tent in the middle of the dense Sitka Spruce and Birch forest.  A black cloud of mosquitoes filled the air, and covered our bodies as we inhaled our freeze-dried dinners.  I thought to myself as I crawled into the awkwardly pitched tent, “Welcome to Alaska!”

Jan Spurkland, a native Alaskan, and I shared many backcountry climbing and skiing adventures in Bend before he moved back to Homer.  My wife, Molly, and I longed to experience Alaska and Jan easily persuaded us to meet up with him for the month of July in 2007.  Jan phoned in June to discuss his first adventurous plan: “We’ll take skis and packrafts to traverse the Harding Icefield from Seward to Kachemak Silo, a tiny Russian village 20 miles north of Homer,” he said enthusiastically.  “What are packrafts?”  I naively asked.  Jan described the individual, lightweight rafts that fold up tightly and fit in a backpack enabling endless exploration of remote, rugged terrain.  This sounded just like the Alaskan adventure I was looking for. 

We met up with Jan in Seward on July 4th, hiked Mt. Marathon, and cheered the racers as they passed.  Only after asking Jan how he finished when competing as a junior several years prior, he humbly replied, “I finished third.”  Drizzly rain the next morning dampened our spirits.  That afternoon, the weather started to clear as Jan and I eagerly packed our gear.  Molly opted to pass on the trip at the last minute as the unknown four-mile stretch of bushwhacking and heavy loads weighed on her mind.  As I shouldered my pack, loaded down with alpine touring skis and boots, a packraft, vest, paddle, and camping gear, my mind raced back to our discussion of bringing super light weight nordic skis and boots for the Harding Icefield traverse.  We had elected to go with the heavier skis and boots for stability and support on the soft, punchy, July snow we expected to find.  Usually fitting into the ‘go as light as possible’ crowd, I instantly felt the uncomfortable weight of my pack bearing down on my shoulders and hips. 

We said our goodbyes to Molly and Tara with expectations of finishing our journey in four to six days.  It felt strange setting out at the start of a trip around 6 PM, knowing we still had over six hours of daylight left.  Both eager to get the skis and boots off our packs and onto the snow, we raced up the Exit Glacier trail with blue sky and sun breaks foretelling signs of improving weather.  2500 feet of elevation gain brought us up to the amazing expanse of the Harding Icefield.

One of only four remaining Icefields in the U.S., the Harding Icefield remains from the Pleistocene Ice age over 10,000 years ago.  It receives an annual snow fall of over 400 inches and is the source of more than 35 glaciers.  Warren Harding was the first president to visit Alaska, so the Icefield now bears his name.  The Harding Icefield covers an incredible 700 square miles on the Kenai Peninsula.  The expansive scale was immediately apparent to us after gaining the northern edge at the head of the Exit Glacier.

We donned our boots and skis, relieved to drop some weight off our shoulders, and began the trek across the Icefield.  Mystical clouds hung just above the jagged peaks in the distance, scattering the evening rays poking through.  I took multiple pictures trying to capture the mood of the stunning views far in the distance.  Skinning across the plateau, we made good time on the slightly breakable crust.  Around 9:30 PM, we stopped to rest, cook up our dinner of dehydrated bean burritos, and recover from the initial effort of gaining the Icefield.  Jan’s appetite was low, as he was not feeling up to par.  Perhaps we were a little too eager charging up the trail.  I was not about to let any of the beans go to waste, and overly stuffed myself hoping to build up an energy storage for the days ahead.  After setting out again at a slower pace, we elected to stop for the day close to midnight with the light and energy in our legs fading.  Coming from the lower 48, I struggled to sleep with an unfathomable amount of light left seeping through our tent walls the entire evening.

Evening on the Harding Icefield

After five hours of rustling around, I decided to start some water brewing, beginning the new day.  We set out early, attempting to beat the heat and to capitalize on the solid snow conditions found early in the morning.  Solid snow equates to faster travel and less energy expenditure, both of utmost importance to us traversing the Icefield.  Early in the day, we came across a fresh Grizzly track in the snow.  Jan wondered aloud, “What is he searching for way out in the middle of the Harding Icefield?”  As the day went on, I began to appreciate the immense scale I was dealing with.  Nunataks, or lonely peaks, in the distance stubbornly remained in the same place after hours of travel, not appearing to get any closer.  The sunny, bluebird skies were a blessing and curse, allowing spectacular views while overheating the snow and our bodies.  We were sinking deeper and deeper into the snow as the day grew on, decreasing our rate of progress.  Close to 3 PM, we pitched the tent to take a break, escape the heat, and wait for the snow to harden. 

What are the paddles for?

A plane flew by overhead, and we eagerly looked out to see if our friend, Jack, had found us.  Jack Hart, a good friend from Bend, is the Alaska Patagonia, Swix, and Salomon sales rep.  He was going to try to find us, and as we later learned, land and surprise us with a pizza.  Unfortunately, he was unable to find us.  I still wonder just how good would have that pizza tasted.  

 Nunataks in the distance (or is that Jan?)

After resting and refueling, we set out around 7 PM attempting to reach the Tustumena Glacier before the day’s end.  With the snow getting more solid by the minute, our pace quickened.  Incredible views rewarded us, with the fading light casting long shadows as the sun tracked low across the evening sky.  Crossing the ‘hump’ in the Harding Icefield, we were now heading downhill toward the Tustumena Glacier, a welcomed relief after trending slightly uphill for the past two days.  We made a couple of turns, whooping and hollering as gravity carried us closer to our goal.  By midnight, we reached the head of the glacier, and could see Tustumena Lake far off in the distance.  Pitching the tent next to a refreshing river on the glacier, we collapsed with the setting sun. 

Gravity assisted psych

After fueling up on oatmeal the next morning, we traveled down the Tustumena Glacier to its terminus at a small lake.  This proved to be much more difficult than we originally thought.  We encountered a labyrinth of crevasses, seracs, and bridges making our progress painfully slow.  In the middle of it all, I broke my crampon; some clever engineering was required to proceed.  An invigorating problem solving challenge replaced the initial feeling of desperation.  The first two prototypes of duct tape and thin string quickly failed.  Going back to the drawing board, I removed the thick shoelace from my ski boot and attacked the problem with the discipline of a seasoned engineer, while pushing nagging thoughts of desperation out of my mind.  Finally, a reasonable solution allowed us to progress down the glacier.  Turquoise rivers meandered in the snow and ice before vanishing into large sinkholes.  Jan tended to his silver dollar sized blisters plaguing his feet, never once complaining. 

— to be continued……