Sunday, July 5, 2009

Alaska Part 2: Passes and slogging.

We kinda suck at this blogging thing... I started writing the first installment on May 6, and it's now July 5. You probably remember more about our Alaska trip by now than I do. Still, folks will be interested, and many folks helped us out, so I'll motivate to get it together here.
So, picking up where I left off in part 1... It's now day 8, and we've resolved to move no matter what. However, it's really windy. The night between days 7 and 8 was waaay winday. We shored up our snow walls, tied down all our ski gear lingering outside and still had to try and sleep through lunging tent noise. It worked out and we managed to rest. And we had a bit of a reprieve that morning that we used to pack up. Visibility was ok, and we had taken pains to make a good navigation plan the night before in case we encountered poor visibility or even white-out. Now might be a good time to clarify some mountain terminology: A true white out can only happen in foul weather on absolutely featureless snow. It doesn't even need to be snowing that much, but in a true white out flat light and cloud/fog cover with maybe some snow falling make for a white sky while the snow on the ground completes the full globe of white. Just something to update the masses. So anyway, we went for it, moving camp in driving wind. It started out ok, but as we retraced our day 2 route back towards the cache of gear, we became more and more exposed to the SW wind. Our route soon went over a very broad pass. And so did the wind! It came at us relentlessly from our right, stretching the glacier rope out between us in a humming arc. It got gradually worse and worse until I was knocked off my feet and my tears were being ripped from my eyes. Annie strode along like a deranged and focused cowgirl-on-skis, her legs set 4 feet apart to provide stability. We regrouped at one point, tumbling together into a wind scoop in the snow, one big tangle of packs and rope and skis and whippets, shouting at each other. I swear it felt as though our 40 pound backpacks could have blown right out into Central Alaska if we'd let them! We pressed on and abruptly came into the wind shadow of a peak and it was almost bearable. Miles flew by at this point and it was only when we got to our stash of food and fuel that it got crazy windy again. We grabbed the supplies and aimed for what we thought would be a more sheltered campsite. It wasn't really more sheltered, but we made it work. First we set up some snow walls and then dove into the tent. We feasted on our new and exciting food and settled down for bed. But the tent kept flapping in the wind. I was worried we wouldn't sleep at best and at worst the tent might get damaged. I quickly volunteered to head out and dig us a shelter. The night in the shelter was much better than the tent would have been.
Day 9 we woke to much better weather so we packed up and crossed pass number 2. (we crossed pass #1 twice, once on day 2 with the canadians and once on day 8 in the wicked wind described above). Crossing pass #2 was techy and complicated, with some scrambling, lowering packs and then super steep, super firm skiing down to the next glacier. To top it all off, check out the swirling clouds and killer view!

From pass 2 we crossed the Sylvester Glacier, with a camp there, and then easily and quickly crossed our third pass. A quick and cruiser slog partway down the Tarr Glacier brought us to a dry-land, moraine camp underneath our 6th peak. We skied this peak in a side trip one morning. See the picture of Annie scrambling the last little bit to the summit, with pass 3 just beyond her left shoulder.
We started day 11 on that last peak (which, incidentally, held our best skiing of the trip- about 2000 feet of transitional but consistent winter snow). We finished that day in a whole new world! We slogged way down to where the Sylvester and Tarr glaciers meet the huge Nelchina glacier. Much lower in altitude, we now saw signs of rapid melting and watched avalanches sweep the hillsides every 10 minutes or so. We also saw bear tracks! Like I said, a whole different world than back up at barren, cold Turtle Flat.
On day 12 we left the glaciers finally. But it certainly didn't get easier... We had miles of boot-deep "isothermal" (read: slush) snow over basically gravel bar- not fun. After that, we had a few miles of melt-water over frozen beaver bog: more fun, but kind of nerve wracking. We camped that last night on dry gravel, surrounded by open water, squawking geese and even heard the clattering of moose hooves in the morning. The final day started out difficult, with again, open water, barely covered frozen bogs, and more melting ponds. Just as it seemed it couldn't get any worse, with 6-8 inches of water in the open, and gnarly bush-whacking on the "shores", we reached the point where a winter snowmobile trail headed to high ground! Salvation. Well, saved from the risk of our path melting out from under us. Then we just put our heads down and ground on towards the road. it was, of course, farther than we thought it would be, but the last miles moved more quickly as we had cell service and checked in back home a few times along the way.
Once at the highway, the second vehicle along picked us up! Thanks out to the trucker! A trucker, by the way, who had placed second in the Alaska State Truck Driver's competition. Back in civilization, we got back in touch with the world, hitch-hiked a little, rented a car, visited old friends, even baby-sat a cool little new friend. All in all, a grand adventure.

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