Glaciers, Part II, Hiking

Blue sky, a summer day, and an invitation to walk around on a glacier. Such grand adventure! Yet, walking around on glaciers is precarious. Advancing or retreating ice edges are in constant flux, creating crevasses, hidden snow bridges, and steep, slippery traverses.

Ann on Root Glacier, photo by Christina Baldwin

We went to Alaska in June 2022 to visit family and touch the expansive wilderness of this northern continental rim with its raw edge of climate change. In my previous blog I wrote about paddling near one of the fastest melting tidewater glaciers in the world. In this blog I write about hiking on the Root Glacier in Wrangle St. Elias National Park. This is the largest national park in the United States, 20,000 square miles. Six Yellowstone Parks, or the states of Vermont and New Hampshire could fit within its boundaries, and only two dirt roads run into the park’s vast interior.

Mt. Blackburn and the glacial flow below, photo by Christina Baldwin

Christina’s brother, Ric, and sister-in-law, Kathy, drove us 60 miles on a dirt road from the SW entrance to our cabin. The morning of our adventure we walked across a foot bridge over glacial silt-laden waters, runoff from the expansive peaks of the park. Mt. St. Elias at 18,808 feet is the second tallest peak in North America. Mt. Wrangell (14,163 feet) is one of the three largest active volcanoes in the world. Nine of the tallest sixteen mountains in North America are located here, as are thousands of miles of glaciers and the largest ice field in North America (Bagley Icefield).

Crossing the bridge to McCarthy, Alaska, photo by Christina Baldwin

 

 A van from the St. Elias Mountain Guides picked us up in McCarthy, population 100, at the edge of the park, and took us lurching along the one-lane, five-mile road to the old Kennecott Copper mine where we would begin our hike to the glacier.

 

 

Hiking into the abandoned Kennecott Mine

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Our adventuring troop consisted of the four of us, a couple from Texas, and a couple from France. Our two young guides gave us a safety talk, fitted us with the crampons we would later need to walk safely on the glacier, and we headed out of basecamp. A two-mile trail to the glacier’s edge undulated through a young aspen, subalpine fir forest filled with wildflowers amid a distant backdrop of towering snowy mountains. The air temperature had warmed to 65 degrees F. and mosquitoes were beginning to hover. Our guides kept a steady, doable, “just ahead of the mosquitoes” pace. We stepped over the fresh droppings of both moose and bear, counting on the guides’ assurance that bears were not a problem in groups of eight or more.

A stream crossing on the way to the toe of the Root Glacier

After two miles, the forest trail opened to a view of the moraine, a blast of cool air, and the disappearance of mosquitoes. We zigzagged down the wet, gravelly footpath to the glacier’s edge and donned our crampons.

Christina putting on crampons as we transitioned from the two-mile hiking trail onto the toe of the glacier

The spikes of the crampons gripped the melting, slippery glacier, giving us confidence to hike on the ice. With each step up the gradual incline, the vista became larger and grander. Mt. Blackburn (16,800 feet) to our Northwest towered over us—a snowy giant standing aloof and seemingly inaccessible.

Gaining confidence as we work our way up the glacier, photo by Christina Baldwin

In 1912, a young east coast scientist and adventurer named Dora Keen climbed Mt. Blackburn in a skirt and lace-up boots! It took two tries for her and her party to summit, and no one has ever repeated their technical ascent of Blackburn’s south face. Here are two accounts of her achievement: 1) https://www.steliasguides.com/blog/alaska-spotlight-on-advenure-dora-keen-1912-first-ascent-mt-blackburn/  2) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dora_Keen

From a distance a glacier appears white and relatively smooth. Up close, the surface is dense, uneven, and in summer it is scattered with blown dirt. Occasionally there are small colonies of  “glacier mice.” Not really animal matter, the “mice” are a conglomeration of life forms from bacteria to mosses. Palm-sized, oblong moss balls, they always occur in groups, and actually “move” in tandem with one another—albeit at a barely discernible pace. The Root Glacier is one of the places these life forms are being studied, including miniscule radio tags used to monitor their movement even under mounds of snow. This article explains the studies in greater detail, including showing the radio tags: https://www.npr.org/2020/05/22/858800112/herd-like-movement-of-fuzzy-green-glacier-mice-baffles-scientists

A group of glacier mice

 

Holding an individual glacier mouse

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The encouragement to alternate our views from grand vistas to miniscule life forms emphasized the complexity of the glacier ecosystem. As neophyte adventurers, we would only venture about two miles up the toe of the glacier

Beyond the area where we ventured, the glacier had cracks and crevasses and snow bridges dangerous to traverse. Six or seven miles beyond us rose the Stairway Icefall. A wall of ice 7,000 feet tall! It is second in size only to the Khumbu ice fall on Mt. Everest.

Ric and Kathy Baldwin, Ann and Christina with the 7,000 foot Staircase Icefall behind us. guide photo

We spent several hours meandering over the terrain of this immense glacier toe. At lunch hour, we sat on ensolite pads while the guides dipped a pot into the aquamarine blue glacial pools to make tea, coffee, or hot chocolate.

Guide preparing hot water on a Jet Boil with glacier water for hot tea, cocoa or coffee

Numerous blue glacial pools, ranging in size from table tops to room size, provided water for our hot drinks and extraordinary beauty.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Eager lunch crew awaiting their drinks while sitting on Ensolite pads to keep dry

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Language goes mute in the face of this much grandeur. Pictures do it some justice. Stories elucidate my experience a bit more. But feelings of humility, awe, and respect are the jewels that I will carry in my wilderness heart forever. It was one of my most spectacular “God moments:”

As long as I walk this earth, I will do everything I am capable of to protect and love this precious planet. I shall focus on efforts large and small that contribute to earth-tending—whether in gardening the tiny parcel of land that I am privileged to live on, filling my soul’s reserve by walking or paddling in places of beauty, or sharing earth’s beauty with the next generations.

Closeup of Mt. Blackburn from the footbridge into McCarthy, Ak

Post script: It was a great privilege to do this trip. We had planned it for summer 2020 and then came the pandemic and my mother’s death. Originally, we had hoped to focus on Denali National Park, but in the summer of 2021 an underground rock glacier closed the road half-way into the park, which remained closed in 2022. When we first dreamed of this trip, I had no thoughts about back surgery. In two weeks I will have back surgery. Life keeps offering up changes. When big dreams call, answer them as soon as you are able.

Knowing that I would face back surgery at summer’s end, I was careful yet able to physically meet the challenges of the trip. I am ready for the surgery and in good shape and optimistic that my trekking and paddling days shall continue for some time. We also know this trip elevated our “carbon footprint.” We do not casually overstep our sense of sustainability. We constantly reassess the balance between remaining life dreams and remaining climate capacity. This year, Earth Overshoot Day (the date when humanity has used all the biological resources the Earth can regenerate in a year) occurred on July 28. Our actions contributed to that AND our daily life choices have helped keep that date at bay.

32 replies
  1. Gretchen Staebler
    Gretchen Staebler says:

    WowZers! What an amazing adventure. Stunningly magnificent. (And “only” two miles, on a glacier? Are you freaking kidding me? That sounds huge!) I’m so glad you got to do it. Thinking of you on surgery day, dear friend.

    Reply
  2. Laura Collins
    Laura Collins says:

    What an incredible adventure you have had, and what a treat for you to share a glimpse of it all in words and photos. Ann, I’m holding you in the Light as you face surgery and recovery. Much love to you.

    Reply
  3. Jana
    Jana says:

    Awed by your capacities (all four of you) as much as by the beauty. So glad you were able to make this adventure dream come true. Angels be with you before, during, and after the back surgery. Deep appreciation for sharing this story. It fills something in me in a way nothing else could.

    Reply
  4. Meredith Jordan
    Meredith Jordan says:

    Anne…I can hardly imagine such an adventure when, here in the Northeast, we have been in the midst of a hottest ever summer, much of it if sadly spent indoors because the sun has been dangerously hot and the air perilously stagnant. A walk across a glacier seems like something that happens on another planet, let alone across the country. Still, I delight in your adventures, greatly respect how mindfully you hold an adventure like this, and trust that you will have more adventures like this once your back heals from surgery. Thinking of you and Christina with great love!

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Dear longtime friend, Greatly appreciate your reflections from a hot northeast summer. It is awareness of all that is around us always that brings climate change into a personal focus—and that, it seems to me, is the important journey ahead of all of us. Ann

      Reply
  5. Bonnie Rae
    Bonnie Rae says:

    Oh my. Dora and glacier mice, the ice fall and those blue glacial pools. What a stunning place to set feet upon. It seems quite robust. Is there a preservation plan or will it survive climate change? I might have to make a plan to do this. Really awesome you were able to go and have such a rich experience. May your recovery be swift and complete.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Dear Bonnie Rae, These lands are within Wrangell St.Elias National Park. National parks are the highest form of land preservation in our country. Glaciers are the changing face of climate change. No way to really know how the Root Glacier will change in the years ahead. It only used to be a 1.5 mile walk to the edge of the glacier. Now it is a 2 mile walk. So, we do know the direction of change. Ann

      Reply
  6. Katharine Weinmann
    Katharine Weinmann says:

    In a recent conversation with a local woman Carol, (who apparently hosted you for a circle workshop years ago) I said you and Christina were two of the most intentional, thoughtful and values-aligned-to-living people that I had ever known. This post underscores, yet again, those qualities, both beautiful and so needed. Thank you both for your wise eldering. I, too, will think of you on surgery day. With much love…

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, friend. We remember Carol Secord well. Appreciate your kind thoughts and send back appreciation for your own steady, values-aligned walk in the world. Love,
      Ann

      Reply
  7. Suzanne Fageol
    Suzanne Fageol says:

    Thank you for writing about this experience – I could never do such trip so I am grateful to feel the magnificence of it through you and Christina’s pics. In gratitude – and prayers for oyur swift healing following your back surgery.

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      It was my hope to share the magnificence of this journey in a way that others could “feel” it. So, thank you for that high compliment. Ann

      Reply
  8. Anne Stine
    Anne Stine says:

    Thank you for the deep sharing, it invites us all to immerse ourselves in the beauty of the wild. You do this for so many of us. And yes holding you in prayer for a successful surgery on all levels. much love, Anne

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Thank you, Anne. My intent was to share the immensity of the experience and it warms my heart to read your words. Staying strong for my surgery. Ann

      Reply
  9. Diane Tilstra
    Diane Tilstra says:

    Dear Ann and Christina, what an epic journey! Always teaching us about the land and environment! I didn’t know about July 28th! So thank you for that awareness. Those iced peaks are so spectacular. I see you standing straight and tall without a bit of pain after your time of healing and planning your next adventure! With deep love…CW

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Appreciate the you took note of the July 28 date this year. Seems an important marker each year going forward. Thank you for your kind words about my surgery. Ann

      Reply
  10. Jane
    Jane says:

    Dear Ann and Christina…you two surely know how to create high adventure, while remaining respectful and aware of your impact on this Earth you love so deeply. Thanks for the amazing photos and descriptions. Will be sending love to sustain you both through your surgery and recovery ❤️‍🩹.

    Reply
  11. Bob Guy
    Bob Guy says:

    Ann,
    Only you can create such a narrative that places me in the very steps you made on your journey. Thank you for the imagery, thoughtfulness, and wisdom that you bring to each post. I am forever grateful to you and Christina for having Jeanne and me in your lives. We will be thinking of you as you undergo the surgery. All our love,
    Jeanne & Bob

    Reply
  12. Julie Glover
    Julie Glover says:

    Good job! You definitely took me along with you on this amazing trip (it helped that I too have walked across a glacier … there are no words…) But as I write this, I am feeling the chill of what it’s like being there! When hearing about your need for back surgery (oh, no!!!!) I think of how well you recovered from your foot surgery. So I am feeling very hopeful for you, at the same time I wish you didn’t have to to through this. Sending love and all good wishes! ❤️

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Love to know my descriptions resonated with another glacier walker. And, yes, I do well recovering from surgery, so am quite optimistic about this. Ann

      Reply
  13. Alison Bremner
    Alison Bremner says:

    What an adventure Ann! I so enjoy reading your blogs. I admire how resourceful you both are, and how you live your values so intentionally. Thanks for sharing your stories. All the very best for your operation and a full recovery. The recovery process will no doubt be a teacher as well. Be still and heal 🙂

    Reply
    • Ann Linnea
      Ann Linnea says:

      Bless you for your continued reading of our blogs, Alison. Indeed, the recovery process will definitely be a teacher. I am an eager, prepared student.

      Reply
  14. Jeanne Petrick
    Jeanne Petrick says:

    Ann, thank you so much for this deeper dive of this grand adventure! I really appreciate your story and perspective. Thanks for taking the time.
    Lastly, I am looking ahead for you, when the surgery is behind you as well as the rehab and you wake up one day feeling full of life with little or no pain or restriction! What further gratitude you will have for your strong and athletic self. xxx

    Reply

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