Tough Times on the Harding Icefield
by Troy Henkels
When the stove burst into flames I knew we were in trouble. Although there was no eminent danger, other than burning the tent down, I was quickly able to douse the flames. Being well prepared, we had brought a back up stove, but despite repeated efforts, we could not get it lit. That's when I knew we were REALLY in trouble. As nighttime fell, it was -20F, we had less than a quart of water between us, and were at least three days from civilization.
My world had become a frenzy of expeditions all over the globe and I found myself wanting to get back to my 'roots' and do a small, simple expedition in Alaska. Something without sponsors, media, and big money involved. For years I had been wanting to do a crossing of the Harding Icefield near Kenai Fjords National Park. At 8 million acres, it's not a big icefield by Alaska standards, but still presented a big enough challenge to try to cross using kites, in a weeks time. My partner, Jason, a 24 year old seasoned Alaska adventurer, would accompany me.
On a sunny Saturday morning we chartered a small plane to fly us to our drop off point on the icefield. As Anchorage fell out of sight and the Chugach Range popped into view, the excitement in the plane was barely tolerable. After forty-five minutes in the air, the immensity of the Harding Icefield came into sight.
When the Cessna 185 finally touched down on the snow, it turned out to be the roughest small plane landing I have ever been through. The entire plane shook as it rocketed off hidden hard packed sastrugi underneath the skis. Jim, our pilot, inspected his landing gear to make sure he hadn't damaged anything and made sure he would be able to take off again. He said if he knew it was going to be that rough, he never would have landed. I believed him.
After unloading our gear and watching the plane fly towards the horizon, Jason and I knew what to do. We put on our harnesses and clipped in and started pulling our 150-pound sleds. The clear weather made navigating easy, but also meant there was no wind for the kites, so we were forced for two days to pull our sleds. Several ill-fated attempts to utilize the kites found us back to dragging the sleds.
By our second night the temps had dropped to -20F and it was still dead calm. We climbed into the tent and started our evening chores of heating up water to mix with our food and melting snow so we had water to drink. Without notice, the stove burst into flames. After the ensuing scuffle to put it out, I noticed a blown hose that would not be repairable in the field. We pulled out the back up stove and it would not even light....too cold. My mind raced, calculating the predicament we were in. Extremely cold temperatures, less than a quart of water between us, and at least three days from reaching civilization. We were in dire straits and potentially big trouble.
Prior to our departure, I had labored with the idea of bringing a satellite phone. Although it can be a lifesaver, I see it as a crutch to self reliance in the outdoors. Although I rarely have to use one, just having one on an expedition really changes the mental feel of the experience. Fortunately this time I had decided to bring one along. After a long discussion, we decided the only real option was to make a call. I only had to make one call, to my friend Dave (appropriately nicknamed SuperDave). Unwaveringly he asked, are you okay, where are you, and what do you need? When I answered, he said, I'll be there in the morning.
By 10:00am I heard a small plane coming in low across the horizon. Dave was trying to sneak up on us, but to no avail. He landed and pulled up within ten feet of the tent. He jumped out of the Super Cub dressed for the -15F temps, thrilled to be out on such a gorgeous Alaska day.
With two new stoves in hand and an updated weather report, we started dragging our sleds monotonously across the ice. This was to be our last day of sun before a low weather system would be moving in, so we wanted to get in as many miles as we could. One of the bigger challenges on Harding is getting off the Icefield. For this we choose 'Exit' glacier, appropriately named by explorers in 1910, who first crossed the Icefield and used this glacier as a means to get back down to sea level.
The immensity of the Icefield was evident. After skiing for six hours, it seemed we were no closer to the distant mountains than when we started the day. Some of the best Fata Morgana (mirages) that I have ever seen appeared and kept the distances illusive. After several more hours of heavy pulling, a light wind started to blow. Jason put his kite in the air and was able to finally use it to pull the sled to where we would camp for the night. As daylight faded we took turns setting up camp, while the other skied with the kite, all the while watching a spectacular sunset. As the wind died out, we watched a full moon crest over the distant mountains.
By morning, the mood of the Icefield had changed dramatically. As forecasted, the weather turned, and the light was flat with a low ceiling of clouds. We could barely make out the peaks that are needed to guide us to our departure point at Exit glacier, only three miles away. It takes us two hours to reach land and get off the Icefield proper. Our plan is to search for a summer tourist trail that traverses down the steep mountainside, back down to sea level. Our presumption is we will quickly find the trail and the expedition will all but be over, except for an easy hike back down to sea level. This was not meant to be.
Searching for the trail, we climb several steep slopes, hauling our 150 pound sleds behind us, which puts us both near the point of exhaustion. After a short break we start descending and before long are immersed in a maze of chaotic, near vertical gulley's and cliffs.
On such steep slopes, avalanches became our primary concern. Both of us being competent skiers paid off and we were able to ski and let our sleds utilize gravity and found our way down several steep sections. But the more elevation we lost the warmer, softer, and more avalanche prone the conditions became. Eventually we descend into a steep narrow gulley and find ourselves committed. There is no turning back from this point with the heavy sleds. Neither one of us could tell what was below, because it was too steep. Chances were good that there was cliff part way down the chute. Scouting the route only told me that it was manageable, but I couldn't quite see the entire chute. Jason went first and made it almost all the way down before he cut his sled loose and watched it tumble for several hundred feet down the mountainside before stopping in a gigantic pile of avalanche debris. Without the difficulty of controlling the sled he skied the chute no wider than four feet and nearly vertical. With crampons on my boots, I followed, and found it to be equally as dangerous. I too had to cut my sled loose at the same section, and watch it tumble and roll down the mountain. With deep breaths, we thought the worst of it was over. It wasn't.
As we pushed, pulled, and heaved our sleds through a wide chute of bizarre avalanche debris, we realized this ordeal was far from over when we ended up in a slot canyon, hemmed in by 100 foot cliffs on each side of us. When I scouted a route to get out of the canyon, I was stopped short, when it ended on top of a cliff over 200 feet high. With a beautiful icefall pouring off the face of the cliff, I knew it was higher than what I had rope for, and rappelling out of this predicament was not an option. So, we had to come up with another plan. The only way out was to climb one of the cliffs in the canyon and begin the arduous process of hauling our gear up the side of the cliff face. This was no easy chore. After climbing up, I set up a 6:1 pulley system and began the tedious, energy draining process of pulling up all our gear. In the meantime, Jason made several laps climbing the cliff, hauling some of the lighter gear. By the time we had everything out of the canyon, we were both past the point of exhaustion. We were both so utterly worn out from being on the move for ten hours, that we set up camp in a somewhat precarious spot right on top of the cliff and called it a night. After generous portions of food we slept like we were dead. Getting down from the Icefield had been challenging on a way higher scale than either of us had anticipated. And we weren't even all the way down yet!
By morning we were ready to be off steep terrain and back on level ground. Standing on a narrow ridge with steep cliffs dropping off on both sides, we knew this wasn't going to be an easy day. Dragging the sleds across the hill and sometimes uphill, desperately searching for safe passage off this mountain proved to be a staggering task, as we battled through knee and often times, waist deep snow. When we had gone as far as we could across the hillside searching, we ended up looking down steep cliffs that dropped straight onto Exit Glacier. While scouting which cliff was going to be most feasible to rappel off, I stumbled upon a steep snow filled ramp that skirted the lower part of a cliff and led all the way to the valley floor, 1000 feet below. We were home free. With relief, after another hour of exhausting and frustrating work of managing the heavy sleds, we stood on solid, level ground. We had covered nearly forty miles in five days without incident or injury. But, it wasn't over, there were still seven miles to ski on flat ground to get to a plowed roadway that would lead us into the town of Seward and civilization. But this seemed like easy going compared to what we had been through. Jason called it a "full on gnarly experience." Absolutely exhausted, all I could do was agree. This expedition turned out to be more challenging than either of us had expected.
At home two days later, I called Jason to see how he was recovering from our ordeal. His response came slowly, but assuredly. He said, "Dude, that was a cool trip, when can we go again?" That's all I needed to hear. Before we even hung up the phone, the maps were out, as we contemplated the next great Alaskan adventure. It just goes to show, it's not over until it's over.
Troy Henkels grew up in Dubuque, is a 1985 graduate of Wahlert High School and a 1989 graduate of the University of Northern Iowa. His next expeditions will take him snowkiting in Antarctica and across the Bagley Icefield in Alaska. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Originally published in the Telegraph Herald, Dubuque, Iowa on July 10th, 2012