Looking Down: The Ice Below Us
Five years ago I was living in a no-longer-mobile trailer near the base of Mount Rainier. Truth be told, I’d actually never climbed ice and only considered it for the expanded opportunities I’d find in the high mountains. There, in the forests below Washington’s greatest volcano, I was learning more about mountaineering. Many nights I’d sit outside in the grass with my friend Jon- both of us dreaming of going far away to great mountain ranges across the world.
On a rainy September day, my mother arrived in Seattle and together we boarded a plane for Alaska. It was my mom’s lifelong dream to visit the Last Frontier. The only other person in my family to do so was my grandfather (her dad) who was once stationed in the Aleutian Islands in the Navy. For my mom the plane ride to Anchorage was the fulfillment of decades of wonder about Alaska. For me, it was a coming-of-age moment that would go on to reshape my entire life. Arriving in Alaska, I knew we’d curate a trip that matched her interests, and that mountain climbing was not happening. But in my own reality, Alaskan mountains were too big and too scary for a New England boy like me. I knew going into the trip that I was going to see & gain inspiration from the great mountains, and planned to return. I told my mom that just one day of the trip I wanted to go out hiking and she could spend the day gift shopping and relaxing.
It was now the first day of October and she drove me down the only road in Kenai Fjords National Park. The park is roughly the size of Rhode Island and sitting in the middle is the Harding Icefield at more than six hundred square miles. There’s a popular trail that hikes up to a view of the icefield. It was chilly and the wind weathered away at delicate autumn leaves which blew across the parking lot. Not a car in sight. My mother seemed a bit worried about me going alone, and for good reason, this area is plentiful with bears and they would make quick work of a non-Alaskan like me. I set off and slithered my way up the well-maintained trail. I saw my first-ever Alaskan bears which was very cool and certainly scary. But ahead was the icefield and I craved to see it. Eventually passing by the treeline, I picked up my pace in a colder wind and slowly coming into view was seemingly a sea of glacial ice. I’d never seen anything like it. It appeared to go on forever and great Nunataks (mountains surrounded by ice) stood proudly around its edges. Eventually the trail ran out and I was on a knob of rock and dirt, the nearest plant a ways behind me. I’d never felt so small in my life. I stayed only a short time. Glancing back from time to time on the way down, the icefield overwhelmed me. To think that the world was packed with great mountain wilderness such as this left me utterly inspired. Back into the bear-trodden forests, I hiked in fear back to the car. Shortly after making it down, while sitting in the empty parking lot, my mother arrived and one of the first things that came out of my mouth was, “Mom, I think I’m going to move to Alaska.”
Nine months later I showed up in Anchorage with a backpack, a duffel, and barely a dollar to my name. It was spring now and the mountains were covered in a melting snow. That summer I would begin to foster a deep relationship with Alaska that still grows today. I wrote this in my journal during the second day:
“For the last 24 hours I've been alone in Alaska. I'm really broke so I've been unable to travel in the most convenient ways, which in Alaska makes for quite the adventure. The locals have been kind to me and have shown care in helping get me to Valdez. I've boarded my ferry and I'm currently laying in a sun chair on the top deck, shoes off and jacket on, soaking in the Alaskan rays. The ferry is as wonderful as the idea of this place, small families of sea-otters float by lounging in the sun laying on their backs, sea lions flop onto the rocky coast, Dall’s porpoise zip alongside us for the better part of an hour sporting their nimble swimming, bald eagles left and right and the Dall sheep above on rocky slopes. In every direction peaks jut out of the water and I haven't seen another boat in 2 hours. This place is a dream. En route to Valdez.”
Follow the Water
Five years have gone by and because of my passion for water ice in the winter and work as a glacier guide in the summer, I have acquired the skill set & knowledge-base needed to explore Alaskan glaciers to their fullest potential. From high-mountain glaciated environments, tied together on a rope and delicately stepping across snowbridges, to kayaking in iceberg-choked fjords and in front of great calving faces, and even to living alone on the hard ablating ice of the Spencer Glacier- I have spent so much time around the ice that I find myself most comfortable when in its presence- a strange feeling for a human to have! What I did not realize that day gazing out at the Harding Icefield, was that it wasn’t a flat sea of ice. No! The brilliance of the glacier is under the surface. Unlike most climbing venues, the best climbing actually can’t be seen from afar: it's below you. Most often glacial ice climbing is overlooked as the eye scours the finned crevasse walls looking for climbing terrain. But in truth, you won’t see the best walls and chimneys until you are standing on top of them. This has become a fascination for me and each summer I look forward to it. Hint: Follow the water.
Glacial hydrology is a complicated and intricate system. Picture a glacier is like a block of swiss cheese: tubes and tunnels running through it. This is made by meltwater. In the summer, meltwater is hard at work carving its way downward under the force of gravity. In heavily crevassed areas, the meltwater slips down through the cracks, often not accumulating into rivers of notable volume anywhere near the surface. Climbing here can be dangerous, tedious, and unfulfilling. In my opinion, the best climbing is found in expansive plateaus or stretches of glacier that are long, flat, and with limited crevasses. This is because the meltwater from the surface finds its way to the low points and creates powerful glacial rivers. These rivers travel without hindrance, gaining more water sources along the way, and ultimately carving beautiful slot canyons and vertical meltshafts downward and boring them wider and wider. These meltshaft features are called “Moulins.” Moulins are highly lethal features that are to be approached with the utmost caution. Dangerous by nature, moulins are always to be handled with an extra emphasis on safety, rope systems, and an attentive mindset. (Author's note: always approach a moulin while anchored to your climbing rope on a robust 2 V-thread anchor).
Meltwater, as I’ve come to learn, crafts shapes more beautiful than the mountains themselves. The asymmetry presents itself in waves of blue and white, snaking and winding ever deeper. These surreal features appear to be sculpted by mother nature herself and no two are alike. From perfect vertical ice chimneys to vibrant blue canyons, the flowing of water against the ice has never ceased to amaze me. At times the raging torrent of great waterfalls is too much a challenge for us and we simply gaze in awe. Other times, the small streams on the surface guarding beautiful pitches are to be temporarily moved and we find ourselves hacking away with our tools, splashing frigid waters on ourselves as we reshape the rivers to make the moulins climbable. And sometimes we make note of a powerful growing moulin and return to it weeks, months, and even a year later to hopefully find it ready for an ascent.
The Only Way Out
When all is right, we drill hearty v-thread anchors and rap off the edge into the abyss, most often on a trusty Sterling Ion R 9.4mm rope. Ever lower, we continue on until the floor is found. Below the surface, with the ice protected from warm air and solar radiation, under an immense amount of pressure from its own weight, our tools and crampons require some extra effort to gain traction. And then the ultimate moment- we pull the rope and the only way out is by leading.
Swinging high into the firm blue ice, standing on just the very tips of our frontpoints, and burying certifiably strong ice screws along the way- we climb upward, the wet walls soaking our hands and clothing. Often the only thing that can be heard is the rushing of water nearby. Below, our belayer stands cold and wet on the slick vibrant ice. We claw our way over the sharp lip onto soft white ice and the katabatic wind of midday blows our clothing dry. Looking out, the other-worldly surface continues on in rolling hills of white ice and crevasses, mountainsides tower over us and a change into dry gloves is in store before belaying our partner up. For a moment, I think back to my former self, before Alaska, and it seems hard to remember. I recall the feeling of being small at the Harding Icefield, the same feeling exists each day out in the mountains here. Now looking down, to the ice below us, I call to my partner at the bottom of the moulin, our rope cascading meltwater as it dangles downward, its path guided by waving quickdraws, “On belay!”
More from Benny Lieber:
Benny Lieber takes a leap of faith and leaves life as he knows it to reconnect with his childhood dream: climbing in the big mountains.