"Buy this book and read it on the plane (!)"
This was David's advice to me for our upcoming expedition to Alaska's Harding Icefield, emailed along with a link to Glacier Mountaineering: An Illustrated Guide to Glacier Travel and Crevasse Rescue.
I am no stranger to mountains, having grown up in Colorado and spent several seasons building trail, backpacking, doing biological research and writing in the state's stretch of the Rockies. But glaciers were a mystery to me—and the Harding is the largest icefield in the United States. Together with the more than 30 glaciers that flow from it, it covers 700 square miles of the Kenai Peninsula and may be a mile thick in places. A Google search yielded pictures that were both alluring and bowel-watering, but no travel accounts. What, I wondered, had I gotten myself into when I agreed to accompany author Craig Childs, David Stevenson, John McInerney and adventure photographer James Q Martin on a research trip for Craig's book exploring ancient human migration?
I wrote back to David, an experienced mountaineer: Should I do anything else to prepare? Probably not, he replied. Then, "Full disclosure: McInerney says that my default answer is, 'It will be fine.' When he hears me say that, he interprets it as, 'Stevenson is a lunatic, who has a death wish.' " Great, I thought, and bought the book.
So it is that in the last days of May, after last-minute shopping in Anchorage, a winding drive south to Seward, and an encounter with a woman who gives us a ukulele like a blessing at the Kenai Fjords National Park visitor's center, I find myself post-holing two heavy loads 3,500 vertical feet up a snow-covered ridge to our first camp. It feels good, the weight—a confirmation of my strength on a journey that is otherwise so new to me that I can't help feeling uneasy. When I finally release my pack from my shoulders, the icefield sprawls before me. Its vast whiteness gathers and scatters light, compresses and stretches distance, pillowing around the peaks of submerged mountains called nunataks and pouring in a blue-and-black-streaked cascade to the Resurrection River Valley as the Exit Glacier. My breath stops, stutters back.
The book informs me that this sort of whiteness can literally devour you. You may have to negotiate crevasses, which can form anywhere ice passes over an obstacle or changes elevation, and are sometimes disguised by snow. You may have to cross cracks called bergschrunds where ice pulls away from mountainsides, which tend to be hundreds of feet deeper than crevasses.
But the Harding will swallow us in a different way. The snow ramping onto it appears smooth and consolidated, so David and Q decide we don't need ropes. As we kick steps, passing an unearthly blue lake and eerie melt holes left by fallen rocks, I pester David about cracks and depressions in the snow, trying to learn to read it the way he has. After an uneventful hour, I realize that I have been running over the names of people and places I love in my head, whispering thankyou and thankyou and thankyou. I laugh at myself, wondering how long it's been since my mind was clear of all, save the things I'm grateful for.
By the time we set our second camp, clouds and flurries have merged sky and snow into a horizonless world—a blank sheet of paper marked only by the dark lines and dots of our bodies and tents. We hunker down and wake to the same the next morning and the next, joke about the absurd brightness of our gear: "Have you seen Craig? He was here a minute ago. But then he put on that orange jacket and poof!" Q and Craig ski restlessly in circles around camp to test our sleds and investigate what it's like to navigate by GPS alone. They blur within a hundred feet, disappear. When they return, we mug for each other's cameras in the tent, scribble in journals, grow sick of our stench, eat too much sausage.
Who crossed places like this thousands of years ago, when the Ice Age opened the Bering land bridge onto North America from Asia? Craig says the people who came may not have known they were migrating, may have been simply exploring or following prey. How much more dangerous their experience must have been without the tools we enjoy—Gore-Tex, precise maps, white gas, ice axes. And yet Craig suspects they were far better prepared than we could ever be. I laugh that our mantra should be WWABD: What Would the Ancient Beringians Do? Would they have waited out the storm? I ask. He's not sure.
To us, he says, this world is alien and inscrutable. But their survival would have depended on knowing its scents and signs, its weather and wind. Maybe they could smell the direction of the sea licking into Resurrection Bay, of green things growing, would have known they were closer to food and shelter by animal tracks in snow, a blown leaf melted into the crust.
Then, just like that, the clouds dissolve into a string of clear days that John dubs "the blue window." We finally make headway a few miles onto the ice, ski pack-free to the nunataks, whooping from the top of a small one where we sit on bare earth for the first time in a week. While Craig, Q and David climb a larger peak, I hunker with John in the lee of the first to draw—traveling with my pencil those mountains and glaciers too far to reach in our brief visit, trying to remember them as if I had leaned against their broken rocks, struggled through their snow.
Late that night, as the sun sinks low and we pass around a Nalgene of tequila, Craig hands me a baggie of coppery brown dust from Utah's Bright Angel shale. He loves the desert so much that he has brought it with him, has flung a handful from the top of the second nunatak. As he tells me this, I mix some of the dust with melted snow in my palm and paint it across my sunburned cheeks, then his, then Q's—the distance of our passage, from the red-rock Southwest where we live, to this icy, beautiful wasteland, closed to nothing in a few lines of mud, a red handprint in the snow.
A few days later, as we labor back down the trail towards our minivan and, eventually, the bars of Seward, I remember something I wrote during my last season of trail crew about fetching tools from 13,000 feet in the wake of a heavy winter storm. "After us: silence. Wind-sifted snow filled our tracks. When I glanced back at the mountain, my cold hands seemed suddenly small. And beneath my skin, the bones—nothing but pebbles in this place of vast time, grinding down to wind and dust."
But now I feel more elated than fearful. How strange and wonderful the tiny enterprise of each our lives, the way everyday moments add up across weeks, years, generations, eons, to movement across mountain ranges, icefields, continents. How strange and wonderful that journeys that once took so long now happen in a matter of hours. That you can fall asleep on a frozen sea with the desert still smeared on your cheeks.
This essay first appeared in High Country News.