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Crawling Around a Glacier

June 28, 2013

So the last post was cut short due to the constraints of time. I was typing it up this past Sunday at a lovely cafe in Eagle River – Jitters, you have my heart – but had to leave in enough time to make it for an evening briefing before our first day on the ice. I still wanted to get something up as some folks were anticipating it, so there it is.

As promised – an encounter with a porcupine.

Prior to heading out to the glacier I was a bit nervous – mostly with thoughts that were psyching me out instead of up, my mind running through worst-case scenarios: what if the ice breaks? What if there’s a caving event and half of our team falls in? What if wampa beasts are REAL and we’re disturbing a herd’s habitat?? But come Monday morning all those fears were laid to rest and I just suited up for the job like on any other mission – except this time I’m suiting up in clothing to keep me warm as well as a bit of mountain-climbing gear.

Since we’re walking around on an epic-scale ice cube with no snow, we have to wear cramp-ons. They are some wicked-looking things, too – you’d not want to receive a kick in the shins from someone wearing a pair of those.

So we met up in the parking lot and drove over to the airfield. Every morning when we get over there we have a morning briefing with some folks from ALCOM, discussing the day’s plans and the general progress of the mission. Each afternoon we have a debriefing with the same folks and make any necessary adjustments for the next day.

After our morning briefing we then suit up the rest of the way – putting on the gaiters, our harnesses and if we need them, jackets. I say “if” because sometimes it’s cool in the mornings and cooler out on the ice, sometimes it’s actually quite nice and warm. I think all of us have sweated at least once while hiking around out there.

THEN we load up into a Blackhawk helicopter! This has been my first occasion to fly in one of those birds and whoo, doggie, what a cool thing. First off, they just look mean. Not like, cruel, but you can tell all the other helicopters let the Blackhawks go ahead of them at the heli-cafeteria; they mean business.

The Blackhawk is the second kind of helicopter I’ve ridden in; the first is the Mi-17 (pronounced in the sense of “do, re, mi”). I prefer the Blackhawks. The first time we went up I didn’t even realize we were in the air until I looked out the window and the ground was quickly falling away. We go from JBER over a bit of mountains and down to the glacier.

Let me tell you about the mountains – they’re beautiful and they’re huge. But there is something…foreboding about them. The mountains in Laos are lush, green, verdant – more like Lothlorien at their best, like Mirkwood at their worst. The mountains of Alaska, at least around Anchorage, make me think of the Misty Mountains. I feel like at any moment I could look down and see the stone-giants playing dodge boulder. But the glacier…whooooooo….let me tell you about the glacier.

Our main guide, Roger, describes the glacier as a living organism – and I can absolutely see that. It has veins and arteries of water running in all manner of directions within it; the terrain changes daily; the ice has its own way of talking as it groans, creaks, cracks and sometimes crumbles. The one we’re on is called a “naked” glacier – it’s all ice, no snow – and rock. Rocks that have been churned up from beneath the ice now rest on the surface until it all changes and they fall into newly-formed crevasses or get caught in the moulins, or underground streams, sometimes rivers.

The rock-frosted ice field makes me think of Mordor in winter. If the glacier was a living organism it’d be the grumpy grouch that couldn’t care less about you unless you did something to irritate it, in which case it’d cause you to trip, slip or otherwise stumble onto an uninviting surface. Or if you really got on its bad side and stepped somewhere you shouldn’t, it would swallow you whole in an instant of collapsing ice. All of the guides have said that if you end up in a moulin it’s the curtain call for your time on life’s stage.

On the other hand, if you’re in the know and have good guides with you, you and that glacial beast can get along just fine – and so far, we have! One of the mornings I misstepped and whanged my left knee on a rock, but at least I had a kneepad on and only bruised it.

So, our work consists of searching through the rocks for any possible physical evidence. All of the rocks, of course, are on the ground. Therefore we crawl most of the day, using trowels to scrape through piles of rock, flipping over the larger stones, and I must confess I get a significant thrill out of chucking large stones into larger bodies of water. Even the smaller ones make a satisfying, “ker-PLUNK!” when hitting the right depth of water.

Oh! and the water – it’s so blue! I mean bluer than the Pacific on its best day – it looks unreal! There are some areas where I just want to strip to my boxers and go for a swim because it looks so lovely, but verily it’s a siren of the eyes because I can attest to that being some cold, bone-chilling water.

The whole area is humongous. The glacier’s flowing north (which is weird in and of itself in my mind because on a map it’s flowing up (unless you turn the map upside-down but then that’s weird because then north is pointing down)) and feeds into Inner Lake George. Facing the lake, to the left is this area of humongous…I don’t know what to call them…ice…towers?? Segments? I don’t know – it looks kind of like gigantic marshmallow fields. The main glacier we’re on reminds me of Mordor; this other marshmallow-looking area I’m describing reminds me of some weird, magical, otherworldly place where an eccentric ice wizard would dwell. To our right are a couple of rather steep, ridiculously tall mountains. Sometimes we see sheep grazing out there. One day we saw some kind of creature, looked kinda sheepish, ambling down the side and then it appeared to stumble and just disappeared. It was a bizarre pratfall and all who were watching did that weird, abrupt “WTF?” laugh.

Sometimes I imagine I can see fish or some kind of creature swimming in the streams, but if I ever did it would be highly unusual and I’d probably have to submit to a drug test.

At the end of the work day we gather at the LZ and wait for the bird to come and pick us up. The other day I got to ride up with the crew chiefs and wear a commo headset. That was cool. And you know how in movies helicopter pilots always have a dry wit and corny, sometimes blue sense of humor? Well, I think the movies actually get that part about the military right every time. The pilots and crew chiefs are pros and know what they’re doing; it’s all like a well-oiled machine. And they keep up a witty banter and it just tickled me to see that actually happen in real life.

Oh yes – and the views. I touched on this earlier, but here it’s not so much the mountains that are impressive, but the valleys. I really like the valleys, the snow motion and the way the light plays around the peaks. And there is a definitive line, going from green, snowless mountains then – BAM – you’re in the Ice King’s realm.

Well, only a handful of days remain in the current schedule. That may change depending on the weather, such as today when I’m able to write this up because some low clouds kept us from flying. The forecast is foreshadowing foreboding portents for the next couple days, so we’ll have to try and foresee the circumstances but I’m not sure how strong the Force is with our resident Jedi. As always, we’ll see.

In short, though this may be the most brief mission I ever go on, it’s been one of the most interesting. Laos was a crazy difference in culture, this…this is like living in a dream almost. Not like, “OMG! It’s a dream come true!” but more like one of those odd, waking dreams. And odd is not a bad thing in my book; it’s actually quite good.

In short…er,…again…I really dig Alaska.

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PICTURE TIME!!

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This is one of the Blackhawks we ride in each day. This is it leaving after dropping us off.

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Winter in Mordor

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Moulin Blue!

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Crevasse!

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Unrealistically blue water that’s clearly real because, well, there it is.

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The ice dragon lives!!!

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“Get to the choppa!”

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“Far over the misty mountains cold
To dungeons deep and caverns old
We must away ere break of day
To seek the pale enchanted gold.”
– Song of the Misty Mountain

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2 Comments
  1. Looks absolutely amazing. Jealous!

  2. Melanie permalink

    Love the description. My niece liked listening to the adventure too. Great writing.

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