Current news – We enjoyed our visit to Walnut canyon, Arizona and then took the scenic route passing through Sedona, Jerome, Prescott and Phoenix. All of these will be blogged in due course. San Diego is our last stop and then we cross the border to Mexico. In the blogs back in Alaska we are on the outskirts of Seward. We are blogging as much as time allows but we have been to so many amazing places in the last 6 months it has been happening faster than we can document it.
Blog 293 Exit glacier 16th July 2013
The other walk that the guys we mentioned in our last blog recommended was Exit Glacier which was just on the outskirts of town and on our list anyhow. Without talking to them we would probably just have done the obvious walk up to the viewpoint over the terminal face of the glacier, we did that anyway but the walk they recommended was up to the Harding Icefield which was much more spectacular.
It was about lunchtime by the time we got there, Karen looked for a possible freecamp on the way up and bookmarked it on the gps in case we had to find it in the dark. It was lucky we did as the campsite marked on the map turned out to be a hike in only one so we could not have got the bike in there anyhow.
We both did the terminal face walk together which was impressive in itself. During that hike we spotted this red squirrel, we didn’t know that America had red squirrels although maybe it’s just a colour variation rather than a different genus. Red squirrels were the indigenous squirrel of the UK but ironically they were pushed out by American grey squirrels and are now only found in a few remote places in the UK hence our excitement of seeing this one.
Kev decided to go for it and do the big hike up to the icefield we could see at the top. We had been warned it was a hard hike so Karen decided she would walk up as far as she felt comfortable at a leisurely pace while Kev yomped up as fast as he could. That way we hoped we would be finished about the same time so we could rendezvous back in the car park. The signboards said allow about six hours for the round trip which meant Kev was leaving a bit later than was ideal but he was “on a mission”.
Kev sweated buckets climbing up there at pace much faster than he would normally walk something that steep but was determined to reach the icefield. Afterwards he said “at times it felt like my heart was going to explode out of my chest and my leg muscles were burning with the exertion but boy was it worth it”. Kev could see his goal at the top of the glacier and although there were many good photos to be had on the way up he knew he had limited time to reach the top.
On the route up and at the top the trail was covered in wild flowers and later snow in places, there were markers to follow the trail.
Kev also spotted this snow bunting at the top that was obviously well suited to the climate, they can feed in spring and summer on insects in the open ground but migrate in winter when it snows over.
Kev had never before seen an icefield (except from the air) and said it was a sea of ice and snow in every direction far beyond what he could physically see and he was just at one edge of it.
Harding Icefield is the source of Exit glacier and it also feeds 39 other glaciers which fan out in many different directions, it truly is a remnant of the last Great Ice Age. The area of the icefield alone is 300 square miles and if you include the glaciers it feeds it covers a whopping 1’100 square miles.
It was only discovered in the early 1900′s, In early 1936, a 27-year-old Swiss immigrant and future state senator named Yule Kilcher disembarked in Seward. He was headed for Kachemak Bay, where he intended to take up residence, but he was so intrigued by the icefield he had seen from the steamship that he vowed to cross it. Unwilling to wait two weeks for a coastal steamer, Kilcher walked to the Homer area (no mean feat in itself). After securing a homestead, he returned to Seward, and in late July he hiked up the Lowell Creek drainage toward the icefield with the intention of crossing it. Conditions at that time on the icefield overwhelmed him however and he was forced to abandon that attempt.
He obviously didn’t forget about his dream because in the spring of 1968, the first documented mountaineering party succeeded in crossing the icefield. Ten people were involved in the crossing, which went from Chernof Glacier east to Exit Glacier. Expedition members included Bill Babcock, Eric Barnes, Bill Fox, Dave Johnston, Yule Kilcher and his son Otto, Dave Spencer, Helmut Tschaffert, and Vin and Grace (Jansen) Hoeman.
Only four Bill Babcock, Dave Johnston, Yule Kilcher, and Vin Hoeman hiked all the way across the icefield. The expedition left Homer on April 17, bound for Chernof Glacier; eight days later, they descended Resurrection Glacier which was renamed Exit Glacier as it was the parties exit from the icefield and arrived in Seward. Along the way, the party made a first-ever ascent of Truuli Peak, a 6,612—foot mountain that protrudes from the northwestern edge of the icefield near Truuli Glacier.
This wouldn’t be the last we heard of the Kilcher family as we will explain in the next few blogs.
An estimated 200 inches of snow fall on the icefield annually because of the massive area of cold ice any passing precipitation turns to snow .
Even though it was a warm day you could feel the cold wind coming off it.
The extreme cold of the ice makes air sink creating what’s known as a katabatic wind which flows downhill along the glacier also under the force of gravity. Kev said he felt very small and very privileged to be up there.
Glaciers crack and groan as they too continue their inexorable movement under the forces of gravity. The icefield is the reservoir that keeps them moving backing millions of tons of ice and snow up behind them. The snow builds up in layers and the weight compresses the snow beneath it into solid ice. Although it seems solid and immovable that ice slides down the mountain in slow motion carrying in it huge boulders which scour the rock below. Fragments of rock break away underneath the ice and act like abrasive grit literally reshaping the valley under the ice. The glacial bottom layer partially melts under the huge pressure which allows it to become supple and mould to the land beneath it, it is this fight between the layers in the ice which forms crevasses. Some of Exit Glaciers crevasses are over 100 feet deep and even today no one is sure how deep the ice and snow on Harding Icefield actually is. Glacial cut valleys are normally a distinctive U shape rather than the V shape a river cuts.
Like many glaciers Exit has receded massively in the last few hundred years, as we rode into the car park there were signs marking where the terminal face was in the early 1900′s that were literally hundreds of yards away from where it is now, it is thought at one point it ran right down to Seward.
Although the general trend is for Glaciers to be retreating there are however Glaciers around the world that are bucking that trend and growing in size.
The amount of snow that falls on the icefield versus the rate of melt at the terminal face regulates the size of a glacier and governs whether they advance or retreat. Exit glacier has a small river at its terminal face but some Glaciers have huge lakes at their end and some literally drop into the sea which we saw later on in Alaska.
Kev spent about ¾ of an hour at the top absorbing the view and taking pictures before it was time to return. We both managed a self-portrait but without each other to take the photo they were balanced on rocks and not the best images. The whiteness of the snow affects the cameras lightmeter and confuses it.
We found each other in the car park later despite having no means of contacting each other as only one phone had an Alaskan sim card. Karen had a jolly good hike too and had done really well, she got as far as the meadows about half way up.
Here at the meadows Karen had a spectacular view down onto a really blue part of the glacier. In crevices the ice appears a deep blue caused by all the colours of the spectrum being absorbed by the thick ice except blue.
From Karen’s vantage point she could see people on tours walking out on the glacier and even the steps carved in the ice.
We got back down to the possible free camp around dusk, others had obviously camped there before and as eagle-eyed Karen scouted out where best to put the tipi she found $10 someone had dropped. Bonus ! Not only did we save $10 camping fee but we made $10 profit as well.
Next up – Homer beckons