Harding Icefield Traverse

The Harding Icefield has never been high on my wish list, mostly because I think it gets a lot of traffic and I’d rather explore more remote areas. I felt the same way about Denali. In both cases, I was very impressed with the destination, and left with an, “Oh, right, that’s why this is a major destination.”

And of course, on this Alaskan “major destination,” we didn’t see anyone else, just some snow buntings, a wolverine, and a handful of sheep.

caroline and pat

Caroline Van Hemert, Pat Farrell, and Leuko Tape

Sarah and I were joined by Caroline and Pat, who had set the week aside months in advance, thanks to Caroline’s mom watching their two kids. Caroline is currently promoting her new book, The Sun is a Compass. The book is about their incredible 4,000 mile journey from Bellingham to Kotzebue.

Caroline and Pat are probably my favorite adventurers. Besides being strong athletes who plan creative routes with technical challenges, what sets them apart in my mind is that the’ve built boats for their trips. They carried tools into the Yukon Territory and built a canoe to float out. They built row boats for the Bellingham to Haines section of their trip to Kotzebue. The part of me that grew up in a village has a ton of respect for that style— the ability to functionally create.

My favorite Caroline and Pat story is from their trip to Mount Fairweather. A food resupply box didn’t make it from Anchorage to Haines, so the ornery pilot took a grocery order over the satellite phone, shopped, and did an air drop. When the resupply arrived, Caroline and Pat found an unexpected 2 pounds of organic peas. The pilot thought the peas were a strange request, and bought organic because, “you seemed like that kind of people” (probably not meant as a compliment). The mystery was resolved when Caroline and Pat noticed that 2 pounds of cheese didn’t make it into the box. Here is calorieking‘s nutritional comparison of 2 pounts of peas (left) and cheese (right):

Seward to Homer

We started our trip in Seward, walking and skiing 7 miles of gated road, a few miles on the summer trail, and then weaving through crevasses on the Exit Glacier. Josh Mumm started later in the day and caught up as we were setting up camp. A unique aspect of this route is that you do most of the climbing in the first four hours, and then mostly cruise on flats.

We had excellent travel conditions, but still managed to complain about not having enough wind to use our kites. We borrowed 4 kites for the trip, Pat and I were especially excited to learn how to kite (thank you Rachel James, Todd Kelsey, Lars Flora, Jason Kwiatkowski!).

THis is the caption down here
Luc Mehl, Sarah Histand, Josh Mumm, Caroline Van Hemert, Pat Farrell
Wolverine tracks

We were able to use the kites three times. Each time had progressively stronger wind, perfect for learning. With Josh’s guidance, all four of us were able to fly right away. We weren’t able to cover much ground with the kits, but were able drop the packs and play. The kites were SO MUCH FUN! I felt kind of like I felt after switching from telemark to AT bindings, like, why the hell didn’t I do this years ago. I loved carving turns on the flat valley floor, using the kite to get air off of little bumps, and learning how to control the kite.

Kiting might be one of the fastest ways to reach Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi‘s state of flow. (I’ve presented some explanation of this reward vs. challenge space, audio file here). Flow is a state where a high skill level is used in a high challenge activity. The brain or body can kind of zone out, everything just happens subconsciously. The activity is immediately rewarding. In this case, focussing on the kite, I trusted my skis to do the right thing on their own. I also experimented with focussing on my skis, and trusting the kite, which resulted in accidentally getting airborne twice. I appreciated already being a confident skier before introducing the kite.

After leaving the Harding Icefield, we continued south on smaller glaciers. The terrain remained interesting throughout the route. We planned to exit on the Grewingk Glacier, which would provide an easy summer trail to access Kachemak Bay and a boat ride to Homer.

Skiing down the Grewingk was Sarah’s favorite part of the trip. We started with turns down good corn snow, then glided for miles on the just-steep-enough glacier. The crack-free route was obvious, and bordered by cool cracks and a medial moraine. Eventually we ran out of snow and worked our way left to hike down the ice.

Grewingk Glacier with a view of Kachemak Bay, Homer, and Iliamna Volcano

As of last September, Josh said that the Grewingk Glacier terminated below the end of a summer hiking trail. We arrived at the toe of the glacier to find several hundred meters of bedrock slabs between us and the trail. It was late and we really wanted to get this segment of the route finished, but there was no obvious way to reach the summer trail. We set up camp on a flat slab of ice at the water’s edge.

In the morning, we scouted our options. I climbed an apron of ice-cored moraine to determine if we could sneak along talus at the lake’s edge. We could not. We considered skiing back up the glacier so that we could take a known ridge exit, but it would make for a long day ( 20-miles?) . Pat and Josh scrambled above camp to a series of ledges separating bedrock slabs. They found a route through the slabs and set a fixed-line for one steep scramble connecting ledges. The route was excellent, and it was a huge relief not to have to add a 20-mile day.

After our trip, I saw a post from Hig about the rapid retreat of Grewingk:

There has been rapid retreat of Grewingk Glacier this winter – almost half a kilometer. The second half of this retreat happened in the past month, sometime around the middle of March, when the lake was still thoroughly frozen. Our warm winter is very likely a necessary ingredient for such an unusual winter retreat, but I think there’s a fair dose of coincidence – the ice was declining in stability all summer and it happened to cross a threshold in the fall when it separated from a bit of north shore where it was pressed against cliffs.

Spring exits on the Grewingk are only going to get harder.

The summer trail took us to a cable car river crossing, and, eventually, the beach.

We were met at the beach by Caroline and Pat’s friends Eric and Beth, who brought us to Halibut Cove for the night. We were self conscious about our stinky feet, so Eric set us up with a hose and soap. Beth cooked fresh gingerbread cookies.

Eric and Beth brought us to Homer the next morning and we worked our way back to Anchorage from there. Caroline and Pat flew to town so that Caroline could prepare for a book promotion event that evening. Sarah and I spent the night in Homer, eating well and visiting friends. Sarah and I borrowed clothes from Josh Mumm and shoes from Mike Mumm. I claimed we were The Three Mumms; Mike felt left out. But Sarah and I looked more like Josh in his clothes, and Mike just looked like Mike.

Mike Mumm drove with us to Seward to recover our two vehicles. Josh’s truck started up, then died. Josh and Mike went to a gas station to fill jugs, and when Josh poured gas in the tank it ran right through to the ground. The gas tank had been drilled from below while parked at the trailhead. The Mumms patiently considered their options and did some shopping at NAPA. Watching them troubleshoot, I concluded that their tranquility must partly be due to their experience managing equipment on fishing boats. Josh ended up threading a bolt into the drilled hole, with a plastic casing on the bolt that worked as a temporary gasket. Josh reported from home the next day, “Dry as a bone. Only problem is I’ll be tempted to leave it patched [rather than do a permanent repair.]”

4 Comments

  1. as far as glacier travel goes… How much experience should one have while exploring Harding Ice Field?

    1. That’s a tough question to answer, it depends on the group and time of year. The right thing to do is have a ton of crevasse experience already. However, the Harding is pretty benign in terms of crevasse hazards. Even so, I have friends that stayed roped up the entire time.

      At a minimum, I’d practice crevasse rescue (setting an anchor, using pruskis to climb, etc.) before a trip up there. Joe Stock has a nicely documented discussion of this at https://www.stockalpine.com/posts/crevasse-rescue-haul-system. The AMS glacier travel courses are a good way to learn as well. Or, you could hire a guide for the trip.

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