On April 14th Wayne, Carrie, Yvonne and I left the parking lot at Portage Lake at 10:30 am and skied across Portage Lake. It was one of those rare days in Portage: perfectly calm, clear and not a cloud in the sky. We were laden with heavy pack – 6 days of food and fuel, climbing gear, glacier travel gear, skis and sleds. Our original intention was to ski out onto the Ithmus Icefield and attempt Carpathian and possibly Isthmus – the second tallest peak on the Kenai Peninsula.
It took us about an hour to get across the lake and then we worked our way up to the toe of the Bard Glacier. At the base of the glacier we toyed with the idea of roping up, but we had all been there before and were comfortable with the conditions. So up we went – taking turns breaking trail and slowly working our way up the glacier. It was relatively fast going, the snow having a firm crust on it – but as we got higher the snow began to get deeper and less consolidated.
Around 12:30 we reached the base of the S fork of the Burns glacier and stopped to put on jackets and rope up. Then up we went, twisting our way through an icefall and then ascending a steep headwall to gain an upper plateau which we continued up. The snow was deep – even with skies the trench was almost calf deep. The first person with the sled had an especially hard time as the sled would inevitably turn on its side and get dragged along at a 45-degree angle.
We climbed around 2,000′ up from the Burns to a level area just at the edge of the Concordia Glacier and encountered high winds. After conversing with everyone, we opted to descend 200′ to a more secluded spot and set up camp for the night at 3,200′.
We quickly dug a deep pit, erected our tents and crawled inside, cooked dinner, melted 4 quarts of water and promptly passed out. In total we skied around 7 miles and climbed approximately 3,000′.
At 4 am Yvonne and I woke to a totally buried tent. My tent, which is hardly large enough for 2 people was reduced to half its size by a crushing weight of snow on either side of us. Yvonne called the first round of shovel duty and literally had to tunnel out of the vestibule. Outside everything was buried and she had to hunt for a while to find the shovel. She then proceeded to dig us out and an hour later crawled back in the tent exhausted.
At 7 am we woke again to a fully buried tent and I crawled out and began shoveling. I dug us out and then Wayne and I stomped two large trenches around the camp permitter (to catch the drifting snow), beefed up the walls with our sleds and climbed back into the tents. We discussed moving, but the high winds didn’t make us to keen to continue.
Mid morning, after yet another turn at shovel duty, we all piled in a tent and discussed our options. With the unconsolidated snow and high winds, climbing was out of the question due to high avalanche danger – so after looking at maps and discussing various possibilities, we opted to instead attempt a traverse of the Ishtmus Icefield. From our present camp we would cross the Spencer, ascend a pass East of Isthmus and then ski south down to Ptarmigan valley and out Paradise to the Seward Highway. We had previously mapped out the trip and knew it to be a total of 55 miles and Wayne had actually already programmed the route into his GPS. However – we opted to wait out the weather for a day in the hopes that tomorrow would bring lesser winds and in the hopes the the wind would turn the deep unconsolidated powder into wind blown sastrugi snow.
So back in the tents we went to spend a day reading, sleeping and shoveling. Around 4 pm the winds died down and the day became quite enjoyable. Temperatures dropped and the night was crisp and clear. We set the alarms for 6 am and fell asleep.
At 6 am we were up and cooking breakfast and by 9 am we had broken down camp and were skiing up glacier to the pass. The day was partly cloudy but quite beautiful with Prince William Sound to our east and the rugged ice clad Chugach to our south. It took less than an hour to reach the pass where to our surprise we encountered a party of 6 descending. They had started at Blackstone Bay (after getting dropped off by boat), skied up the Blackstone Glacier to the Spencer and were now headed for Whittier.
At the top of the pass the wind picked up and it began to gently snow. We then set off and quickly skied 5 miles downhill to the confluence of the Blackstone and Spencer Glaciers. Carpathian Peak loomed to our west and we skied past looking enviously at the South Ridge. Once we reached the confluence we turned due south and began trudging uphill towards the pass. Isthmus and her beautiful north ridge drifted in and out of clouds but after less than an hour we were in a total fog and the snow was beginning to pick up.
We skied for two hours fully navigated by GPS and after reaching “Point 17” that had been programmed in, we dug in for the night. We had a feeling we were in for a long night so we dug deep and and plowed two deep trenches around the camp perimeter. We then melted water, cooked dinner and passed out to the gentle sound of snow falling on the tent.
At 2 am we awoke to the now familiar feeling of a collapsing tent. It was my turn for early morning shovel duty so I dressed and crawled out of the tent. This time we were smart and had cached the shovels inside the vestibule. I grabbed a shovel and then began tunneling my way out of the tent. Outside it was ferocious: the wind was howling and snow was swirling around everywhere. The tent was almost fully covered so I went to work. An hour later I had excavated the tent and moved on to re-dig the perimeter trenches. After 80 minutes of continual shoveling I crawled back into the tent fully exhausted and soaked.
At 6 am the tent was once again fully buried, so Yvonne dressed and shoveled her way out of the tent. An hour later she crawled back in, also exhausted and soaked. The snow was very wet and heavy and everytime someone stepped outside they immediately got soaked. I sat up as she climbed back in so I could brush the snow off her back and give her room to remove her soaked clothes.
The storm showed no signs of letting up so we decided, based on our low supply of food and fuel, to not attempt the traverse and instead opted to take a weather day and try and get all the way out the next day.
So we passed the day taking turns shoveling every few hours. At 5 pm the storm abated and the sun came out for 45 minutes. We quickly moved everything outside and hung it up in the sun in the hopes of at least partially drying our gear. However – the sun was quickly replaced by clouds and more snow so back in the tent we piled. Just before bed I dug a huge trench around the tent in the hopes of collecting the snow so we wouldn’t have to get out in the middle of the night and shovel. We cooked and once again fell asleep to the sound of snow.
At 5:30 we were awake and cooking breakfast. It was still cloudy and snowing but there were no winds and it looked like the clouds could potentially burn off. We broke down camp and by 8:15 were skiing down glacier. The clouds were thick and it began snowing heavily so we relied fully on the GPS to get us back to our first campsite. Going down glacier was fast going – but then we had 5 miles of slow steady uphill plodding to reach the Spencer / Burns pass. Yvonne and I slowly plodded along breaking trail while Wayne and Carrie skied behind us – occasionally shouting left or right to keep us going in the right direction. We plodded along for hours – stopping every now and then to make sure both rope teams were close enough to hear each other so directions could be shouted back and forth.
At 3 pm we made the pass and began skiing downhill. We skirted far left to avoid the icefall on the Concordia Glacier and then started downhill. Unfortunately we were too far to the West and at one point, Yvonne, who was leading suddenly let out a shout and dove backwards to self arrest – not a mere feat when on skies and hauling a sled and heavy pack. A few feet ahead of her was a gaping crevasse. I belayed her back up to where it was safe and we skied further East to avoid the cracks. At 4 pm we reached our old camp and sat down to eat, drink and rest a bit.
We set out again 30 minutes later and began descending in a pure white out. Going down we knew we had to navigate a gentle ramp inbetween two icefalls. After an hour of travel it became apparent we were off route. What should have been a gentle straight forward route had turned into an up and down meander through a serac fall zone and crevasse field. We wandered around aimlessly for close to an hour – and then, to our luck, the clouds began to lift and we suddenly found that we were way too far to glacier left and in the middle of a huge icefall. However – with visibility we were quickly able to find a safe route down and Wayne lead us out of the icefall and back to the gentle ramp we had originally ascended. An hour later we were back on the lower Burns and had unroped and were zipping downhill with the occasional turn. Getting off the glacier proved a little tricky in the soft afternoon snow – but soon we were down and making our way back to Portage Lake.
We made it back to the car at 9:30 pm – 13 1/2 hours and 18 miles later!
This was one of those lessons learned trips where we learned to never venture up onto an icefield without a bomber weather forecast. We went back and climbed Carpathian a couple years later in perfect weather but I have yet to venture back to the Spencer Glacier. Joe Stock did this icefield traverse in an 18 hour marathon a few years back and that’s the only way I’d head back there. Choose a perfect weather window and run like mad. Take skinny skis, a bivy sack and don’t ever plan on stopping. If you do have to camp up there make sure high pressure is forecasted for at least 3 days.