Accessing the Eklutna Glacier

100 years ago getting on the Eklutna Glacier was a total stroll. Ride your pack horse around Eklutna Lake and well before the valley chokes you could get up on the glacier and be tromping up ice with nary a thought about rock fall. Even in the 60s you could still drive around Eklutna Lake and get a glimpse of the glacier from the river. Of course things changed rapidly in the past 50 years. And anyone who has been climbing back there in the past 20 years knows that it has been changing really really fast in the past few years.

My first glimpse of the glacier was in the mid 90s. We biked around the lake and then hiked up the climbers trail to the bench overlooking the basin below Mitre Mite. The glacier, broad and easy to access, was a stones throw away. I didn’t actually get up on the Eklutna until a few years later. We did the Eklutna Traverse and came down the glacier which was a simple tongue of blue ice leading to easy moraine leading to the basin below Miter Mite. It was a mindless descent which in mountaineering speak means you can zone out and enjoy the views and focus on what kind of pizza and beer you’re going to order instead of worrying about anchors and moulins.

A couple years later I went back and climbed Freer’s Tears – that wonderful ice climb that is at the top of the Bellicose/Benign drainage. To access the gully we had to traverse just below the tongue of the glacier and glacier ice extended well past the base and partially up into the gully. Since then things have gone changed fast. The ice has made a hasty retreat out of the basin which has in turn exposed the bottom of the Bellicose/Benign gully which has turned it into a nasty gully of steep loose car sized boulders. Even before the glacier was in full retreat mode this gully was terrible. The top was 60 degree frozen kitty litter, now it’s 60 degree loose car-sized boulders topped by 60 degree melted kitty litter. Go near it and you can understand why it has seen at least one near fatal accident.

Apart from those two forays onto the glacier it had been near a decade since I had last been up on the glacier. And so when we headed up there in May 2013 we asked around and were told what gear to bring and what to expect. Gear included steel crampons, ice tools, ice screws and v-thread tools. In other words – expect the worst. We set out with all the above plus more and found pleasant ski conditions from the river all the way to the glacier. Once at the toe of the glacier we harnessed up but left the rope in the pack. We were then able to z-track up climbers right side of the glacier and traverse along the toe of the glacier until reaching a ramp that put us within spitting distance of the flat ground above. Skis on pack, 1 short simple step over an ice fin and we were on the glacier with little effort.

Eric coming off the Eklutna in May 2013.

Retreat down the glacier was just as easy. We carved turns unroped down to within 50′ of the ice step, roped up, placed one screw for protection and then downclimbed to the moraine bench where we threw on the skis and carved turns down the side to the glacier toe.

All the woes of accessing the Eklutna Glacier were forgotten and before we knew it we were back down to the flats and focusing on pizza and beer.

A couple months later we opted to head back up on the glacier with the intention of climbing Benign via the “Flatiron gully” route. Supposedly the Flatiron gully route is moderate and safe(r) – whereas the other route that has become standard, the waterfall route (a gully in the vicinity of Serenity Falls), has a long exposed section of 3rd and 4th class and some vertical alder climbing. Note that I don’t mention the Bellicose/Benign gully. This shouldn’t be attempted anymore. This route has become a death trap and even in mid-winter this route remains a death trap. If you’re dying to climb Freer’s Tears be aware that the objective danger on the approach is through the roof. The same goes for the Shroud route on Bellicose. Bellicose should be accessed via Wall Street instead of via this gully.

Anyways… We headed back in July to try the Flatiron route which is the gully that is south of the Bellicose/Benign gully and it is accessed via a bench on the west side of the Eklutna at roughly 3500′. And since we had easily accessed the glacier in May I thought it would be easy and thus to save weight packed lightweight crampons, a 3rd tool (instead of a legit ice tool), 30m of rope (instead of 60) and left the v-thread tool at home.

Biking around the lake in July is certainly easier than in May and within an hour we were ditching the bikes and wading out in the Eklutna river. Which is where the troubles started: Eric waded out into the river first, pushed through and soon was standing on the opposite bank stumbling around trying to get the feeling back in his toes. It should be noted that Eric is about 6 inches taller than me and probably 4 times as strong. The water came up to his waist. I pushed out into the water and it came to my belly button. And it pushed hard – like stumble and catch myself with trekking poles hard. I made it across without an incident – but noted that below our crossing was a canyon of Grade IV rapids and that there was no way I would repeat the crossing again.

From there we made quick progress up the faint climbers trail to the basin below Miter Mite. Whereas we had ascended the frozen river in May, we were now forced to scramble over steep polished rock – but travel was easy enough. Once in the basin we had to once again cross the river, but this time the crossing was all of knee deep and easy.

Then the fun started. What in May had been a simple skin now required a traverse across a shifting groaning rock glacier. The traverse started with a jog across the Bellicose/Benign gully to a safe-enough zone where we transitioned from sneakers to mountain boots. Then up and across the rock glacier which consisted of glacier ice covered with mud and rock that shifted with every step. It should be mentioned that above the rock glacier is wall of loose rock that is routinely shedding the ubiquitous microwave-sized block.

Eric approaching the Eklutna July 2013. Note the rock glacier and gully.

The rock glacier is one of those glaciers where you can’t decide whether to wear crampons on not. If you choose to wear crampons every step feels like you’re going to slip on a rock, rip crampons off boots and take a tumble. If you opt not to wear crampons it feels like every step you’re going to slip on ice and take a tumble. It should be noted that taking a tumble is not an option.

Eric psycing himself up for the rock glacier.

And so across the rock glacier with one eye on the wall above and one eye on feet below (occasional glances to the maw of glacier below). The worst of the rock glacier only lasts for about 500′, then you’re on moraine with less risk of rockfall and can work your way over to the ice fins. Once at the ice fins, dig out the rope, screws and ice tools. Or if you’re like me, and naively thought that getting on the glacier would be easy, stand at the base and sheepish announce that you can’t lead this because your crampons are about to rip off with every step.

Approaching the ice fins.

Getting up the ice fin requires about 75′ of mellow ice with a short vertical step at the very top. Once on top you keep working your way up the fin for about 300′ of 30 degree ice. Again a rather mellow prospect with the correct gear… but not so mellow if you’re convinced your crampon is going to blow at any second. It should once again be noted that taking a tumble is not an option.

And then you’re there. Once up on the flats in mid-summer you can put away the rope and easily walk up the glacier since all the crevasses are well exposed.

Second icefall / around 3000′.

The Eklutna Glacier is rapidly melting and retreating up the canyon. Glacier access is no longer an easy walk up with crampons. Current inherent hazards are deep crevasses, deep undercut bergschrunds, moulins, steep ice, churning water, and mud on top of steep ice. The lower route is changing every year. Within two years the ice bridge over the river in the canyon will probably be gone, which will create additional hazards and require more route finding.

Climbers should be prepared with steel crampons, two ice tools (or ice tool with sharp snow axe), a rope for climbing, belaying and/or rappelling and the hardware to do such (ice screws, V-thread material, belay device, harness, helmet, etc.). Snow might fill in some of the smaller hazards, but might just cover the larger ones.

Overall the Eklutna Glacier is thinning, which is creating more crevasses, especially below 4,000 feet. Roped travel on the snow – covered glacier is highly advised.
Eklutna Traverse and Pichler’s Perch Access Hazard – By Wayne L. Todd (Scree October 2011)

We didn’t make it anywhere near the Flatiron gully. It had taken us 5 hours to get on the glacier proper and we estimated from glacier toe to summit would take us another 8 hours, so after tromping around on the glacier for a while we turned and headed down.

Getting off the Eklutna in July requires a rap off the ice fin. An anchor works best if you carry a v-thread tool. I didn’t, so after mucking around trying to grab the rope with webbing we ended up chopping an ice bollard. Ice bollards aren’t really that inspiring but it held – at least for 50′. To save weight I had brought a 30m rope which meant we were unroping and downclimbing the last bit off the ice fin. But whatever, it worked. And soon we were working our way back down the rock glacier and eventually across the upper river braids and back to the climbers trail. To add insult to injury we opted to bushwhack for a mile back to the bridge and then walk up the road for a mile in order to avoid crossing the river which at this point was about nipple deep.

All that said I must now expound on access to the Eklutna Glacier in mid-summer. Gone are the days when you can just head up there with a mountain axe. As others told me (and I promptly ignored) you will want: (1) a least 50m of glacier rope, (2) ice tools, (3) ice screws, (4) steel crampons, and (5) v-thread tool. These will get you on the glacier but they don’t really do anything for you in terms of the rock glacier that you have to traverse. Traversing the rock glacier is exercise in trust. Trust that the rock and mud won’t slide off the ice under your feet, trust that the rocks won’t come bouncing down on your head from above and trust that you won’t tumble down into the maw of the glacier below. Chances are your feet won’t fail you and you’d have to be pretty dumb to fall the entire way down to the toe of the glacier (not to say that climbers can’t be dumb) but the rock fall is one of those things that you tend to just ignore since there’s nothing you can really do about it.

The objective danger is really really high for what should be a fun outing. It’s a shame that this access, and the peaks off the Eklutna Glacier, which had been a summer destination for the Southcentral Alaska mountaineering community for decades, has now become too dangerous for the average climber with an average aversion to risk. Of course some will argue that the current access weeds out the average and beginner climbers thus making Pischler’s Perch a quiet respite for the summer (after the usual busy spring mountaineering season). I can kind of see that side of thought, but digging through the hut logs shows a hut that in recent years has become virtually unused from July-September – whereas only 10 years ago there was a steady stream of visitors from March-September. There should be a balance between a hut that is too accessible (i.e. the Mint Hut) and too inaccessible (i.e. Bock’s Den).

Potential alternate route on climbers left.

In the recent past climbers have pioneered a route up climber’s left side of the glacier – but the route requires delicate 3rd and 4th classing on gravel ledges and the protection is non-existent. Given that the glacier is just going to continue to retreat and that access will continue to get harder perhaps it’s time to adopt Euro ethics and bolt some anchors for a running belay up the left hand side of the glacier. Of course this proposal will grate on the nerves of some climbers who (a) like that the Eklutna is seeing less use and (b) firmly believe that loose-gravelly fall-you-die ledges is a right of passage in the mountains. Thus you’re unlikely to see any type of consensus when it comes to establishing an easier route any time soon.

In short… getting on the Eklutna Glacier in mid-late summer requires a willingness to expose yourself to a high level objective danger. Until we reach the point where climbers are willing to agree to anchor placement for access you’re on your own and you’ll need to bring lots of gear and a big bag of tricks if you want to get up on the Eklutna between July and November.