Nabesna Glacier → Copper Glacier

Looking towards Mt. Jarvis and Tumble Creek from the air.

My oldest brother, John, was turning 60 and wanted an Alaska adventure so I started planning.

I was intrigued by the north side of the Wrangell mountains after a short visit in the fall and wanted to explore the land closer to the mountains. With help from Evan Olson, Lead Backcountry Ranger for Wrangell-St Elias National Park and Preserve, who gave me details on a traverse he did in 2012 I began mapping out a route that more or less followed Evan’s route.

The route essentially traces a line that goes up and over Mt Gordon, down to Jacksina Creek and then up into the headwaters of Tumble Creek until finally we would climb a pass that would deposit us at the headwaters of the Copper river where our pilot would pick us up on gravel bars near the Copper Glacier. In total the distance was about 60 miles with a gain and loss of about 10,000′ along the way.

John was easily convinced and he showed up with his youngest son, JC (age 20) and we piled 3 big guys into the Tacoma and drove 6 hours to Nabesna. And then we piled into Kirk Ellis’ custom super cub (which features a double seat in the back that can fit 2 adults comfortably) dubbed The Incredible Hulk and flew 30 minutes to a strip perched just west of the Nabesna glacier. Due to the bumpy short strip Kirk opted to ferry one at a time and so after almost 2 hours of waiting everyone was deposited onto the strip and the pilot drifted way into the evening sky. Thus began our trip.

The Nabesna Glacier from the air. Kirk told a story about picking up DaniellePratt and Paige Brady after Danielle dislocated her shoulder in the 2013 winter classic and how Danielle skied over to the plane completely chipper with her arm dangling.

The Incredible Hulk

Weather was perfect and everyone was amped so instead of setting up camp we shouldered the packs and began hiking at 8pm. We hiked for about 3 hours and covered about 4 miles before crashing hard.

Starting our trip at 8pm

Ptarmigan nest.

Approaching east slopes of Gordon.

Camp 1 above the Nabesna Glacier.

John and JC above the Nabesna.

John and JC working their way up the east slopes of Mt. Gordon.

Mt. Gordon

NW face of Mt. Gordon from the air.

John and JC approaching snowline.

Around 8000′.

Our first crux was the traverse of Mt. Gordon where we crossed a high plateau of waist deep isothermal snow. We had originally planned to actually climb the 9039′ cinder cone volcano via the South ridge and had packed rope, glacier gear and crampons – but within an hour of wallowing in the snow we changed plans from a summit attempt to just getting across the plateau. Up high we could see out across the Nabesna ice field and had a clear view of Mt. Blackburn. Having endured a storm high in the Wrangells, I was nervous about weather and pushed everyone hard to get across the plateau and down to the sanctity of the valley.

Introduction to isothermal snow. Due to deep snow we abandoned our summit attempt of Gordon at 8000′ and carried rope, axe, crampons and glacier gear for another 50 miles just for the hell of it.

It took us about 7 hours to traverse Mt. Gordon from east to west – the deep snow agonizingly slow and frustrating to travel through. John had new hiking boots that he had bought for $25 from the REI attic. It was quickly apparent why the boots had been marked down so cheap: by late morning his feet were soaked and by midday he had lost feeling in his toes. We took several breaks for foot warming and food. It also quickly became apparent that the amount of food I had packed for lunches was the equivalent of a late morning snack for John and JC. By late-afternoon we were only half way to our destination and they were starving. All I had left was the emergency stash of energy chews that I hide away when doing long trips. I grudgingly shared.

JC in the lead. The snow kept whumpfing on JC and every time it happened he would turn to me eyes wide and say “WHAT WAS THAT? WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?” I assured him everything was fine…

The rest of the day was spent coaching them down steep talus and moraine while feeding them energy chews every hour. As we descended we passed by a large natural slab avalanche that had recently released. 12 hours after starting we finally reached a level safe zone where we pitched the tent and collapsed.

You’re not supposed to fret about slab avalanches after June 1st!

Nearing the end of long day.

Looking at what we have left to traverse.

Tent selfie.

The next day began anew with deep snow. To escape the high glaciated plateau we had to traverse 2 miles of moraine, cross a pass and then descend 2 miles of snow covered talus. Once again John’s toes were killing him so at one point we had to stop, fire up the stove and give John water bottles filled with boiling water.

Approaching the pass that will take us to the valley below Cone Ridge.

JC contemplating many more miles of wet talus.

Jacksina Creek

On the latter part of the second day we finally escaped the talus and reached the wide open tundra benches that the Wrangell mountains are famous for. We traveled down a wide glacier carved valley filled with lakes with dozens of sheep thousands of feet above us on the steep slopes of Cone Ridge. That evening we dropped down to Jacksina Creek via a bear trail where the willows were above our heads and the ground littered with fresh bear scat. I was out in front yelling Hey Bear! at the top of my lungs with bear spray drawn and the safety off. We reached the Jacksina Creek in early evening and found the water level low enough to cross safety and had a nice fire with dinner.

Another bird nest along the route.

John warming up cold feet. Turns out he got frost nip from his $25 boots.

JC bear spray at the ready…

John wide eyed after a long bush whack on a dense bear trail.

John wide eyed and getting psyched to cross the Jacksina.

While sitting by the fire I looked down river to see a huge solitaire brown bear walk out into the open and swim across the river. He lumbered up river a ways (we hastily packed up our food and grabbed the bear spray) but thankfully turned and disappeared into the thick brush.

Ursus arctos horribilis

E Fork of Jacksina Creek

Canis lupus

From our camp on Jacksina Creek we travelled down river, crossing the West Fork of Jacksina Creek via a thigh deep channel, and then had easy hiking in the dry mossy river bed west of the main channel. For a while we followed a set of boot prints – the only recent sign of humans we saw our entire trip.

Main fork of Jacksina Creek.

Accessing the pass to Tumble Creek

Nearing the Pass to Tumble Creek

Pass to Tumble Creek

We traveled down river until turning west and climbing up to the pass between Peaks 5695′ and 5704′. Up high the hiking improved to glorious tundra walking and in early evening we crossed a col where a caribou skeleton lay embedded in the ice. We set up camp with a view of the immense north face of Mt. Jarvis. That night we looked up to see a massive serac give way and watched as the entire basin exploded in a powder cloud as the thunder of ice blocks shook the valley.

Tumble Creek

The East and West summits of Mt. Jarvis on a perfect morning.

We awoke to perfect views of Mt. Jarvis and for the better part of the morning hiked with excellent views of the Jarvis massif to our south and the rolling tundra hills of Tumble Creek to our north. Our route took us over a series of benches and ridges until we finally dropped down to Tumble Creek. Tumble Creek was easily crossed via a knee deep channel and then we turned and began hiking up stream aiming for a bench that would take us up and over the ridge west of us where we would reach the pass that would take us to the Copper River.

My father was a very eccentric dresser. John has begun to emulate his style.

JC hiking towards Tumble Creek.

Above JC you can see the W face of Mt. Gordon.

Typical hiking around in the headwaters of Tumble Creek. For scale the steepest section of the north face of Mt. Jarvis (shadowed face top left corner) is 7000′ from top to bottom.

Shortly after traveling upstream a little ways we noticed fresh sow and cub tracks – which caused us to veer off earlier than we wanted and bushwhack up onto the tundra above. It took about an hour to get out the the brush and soon we were traveling across a tundra hillside that was easy walking except for the side-hilling.

John crossing Tumble Creek.

JC snapped this photo of me next to Tumble Creek.

Rock formations above Tumble Creek.

In late afternoon we looked up to see a brown bear sow with two cubs rooting around in the tundra a mere 150′ away. JC and I grouped together and drew bear spray and began walking backwards. We were downwind and the bear had neither seen, heard nor smelled us so we backed away slowly hoping to get away before she caught sight of us. But she was moving towards us so I called out Hey Bear! which caused her to stand up and huff. Thankfully she took a look at us and then turned ran the other direction with two tiny cubs on her heels. A good bear encounter but a little too close for comfort. We spent the rest of the day bunched together and shouting.

Bunched together after a close bear encounter. Below is Tumble Creek (around 5000′).

Shortly afterwards we crested the ridge above Tumble Creek and began working our way across the open hills towards the next valley west where we would access the valley that would take us to the Copper. Clouds rolled in and it started snowing and we spent the latter part of the afternoon navigating by GPS in a full-on winter storm.

Winter again.. For a while we heard thunder in the distance and I was paranoid about being up high with ice axes sticking out of our packs. Luckily the storm never came close.

Final drop to our destination. The valley visible upper left is the pass that we took to reach the Copper River.

In early evening the skies cleared and we had a beautiful evening.

After a very long day we dropped down a valley, crossed yet another creek and then ascended 500′ up a narrow valley to an open basin where we set up camp for the night.

Pass to Black Mountain

Tired from our long trek the day before we slept late and didn’t get going until around late morning. 15 minutes out from camp we passed over a divide where water from the side we had spent the last 5 days in drained to the Yukon River / Bering Sea. On the west side of drainage the water emptied into the Copper River / Pacific Ocean.

John & JC cresting the divide.

This sheep trails was awesome until it suddenly transitioned from sidewalk to exposed 4th class above a 1000′ cliff.

We traveled down the valley finding easy travel on open tundra slopes and sheep trails, but after a while we were forced to drop down into the gut of the valley to avoid steep slopes.

The entire valley was littered with microwave sized boulders that were easily kicked loose to tumble 500′ down to the river below. Under many of the rocks the tundra wasn’t even dead so I was a tad paranoid and pressed everyone to push through fast.

John moving fast through the most exposed section of the pass.

John & JC. JC is wearing shorts because just before this photo he misjudged his footing while fording a creek. He fell completely underwater.

Finally we pushed through and reached the river valley on the west side of the pass. Travel was easy but we lost a lot of time looking for one of John’s hiking boots that had fallen off his pack. We never found the boot but luckily John was wearing sturdy tennis shoes so we pushed on.

JC is an MMA champion can benchpress 305bs – but by day 3 he was physically and mentally trashed and popping ibuprofen like candy.

John & I argued because he insisted on changing to tennis shoes instead of just getting his boots wet like everyone else. In a fit I loosely tied his boots to his pack and stomped off. 15 minutes later he caught his pack on a tree and one of his boots disappeared into a creek. I was conflicted in that I couldn’t decide whether to feel vindicated by his poor footware choice or guilt over not tying the boots properly.

That afternoon we finally reached the west edge of the pass. In front of us Black Mountain – the peak that stands alone South and West of Copper Lake – guided us as I pushed us through two miles of semi thick brush until we finally emerged into an open mosquito infested bog that was easy travel all the way to the Copper River.

Bushwhacking to the Copper River.

Boggy brushy beary and buggy.

Bushwhack goodness.

No Alaska wilderness trip is complete until you endure a slog across a mucky bog teeming with millions of hungry mosquitoes.

Copper River

And finally, after yet another long day, we stumbled out of the thick brush and onto the banks of the Copper River. John celebrated his 60th birthday by taking off all his clothes and jumping into the Copper River. JC collapsed in a fit of giggles.

We set up camp, built a big fire and sat around until it started raining and then piled into the tent as the rain began increasing in intensity.

We were camped mere inches above the Copper River so I nervously tossed and turned and wondered if I should wake everyone to move camp. After a while I ended up setting an alarm and woke up repeatedly throughout the night to check the water levels. Luckily the river never rose – but come morning the fog had set in so I called the pilot to give him a dismal “don’t come” report and went back to sleep.

The Incredible Hulk Returns

We were sound asleep when the pilot buzzed us. Outside the fog was thick but the pilot showed up any ways and we went from dreaming deeply to suddenly packing and breaking down the tent as fast as possible.

JC after a long week of travel.

Dropping down to the Copper River. This lake is just NE of the Copper Glacier. We were able to find a suitable landing zone on the gravel bars just upstream from the lake and thus avoided having to wade across the Copper River.

60 years old!

And then Kirk was landing on the gravel bar next to our tent and we were piling gear into the plane and drifting over the expanse of tundra and tussock and driving back to town. That night we celebrated John’s 60th birthday with pizza and ice cream cake.


This is a wonderful route that gives you a tour of the northern side of the park. Most Alaskans would opt to save money and either hike in from Nabesna to Jaegar Mesa (1+ day) and / or packraft out the Copper River (1+ day). Both of these options have been done before and if you ask around you’ll find information on both the hike to Jaegar Mesa and the float out to the highway. If you want to combine a hike in / float out you’re looking at a week+ of travel, if you opt to leave the raft at home and fly in / out you’re looking at more like 5 days. That said, backpacking guides routinely lead trips into Tumble creek and spend the better part of a week traversing what we traversed in less than 2 days so plan accordingly.

Combining the trip with an ascent of Mt. Gordon makes for a fun objective, but like most big Alaskan peaks, your chances of a weather window on a limited time frame are slim. I’ve heard of people doing the route with glacier gear and I’ve heard of people who climbed it without, so gear choices are dependent on your level of risk acceptance.

Best time of year is probably July. We were there a few weeks early and had to deal with deep snow. Go in August and you’ll run into hunters and probably see a number of people.

If planning check out these links and get in touch with rangers / pilot if you have any questions:

Wrangell-St Elias Backcountry Ranger Blog: Lead Ranger Evan Olson was super helpful in planning this trip. If you’re headed anywhere remote in the Wrangells drop the rangers an email and they’ll give you tips and pointers on where to go, where not to go, and recent conditions.

Slana Ranger Station: Call these guys before making the drive to Nabesna and they’ll give you road updates.

Kirk Ellis / K-Air: Kirk Ellis has a modified super cub with tundra tires and can land you pretty much anywhere you want to go but hikers should beware his “that should only take a half day” sand bagging.