We piled our gear in a heap just beyond the wing of the plane. Drake, our pilot, pulled out the last pair of skis, handed them off, then leaned against the plane’s strut. We all stood there in the snow, squinting at the north face of Mt. Fairweather, not saying much. Caroline broke the silence, Well, I feel like I’m going to puke. Drake looked over, shaking his head, Me too! We all felt it, that deep holy shit lump of anxiety. We had just flown our “out” route and dropped off a duffel bag of provisions at a fish camp in Dry Bay. The glaciers between here and the coast looked like a gnarled mess of wrinkled ice. Drake’s eyes scanned the skyline from Fairweather to Quincy Adams. You know, guys, maybe this isn’t the year for this kind of thing. It’s a just a terrible spring snowpack.
Our climb of Mt. Fairweather, up the west ridge, went incredibly smoothly. We made the summit, round-trip from base camp, in 10 hours, skiing as far as the prominent bergschrund below the ridge. There were other climbers from the Lower 48 on the mountain who had been waiting for nearly three weeks and this wasn’t their first attempt. We gladly cherry-picked the weather window all were waiting for and the following day started our traverse to the sea.
The first 10 miles slid by quickly as we skirted obvious cracks unroped. Our progress slowed a bit as we began picking our way through the first icefall. Skiing roped up with full packs is never graceful. We had spotted a route from the air and now, on the ground, tried to make sense of the jumble. We stayed high to skier’s left and, with the exception of one 1200’ detour down the wrong rock band, we made our way to the upper Grand Plateau Glacier. Here we set up camp at a rock outcrop next to a small tarn. The next day, we found that scary zone where there is only snow in the depressions and bridging crevasses but bare ice everywhere else. My left ski punched through a bridge and our route became more and more roundabout as we shuffled on blue ice and gingerly scampered across snow bridges. Soon, the skis went on our backs and we crunched along in crampons. We put in a long day of weaving among great towers of ice, winding our way back and forth, looking for bridges. Bottomless crevasses lay everywhere. We started to doubt our route, but were hopeful that beyond the next horizon the terrain would mellow out. We got ourselves into a particularly tricky spot and dropped our packs. I went scouting ahead for a potential route. On front points I found a way up a massive fin of ice that, for the first time, offered a glimpse of the icefall below. There was no way this route would go. A mile of tipping seracs stood between us and the lower Grand Plateau Glacier, now glowing in the evening sun. We turned back, trying to retrace our steps out of the maze we had entered. Often, we were unable to see any tracks left by our crampons in the hard ice. There is a large knob that splits the glacier and our only option seemed to be to try the other side. We probed a patch of rotten snow, threw down the tent, and tried not to think about our predicament as we slept. We had to find our way out and needed good visibility to do so. Fortunately, the good weather continued to hold.
We snuck through the icefall on the other side only narrowly. We encountered an area of crevasses with perfectly clean edges that stretched clear across the glacier. Jumping across ever-widening fissures, we eventually discovered a single fin of ice that miraculously led to rock below. We pitched this section out, front pointing our way down with only a few ice screws. Looking at photos, we still shake our heads at this unlikely feature. The lower Grand Plateau is a wild moonscape of rock and ice that hangs above the Pacific Ocean. From here, we traveled more easily across ice bridges and past boulders teetering like giant mushrooms on the glacier. Reaching the edge of the forest felt like a bigger accomplishment than the summit of Fairweather. We have done enough trips in southeast Alaska to know the bush is nothing to get too excited about, but at least we wouldn’t touch some icy “void.”
We found our share of nasty rainforest bushwhacking, devil’s club and all. Under dense clouds and rain, we took a circuitous route through the Deception Hills. We waded in a creek, downclimbing waterfalls and trying to stay out of the jungle as we pushed for the Alsek River. When we reached the river plain, our knee-deep creek disappeared into the ground. We then pulled our way through brush, following a compass bearing we continued to doubt. The rain poured and tears were shed. We dragged and hurled the skis and, finally, as night was falling, reached the Alsek. We built a raging fire that offered more ceremony than warmth under the pouring rain. The next day, we made it the remaining 18 miles along the river, our feet blistered in ski boots. There are a few seasonally used fish shacks where the Alsek spills into the Pacific. Here, we swapped our skis and ropes for running shoes and packrafts. We came up with countless schemes for making this trip possible. Eventually, we settled on this resupply option largely because we wanted to try out our systems for going light and fast with packrafts for our big Bellingham-Kotzebue trip planned the following year.
We had a great time walking the Lost Coast to Gustavus. Traveling light without all our skiing and climbing gear felt terrific. We saw no people and only two boats far offshore. Unfortunately, around Lituya Bay, the beach sand that gets into everything also found its way into the lens of our camera. All it would do was display an error message. We had no idea that the La Perouse Glacier had surged into the ocean the previous season and found ourselves running in retreat as waves crashed into a jumble of ice at the toe of the glacier. We pushed through the breaking surf in our rafts and watched a row of columns drop into the sea as we paddled by in big swell. The re-entry was not the surf landing we’d planned but, rather, an endo into the sand. A massive bear scared the hell out of us as we hiked up the Dixon River. Finally, after crossing the river toward us, it figured out what we were and took off. Some of the sandy coves around the Astrolabe Peninsula must be among the most beautiful places in the world. Strong headwinds in Dundas Bay made us change our route a bit, heading over, rather than around, Dundas Pt. We had a good, calm period for the 5-mile crossing of Glacier Bay.
This turned out to be one of our favorite trips. It really had it all. The Fairweather Range is incredibly dynamic and alive, from the geology of its peaks and glaciers, to the bears, seals, and whales at its coast.
Check out more photos from this trip here…