Have you ever set out for a hike on a whim? Perhaps thinking that a short hike would be a little fun adventure, but instead it turns into one of the most memorable experiences of your life? That’s kinda been what my last few weeks in Alaska have been like. Except instead of once, it’s been almost every day. Whether is been because of the people I’ve met, the things I’ve experienced, or the places I’ve visited.
Earlier in the week I’d spent a day in a coffee shop catching up on some writing and a bit of work. While I was there, I overheard a few other visitors come through and ask the barista if they had any suggestions on nearby places to visit that day. One of them was to go to Portage Glacier, the other was the Alaska Wildlife Conservation Center. I took some time in one of the following days to do both of those. I drove out to Portage Lake, which was beautiful and visited the Conservation Center. I saw a bear, wolves, caribou, and elk.
I wanted to see a glacier close up, and I read that there was a nearby 1 mile hike to view Byron Glacier. In my experience, a 1 mile hike should be relatively easy, so I mentally bookmarked that and thought I’d go there later in the week on a day when I wasn’t skiing.
I’d also heard that there was fantastic backcountry skiing on Turnagain Pass. My friend Wil recommend that I find a ski partner sometime in the week and get out there. I’d driven over the pass on my way back from Seward a few days prior and seen quite a few people putting their gear on and getting ready to hike out there. Another mental bookmark for a place that I’d visit that week.
Rewind a few days. Earlier in the week I’d been lucky enough to meet some new friends, Kirk and Richard. They were visiting from the DC area, very close to where I grew up. We met at Girdwood Brewery after their first day of heli-skiing when I was set to go the following day, more on that experience in another post, I’ll post the link here soon. We quickly became friends and I’m grateful we had the chance to spend time together throughout the week.
Later that week we had a day where it rained at the base of the mountain, but I knew that at a slightly higher elevation it was snowing. Richard called me the following morning and asked if I’d like to do a ski tour out at Turnagain Pass. Yes, absolutely yes, as I wanted to go there and I was lucky that he wanted to go as well. We drove up the pass and as we parked met another skier getting ready to skin up the same route. We asked him for suggestions as we hadn’t skied there before and only had some notes, a photo of a map, and info we’d heard from others. He pointed out a couple of lines which we could see from where we parked and headed up.
We opted to ski a popular route on Turnagain pass is a peak called “Tin Can.” When I read about it and looked at the map. Another other popular route is known as “Todds run” but from what we could tell that would have required a much farther trek back to the car.
As I’d mentioned, it had snowed a decent amount the night before, but it was sunny and warming up quickly. It would have been in our best interest to get out there an hour or 2 earlier, but still, we were among the first tracks of the day and the snow for most our run was fantastic. We were lucky to have a skin track to follow and saw a few others doing laps off the top. As we hiked up, I was trying to stay as aware as possible of our surroundings, considering what I’d learned backcountry skiing with Wil in Colorado. I thought about the fact that it had been relatively warm for many days prior, and I looked at lines which were not too steep. I also observed a few small slides coming off of cornices on nearby routes. As it warmed, more snow slid off. Still, I felt that we were on a gentle enough slope and not under anything too steep, I felt that we were in a safe spot.
We didn’t summit, as it was a bit too late in the day, but we came pretty close and had a fantastic ski down. Lower on the mountain it had warmed up quite a bit more and the snow was a little sticky and made it a bit of a challenge getting back. Still, the turns we got at the top were well worth it on the way down. Plus, it was gorgeous up there.
The following day there was a bit more weather, it was cloud covered with some flurries. I wasn’t planning to ski that day, as I’d had 2 big days of skiing that week and knew that I’d be skiing for the next 3 days. Although I wasn’t skiing, I was up for a hike to Byron Glacier. From what I’d read it was a 1 mile hike to view the glacier. Perfect, I figured that would be a great way to spend the afternoon. I called Kirk and asked if he’d like to get lunch with me then hike out to the glacier. We had a delicious lunch at Girdwood Picnic Club before heading out. We also discussed Kirk’s business idea on ways to give people ownership of their data and a unique way of sharing their experiences through a mixed reality app. It’s a fascinating idea and I’m thrilled that he’s asked for some of my thoughts on it.
After lunch we drove out to the trail and along the way listened to some great music. I still had the mindset that our “hike” would be about a mile walk up to view the glacier. I had no idea that we’d end up in an ice cave like we did. The hike was closer to 2 miles each way, and we were trudging through snow for a lot of the way. We weren’t prepared, and we were both laughing about the fact that almost all of the gear we would need to have an easier hike up was in my car. Poles, goretex, boots, water, a lot of stuff that would have been useful. But hey, we thought it was a mile, right?
We crossed a couple of other groups, and on 2 different occasions were told that we were “About halfway” We considered turning around, but just kept pointing at the next place we’d “get to and see how we felt.” I am so so glad we did.
Once we got further up the valley and came over a snowfield, I knew there was something special there. I could see some blue ice above the cave opening. From above the opening to the cave looked relatively small. But when we walked in, it was huge and no one else was there. We were surrounded by ice that was bluer than I could photograph, a natural color that I just couldn’t capture or explain. The photos below, while awesome, don’t do it justice. The ice was also unbelievably smooth to the touch. We could hear the ice popping and cracking, the sound was something I’d heard in NatGeo videos before, but it is totally different in person and we were right by it. We stood in the cave for a few minutes, in awe of the fact that we were surrounded by ice at the foot of the glacier. We then hiked up a little bit further to some running water and grabbed a handful of freezing running water right from the glacier and took a sip. It was an incredible experience. Looking back towards Portage Lake, we could see clouds moving so quickly it was as if they were forming right in front of our eyes.
We headed back to Girdwood, grabbed a beer at the brewery where we’d met earlier in the week and went for a soak in the saltwater pool at the Hotel Alyeska.
Another couple of days of very memorable experiences, and I’m grateful to have met Kirk and Richard to experience them with.