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Adventure Story: Abbi Hearne

An Alaskan Multi-Sport Adventure

Abbi Hearne is a photographer and creative outdoor adventure enthusiast. She recently venture to Alaska with her husband Callen for a multi-sport adventure that took them through some of Alaska’s most epic glacial canyons which they navigated via packraft. She shared the story of her adventure with us below. 

This glacier trekking + ice climbing + pack rafting + canyoneering adventure was a dream come true for me because we were able to explore a backcountry section of glacier that resembled a classic Utah slot canyon, so much so that locals named it after the famous Buckskin Gulch. Now, I will mention that glacier features like this come and go quickly, so the name “Buckskin Gulch” will mean nothing on a map or internet search, but fun names are how the local guides keep up with these temporary features the glacier reveals each year. Out of respect for the guides who kindly gave us their beta, we will not be sharing any location-specific information for this adventure.

The Approach

This trip was a day-hike for us, only about 6 miles total. Half of the hike was on a lateral moraine (rocks built up on the side of the glacier) that we chose not to wear crampons for because the rocks provide traction as long as you choose your steps well. As with most glacier adventures, the primary crux was route-finding. The beta was “walk to the high point and look for the canyon on the white ice, then walk to the canyon” which sounds simple enough, but trail-less hiking on glacial moraine can be confusing and exhausting, especially in heavy mountaineering boots and packs full of gear!

We made our way around crevasses (cracks in the ice, often full of water in this area) and up gullies, and only had to back-track once when we came up on a knife-edge ridge with a huge moulin (where glacier melt-water pools and plunges through a hole to to the ground or sub-glacial river) on the other side…that was spicy! We made it to the high point and were fortunate enough to follow a few cairns to the white ice, where we put on our crampons and started trekking to the canyon. This is one of my favorite parts of glacier adventures, just walking up icy hills and down into little gullies, seeing the blue pools of meltwater and the streams carving their way through.

The Goal

We arrived at the canyon and were completely overcome with awe at the deep blue pool at its mouth. It was hard to imagine while standing there, but this water line had been 30 feet taller and the pool much larger earlier in the summer, but somewhere an ice dam broke, releasing a majority of the “lake” through the slot in a short amount of time, leaving behind a glorious 50-foot tall canyon. On glacier time, it’s as if Arizona’s antelope canyon were formed from one flood event.

As someone who lives in the desert, visiting glaciers feels like a glimpse into a time-lapse of it’s formation: where wind-formed arches form in one season, canyons form from one flood, and giant towers break apart and collapse after one hot afternoon. But at the same time, this ice is ancient, older than Utah’s arches and Arizona’s canyons. Glaciers are a mind-blowing thing to experience. We took a minute to soak it all in, and then Callen climbed up the side to take a peek into the canyon from above while I inflated my packraft — paddling has become one of my very favorite ways to explore Alaska. I opted to remove my crampons before getting in the inflatable boat, which was definitely a safe choice although it made actually getting in pretty slippery!

As I pushed off the shallow shelf into the deep blue water, I was absolutely overcome with awe. We have done a lot of amazing adventures, and have a lot of experiences we love looking back on, but sometimes I feel some memories form in the moment, and this was one of those times: I knew immediately I’d never forget this feeling. It was stunning. The water felt impossibly deep, but so clear I could see straight to the bottom. The blue was unreal, it would make Kool Aid look bland.

I paddled around a bit, but was most psyched to go into the canyon. At first when I paddled to the canyon from the pool, but quickly realized that the current flowing into it was stronger than I expected, the water was too deep to walk without swamping my boots, and my paddle was useless because the walls were so narrow. We decided to build an anchor with some ice screws so Callen could put me on belay and “lower” me through the canyon. I carried an ice axe so I had some level of control over my speed, and began floating down. It was stunning, as surreal as walking into your first desert slot canyon but somehow even more unfathomable. The tall blue walls were stunning, and the only sound I could hear was dripping meltwater and my own echos.

After a few turns, I came to the end of the rope length, and felt confident in my ice-axe-gloved-hand shimmying in the boat against the current if needed, so I yelled to Cal I was unclipping and going a little farther. I only did a few more turns before hearing a stronger sound of rushing water, that might’ve been just a bigger stream pouring in, but it also could have been a drop that I wouldn’t be able to avoid, so I went back to the rope and clipped in. I chose to sit at the end of the rope for a moment, just to really soak it in.

The thing with glacial features is that you can never get too attached. This canyon could collapse, or flood, or widen tomorrow. The glacier is always moving, always shifting. It’s incredible, because it means new things to explore every season, but is also a practice in being present, because I know I might never be in that particular canyon again, even if I come back next summer.

Abbi and her husband, Callen, have spent the past 5+ years living on the road exploring the western US and photographing adventure elopements in beautiful places like Moab, Yosemite, Alaska, and beyond. They made Moab their official home base with a little house on the hill overlooking town in 2019 but have remained nomadic roughly half of the year; spending a few weeks of spring and fall in Yosemite, and driving up to Alaska three summers in a row. The Hearnes love all kinds of adventures but mostly rock climbing, ice climbing, canyoneering, pack rafting, skydiving, jeeping, and hiking…the best days are when they can creatively combine their passions for an epic multi-sport outing! You can follow her on Instagram @abbihearne