Full Circle: Wandering the Glaciers of the Yukon
There are different ways to explore. For our team, as we began planning a ski expedition to the Wrangell St. Elias/Kluane Park region of the Yukon, Canada, we decided to add more levels of adventure beyond that of the standard routine of arriving, climbing and skiing one peak, and flying back out.
Our trip incorporated a greater level of expedition experience. Though it would involve more suffering and more logistics, we finalized a plan to climb, ski, traverse, and explore as much of the area as possible. Choosing to go in mid-April meant colder temps but safer movement in the mountains. We hoped to discover this range’s potential and witness more unusual parts of it while following a glacier linkup back to our point of origin.
Our expedition fell into three parts: Mt. Vancouver base camp, the Hubbard Glacier to Kaskawulsh Glacier traverse, and the final exit off the glacier and back to the trailhead at our point of origin at Kluane Lake. We had a seven-member expedition, which we divided into groups of two and three to move through the mountains. My team included Matt Kaso and Pete Linn. The other four were Jackson and Anchorage friends.
The first leg of the trip, a ten-hour drive from Anchorage to the headquarters of Icefield Discovery on Kluane Lake, went off without a hitch, but at that point things slowed down—weather, fog, and high winds had thwarted our attempts to get from the lake into our base camp near Mt. Vancouver. Each morning our team hustled to load up and slide in ahead of each building storm, but strong winds and shifting clouds shut us down each time. Finally, high pressure came to stay and on the fifth morning and the Helio Courier, a four-seat airplane built in the 1960s, could start shuttling our group. Pete and I caught the first ride, gaining altitude above the Icefield Discovery airstrip, pulling a U-turn over the lake, and heading west into the mountains.
A typical base camp on the glacier.
It was -5° F at 9am when Pete and I landed about two miles from Mt Vancouver and set up our base camp. The remaining five team members arrived shortly thereafter via subsequent plane shuttles. That afternoon the seven of us approached the base of the peak to do some initial reconnaissance. Vancouver is a serious, intimidating peak, a giant fortress with dangerous barriers to entry. The lower third of the route was riddled with hazards that included a complicated network of broken crevasses, ice bulges, hanging snowfields, and seracs—danger loomed from all potential sides of the approaches. The upper two-thirds, however, looked inviting for skiing.
Recon: Exploring route options on Mt. Vancouver.
On the second day, the entire team left camp to do further recon on the route. In the heat of the day, two of our teams stopped on a high knoll out of the way of the most consequential terrain. The other team pressed on. Something released from above and we saw the start of an avalanche. The team was in a hit zone, in the direct line of fire, and was enveloped forcefully by the cloud. Luckily, the debris from the slide was heavy powder dust and no other snow or ice chunks hit the trio. After that close call, and further evaluation of the hazards and barriers to entry on the peak, we decided to move on to other mountain objectives.
The avalanche approaches—our friends are the specks in the bottom left corner.
Leaving the Mt Vancouver base camp on the Hubbard, we began the 80-mile traverse. With heavy sleds and packs, we moved camp six more times. The days were hot, upwards of 80 degrees and intensely sunny, and the nights were cold, averaging about -10° F.
As we moved, we skied whatever surrounding peaks and lines we came across along the glacier valleys. An elevation high point in our climbing and skiing escapades included the heavily crevassed southwest face of Mt. Queen Mary at 12,140ft. En route to Queen Mary, we also found couloirs, classic Alaskan-type rollover steeps, and long ridges and ramps. On north-facing slopes, we skied beautiful boot-top powder that stuck to the 55-degree steeps. On other aspects, there was a mix of corn, warm, thick powder, and firm snow.
Taking a break at the top.
My team was on skis every day of the trip with no rest days—some days we did multiple laps off of one feature, and on other days we skied different lines in a few different areas. Approaches could be long—several miles and/or an hour or two—and we typically spent whatever time we had, from a half-day to a full day, maximizing the ski potential near our camps.
After nearly two weeks, we left the Hubbard glacier for the Kaskawulsh glacier. We shuttled our loads to the summer base camp station of Icefield Discovery, and cached our gear for a scheduled plane pickup in order to lighten our packs and sleds for the final push out the end of the glacier towards Kluane Lake. Being 2/3 of the way through the trip, we left all extra luxuries from our original base camp including our solar panel system, extra clothes, dome tent, radios, and more.
It was a full morning of uphill slogging in strong headwinds to reach the station, and then a long afternoon and early evening navigating some of the more intense broken glaciers of the trip. The team safely settled into the next camp high on a glacial pass at 9pm, with beautiful rays of pink light slashing across the Yukon sky.
As we moved down the Kaskawulsh glacier, peaks with broad faces and steep couloirs beckoned. On the four or five routes we skied, the snow quality remained excellent—soft and smooth—until we turned a large corner on the glacier and dropped about 1,000ft in elevation. At that point the perfect, pristine powder quickly turned to heavy slush mixed with stretches of firm snow consolidated by sun and wind.
The environment around us evolved dramatically with each mile. The terrain grew rockier and drier, moraines formed, and the snow surfaces changed, undulating with the pressures and changes of the glacier moving towards its termination. There were sections of steady downhill, but maintaining momentum on the uneven terrain was challenging, given that we were pulling sleds and were roped in teams of three.
In the thick of it on our second-to-last day exiting the glacier.
Navigation at this stage on a glacier can mean the difference between an easy exit or a more involved and technical dismount. The melting surfaces form running water, softened surfaces, glaring cracks, hidden holes, and large waves of snow formations that take slow, meticulous effort to weave through, in particular while trailing sleds. The movements are tenuous, like walking through a war zone with potential land mines lurking under each step, and our heavy loads exaggerated our steps and heightened the consequences.
The glaring sun mandated that we protect our faces with a variety of hats, scarfs, nose guards and buffs. Stopping for lunch breaks, we’d yank off our boots and prop our sweaty feet up on our sleds to dry them out and protect them from blisters. During our lunches, one of our great delicacies was smoked Alaskan salmon with packets of cream cheese bought in bulk earlier in the month at Costco. Otherwise, we had heavy lunch and snack rations of Probars and Probar Bolts to fuel our daily excursions, as well as the usual supply of salami, cheese, and chocolate.
The last day, meandering across ice and through crevasses at the termination.
Further down, the snow melted in earnest. As we wound around glacier pools, we relaxed in the less treacherous environment. But as we continued, the glacier broke down more and wide cracks appeared, requiring careful selection of bridges to safely cross the deep, widening gaps. The last section, with dry land in sight, tested our patience. At major impasses we rappelled down off large boulders as well as a few ice screws and across the steep crevasses, while shuttling gear across the rope lines.
Exiting off the cracked bread loaves of ice and crevasses, we reached the end of the glacier at the lower lakes. Our main hope was for frozen surfaces to make the water crossings to shore. Our other hope was to follow the frozen surfaces as far as possible to avoid carrying our monster backpack loads with sleds attached on dry land. The hurdles, however, continued as before long, the ice crossings ended and we were forced into mud and silt.
Making the most of the last of the snow to drag our sleds before crossing rivers and hiking back to Kluane Lake.
The last twelve miles followed the Slims River all the way to a trailhead at Kluane Lake. We attached the sleds and extra gear to our backpacks and began the long hike in ski boots across Grizzly country. There were four stream crossings, which we did in our boots, thereafter slogging along with wet feet on the uneven ground. Large bear paw prints scattered around us for the rest of the journey.
We weaved on and off a faint trail and then headed out onto the riverbed to cut off as much mileage as possible. The gradual reentry to a world of colors, solid ground, animals, flowers, and trees was gratifying, and the long miles gave us perspective on the geology and intricacies of the massive expanse of terrain that we had covered. After two long days of heightened concentration on the end of the glacier, the trailhead was a welcome point of civilization as well as a sudden end to a complex, exploratory, & highly focused expedition.
With the variety of temperatures, long distances, and importance of weight involved with our trip, bringing the correct gear was essential. Following is an abbreviated packing list with some of the more notable items that we made sure to bring along:
GoalZero Sherpa 100 Solar Recharging Kit with inverter and solar panel
DeLorme InReach 2-way satellite GPS text message unit
Backcountry Access Tracker3 Beacon & BC Link Radios
Suunto Ambit3 GPS Watch
Kindle – powered by a solar panel, it makes for a lot of good reading
GoPros & other cameras
Black Diamond I Tent – Small and compact for a ski-mountaineering expedition but light and single-wall tough.
Mountain Hardware -20F sleeping bags
Therm-a-rest inflatable pads and inflatable pillows
Osprey Variant and Aether/Arial packs & different sizes of stuff sacks
MSR Whisperlite Stove, cookware, & fuel bottles
GSI Fairshare mugs
ProBar variety packs: our go-to snack for efficient meals and healthy, high energy boosts
Plastic sleds for hauling gear
800-fill down jackets
Merino baselayers for the extreme cold; in this case, IO Merino gear
Adventure Medical First Aid kits – Expedition kit (pared down), individual Ultralight & Watertight kits of .7 and .9
Beyond Coastal sunscreen – an absolute must, the sun was brutal.
Smith sunglasses – another must for glacier travel.
One thing we did not carry bear spray. Not only were we a large team, which is a good deterrent in itself, but transporting it in a small plane can be extremely dangerous since there’s the risk the canister can explode.