It was another day of firsts for us – we were going to climb the Exit Glacier! Barry had booked the trip before we left the UK and I knew very little about it. He read me out a brief description the night before we were due to go so we knew what we had to take with us. We were going to do a 1-1.5 hour hike through some woodland to the edge of the glacier and then we would put on some crampons (spikes that attach to your shoes so that you can grip the ice) and go walking over the ice. It all sounded easy enough. I’d made sure with Barry that there would be no crawling through tunnels or climbing up and down ice walls using ropes and pick axes – there was no way I could do that – and he assured me that we wouldn’t be doing any of that.
With my mind at ease, we set out early the next day to be at the office of the Exit Glacier Guides for 8am. Luckily our hotel was only down the road so it was less than a 10-minute walk. Once we arrived we had to fill out the usual liability forms, then we were sorted out with all the equipment we needed. Everything was going fine. We were given boots, the crampons and a backpack. But then we were given a helmet, a harness and a safety clip. I shot Barry a look of ‘What the hell are these for?’ He started to chuckle. I had a sudden feeling that I had been duped. Then we were introduced to a girl that was coming along on the trek with us – Caitlyn, she was from Arkansas. She started to tell us about her friends that had done the trek a couple of days previous and how they had told her that at one point that were just hanging from the ice by an ice-pick! The fear in me started to build as I realised that Barry had definitely lied and we were going to be climbing walls and disappearing down crevasses. There was nothing I could do about it now though, we were all kitted out and ready to go.
We all jumped into a bus and our guide Steve drove us the 20 minutes to the visitor centre where we would be starting our hike. We were given some trekking poles to use, which would help Barry with his old knees – he always moans that they give him jip! And then the hike began.
It started off much the same as any other hike we had done, except we did have a heavy backpack to carry. We had our helmet, harness, boots and all our layers in. At this point we were only wearing t-shirts as it was a steep climb and the sun was hot (not what we expected for Alaska – it was warmer than New Zealand!) We were also carrying 2 litres of water in a hydration pack that was connected to a tube so you could just take a drink whenever you needed to without faffing around with a bottle. After walking for about 20 minutes we stopped to take a quick rest. We had a great view of the valley we’d just driven through and of the snow-capped mountains that surrounded us.
After a few minutes of rest we continued our hike. Steve was telling us about all the animals that lived around the glacier – bears, moose, marmots and wolverines (not the Hugh Jackman, X-men kind!) Barry and I really wanted to see a bear whilst in Alaska, but so far we had failed.
After about an hour of very steep climbing, we could finally see Exit Glacier. We had climbed to a height of around 1400 feet. Next we had to scramble down an overgrown gravel path to reach the edge of the glacier. Once we were nearing the edge, we were hit with a sudden gust of cold air. It was time to put on our layers. On went the gloves, fleece and jacket. We had to change from our trainers into our boots and put on the crampons. Then went on the helmet and the harness. Our bags were now much lighter so they were a lot easier to carry. We were given a safety talk and shown how to walk on the ice using the crampons. And then the ice climbing commenced.
The boots and the crampons were pretty heavy so it took a lot of effort to lift your foot up and take a step. You then had to make sure that you stomped your foot down so the spikes would sink into the ice. It was exhausting but at least we weren’t slipping and sliding all over the place.
We hadn’t been walking for long when we stopped in an ice chasm. There was a little stream running through it where the ice was slowing melting. We were told to wait there whilst Steve climbed up the ice wall. We weren’t really sure what he was doing once he got to the top, but after a few minutes he abseiled down the wall again on a rope. Then he told us that it was time for some ice training. What??? Caitlyn had done rock climbing before so Steve volunteered her to go first. She made it look reasonably easy so I wasn’t too nervous at this point. Next up was Barry and again he made it look easy enough. So now it was my turn.
I was handed the pick axes, which were actually quite heavy and I was clipped to the rope. You had to start by walking up the wall as far as you could just with your feet. Then when you couldn’t walk any further you had to throw the first axe in. Some how the axe just manages to wedge itself into the ice and holds your whole weight. You then had to bring both your legs up one at a time and jam the spikes that were on the front of your shoes into the ice. Then you had to bring up the other axe, slam it into the ice and pull your whole body up with them. It was tiring and if you didn’t wedge your foot in hard enough, it would slip out. That happened to me a few times. I blame that fact that I climbed last so the ice was already crumbling where the others had made holes in it from their shoes and axes. As I was nearing the top, I started to get nervous about the height and panic started to set in.
I decided that was as high as I wanted to go, but now I had to make the journey down. This was a lot easier, but meant you had to put trust in the ropes to hold your weight. You just let your arms hang down by your sides and walked back down the wall backwards. Sounds easy enough, but it’s a very wired feeling to just walk down with your legs and not hold on to anything. I made it though and was very glad to be back on the floor. I found it very difficult and was starting to worry that this was just a practice run and we would have to do it again to get of the glacier.
We continued walking across the ice. We passed lots of crevasses, which are huge cracks in the floor where the ice is moving and water is flowing through them. A lot of them were only narrow so we would just jump straight over them. Some of the water was gushing rapidly into them creating mini waterfalls. It was beautiful to see.
Next it was time to do some climbing down into a crevasse. Steve set the ropes up and Barry decided he was going to go first. He was clipped into the rope and had to walk backwards to the edge. This meant you couldn’t see what you were climbing into. As he was walking down, all I remember is him shouting ‘oh my god, shouldn’t have looked down.’ This made me very nervous – if Barry didn’t like it, there was no way I was going to! When he came back up, he looked scared. That was it. I couldn’t do it. Steve called me to go next and I just shook my head. Barry said ‘she won’t like that, I didn’t even tell her we were doing this’ Thanks Bal! So you did lie! I’d wound myself up too much and let the fear take over, panic had set in. There was no way I was going down there. Caitlyn did though, and whilst it took her a little while to actually gear up enough courage to start walking over the edge, she did it.
Once Caitlyn came back up, Steve asked if we wanted to try a different crevasse or if we wanted to go. No one seemed fussed either way, but we decided to take a look at a different crevasse, so off we went climbing across more ice. When we reached the next one, Steve set up the ropes once more and asked who was going to go first. I decided to just go for it. If I could jump out of a plane and tube through some waterlogged, pitch-black caves, surely I could do this? I wasn’t going to let Barry put me off this time, so I had to go first. Steve couldn’t quite believe it when he heard me say I’ll go. It took a lot of courage but I managed to lower myself over the edge. It’s nerve-wracking where you have no idea what you’re lowering yourself into. I walked down the crevasse and started to feel at ease doing it. I decided to look around and look down. I felt all right at this point and decided to walk down some more. I got quite far but then realised that the further I went down, the further I would have to walk back up and that was the tough bit. I took another look around, decided that I’d done myself proud by going that far and told Steve I wanted to come back up. He told me just to hang there for a while and take a look around. So he left me hanging! I was ok for the first few seconds but then it sank in that it was just a rope clipped into the ice holding me up and I started to get nervous. Luckily it wasn’t long before I could come back up again. It was hard work and I lost my footing a few times but I eventually reached the top. Next up it was Barry’s turn. He took the camera with him so he managed to get some good pics of inside the crevasse.
We had some time left on the ice, so we did some walking. We found some more little streams and waterfalls. The water looked clear that we all leant down and took a taste of it. It was lovely a refreshing, nice and cool.
When we’d finished exploring the ice, it was time to make our way back down. We climbed off the glacier and took off all our ice climbing gear. It took about an hour to climb back through the woodland area. Sadly we didn’t get to see any animals, but we did see some bear claw marks on some trees, which showed just how big and powerful these bears could be!
By the time we reached the bottom, we were exhausted and hot! We jumped back on the shuttle bus and made our way back to the office where we were treated to a much deserved beer and some very tasty meals at Ray’s Waterfront Restaurant.