Notes from a JIRP Alum

by Jay Ach

As a JIRP alum, returning for the first time since 1973 and 1975, I am struck by the similarities to what I remember from some 40 years ago.

Weather has kept us at Camp 17 for longer than expected, so I can only judge from past and present Camp 17 experiences.  The infrastructure here is almost identical; some buildings have been changed or extended to a small degree, but it’s all immediately recognizable.  Certainly on this side of the Icefield, the weather has not improved over the decades.  All field parties were supposed to be in Camp 10 by now, or at least well on their way.  Instead, two parties that left in a brief spell of good weather are completing their two day traverse to Camp 10 today, while all others are holed up at Camp 17, waiting out horizontal rain driven by 50+ MPH winds.  The new flag raised over the camp two weeks ago has been blown to shredded tatters.

Student spirits are far from tattered, however.  Days of comprehensive glacier travel training, including knot tying, belaying, prussiking, self-arresting, building crevasse rescue systems, and learning or improving cross-country and telemark skiing transformed a group of students from new acquaintances to a group of competent scientist/mountaineers constantly on the lookout for each other.  Staff personnel is, of course 100% different from when I was here before, but exhibit the same awesome degree of competence leavened with abundant irreverence that I experienced as a student.  The last two days of being all but confined indoors in a couple of small buildings due to inclement weather would cause any normal group of strangers to go bonkers.  Given the sense of team that has formed, though, spirits have stayed incredibly upbeat and the tremendous good humor and frequent bouts of hilarity have been wonderful.

The sense of group, of being a team on an expedition, and watching out for the good of the group as opposed to one’s own self-interest, was one of my most enduring life lessons from my previous JIRP experiences.  It is great to see that the same lessons are still being transmitted to students decades after my own experiences as a JIRP student.

The science is still way cool too . . .

Introduction to Digging Mass Balance Pits

by Carmen Braun   

Today marked the first day we weren’t all doing safety training!  While some JIRPers continued doing some safety training, others expanded our horizons to probing and surveying, and nine of us began digging mass balance pits.    After the standard morning time activities (wake up call, breakfast, and work duties), we started getting ready.  Considering the fact that most of us were already wet after our work duties, we all knew we were in for a cold, wet day. 

Those of us responsible for digging mass balance pits were divided up into two groups, each with a safety staff member to show us the ropes.  We skied north down the glacier for about half an hour before arriving at the dig location. The other group’s location was a bit closer to camp.  Upon arrival, we got to work right away, after covering our packs with our tarps in a futile attempt to keep them from getting wetter.  We dug, rotating positions from time to time, for about 4.5 hours.  That warms you up quickly!  My group was really quiet; I spent most of the time in a zone where the only thought in my head was where to shovel.  It was very meditative work.  The other group was chatting most of the time, which I’m sure created quite a different atmosphere. At one point, Dougal, one of the guys in the other group, started yelling out names of things he hates as he chopped at the snow. In these cold and wet conditions, I was very happy to just dig.   However, in nice weather, I can see how digging with a little music and good conversation would be great as well.

As for the actual digging of a pit, everyone starts in the pit until snow starts to accumulate around the edges.  At that point, one moves to clear the rim of snow and the other four start focusing on one quadrant each.  We would rotate from time to time at the beginning, but I think I spent about 3 hours in the same quadrant after that.  Eventually, you have one quadrant that is very deep, and then the other three become progressively shallower.  The one in the lowest quadrant eventually starts passing snow to people in higher ones so they don’t need to throw the snow up and out of the pit. 

This has been a low accumulation year, so we only had to dig to a depth of about 2.25 meters to find last year’s layer.  It was really fun to finally see all the structures people had been telling us about, like the ice lenses and the layer of less dense depth hoar that formed above the much more dense snow from last year.  We finished our pit before the other group, but they had all the scientific equipment so we skied up to their pit to grab that.  Most of our boots were at the point where water sloshed from the toes to heels and back each time the angle of our feet changed.  My overmitts had started retaining water long before, so each time I brought my poles up water splashed over my fingers.  We ended up just separating into two new groups, one to head back to camp, and one to do the measurements because so many of us were very cold at that point. 

I am pretty sure we all enjoyed ourselves, at least in the type B version of fun.  Below are a couple quotes from other students.

“If it’s raining it sucks” – Jenny

“I like it, it’s my friend” – Matt

“No matter how vertical you think the walls are, they’re not.” – Kelly

“A good way to stay warm in the freezing cold rain.” – Randall

“Chat through adversity.” - Randall

“Good way to get in shape.  Once we get to the dry parts I think it will be really fun!” – Natalie

“If I ever want to become an ice sculptor, digging mass balance pits will prepare me well.” – Danielle

Erik talked about how it’s the only way to really see the inside of a glacier, in a way we are evolutionarily developed to understand. He compared it to probing, which is completely uninformative for the senses we use.

“Sometimes it’s like highway construction, one person is working and five people are watching” – Tristan

(This was in reference to a pit we dug where the last annual layer was only 92 cm below the surface.  It ended up being about 1m3; we fit 7 people in there and took a couple selfies once all the science was done!)

Fourth of July on the Icefield

by Danielle Beaty

Waking up to a socked in C-17.

Waking up to a socked in C-17.

I woke up this Independence Day to a completely socked in Camp 17. It wasn’t the typical Fourth of July weather to be expected, with near white out conditions and continual drizzle, but we made the most of it nonetheless. We spent the day traversing across the Lemon Creek Glacier in rope teams of four, and attending lectures about wilderness medicine and virtual field realities that we will help create on the Juneau Icefield.

Rope team practice

Rope team practice

For dinner, we ate American classics including mac and cheese, baked beans, spam, and homemade bread.  For dessert, we had peach cobbler and cake topped with blue m&ms, powdered sugar and jam to look like the American flag. After dinner, the sky cleared so several JIRPers and I hit the Gnarmigan for tele-skiing under the setting sun (The Gnarmigan is the appropriately renamed Ptarmigan Glacier for its gnarly ski run). Back home, I have a family tradition of skiing Mt. Hood each Fourth of July, so I was happy to be continuing the tradition. The sky was a brilliant orange color, and the view as we skied down was glorious. The snow was like soft spring corn, excellent for practicing my telemark turns.

The most lovely Fourth of July cake!

The most lovely Fourth of July cake!

Skiing to celebrate America!

Skiing to celebrate America!


 Lindsey and I prepared a “Fourth of July Dance Party Playlist”, so after the day’s activities were through we cleared the cook shack of tables and chairs, and danced the night away to very American-themed music. Perhaps the highlight of Fourth of July on the icefield was Luna’s rendition of Miley Cyrus’s “Wrecking Ball” music video, using a climbing rope and prusik hitches whose primary purpose is for crevasse rescue. Though Fourth of July on the icefield wasn’t necessarily traditional, it was one for the history books and my most memorable one yet.

Dancing like champions

Dancing like champions


Billionth Annual JIRP Knot Tying Competition

by Laurissa Christie

Crazy Costumes + Laughter + Knot Tying + Unpredictable Behaviour + JIRP Love = Great Night.

We’ve been doing a lot of safety training here at Camp 17 to get ready to cross the Icefield safely. The staff has made training fun, but stayed extremely serious until the night of the knot tying competition. The students were all divided into competing teams to compete in categories such as best dressed knot, quickest knot tying, and most stylish.

The competition looks fierce!

The competition looks fierce!

One of the highlights of the knot tying competition was the selection of costumes.  Before the competition, we quickly dressed in the most ridiculous funny outfits we could obtain given our limited wardrobes.  Outfits included (but were not limited to) neon shirts, flags, rain pants, onesies, hair even wackier than usual, and sports bras worn over shirts; we even had a visit from “Flava Flav.”  After we made our costumed appearance, the competition really began. We were tested on overhand knots, figure eight knots, bowline knots, double fisherman’s knots, girth hitches, clove hitches, Munter hitches, and prusik hitches. The judges were “celebrities” and completely “unbiased” – otherwise known as our favourite field staffers.  When it was widely advertised that the judges accepted bribes, Snickers bars and brownies seemed to be shared freely.  Before we knew, it people were tying knots while singing, doing pushups and yoga, dancing, sitting on each other’s shoulders, and wearing blindfolds.  The cook shack – packed with students, staff, and faculty – felt as if it could have fallen down with laughter. Everyone had fun, and it was a great reminder of the JIRP bonding that attracted many of us to the program.

Look at those smiles

Look at those smiles

Some definite contenders of the costume competition.

Some definite contenders of the costume competition.