by Natalie Raia, University of Texas at Austin
After several days of inclement weather at Camp 17, the clear morning on June 16th was a more than welcome sight for the final two trail parties! Our crews woke up at 04:00 to pack up and finish closing camp. Trail party one was off before 05:30, and the traverse began!
The first portion of the journey was a ski down Lemon Creek glacier. After spending two weeks on the Lemon Creek glacier practicing skiing and learning new mountaineering and glacier travel skills, it was a bittersweet goodbye to the familiar, gently sloping, and rather benign glacier we called home.
However, the Lemon Creek glacier soon showed its icier side—rain during the bad weather days had exacerbated ablation near the terminus of the glacier. We had been warned by the second-day crew that crampons would be necessary to safely and efficiently cross the lower Lemon Creek glacier. So, around 07:00 we strapped crampons to ski boots, skis to packs, and trekked onward. For most of us, it was the first time back on crampons since our initial practice hike at the Mendenhall glacier in Juneau. It was a welcome break from skiing, and the crampons allowed for an enjoyable hike with phenomenal views as the good weather miraculously continued.
After a snack break near the end of the Lemon Creek glacier, we began a slow and steady ski ascent on a snow ramp in pursuit of the Thomas Glacier. With Director Jeff Kavanaugh expertly kicking steps and routing switchbacks, we proceeded up three separate slopes that had initially appeared to be dauntingly steep.
With stamina rapidly decreasing, we reached “Lunch Rock” around 15:30 and took a nice break, refilling water at a clear pool in the rock outcrop and munching on a few of our five (yes, five!) allotted sandwiches. Trail party two caught up with us as we prepared to leave Lunch Rock, so we were able to compare notes on the traverse, the beautiful weather, and share a few skeptical glances at our watches—time was ticking and reaching Lunch Rock in mid-afternoon was not ideal! Our agenda after lunch initially included a short uphill and then contouring across a gently sloping ridge. At this point, we encountered some mist, but Camp 17 prepared us well! Without a hitch, we reached the base of an exposed rock outcrop. At its peak was Nugget Ridge.
Strapping skis to our packs, we began a slippery uphill rock scramble that was difficult for everyone, and downright grueling for those with large plastic all-terrain ski boots. Nevertheless, we made it to the top and immediately prepared for the crevasse field on Nugget Ridge.
It seemed as if all of the preparation at Camp 17 had been leading to this moment. We tied into our rope teams, building the fairly extensive system of knots and prusiks without a second glance, and set off cautiously into the persisting mist. Our practice traveling together in rope teams allowed for an amazingly smooth section of the traverse, and as the mist cleared it became clear exactly why we were roped up. Amazing, gaping crevasses suddenly appeared along with a spectacular view of the final two portions of the traverse: Death Valley and the Norris Icefall.
Once reaching the designated “safe waypoint,” we unroped and looked at the work ahead of us. Now 20:30, it was overtly obvious that all was NOT on-track time-wise! Trail party two caught up with us again, and it was decided that we would finish the traverse as one group. The implied goal now became something like, “Move forward at any pace you are capable of and KEEP MOVING!” A large downhill slope, easily the ski resort equivalent of a serious “dark blue” intermediate hill, loomed below us. Five of us skied down, and the rest boot packed down the hill. That run was a personal highlight of the traverse and one of the best ski runs of my life (and don’t let my current university location fool you, I’ve been skiing since kindergarten!). I descended down into the valley as sunset began, catching perfect snow conditions. It was notably one of the only times my AT ski setup worked to my advantage!
Once everyone regrouped at the bottom of the hill, we began a fun but exhausting sidehill across the upper part of Death Valley. This route was faster, safer, and used less energy. Even as some of us became sleepy, our leg muscles were certainly wide awake during this 2-hour ordeal. Sidehilling is no easy task, especially with 25-30 lb. packs!
Eventually, we lost all elevation advantage and were on the true floor of Death Valley. I’m not sure what the origin of “Death Valley” is (and probably don’t want to know!), but in the case of this now 17-hour traverse, Death Valley caused the slow deterioration of morale and all sense of progress. It was here that the true scale of the Icefield became acutely apparent. With dusk now well underway, the temperature began to drop. We kept moving forward by a combination of sheer grit and determination, robotic momentum acquired from hours on the trail, and perhaps most importantly out of necessity to keep warm! The snow in Death Valley turned icy, which increased the energy output necessary to ski over the never-ending sun cups (essentially snow dunes resulting from the uneven heating of the valley floor during the day). Eventually, we reached the bottom of the Norris Icefall. Now with headlamps out, we bundled up and ate what food we had (suddenly five sandwiches didn’t seem so extravagant!), waiting to regroup and decide whether we would attempt the Norris Icefall that night. In that numb and exhaustion-laden break at 00:30, the true quality of students and staffers shined. Gloves, extra layers, food, and hugs were shared, and eventually it was decided that we would begin one final push towards our ultimate destination, the Norris Cache. After all, a group of tents and food were waiting for us somewhere just above the icefall.
With freezing hands, we tied into our original rope teams from earlier in the day and approached the icefall. It was the middle of the night, and with Jeff scouting a path through an extensive crevasse zone we proceeded. Most of us were running off of adrenaline, the occasional granola bar, and the knowledge that eventually the ordeal would be over and we could crawl into tents and sleep.
As a testament to the safety training we received at Camp 17, we efficiently and safely ascended the crevassed snow ramp with excellent communication, especially given that there were four rope teams skiing consecutively. After reaching the flag marking the safe point, we unroped and looked forward, expecting to see tents nearby.
Nope! Finding a wanded track we trudged forward at abysmally slow rates, some of us in serious blistered pain, others just overcome by mental and physical exhaustion. WHERE WERE THE TENTS?! Looking forward about half a mile, it seemed that some of the faster skiers had reached a stopping point and were grouping up. But, wait! Why could I see half a mile in front of me? It was supposed to be the middle of the night, too dark to see any significant distance! A glance up at the sky (as opposed to the spectacular view I had been looking at for the past 22 hours—the top of my skis!) revealed that the sun was rising! In that moment, there was nothing to do but laugh at the absurdity of the situation. 03:30, just half an hour shy of being awake and on my feet for 24 hours and I was still skiing toward the cache for day one of the traverse. Laughing, wincing, and crying with my fellow JIRPers, we skied toward the tents at the cache and collapsed on the ground at the camp.
We have a running conversation about types of fun on JIRP: “Type A Fun” is fun during and after the event, “Type B Fun” is not fun during the ordeal but is fun retrospectively, and “Type C Fun” is fun during but not after! Day one of the traverse to Camp 10 was most certainly Type B fun. That day we each learned lessons in perseverance, self-awareness, inner willpower, and teamwork. The traverse was rewarding not because of the absurd, JIRP record-breaking amount of time it took to complete, but because the not one of us could have completed the traverse alone. We learned that together we function at a higher level in adverse conditions than would be possible as individual entities.