Jul 19

Hiking up the Exit glacier trail to the Harding Ice Field

Category: Alaska,Travel

Since my three-day kayaking expedition was cancelled by a big storm, I decided to hike around glaciers instead of row up to them.  In a brief moment of sun I had this view of the Exit Glacier in Kenai Fjords National Park:

Here is the foot of the glacier.  In recent decades it has retreated by about a mile, and at the foot is just a shadow of what it once was. However, it is still huge – several hundred yards across.

This is where the glacier was only in the 1990s.  You can see how the rock underneath the ice was scoured away.

Here are some helpful tips; I particularly like the third one.

Now the rain began, but so did the great views. The microclimate of the hillside i was on was incredibly verdant and covered with happy plants. The trail is 3.5 miles long, and rises 1000 feet per mile.  This is similar to hikes I’ve made in the grand canyon (although this is much shorter). It is what I call an “ass-kicking” hike.

Running water was everywhere.

Directly across the gorge I could see the naked black rock scoured clean by the glacier in years past, and a small spillover of ice from the ice field.  The ice field is an inland sea of ice that sits in an elevated basin; the glaciers are ice falls, analogous to waterfalls. While flowers are blooming below, at altitude on the ice field, it is virtually winter, and cold air flows down with the ice.  Hikers here encounter freezing rivers of cold air that can come in hammer blasts.

Now it began to rain in earnest.  At first it was just a heavy downpour, but soon it felt as if I were ringed with people playing fire hoses on me.  Whenever I climbed over a ridge and was exposed to the cold wind coming off of the glacier and the ice field above, things were pretty uncomfortable. Eventually I reached an overlook where everyone else on the trail was turning back. You can just see the top of the glacier behind me.

I stayed dry for several hours, but eventually I felt a squishing sensation in my shoes and knew something had gone wrong.  I spent some time cursing my gear before realizing that i had left the underarm vents open on my jacket, allowing the cold rain to drip down my entire body; I was completely soaked.  I kept going.

Soon I crested the top of the mountain and encountered even worse weather.  When I took off my rain jacket to put on extra fleece, my t-shirt froze instantly.  Visibility soon dropped as well, but i could see the start of the Harding ice field!

Up here (around 3500 feet) there was essentially no vegetation; it looked like what I’d expect to see at 14000 feet down in the states. Now, I was even more soaked, and completely exposed to the so-called catabatic winds (essentially, ice-chilled air) coming off of the ice.  There was no shelter, the rain was unrelenting, but I was only half a mile from the end of the trail… I kept on for a while.

Eventually, I felt the beginning of blisters in my water-softened feet, and I realized that mother nature was going to win this time. Reluctantly I turned back.  My fingers were so cold I could barely move them; I fumbled and dropped my camera over a ledge.  Cursing helplessly, I watched it tumble over and over, entering a waterfall stream, which carried it hundreds of yards down a steep cliff of slippery wet gravel and decomposed shale.  It stopped just short of plunging over a cliff ind into the crevasses of the glacier below.

Grumbling, I went down after it.  Later I took the picture above of the place where the camera fell. It took me about 30 minutes to make the round trip.  Damn.  Now, completely cold and annoyed, I headed back to the warmer part of the trail as fast as I could.

Screw you, rain!

Despite the difficulty, it was a great day.  I staggered back to the car and sat in the back seat long enough to completely cloud the windows with my breath before changing out of my sopping wet clothes. Relief!

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1 Comment so far

  1. Laura March 7th, 2017 9:26 PM

    That was a crazy hike! I’m amazed you pushed through as long as you did with the freezing weather. Then the camera falling… What a day!

    We are considering this hike for our Alaskan trip in August. My only big concern is bears!

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