If you’re just picking up here, you might consider reading Alaska: Part 1, first.
The stifling heat of the four-season single-wall tent woke us with no mercy. The tiny vents at the top of the tent let in little more than hundreds of vociferous mosquitos. The past few days in Alaska temperatures had reached the low one-hundreds.
Russell was laying there trying to sleep. Eventually we got up and made our way into town. Talkeetna is a kitschy strip of buildings and gift shops. The locals tolerate the tourists because the town is set next to the pristine Susitna and Talkeetna rivers. On a clear day Foraker, Hunter, and Denali tower over the horizon, immortal sentinels of rock and snow.
The must-dos in Talkeetna can be counted on one hand. Eat breakfast at The Talkeetna Roadhouse. Buy something at Nagley’s Store and eat a burger at the West Rib; you might catch a glimpse of Mayor Stubbs on patrol if you’re lucky. Take a flight-seeing tour from Sheldon Air Service (more on this later). Get blind drunk at The Fairview Inn.
Our first stop was The Roadhouse. The Roadhouse is famous for a couple of reasons, most notably its seating arrangements and etiquette. Upon arriving at The Roadhouse, patrons are asked to hang around until a seat (or enough seats for your party) opens up at a table in the close-quarters. At this point, one politely sidles up next to whomever happens to still be sitting down to breakfast. The service is excellent, the portions are huge, and they serve reindeer sausage. That’s right: reindeer sausage. My meal there was one of the most enjoyable breakfasts I have had in a very, very long time.
After breakfast Russell and I headed to the ranger station to register and obtain our permits and clean mountain can. The clean mountain can is a green canister with a capacity of perhaps two gallons. Lined with biodegradable plastic bags, this is what you poop in on the glacier. It’s really not that bad. When asked what our team name was, Russell and I were caught off-guard. The first thing that came out of my mouth was, “Dragonslayers.” Russell looked at me sideways and the ranger didn’t write it down. Following a few more seconds of indecision the 6’3” shaven-bald mustachioed ranger said as he scribbled, “I like Dragonbreath.” And so, we became team Dragonbreath.
We drove out to the airfield and found the Sheldon Air Service headquarters. There are three main operators that fly out of Talkeetna. K2 Aviation and Talkeetna Air Taxi are the largest of the three. Sheldon Air Service is named after Don Sheldon, the pioneer bush pilot in Alaska. His father-in-law was Bob Reeve, a bad-ass bush pilot who flew Bradford Washburn to the base of Mount Lucania, Canada in January 1937. Reeve didn’t just fly to Canada in 1937; he landed on skis. On a glacier. In January. 1937.
Sheldon Air Service is owned and operated by the daughter of Don Sheldon, Holly, and her husband David. SAS had come recommended to us by a friend of Russell’s, and boy did we strike gold. We were treated like old friends from the second we walked in the door. Holly and David doted on us offering coffee and cookies, asking if we needed any gear or white gas.
Russell and I operate in a typically disorganized manner and so it took us the better part of two hours to shake everything down. We weighed ourselves and all of our gear, piled it next to the airplane for Jok, our pilot, to load up and waited.
Russell, having been in small airplanes before, gave me the front seat.
Jok called out his position, destination, and flight duration to the tower. He pushed some knobs and pulled some levers and soon enough the little plane was defying gravity. As the nose came up, I couldn’t see the ground anymore. We climbed steadily and quickly.
Within minutes we were swimming through the still air among the giants of the Alaska Range. Denali obscured the horizon but its presence was attenuated by the majesty of the surrounding peaks. Never had I witnessed the elements of our planet playing out in such harmony and majesty. I was in love.
Jok flew us over certain peaks and described how this had formed and how that had formed. I was so smitten with my surroundings that I felt lost in love. I felt like I did the first time I met the love of my life. As we flew into the Ruth Gorge, the mountains dwarfed the plane. Jok pointed out the mountain we were aiming to climb: the Eye Tooth. It was beautiful. A monolith of granite 9000’ tall perched at the edge of the Moose Tooth Massif. The face we planned to climb was 2600’ feet tall. I snapped photo after photo of the face and the route while we flew past.
For the next five days, I continued to mutter this to myself. We would be in our cook tent, I would step out, and I would laugh and say, “Ho-ly Shit.”
Jok banked left around the Don Sheldon Amphitheatre (Like I said, Sheldon was kind of a big deal) and lined up for our landing. The ground rocketed up at us. Across the snow we slid in the most controlled careen I have ever experienced. Jok is the man.
We unloaded, Jok took off, and we were suddenly very alone.
Russell and I packed the sled strategically. We roped up. Again he walked me through the safety checks and the process of what to do if he or I fell into a crevasse.
Things were still very exciting at this point.
Before we prepared to ski I slung my camera across my body. We took off slowly at first. Everything on my body probably weighed about 80 pounds from the pack to the rope. Russell was probably carrying 50 and pulling 100.
We skied off of the runway and the slope increased. Not very far from where we were I could see some seams developing and some crevasses opening up. The bergschrund. A bergschrund, as I experienced on this trip,* is a collection of crevasses, seams, and chasms that form at the base of a cirque before the glacier levels off somewhat.
*Please don’t believe that I am so naive as to have left for this expedition without studying. The reality is that reading about this information pales in comparison to experiencing it.
Now we were getting into the thick of it. All around us were crevasses. Small looking deals from my perspective but you just never know how large or deep they are. We approached a crevasse. The snow in front of us looked solid. The crevasse opened up to our left. Russell passed it without incident. I noticed a small hole next to where he had crossed the crevasse, about six inches in diameter. I decided to change my trajectory 45 degrees to my right to give the hole a wide berth. This being my fourth time on these skis, as I picked up my ski to turn, the toe got caught in the hole. Suddenly I was on the “ground.”
Russell stopped. Cautiously I peered at the crevasse and judged that I was on a very thin snow bridge.
“I’m on about six inches of snow right now!” I whimpered.
“Okay,” Russell said, cool as a cucumber, “just crawl on your belly until you are safe.”
I squirmed. I wiggled. I wriggled. I slid. I slithered.
“Nice job dude,” Russell said with a relieved chuckle.
I stood up. Shit just got really real. At this moment, it occurred to me that this is not Disneyland. All of that beauty and majesty will remorselessly swallow me, crush me, or dismember me and never, ever give any of me back.
I put my camera away and we carried on. After about 45 minutes of skiing Russell suggested we make camp.
Making camp on a glacier is hard work. First, we piled our gear in a central location. Still roped to one another and on our skis, we unfastened our probes and poked around.
A probe is about the length and diameter of a tent pole. Probing is the search for uniformity under the snow, or perhaps more accurately, irregularity. An irregularity, a space where the probe encounters greater or less friction, can be indicative of a variety of things. We were searching for large irregularities. They’re known in mountaineering as crevasses. As we poked about, we felt something hard about four feet down. If we punched hard enough we could poke right through it. Russell explained this as an ice lens or a thin layer of ice that forms below the surface of the snow due to thawing, melting, and refreezing. This ice layer was at least as large as the safe zone we created for our camp; it was probably much larger than that.
Once our safe zone had been established we took off our skis, unroped, and started setting up camp. The next step in setting up snow camp was to work harden an area for our tent (Work harden is mountaineering jargon for tamp down). This may seem like a simple task (which, really, it is) but the trick is making sure that is that the sleeping space is level and uniform.
We stamped. We tamped. We trampled. We put on our skis and bounced around on them. We threw snow in. We threw snow out. We worked the snow. Hard.
Finally satisfied, we unfurled the tent. Our anchors were deadman anchors. A deadman is anything of moderate length, with a line clove-hitched around it, buried in the snow, and work-hardened. For this particular application we used actual stakes that one might use in dirt. They worked marvelously.
Thoroughly exhausted and happy to be where we were, we made dinner. Just as we were sorted through our sledbag to find dinner, a party of two skied past us. They waved from afar. They were the only people we would see for the next four days.
Next time: Ski Practice, the Eye Tooth, and Getting out