Pointed Ascent

February 28, 2007
Filed under Travel

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Mountaineering books line my bookshelves. Works such as Ascent, Into Thin Air, Facing the Extreme and To the Summit speak to me of humankind’s limitless aspirations and daunting accomplishments. They detail the sacrifices people must make to reach the tops of the world’s highest peaks, step after breath-sapping step of thin-aired drudgery. That I’ve never climbed even a 12,000-foot mountain is beside the point. I read every mountaineering account I can find in outdoorsy magazines, part of me knowing that I don’t have the dedication, stamina or health to top out on a peak of consequence, part of me hoping that someday I will. Even if I never reach one of those vaunted summits, however, I had a few hours of mini-mountaineering recently, and the experience was one of the most exhilarating I’ve ever had.

Before I settled in for the night in Bear Paw RV Park, in Valdez, Alaska, I learned that my halibut-fishing trip the next day had been cancelled, due to a major storm in the Gulf of Alaska. Here we go again, I thought, as my Last Frontier-fishing jinx continued. The weather, however, wouldn’t prevent the guides from Pangaea Adventures from leading clients on a hike up and around the nearby Worthington Glacier. And since hiking was the tamer part of the adventure, I said, “Count me in.” Pangaea’s shop is right next to Bear Paw RV Park on Valdez’s main drag, and as I approached the shop, I noted the gear that was piling up on the wooden steps. As a rock climber, I’m used to harnesses, helmets, carabiners and lightweight rock shoes, but guide Trisha Thomas soon fitted me with some heavy plastic mountaineering boots and two sets of crampons, the metal contraptions that strap on the underside of boots, their sharp points enabling climbers to find purchase on ice — theoretically.

The first, less-severe set of crampons would be for ascending Worthington Glacier, Trisha said, and the crampons with the longer points would be for the ice climbing. Now, it’s one thing to feel the crunch of ice underfoot as you plod your way carefully up a glacier (as we were soon doing, the grin on my face indicating that I was in fact a crampon newbie), but it is an entirely different matter not to have any ice under your foot at all. But I’ve gotten ahead of myself … A
few clients, an apprentice  guide and Trisha hopped in the van, drove on the one road out of Valdez — the Richardson Highway — up and over Thompson Pass, then stopped about 33 miles from Valdez at an altitude of 3,000 feet. Travelers driving in either direction cannot miss Worthington Glacier State Recreation Site — home of Alaska’s most-accessible glacier.

In fact, RVers who do not stop to snap photos, take the short walk to the base of this national natural landmark and perhaps gingerly negotiate a few icy steps should not bother to visit Alaska. If unique travel opportunities like the Worthington Glacier don’t slow the typical RVer’s “what’s next” pace, they likely won’t appreciate the rest of Alaska’s gifts either. I, however, couldn’t get over how much more impressive and interesting glaciers crunched underfoot are compared with those seen from afar. I had been on cruise ships, viewed giant slabs of ice in the distance and said, “Yep, there’s a giant slab of ice in the distance.” I had no “ooh-aah” epiphany, and I’m sure I’m not alone in this. As we hiked
up the fairly steep slope, however, our heavy boots strapped to our backpacks, our climbing crampons biting into the frozen beast that occasionally made bellowing and cracking sounds as if alive, I’m certain I’m not the only client who thought, “This is the greatest.”

The experience soon became greater still. As the clients changed into climbing boots and the nastier crampons, Trisha placed protection deep into the frozen mass, using ice screws sunk next to a deep hole in the ice called a moulin. A moulin is similar to a crevasse in that it is a split in the ice, but moulins are created by water finding a weakness in the ice, then creating a vertical — rather than horizontal — channel or hole. And it was into one of these holes that we would soon descend. After explaining how best to position ourselves, how to kick our crampons into the ice and how to use the curved ice axes that would be tethered to either of our wrists, Trisha secured herself to the hanging belay, then secured the harness of the first client. The first two climbers made it to the bottom of the 25-foot ice chamber and back up without major incident (it’s possible to get banged up, but Trisha uses a high-tech belaying device called a gris-gris, which basically makes it impossible for a climber to fall more than a few feet).

I double-checked my harness, then made it over the lip with a grace the first climbers lacked. Of course, they didn’t bang their cameras against the back wall of the moulin as I did. When I reached the bottom, I used the undamaged camera to shoot back up toward Trisha and the outside light. It was somehow both loud and quiet in the hole — the only sound was the water rushing in the trough just under my feet, then plunging to depths unknown just out of sight. White noise, surrounded by icy hues of blue. It occurred to me as I savored my few minutes in that stunning venue that Pangaea offers hikes on this glacier without the ice-climbing component, and the hikes they offer on Valdez Glacier negotiate a less-steep slope. And, of course, it’s possible to turn an ankle. But as I reached up and plunged one ice axe high above me, did the same with the other, then followed with forceful kicks of my feet, slowly gaining altitude with each four-step dance, I knew the climb wouldn’t make the record books, though I’d definitely reach the top. And I soon did, ecstatically. Pangaea Adventures, (800) 660-9637, pangaeaadventures.com

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