I have just returned back to the urban world after 100 days in Alaska. Here’s an insight into a trip at the start of the season (May 2016) in the Chugach Mountains.
The wind picks up and with a strong crashing gust we all sit bolt upright, our ears perked up. Silence. We sit, pausing, waiting for the next gust to come screaming through the valley. It comes soon enough, bringing our snow wall crashing down and leaving our Hillerberg tent exposed to the full forces of nature. We fumble around for torches during the only part of the night that is remotely dark in the land of the midnight sun, put our gloves on and make our way outside to fix the wall. Inbetween placing blocks of snow and packing the gaps inbetween, I take a moment to look around. Peaks are towering above us, the summits barely visible with low clouds and snow swirling around. Our vestibule has filled up with snow and flakes continue falling from the sky. We are inside a small perimeter camp, plonked in the middle of a huge glacier.
Ever since our small bush plane landed on the west fork of the Matanuska glacier we’ve been observing frequent avalanches. Cracking roars in the distance, we’re in a surround sound theatre. After a few days the storm passes and the mountains are peaceful again. The cloud lifts and we have bluebird weather. We pack up camp, take down our perimeter, rope up and begin snow-shoeing up towards Turtle Flats and the Powell Glacier. We post hole through deep snow, slowly gaining elevation and new views of our surroundings.
I squint, taking my sunglasses off to get a better view. Visibility is poor, I can only just make out the icefall dropping off to my left and an obvious ridge line to my right. We’re being squeezed through a gap, avalanche runout on one side and visible cracks on the other. I pull my beanie down over my ears, pull my fleece buff over my mouth and nose and I keep trudging forwards. We hear a big cracking crash and look up to see a giant sea of ice and snow tumbling down the face towards us. A large cornice had broken off triggering an avalanche at the very moment we passed by. Close enough to leave us in the cloud at the end of the runout. For a brief moment we look on, stunned. Then we start to run. We’re roped up and wearing snow-shoes, with big backpacks and sleds. We continue on in silence, with tension in the air.
We continue moving down the Powell glacier, dwarfed by giant peaks on either side. Big, open and wild. The magnitude of the spaces in Alaska bring us new perspectives.
We are small in the face of the mountains but it feels good.