The Backcountry Scene

To Live on a Glacier

By Cindi Lou Grant

Photos by Kelly Gray

I peer out of an ovaled jet-plane window and admire my home, the Wasatch Mountains, lit up in a bright pink glow as the western peaks engulf the sun. Like those glowing peaks, I am filled with excitement and joy at the curiosity of my new mission, living on a glacier in the remote Neacola Mountains of Alaska.

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Anchorage, AK is sleepy as the plane touches down in the eerie orange glow of the rare blood-moon light. We find the car our good friends have left for us at the airport and make our way down the Seward highway. Star gazing tail-gators line the beach, basking in the lunar spectacle with white Alaskan peaks reflecting off the salt water. The musky air smells like fresh rain on spruce trees, spring has started its transition.

We linger in town only long enough to stock up on food, fuel, and rent a satellite phone. As we assemble our crew and communicate with our pilot, we cover the floor with topo maps and collectively decide on a general area to fly into; searching out a balance between landing the airplane and access to terrain.

The day’s drive to Nikiski, AK is mesmerizing and I sit in the back seat full of gratitude and wonderment at the chance to experience its beauty. We take a wrong turn, only to find ourselves driving up a gravel and mud airstrip that has been cut into the thickly shadowed trees of Doug Brewers backyard. This is Alaska West Air, pilot Doug’s humble and tidy air taxi service. He waves us over and we pull up right under the wing of the DHC-2 Beaver bush plane. With giddy excitement, we pack all 500lbs of gear into the cargo compartment like Tetris pros, carefully placing our critically important split-boards in last so we will have them readily available for base camp. As I climb aboard, I can’t help but notice as Pilot Doug sets his open cup of coffee next to the thrust lever and we haul-ass down the rough, uneven runway without a spilt drop.

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Flying over the Cook Inlet I watch the as the last marks of civilization pump away in Chevron’s off shore oil drilling rigs. We fly higher into the Neacola Mountain Range and the terrain is mind-bendingly massive and vast. I feel the heavy pressure as our crew conspires to choose our zone to touch down. A task that has become dutiful as fuel is burning and our eyes are feasting on the plethora of unnamed peaks. The landing zone we pick has couloirs, flanks, and ramps facing in every aspect of the compass and we unload our equipment right in the middle of it all.

The last sight of the plane crosses the horizon and silence paralyzes the air. We are truly alone and completely reliant on the supplies we brought with us to live on a seemingly lifeless Alaskan glacier. There are no snowmobiles or helicopters to compete with, and no known beta of anyone who has ever attempted our same objectives; although a native Alaskan very well could have without the ego to ever say so.

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First things first, I help Zach my husband, dig down into the glacier to build a wind shelter of snow walls around our tent. We use our splitboards to carefully stomp down a flat place to sleep. As a crew, we dig a pit to store our food and create a nice island style camp kitchen. It’s now 10:00pm, and the sun finally sets.

The massive peaks that surround us are full of more potential then we can possibly tap into. This feeling of sheer wonder and curiosity has held mine and Zach’s imagination since we met snowboarding at 15 years old. This joint wonderment has shaped our snowboard-dedicated lives together and continues to provide us with the ambition to explore more of these wild places- to enrich our hearts with the unknown.

Upon setting out of camp, I soon realize that the glacier we chose to devote ourselves to is huge, and crossing it to gain access to the mouthwatering lines would take up most of the day. We climb for hours across ancient glacial ice, reverently tethered to each other in an effort to control the fear of falling into an inexplicably deep aqua-black crevasse. Nearly vertical lines hold perfect champagne snow and impenetrable ice, varied upon where the wind blows. Steady and careful climbing leads to the summit and I bask it the seemingly endless sea of peaks, stacked in a 360 degree landscape of possibilities. The tallest and most massive is the volcano, Mt Redoubt, to our south.

As I prepare to drop in, I take a deep, full breath in an effort to relish in this awesome moment. Everything leading up to this had to fall right into place and finally, I am strapped into my snowboard on top of my own Alaskan line. My board slashes through the varied snow, and each turn happens faster than my mind can process them, sending me into a state that I can only describe as a mystic combination of pure focus and bliss. I carve my temporary signature into an insignificant handful of these lines and the immense setting seems almost imaginative as we collect descents; knowing it would take many life times to ride them all.

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I gain this humble feeling of my slight interaction with these peaks, such a tiny blink in their grand timeline, and rejoice in my comparatively, petty successes. The raw nature of these mountains remains so bold in significance, that not to be filled with gratitude for my fortunate presence in them seems like a total paradox.  As the summer sun gains influence, the temperature rises by the day. Distant peaks shed layers of snow with the bone chilling sound of powerful rumbling avalanches. As I observe the process, I am reminded that the glacier is ever dissolving. I contemplate the fate that we as consumers, subject it to. To feel so insignificant only moments before, and yet so responsible for the future of this place, leaves me with a sense of wonder and predicament.

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Our Alaskan days and nights, ebb and flow with a natural rhythm, unburdened by normal daily tasks. Glacier life is simple, keep the snow away from your tent, eat and rest enough to stay warm and energetic, but due to mostly good weather; we snowboard. I attempt to savor each moment I am awarded here, climbing and slashing these mountains, etching them into my mind. At night we reflect and relax over protein, beer, down parkas, and laughter as we prepare for the next day’s adventures.

On the final morning, we awoke to a patchy fog of clouds that had crept up the glacier in the night. We discuss options with Doug via satellite phone, and realize we have time for one more line. Waiting out a clearing in the fog, we linger on the top, bundled up in down for a very long time. Eventually a sucker-hole appears in the sky and allows us to ride the final line of our trip. We ride back into camp and soon the growling sound of our lifeline bush-plane approaches our already packed up camp.

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As it circles the sky, we hold our breath, hoping for a landing in the flat light. The engine roar fades away as the plane disappears and our hearts sink with confusion. We discuss the days it would take to walk off the glacier, the 60 miles to the deserted side of the Cook Inlet, and then we would still remain at the mercy of a ship rescue.

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Doug bravely reappears with the plane at last and comes in for the landing. We hastily load up our gear and file into our seats, the thruster is pushed full throttle and concern fills Doug’s face. We do not even budge. The skis of the loaded to capacity airplane are stuck to the sloppy spring snow. “Everyone pull” Doug yells, with the unsettling urgency of a truck stuck in the mud; but this is no truck, this is a bush plane deep in the Alaskan wilderness and it feels like our only chance at returning to civilization. We all jump out onto the glacier and pull with a feverish effort on the wings to assist the skis free from their containment. Doug drives the throttle forward in a deafening howl of the engine at the same time. The plane takes off and is gone again, this time with all of our gear. We are left; recently dizzied with deafness, in an eerie stupor of feeling truly stranded. The severity of the situation had become so ludicrous that all we could do is stand there helpless and hoping.

In a phenomenal landing, he (of course) comes back for us. This time, driving the plane in several taxi circles to create a functional gliding runway. Filled with relief, we take off, possessing barely enough fuel for our return. Once again, we fly into the bright pink glow that reflects when the western mountains engulf the sun.

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Cindi Lou Grant

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