Words and Photos by Amber McDaniel
“We don’t have to do this,” I said, my gaze fixed straight ahead through the rain-drenched windshield, hands resting dejectedly on the steering wheel. In every weather forecast I had looked at, which I assuredly had, none predicted rain at Portage until late evening. But it was Alaska and I should have known better.
So there we were, parked on the side of the road to Byron Glacier with only one delaminating emergency rain jacket stuffed into the bottom of my pack, along with other things I hoped to never need. “We don’t have to,” I said again, feeling guilty I had practically begged him to go hiking with me in the first place that now seemed fated to miserable no matter what.
Chris looked at me disapprovingly as if to say, “You’ve done it again.” This was far from the first time my adventure planning had gone awry. Instead, he said, “No, we drove all the way here. We’re doing this stupid hike.”
“We really don’t have to!”
“You can stay. I’m going,” and with that, he threw open the door and stepped out into the rain. Chris was a reluctant adventurer unless some form of rock climbing was involved. I was usually the one dangling the carrot, but once he had crossed the effort threshold, there was no turning back. He had put in the time, so now he had to see it through.
I sighed, and dug the raincoat out of my pack, opting to leave everything else there (more stuff to get wet, I figured).
The road to Byron was still closed for the winter, meaning we would begin the hike with a half-mile walk along pavement before actually reaching the trailhead. On the way, we passing a family with young children in tow who looked somehow even less prepared than ourselves.
Byron Glacier was, on a normal day, an easy hike one could reasonably take even your most sedentary relatives up for a visit to experience “Alaska”. Which was exactly the kind of crowd that littered the trail on a summer day. In the winter, however, is was more challenging, and the fringe seasons, only the most masochistic and stupid hikers found themselves on the trail. Exempli gratia: us.
Chris led the way up the narrow, slushy, staggering and slipping every few feet, but we eventually fell into a rhythm of concentrating on each and every step. As we rounded into the glacier valley, nestled in a bowl of peaks that quickly rose over 3,000 feet on three sides, we found ourselves loosely following the stream stemming from the glacier.
Finally, we reached the boulder field at the base of the glacier, where the terrain became even more hazardous. Only inches sometimes separated solid trail from deep, open crevasses plunging into the dark recesses beneath the snow covered boulders. I had originally intended on bringing my mountain axe for probing purposes, but in my haste to keep my pack dry, I had stupidly left it in the car
Chris diverted off left, thinking the ground looked more solid, and immediately punched through the snow up to his hip. A string of expletives followed. After pulling himself out and precariously backtracking, Chris looked and me said, “I’m not risking breaking a leg for this.”
Assuming the ice caves were just across the boulder field, I told Chris I was going to push on and that I would catch up to him, but handed him the car keys just in case he made it back first.
Beyond the next knoll and off the boulder mound, I saw no signs of an ice cave, but plenty of footprints extending onto the snowpack ahead. I followed and found myself hiking up a dastardly slick hill up the glacier, wind and rain pelting my face the entire time.
Distantly, like the nagging feeling of forgetting an unknown something, I felt the weight of isolation on the glacier. Suddenly, as if in response to my unease, four figures appeared on the crest above me: two people and two dogs, glissading toward me. At least I wasn’t the only fool.
“Looking like summer, isn’t it?” one shouted over the wind ripping through the funneled mountains.
“Beautiful day! Did you make it to the caves?”
‘”Yeah they’re just up ahead! Be careful of some pretty deep holes right at the mouth.” I nodded my thanks and continued on. At the top of the hill, I dipped into a bowl and the ice cave suddenly yawned in front of me.
The inside was spectacular, with blue sapphire walls almost translucent but for the ribbons of gray and black glacial silt. Despite the overcast sky, the smooth ripples of ice walls shimmered as though refracting sunlight. I had never seen anything so magical.
Ahead, the cave opened again toward the sky and to the left, it plunged downward into the darkness like a tunnel right beneath the mountain. I snapped a few photos and took just enough time to revel in the fruits of my labor before growing wary enough of the huge chunks of ice around me that appeared to have calved off recently. Glaciers were known for changing almost unrecognizable amounts in mere days this time of year.
Now, I had only one goal: the dry car where my loving boyfriend (who, for some reason, still went along on my hair-brained adventures) waited two miles away. I crested the hill above the cave started my descent. It was then that my waterproof leather Timberland boots, which had faithfully carried me through Central and South America, across the winter snows at the foot of the Matanuska Glacier, and up and down the harsh, granite crumb approaches of Bishop climbing, failed for the very first time in two years.
Once that water repellency broke, it shattered, saturating my feet so thoroughly that they sloshed with each step.
Suddenly, I heard a great crack from the mountains and my eyes shot to scan the ridgeline, more than half expecting to see a plume of white barreling down the steep slopes. Byron was known to be a bad avalanche zone, particularly this time of year, and had I known it would have been raining prior to setting out, I would have never gone. Rain weakens the already unstable crusts of melting snowpack and is known to trigger wet slab avalanches, the most deadly kind. Byron is particularly terrifying because, located right at the bottom of a bowl, nowhere is safe. Even on the boulder fields that mound in the middle, a big enough avalanche can bury you. My eyes drifted to the recent avalanche run-out to the side of the boulder field, from the day before, I would later learn, as the mountain released another crack. Somewhere, the snow was giving. It was just a matter of when it decided to go down. Adrenalin surged through my body and sent me running and glissading down the glacier as fast as conditions would allow.
I wished I had bothered to look at the avalanche forecast, rather than taken the word of some hikers who had been up recently. Know before you go. How many times had I heard those words, said them even, and yet there I was. Alaskans tended to learn by close encounters and not all lived to apply that knowledge in future situations.
At the bottom, where the hill met the boulder field, I reunited with the two people from above, hunkered in a dry patch behind a slightly overhanging boulder, shivering and dancing around to warm up.
“You didn’t spend much time up there,” the guy laughed.
“Yeah, well, melting ice caves don’t sound as quite appealing as my couch right now,” I said, thinking back to two-ton chunks littering the ground. I had no intentions of becoming a human ketchup packet.
“You can hunker here and warm up with us.” I didn’t want to be rude, but I knew even the protective arc of the boulder would do no good in case of an avalanche.
“Nah, that’s okay. Best way to stay warm is keep moving, right?”
“Happy run!” they bid me, and I jogged onward, passing two more wet and miserable groups heading up.
The more I ran, the stranger the action felt, like a saying a word so many times it loses meaning. I wasn’t cold exactly, but I had become numb to most sensation in my legs, both skin and muscle, which made them hard to control. I wondered if it was what hypothermia felt like. If I could just fall into a stride, momentum made steps come more easily, but the slightest stumble and I was back to learning basic motor skills. I felt like a newborn moose, ambling clumsily down the trail.
Finally, I hit the road and forced myself to jog that last half-mile back to the car, where Chris was waiting with heat blasting on high. I threw open the drivers side door, immediately stripped away my rain jacket and peeled off my soaking wet pants. There were people in the car parked behind us and I didn’t care. I threw the wet clothes into a heap that made a plop sound as they hit the floorboard and planted my near bare butt on the seat, eager for a warm shower and a drink. But all that was still over an hour away. In the meantime, some sensation in my legs would do.
Check out the adventure of Bryon Glacier in Alaska: