Flutterby™! : I get the feeling that I'm runnin' on ice...

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I get the feeling that I'm runnin' on ice...

2005-08-23 15:27:04.571056+00 by Dan Lyke 4 comments

I mentioned that the glacier trek was somewhat of a disappointment. When I first contacted Northstar Trekking, we were unsure about whether or not Charlene was up to the demands of the longer trip. I talked with them for a while, and was convinced that it wasn't going to be that strenuous, that we could take alternative routes if necessary, and I came away with a feeling that she'd be just fine with it.

[Edit: this part appears to be my fault, the confirmation email has me at the time they stated] Comes the morning of the trip, we discover (after waiting outside for the van) that they rescheduled 45 minutes later without contacting us. We arrived at the office where they had gear laid out. The shoes they had available for Charlene were way too large, and when pressed they admitted that they didn't have shoes in Charlene's size, despite being informed of that size several months ago, and that she can't use her own boots because their crampons don't clamp on to the fittings.

The shoes themselves were ratty, I had to get new liners because one of my lace loops was worn to the point where it would have broken had I put any pressure on it. So I was putting on my second set of boots when I looked over at what they were trying to do for Charlene, and discovered that in their haste to get her suited up they'd actually bent some of the plastic down into the boot in such a way that they'd never get the boot on, and Charlene's "ow, that hurts" was testament to doing it wrong.

Hustled out to the helicopters, Charlene's shoes still were not right. So when we got to the glacier, the slowest person there had ill-fitting shoes that hadn't been adjusted properly, we spent time on the glacier doing that, and even after that they were still so painful that she had bruises on her ankles the next day.

Lee, the guide, did a really good job of mollifying the group over the slow pace, but the rest of the group wanted a more athletic experience than even I was into. Glaciers are full of detail, and I had questions to ask and fine points I wanted to observe, but the guide felt that he wasn't able to let us separate to take alternate routes, or even for the two of us to go back to the base tent when we passed back close to the landing zone.

So in the end I think none of us on that trip were really happy with the experience we had, for which we'd each just paid on the order of $450 a person. We felt like we were hustled through as commodities, that as a matter of company procedure the individual experience wasn't nearly as important as upselling and moving people through.

So, as fun as the helicopter flight was, and as neat as being on the glacier was, I can't recommend it. It's a very pricey commitment and there's a strong chance that either you'll end up with painfully bruised ankles, or that you'll be wanting to hike faster. Either way you'll lose. And we've got lots of suggestions for experiences that that much money will buy that are equally cool.

If you want the helicopter flight, I think that's pretty much a commodity, but frankly I'd get a float plane flight over one of the less populous glaciers. If you want to hike on the glacier then go buy a set of crampons and head to one of the places where you can hike in to glacier access, either on Mendenhall (there's a three and a half mile hike from the visitor's center that puts you on a slope you can climb down to get onto the ice) or one of the glaciers further north. That way you get to wear your own boots, which fit, and go at your own pace. I recommend gloves, if it hasn't been raining recently the surface of the glacier is said to be fairly sharp, and rain gear.

However, on to the trip. This was the first time in a helicopter for both of us, and helicopters are cool. Charlene is pushing me to buy computer peripherals, we're going to get a joystick, pedals and a collective pitch lever so we can set up a simulator, and we're going to talk up a friend or two with helicopter certs to see if we can buy flight time for them to practice with us in the aircraft with 'em.

Charlene says "you should pick my shots, 'cause they don't have windows in 'em." She was sitting in the right rear, behind the pilot, I was in the middle rear. so my shots all have head and airframe in 'em. So obviously, this one is mine. One of the cool things about glaciers is their fractal nature. From far enough away, they look like all of the features are along the length of the glacier. The ice has to be at least a thousand feet deep for the glacier to form, and they're pretty good at carving out the width of the valleys, so there's little lateral turbulnce in the coloring of the glacier. As smaller ice flows pick up rock and silt along their edges and merge into the larger flows, vertical bands of fine silt color the glacier.

Okay, now back to Charlene's pictures. As you get further down on Mendenhall Glacier, it's over a mile wide, but up towards the top of its thirteen mile flow there are smaller glaciers feeding off the ice field (which was hidden in the clouds when we were there) down into the valley.

Closer, the main features are horizontal striations as the ice flows over deep ledges, which cause lateral cracks and crevices. These are more pronounced at the steep sections and in the turns where, like a whitewater rapid, the outside edge is smoother, the inside edge is more turbulent and sometimes even forms eddies. And closer the rugged blocks and cracks of the steep parts start to become apparent,

It's hard to tell scale. This is an image from standing on the glacier, but it took me quite a while to figure out what the scale was.

and the cracks ("mulan"s) range in size from a few inches to human sized

That last one shows another party further up the ice fall. Next entry will be up-beat again, I promise!

[ related topics: Photography Nature and environment Aviation Travel Boats Shoes Whitewater Dan & Charlene's 2005 Alaska Trip Alaska Aviation - Helicopters ]

comments in ascending chronological order (reverse):

#Comment Re: made: 2005-08-23 23:04:38.120381+00 by: jeff

Great photos and writeup, Dan!

#Comment Re: made: 2005-08-24 11:56:34.462668+00 by: meuon

Although I didn't get as close as you to them, the cracks/mulans Nancy and I skimmed over got as deep as at least 50', maybe more than 100'. Scale is such a hard thing in places like Alaska where things ger REALLY big.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-08-24 13:55:07.434662+00 by: Dan Lyke

Apparently both the theoretical and practical limit for a mulan or crevasse is about 150 feet, below that the ice has enough pressure going on that it's actually flowing.

Yeah, my scale moment was the first night we were there, looking out over a mountain ridge, seeing the moon rise, and noticing how big the moon looked. I hadn't gotten a sense for how small/far away the trees on the ridge were without something to gauge against.

#Comment Re: made: 2005-08-24 14:32:15.451981+00 by: petronius

On our cruise to Alaska, we took a floatplane over the Misty Fiords National Monument, out of Ketchikan. They divided the group in half, with half taking a boat through this amazing area and seeing orcas and the other half flying in 4-place seaplanes. We all arrived at the far end, switched places, and flew/sailed back. I would have liked a chopper trip, but they charged a 50% premium for people over a certain weight. As it was, the boat was nice and relaxing, and the seaplane fantastic. I had never been in so small a plane, and I didn't realize that without the headphones the noise from the engine would loosen your fillings. We were lucky on that trip that the day was sunny, which is even money in so changable a climate.