Advice on Glacier Crossing



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  • Advice on Glacier Crossing

    We are flying in on July 24th looking to land on the lake identified and then cross the glacier on our way to the Russian River. Just looking for anybody that may have crossed this Glacier, or input on equipment and what we can possibly expect.

  • #2
    i am not familiar with the glacier in that area.

    do you have glacier travel experience? glacier crossings are nothing to take likely. walking at the toe of a glacier or its lateral aspects might be okay with crampons and no rescue system, but to do a crossing, requires some knowledge of glaciers and crevasses. You will see crevasses at that time of the year, and snow-bridges won't be an issue. but falling in a crevasse is a serious issue. do you and you partner(s) have crevasse rescue skills? technical rope skills?

    I personally would not cross a glacier without these skills. you can get yourself into some trouble.

    typical equipment should include: crampons (real crampons not instep spikes), a harness for each person, climbing gear to include carabiners, a travel rope for the party to rope into, another rescue rope, an ascending system for each member for self rescue out of a crevasse (petzl ascenders, or prusik style ascender system).


    • #3
      None of us have any glacier experience and part of the trip is to experience a glacier.

      We are already researching crampons, which in itself is quite interesting. Right now we're thinking multipurpose, with straps that are used with hiking boots.

      Researching ropes and and how we would attach each person to the rope, at what intervals. We would like to avoid having to purchase too much equipment, one because of weight, two, because it is just a one time thng. We were hoping to improvise with rope harnesses.

      Also looking for information on safest routes, how to recognize potential hazards.

      We're looking at crossing a good 1/2 mile up from the face of the Glacier. From everything I can see the glacier looks pretty smooth and I would think we would be able to walk across it without too much problem.

      Here is a link to a view. I see ridges, any thoughts about how big they may be, based on this airial.

      Do you have an recommended reading that would help with planning where to cross and how to recognize potential hazzards.


      • #4
        I looked at that sat. image, it is difficult to tell, but there are plenty of crevasses visible.

        Here is a book to look at, I have it, it is pretty good. It runs through many of the basics. Do you have any rope/mountaineering knowledge?

        Strap-on crampons are fine, but your boots need to be rigid soled, or else what happens is the boot flexes and can come out of the crampon. There are "in-step" crampons you can use, but i would go with a full strap-on crampons will all the points. If you aren't going to wearing rigid soled boots with crampons while crossing a glacier, I would say that is dangerous. Exploring the glacier when you come up on it from the side or the toe is one thing, as you are still near the moraine field, etc. Crossing really does require some knowledge and skills, at least to do it safely.

        Ice axes were the other thing each member needs and a helmet. Without an axe you can't self arrest (you should use an ice climbing axe, as a mountaineering axe won't help you much on solid ice for self-arresting). The helmet, well if you take a spill down a crevasse, your head will probably hit something. It is a lot of gear, but it is needed to do it safely. I personally don't think it is something someone reads about and just heads off to cross a glacier. If a member of your party goes into a crevasse, you really need to know how to get them out. That requires knowledge of technical rope systems, etc. You can't rely on a satellite phone at this point, you need to get that person out. Do people in Alaska cross glaciers without this knowledge? Yes, and some live, some get hurt.

        I know a fair amount about glaciers, rope techniques, self-arresting, have been ice climbing once, have been on glaciers with VERY experienced people, etc. but I still don't feel safe crossing one, as I never practice the self-rescue or team rescue techniques, and if you don't use it, you lose it. I avoid crossing glaciers on backpacking and hunting trips, for the safety reasons and lack of skills noted, but also b/c of the all the weight in gear it requires. Guides take very inexperienced people on glaciers all the time, but they are skilled in rescue techniques and usually have radios to get close help if needed.


        • #5
          Glacier Crossings

          The hazards of glacier crossings should not be underestimated but neither should they be overplayed. Also you just can't generalize - every crossing is different. Same goes for stream crossings - they can be a no-brainer or life threating.

          There is no need to rope up for this sort of summer glacier crossing. The reason for roping up on a glacier crossing is because of the danger of falling through a snow bridge into a crevasse. But the glacier you indicate will be free of snow by early June at least. Any crevasses will be clearly visible and probably easily avoided. Since you are innexperienced, being roped up would probably increase your chances of falling on the ice.

          Effecting a crevasse rescue is very difficult, especially since the guy at the bottom is likely to be pretty banged up, possibly unconscious. A bunch of gear is useless if you don't have a lot of experience using it. But the sort of crossing you propose is not like climbing Mt. Ranier. I would vote against all the technical gear. It would give you more of an illusion of safety than actually making you safer, given your lack of experience.

          I spend a lot of time crossing glaciers like this one with clients out in Wrangell-St. Elias. If we didn't cross glaciers out there we wouldn't be able to get far. We don't carry ropes, harness or ice axes. We do however carry a full load of common sense and of course full crampons. You avoid crevasses, stay off narrow ice ridges, always maintain awareness of the fall line, and a lot of other considerations that help keep you safe, or at least safer, on the ice.

          There are some glaciers such as the Tana, that I don't take groups over as there are so many serious crevasses that one is too easily tempted to try questionable routes and take unwise risks.

          That said I recommend some experience on ice with crampons before doing a crossing as part of a back country trip. A day spent with a knowledgable person can greatly increase your safety margin and you can learn about route finding on a glacier, getting on and off the ice safely, risks to avoid, how to walk in crampons and a bunch of other usefull information. Also as others have said, you should have a sat phone or other emergency comm gear. Full, strap-on crampons are advised but if they are properly sized and fitted you don't need super-stiff boots.

          Yes there are risks in crossing glaciers but there are inherent risks in wilderness travel in general. I too advise against just reading about it and then heading out. Get the knowledge, skills and experience you need to meet the challenges and increase your margin of safety. But I'm not as conservative as some others might be - which is not to say that my opinions are better than theirs, just that we take a different approach.

          A lot depends on the specific terrain of the glacier you want to cross. It could be a hazardous crossing or no big deal if you use common sense. You won't know till you get there or talk to someone who has done that crossing. Even then the ice changes all the time. The Tana that I mentioned used to be a pretty easy crossing and now it's a nightmare.

          Hundreds of people go out on the Root glacier in Kennicott each summer but accidents on the ice are actually surprisingly rare. Yes you could fall down a crevasse, but I have never heard of that happening out there. I know someone who tripped on a city sidewalk, broke her patella into several pieces and needed surgery that day.

          Venturing out your front door is a risky business.

          Get some training, acquire some skills and have fun.

          Guided Alaskan Backpacking Adventures

          Author of Hiking Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park
          published by Falcon Guides


          • #6
            Thank you both for some very good information. I don't have a glacier to practice on, however we have had a good winter here in Michigan and I am hoping to figure which crampons to get and then spend some time at least ice fishng in them to get used to them.

            Last time we came to Alaska our goal was to stand on a wild river with a grizzly bear. Spent lots of time reading and researching and chose the Upper Russian. Spent two days up there and accomplished our goal.

            Initially we just wanted to make it to a glacier, chip off ice in a glass, and have a shot of whiskey. After looking at this though, it really looks like a really unique opportunity to cross a glacier, stop in the middle, have a shot then hike throught 8 miles or so of Alaskan Wilderness to the Russian River.

            I still have lots to research, and what even concerns me more about this trip is what we do once we get across. There are some real variables about do we follow the glacier down to the water, will we be able to walk the edge of the glacier lake.......I'm thinking not. Then it's a question about where we will go up once we get accross, how high, etc.

            I am planning on proposing questions to the pilot and hoping he will take a look a couple times while flying to the Upper Russian prior to our getting there. Then taking a good look at it once we fly in.

            We're not daredevils or thrill seekers, but there are things I want to do in this life, and I'm thinking this trip is one of them. I still have lots of time to do research and prepare and hope you guys don't mind questions, and again I appreciate your advice.


            • #7
              well put by AK Trekker.

              your pilot is a wealth of information. some even have glacier travel experience.


              • #8
                If you have an extra day at the beginning of your trip, consider driving north of Anchorage and visiting the Matanuska Glacier. You can get a guide to take you out walking on the glacier and in doing so you'll get at least a little bit of experience before attempting this on your own.


                • #9
                  good suggestion Brian. I was thinking about that, but I thought that was a drive (100 miles in the other direction).

                  For the Mat Glacier, you don't need a guide. That is a good place to get some practice walking on ice with crampons. You can walk right up to the toe of the glacier and get on some basic ice formations without getting too crazy.


                  • #10
                    Great idea!

                    i think your idea is great. fly into an alpine lake, cross a glacier, hike through the bush and come out on a nice trail. you got it all.

                    i'd say get a topo map to look at, Alaska Atlas & Gazetteer is a great resource to decide where you want to go or National Geographic has a map of the area that you are looking at. then get your route dialed in and also an alternate route if you come to find that the glacier crossing is just too much. the crossing is nearly a mile long and the other side may be too steep to get up off the glacier. so you may want to consider an alternate route if the glacier is too risky. one thing you're going to encounter, which i try to minimize is bushwhacking. its fun for a while and then it can become frustrating. be prepared for several miles of some slow walking. one way to avoid a few miles of bushwhacking is packrafting! float down that river and avoid as much of that darn brush as you can. and then you will have done it all!

                    you have a really great trip planned (i don't know about anybody else, but you're getting me excited about the summer and trip-planning) and i think you should go through with it. even if you run into obstacles like a big chunk of ice with scary, gaping cracks in it you should try to do it.


                    • #11
                      Looks like a good trip!

                      Concerning the glacier crossing -- I've been on quite a few Alaska glaciers and some of them are a nightmare....but some of them are so smooth you can ride your bike on them (and I have photos to prove it!) Your pilot's info and your own assessment as you fly over it will help you determine the overall feasibility and the best route through the potential maze. A great trick is to take photos from the air with a digital camera that you can use as a reference on the ground later. For crampons I would recommend Grivel G-12, or Black Diamond Contact. These will fit just about any hiking boot and fasten with straps instead of metal bails. Kahtoola also makes a lightweight crampon but they can be a tad wimpy and don't fit on large boots. Make sure you fit your crampons before you buy them!! The best things you can do are to make conservative choices and avoid exposure at all costs. It is all too easy to lose one's footing and begin sliding uncontrollably down a slope, even on a mellow pitch like 15 or 20 degrees. An easy slope can be deadly if there is a crevasse or moulin below. Consider carrying an ice axe for self-arrest, and for chopping steps if necessary. Ditto on earlier posts about not carrying the full glacier travel and crevasse rescue gear kit; too much weight for such a short time on the ice, and unless you know the rescue systems in and out, you might get yourself into trouble with a false sense of security. Walk very wide around hazards and give them the respect they deserve. Be wary of fins and seracs (vertical towers of ice, usually leaning) than can collapse at any moment. Just because it is not moving at the moment doesn't mean that it is stable! There probably won't be snow on that part of the glacier in July, but if there is don't go near it. Usually the late season snow lingers only over the holes.

                      I'm not too familiar with that specific area. I walked from Seward to Hope once but didn't go near where you'll be. Hope your route doesn't involve too much bushwacking. Progress can be SLOW, like 1 mile per hour at best, and there are usually not good camping sites in the midst of the thickets. Reading other posts on here it sounds like there's a trail at the end, so you're good there.

                      Good luck!
                      God, I love this place!

                      Wrangell St Elias National Park mountaineering, skiing


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