Recently I went on a multi-day backpacking trip with friends along the Crow Pass trail, which connects Girdwood and Eagle River, situated east of Anchorage in a winding cleft following a river valley. It was the 18th of September and there was snow at 3000 feet, well below the pass, and extending across a vast talus field on both the eastern and western slopes. Since the boulders and rock lay blanketed beneath a thick layer of snow, the trail was obscured, and our group picked our way gingerly across the terrain. Curved surfaces of soft white powder concealed frosty rocks, some smooth, some jagged. It was like wading through soft piles of cloth while finding your footing amidst glass balls, some of which were broken.
Sometimes we fell into the snow and a trickle of cold found its way to some patch of exposed skin– into our pants, down around the ankles or hips, or down around the neck. As the snow fields spread out before us beneath the pass, we each sought at different route towards the alders and the spruce trees which we could see along the slopes near the valley floor. As we spread apart, we lost sight of each other and couldn’t hear each others’ voices. What seemed to be a trail might have been a ripple of rock under a coating of snow. We each made our way down as best as we could. As I crossed a gurgling patch of rock and ice, I realized I was passing over a waterfall which was partially frozen, or a creek which was streaming downhill to meet up with Eagle River far down the valley. Across the talus field and to the east lay Raven Glacier, spreading a massive flow of huge columnar ice blocks down the western face of Raven Peak.
I felt drawn by irrepressible curiosity to explore Raven Glacier. How cold and pristine it appeared, shrouded with snow, heaped up against the headwall beneath those peaks, a frozen tiger of ice. If I became more proficient at winter camping and ice climbing, I could study and photograph glacial features in the splendor of their wild isolation. I’m curious about how they shape the landscape and how they themselves change, and how they are affected by atmospheric conditions. Weather affects them in diverse ways, but some features remain from year to year.
As geophysical phenomena, glaciers fascinate me. The scale of their impact is colossal. These massive rivers of ice carve out valleys and crush boulders to powder. There is a sense of inevitability to a glacier. All that strength and weight and gravity and cold. Yet the minutia of detail which glaciers exhibit in color, in geometry and structure is also beautiful and mysterious. The ice is blue, white, grey, streaked with silt, pockmarked with rocks and bubbling with air pressure and tiny rivulets of water. Snow and ice textures on the surface change in response to the warming rays of the sun. But glacial landscapes are notoriously dangerous. A single moulin or crevasse covered by a layer of snow can hide a hole in the ice twenty feet deep and can swallow a person without a trace.
Glaciers often hide the past in their icy hearts, deep where surface change can’t reach. Animals, plants, frozen for centuries upon centuries, wait in the ice. Even the tiny ancient bubbles of gas hold secrets of an atmosphere which no longer exists. Frozen and fossilized remains of extinct animals await discovery. Landscapes molded by icy fingers await meltout to be revealed. Clues to the story of our world lie hidden within the glaciers.