Exploring the Gabriel Icefall – Round 2 (Good Weather)
July 19, 2021
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Last week I hiked out to the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier. It was an interesting hike, to say the least. I ran into rain, hail, sleet, and thunder shortly before getting caught in a sudden whiteout snowstorm. I had to bail early and before finding much of a view. You can read more about the mini-adventure here: Exploring the Gabriel Icefall. Despite the weather, I still managed to get a few good shots. But, by the end of the day, my hands were freezing!
I returned last Friday to very different weather. Morning clouds broke, revealing blue skies and bright sun. It got a bit hot out, but the ice surface helped regulate the air temperature on the glacier a bit.
Hiking quickly to the glacier toe, I moved up and around the east side of the icefall above the adjacent 250+ foot cliffs. Navigating the crevasses became trickier the higher I climbed, eventually requiring me to back down as I entered into the snowline and encountered a few that were not safe to hop over, the consequences of slipping would have been quite severe.
Heading back down, I stayed as close to the glacier icefall as I could safely. It was still a bit tricky, but easier to see where the crevasses were leading on the descent. This took me past some incredible ice towers that were about 50 feet tall.
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In the Gabriel Icefall
Making my way onto the bedrock a the top of the cliffs, the landscape became more and more surreal. Walking beside the edge of the glacier, you could see underneath where water and then warm air had melted out a small overhang. The icefall made sounds. Not just the occasional crashing of ice as the sun baked some of the precarious towers. The glacier was creaking and groaning from beneath.
There were only a few sections of the icefall that were safely accessible and not beneath unstable towers. To get better photos of the incredible chaotic structure of the ice, I climbed up to the highest point on the bedrock cliff beside the icefall and used my telephoto lens.
I took an incredible amount of photos from this spot overlooking the glacier icefall and ice towers. Far too many to post here. I encourage you to check out the full photoset; it’s one of my favorites so far this year.
Still having some energy left in my legs, I continued upglacier to a waterfall that Cat and I visited last year. A few clouds were starting to build up, but nothing that looked like immediate precipitation. The air was definitely getting warmer in the late afternoon. Well, it felt hot anyway. I later checked the Gulkana Glacier air temperature. The high was only 58° F (there’s a weather station on an outcropping between the Gabriel Icefall and the next tributary to the north). Since the sun is never at a very high altitude in the sky in the Alaska interior (like it gets nearer the equator), it’s almost always shining directly on your body, and it feels a lot hotter than it actually is.
I had just enough time to hike up to the snowline and up the next tributary to the north before the sun would dip below the mountains. My legs were at the point where I knew they would probably be upset with me by the time I was back on the trail, so the timing and distance were good. The snowline was at 5300 feet (1615 m) on the main trunk of the glacier and at 5700 feet (1740 m) on the south-facing tributaries.
On the return trip, the sunlight glared off the ice surface on the icefall tributary to the north. The air was already starting to cool as a moderate wind started blowing down the glacier surface.
This turned out to be such an incredible day trip! I was right about my legs hurting on the way back. The total trip was just under 15 miles and 6,000 feet of elevation gain. I think that all the stabilizer muscles working overtime on the sometimes slick ice and moraines is what really does it. I plan on making one more visit to the Gulkana toward the end of the melt season in August. Here’s the full photoset: July 16, 2021 – Gulkana Glacier.