Exploring the Gabriel Icefall

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July 9, 2021 – To the Gabriel Icefall

The weather called for a 20% chance of scattered showers. As I drove south on the Richardson Highway, I could see the build-up of dark clouds on the south side of the Alaska Range. The darkest of which were locked up in the valley over the Gulkana Glacier, where I was headed. I had hoped to spend some time exploring the Gabriel Icefall for a couple of years now, as it’s not far from the glacier’s terminus, but I always got deterred by one ridiculous setback or another. Two years ago my issue was time. Last year was illness. I wasn’t about to let a little rain stop me this time.

The stream levels were high. I’m glad I brought the truck since I was essentially driving up a creek for a mile of the road. Not totally out of the ordinary, just a bit more water than I usually see this time of the year. It seems that a lot of snow fell at higher elevations this year and the recent high temperatures have created a high volume of meltwater.

Hoodoo Mountains from the road near the Gulkana Glacier
Greeted by the Hoodoo Mountains at the end of the road
Suspension Bridge over College Creek on the Gulkana Glacier Trail
Suspension footbridge over College Creek

The hike to the glacier terminus is almost three miles from the footbridge. The trail has been getting more and more obvious over the years, as traffic to the area has increased. That has made for some nice walking and a fast approach on softer ground than the typical rocky creek bed or talus side-slopes.

Approaching the toe of the Gulkana Glacier in the Alaska Range
The weather wasn’t improving as I approached the glacier toe

A precarious step over fast water gets me over the lateral stream for the approach to the ice terminus. I dip my trekking pole in to see just how deep it goes. I did not find the bottom. It’s an easy step, barely a full stride for me. But, it is on wet rock with steep sides, and I don’t think a slip would end with good results.

Wanting to see where the water was exiting the ice, I continued up the east side of the glacier. It wasn’t far before I found a deep moulin on the margin of the lateral moraine with multiple streams flowing in. This was only about 20 meters above the location where the water was flowing out of the ice.

Series of large moulins at the glacier margin
Looking across this giant moulin
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This feature may potentially become an ice arch as long as the overhead ice doesn’t melt too fast. A few years ago there was a great one about half a half-mile downstream from this location, most likely formed the same way. It collapsed completely in 2019 and the remaining ice melted in 2020.

The ice arch near the terminus in 2019

After my distraction, I began hiking west toward the Gabriel Icefall. The rain was turning to sleet and freezing rain. This turned out to be a blessing, since I had just come to the realization that last year I removed my pack rain cover from my pack to save weight. The frozen precipitation just bounced off, keeping my gear relatively dry.

The approach to the icefall was mostly straightforward. Although I did find myself shin-deep in mud a few times on the moraine. The ice steepened quite a bit, but I didn’t need to put on my crampons until I was in the icefall.

Exploring the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier
Looking at the Gabriel Icefall from the east side of the glacier | Purchase Print
Sunlight on the Gabriel Icefall
As I approached the icefall there was a break in the precipitation. A little sunlight shone on the ice for about 5 minutes. | Purchase Print
Cose-up view of the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier.
The jumble of towering ice and crevasses of the icefall | Purchase Print
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Exploring the Gabriel Icefall

I spent nearly three hours exploring this maze of ice. It was stunningly gorgeous, but I wouldn’t want to spend a ton of time here. Ice does fall, and towers collapse. Although, the area I was in was relatively stable, near the centerline of the glacier. The margins are very unstable and I kept a good distance.

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Summit lake viewed from the Gabriel Icefall
Summit Lake from the Gabriel Icefall | Purchase Print
Exploring the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier
A small waterfall in the center of the icefall | Purchase Print
Looking up at the Gabriel Icefall
Boulders near the western edge of the icefall
Exploring the Gabriel Icefall - Rocks under the ice wall
Ice textures and Boulders | Purchase Print

The rocky peak on the western edge spit off some huge boulders while I was there. Nothing as big as the rocks in the photos above, but it’s always disconcerting to hear the crash of debris from above. As pretty as this area is, the terrain is very inhospitable. Not wanting to wear out my welcome, I began hiking down and toward the northern margin of the glacier well below the icefall.

Here, I could see the mess of fallout from the ice above. Even a few larger pieces had made it much further down in the valley. There were some large boulders at the base as well from the adjacent cliffside.

Here you can see the ice debris field below the icefall. I’m not sure how much the ice is separated from the bedrock there, but there is definitely some potential for a major collapse.
All fun and games until you realize how that chunk of ice got here
Looking over a rock at the Gabriel Icefall
Table rock on a pedestal covering a moulin | Purchase Print
Water draining under a moulin near the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier
The hidden moulin | Purchase Print

A bit further down, the sound of rushing water intensified. The ice I was walking on showed some signs of stress, both from crevasses, and from the collapse of thinning ice near the location that the water was flowing subglacially.

A dark, hellish looking opening in the ice where thinning was causing the ice to start to collapse
Water that had recently emerged from the ice pooling in the moraine before running down beneath the ice again
Rushing torrent of a river flowing through the moraine
Water flowing back under the ice

The landscape here was truly surreal. I’m afraid the photos don’t do justice for the scale. Scroll to the bottom of this article to see a video/slideshow from the day that includes a clip of this outflow.

Looking back up to the Gabriel Icefall over the outflow stream | Purchase Print
Looking up a crevasse into the icefall | Purchase Print

After exiting the moraine at the lower icefall, I started hiking around toward the top from the northeast. There were many large crevasses here, causing me to have to walk further east and follow a moraine to flatter terrain. As I began climbing up, the weather turned sour fast. Rain turned immediately to freezing rain. A cold wind blew through, and over a period of about 15 minutes the temperature dropped fast. The freezing rain turned to snow and everything around me turned white.

Snow begins to coat the crevassed ice near the top of the icefall

Since there wasn’t much to see anymore and the snow was accumulating rather quickly, I decided to call it at about 5,500 ft. elevation. My hands became too numb to operate the camera effectively. Such an awesome summer experience!

The day totals were 12.5 miles and 4600 ft in elevation gain. Of course, as I hiked back to the truck, the weather was beginning to clear. It took an hour or so of hiking and descent before my hands regained some feeling. I’m planning on another trip to the area, probably in August when the snowline is higher. I’m hoping to get to a few of the accumulation areas of the glacier, as they are shrinking as fast as the icefall.

You can find the full photo set for the day here: Photos – July 9, 2021

As well as my hiking guide to the Gulkana Glacier here: Gulkana Glacier Hike

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