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The last week of April I went on my first field trip to the Black Rapids Glacier in the Alaska Range. It was also my first trip that involved landing on a glacier. It is the largest glacier that I have ever walked on and the longest time I’ve ever spent on ice. It was a lot of ‘firsts’ and it was really awesome.
Here is a map of the Black Rapids from the USGS. Our base camp was near the Confluence of the Loket Tributary with the Black Rapids. This map also shows the location of the terminus after the 1936-1937 surge. During the winter of 1937 it advanced at a rate of almost 1 mile per month!
This was the start of 3 summers of field work for us. We will be studying a tributary’s role in surge initiation. A surge is a sudden increase in a glacier’s speed from ten to hundreds of times its normal speed. It is not currently known what the trigger mechanism for a surge might be, or why some glaciers surge and some don’t. We spent the week setting up gps stations on both the main glacier and the Loket tributary (the largest tributary to the glacier) to study the dynamics between them, time-lapse cameras to watch for lake drainage, and took some measurements for mass balance. Martin and Christian also spent about two days dragging a radar back and forth to get some bed depth measurements as well.
What follows is a lot of pictures from the trip. Hopefully it doesn’t take too long to load, I didn’t want to leave much out.
The morning of April 24 we loaded the truck and trailer and drove south on the Richardson Highway to an airstrip in the Hoodoo Mountains. We waited near the Gulkana Glacier for our flight. Around 11:30 am it arrived in the form of a single otter.
The rebuilt 1000 hp turbine de Havilland DHC-3 Otter flown by Paul Claus of Ultima Thule Lodge. If you ever want to get a gift for Kate and me, a few nights stay at their place would be about the best ever!
It took three trips total to get all of us and our gear out to our base camp. Martin and I went out with the first load of gear.
I was kind of surprised that I wasn’t nervous about this flight at all despite having spent a few days learning about the thousands of things that can go wrong.
We came into the confluence of the Loket tributary (left) with the Black Rapids (right). This was my first view of the glacier. It looks bigger than what was in my head. Then we circled for a while to find a good place to set down.
Another graduate student who was helping us with field work, Christian, flew out with the second load. Chris, the project Co-I and Rudi Homberger (aka Hombi, aka “the Snow Monster”) the photographer, climber, and skier made it out on the third flight.
Martin talks with Hombi next to the otter. Hombi is about as cool as a person can be. He has spent a lot of time climbing, skiing, and flying in the Wrangells. He has a book with some beautiful images in it: My Wrangell Mountains.
We all chatted for a while, ate some cheese and salmon, and then took some group photos before Paul and Hombi left.
The first day Christian and Martin pulled the radar by ski while Chris and I set out GPS units by snowmachine. We probably should have been able to get all 6 out in one day, but it took me a while to get the hang of things so we had to set out a couple the next day too. It was a gorgeous day!
After setting up the two continuous stations, we went down to pick up Christian and Martin to give them a ride up to the Loket. We met up with them by this rock avalanche debris (foreground). This landslide occurred in 2002 following a 7.9 earthquake on the Denali Fault. The fault is depicted in the Black Rapids map above.
It’s hard to understand the scale of these landslides since they are snow-covered at the moment and I’m taking these photos from the ground. Here is a USGS photo from 2002:
Photo by Dennison Trabant (USGS). The landslide debris completely covers the 1 mile width of the Black Rapids glacier. I think we all agreed that to witness an event like this would probably keep us out of the mountains forever. Terrifying.
The sunsets in the evening were gorgeous.
We spent another day and then some working up in the Loket tributary. We had to set up a few more gps stations as well as a base station on bedrock. Chris and Martin spent another day doing depth profiles there as well. There are a lot of smaller tributaries dumping ice into it that can be really amazing looking at the right time of day.
The first panorama from the trip. It shows the middle of the Locket tributary to the Black Rapids Glacier and the surrounding mountains. Everything feels so close out here, until you try to start walking or skiing toward something and notice that it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer.
At one point Chris and I went off to try to find a way through one of the rocky moraines to find a good location to install the base gps station. The pristine snowy landscape does a dramatic twist as suddenly there are 50 foot talus and ice walls and debris that is impassible for the snowmachine.
On the fourth day we were done with all but the gps base station and setting out cameras. So Chris drove us all up to the trinity basin, the upper Black Rapids to take some pole measurements for mass balance. It was a gorgeous 15ish km ride being pulled on skis.
On our way back down we stopped below aurora peak at a depression that will become the Aurora Lake. This was the location of one of three time-lapse cameras we installed. We skied down to see if there was anything that we could anchor a pressure sensor too. No luck here, but we did manage to find a big enough rock in another lake later. After installing the camera we had a nice ski back down to (and into) the lake. It was nice because it wasn’t too scary for me. A few days later I got a freaked out skinning up to install another camera. I’m comfortable enough on the descents, but I’m new to skinning and have little faith in my skins. I’ll have to work on this for next year because I don’t want to miss out in the spring!
After we got all the instrumentation up and running, did a little skiing and sightseeing, the bitter-sweet day of packing and flying out was upon us. We managed to get a pick-up time and packed up, then clouds rolled in and it started to snow a little. We were really unsure if we were going to be leaving this day as dark clouds worked their way in from the east.
We lucked out and Paul made it in to pick us up. We loaded our personal gear and ourselves into the plane in case we wouldn’t be able to make a second trip in this day and flew out. It was a bit windier than the flight in and not as much room to climb to a good altitude, but it was still a pretty nice flight. Paul is an awesome pilot.
We landed safely, unloaded, and then Chris and Paul went back for the rest of the equipment. Martin, Christian, Hombi and I loaded the truck and waited. And waited. It turns out that some bad weather rolled in and they had to wait it out on the glacier for a few hours. Chris had some pretty good stories involving a 6km taxi since they had to land up-glacier with him running in front of the plane to get to find our gear. Other than that it was a pretty uneventful and successful trip!
Oh, but I should mention the drive home (no pictures, sorry). Holy wildlife tour! We saw the Delta buffalo herd, countless moose, swans, moose in lakes with swans, falcons, porcupine, caribou and more. The Richardson was like a zoo!
Thanks for reading, if I upload more pictures they will go to the Black Rapids Field Work set on Flickr.