Rainy Day on the Gulkana Glacier

Rainy Day on the Gulkana Glacier
Cat on the Gulkana Glacier during our brief window of visibility. This was the last clear view we had before conditions deteriorated.

Yesterday, I mentioned that Cat and I planned a rainy-day hike for Friday. We followed through, but the weather turned out even wetter than anticipated. The challenging conditions thwarted our goal of reaching the Gabriel Icefall.

I’ve been excited just to get out and hike. While I enjoy working on my Alaska Wildflower Guide, June was intense. While I did get outside to hike, they felt more like work at times and not fun. My focus on the Alaska Wildflower Guide project meant I spent most of May and June with my eyes directed downward, capturing over 3,000 wildflower photos. This was crucial as I aim to self-publish a field guide featuring at least 150 flowering plant species by fall or early winter – a goal I’m pleased to say I’ve already surpassed. I’m looking forward to not needing to be so dedicated next year.

So yesterday, I took very few photos. We were trying to put a lot of distance behind us quickly, and it was raining too hard to keep the camera out for most of the hike. Not to mention that visibility dropped to nothing shortly after we hit the ice.

Obligatory doggie photo. My camera cards were filling up, so I formatted them before leaving. I snap a few shots of the pets whenever I reformat to ensure everything works properly. Tut was eagerly ignoring his breakfast as we were packing up to leave.

When we left Fairbanks, it was raining pretty hard, but by the time we reached Delta Junction, the sky was blue. I felt hopeful that the clearing would remain further south. It was partly cloudy through most of the northern part of the range, but as soon as we passed Miller Creek and the Canwell Glacier, we could see that the southern part of the range was heavily overcast and dark.

Starting the hike was nice. It wasn’t raining yet; there was enough of a breeze to keep the bugs away, and the air was warm but not hot.

Moss champion (Silene acaulis) – the only flower photo I took (well, I took two)
Cat walking along Gulkana Creek. Only the glacier toe is visible, and a tiny bit of the Gabriel Icefall appears in the clouds to the left.
This was the best view of the icefall we had all day. I think the clouds opened up for just about a minute.
The first time I visited the Gulkana, the glacier extended beyond this bedrock feature. Today, we still have another half-mile to reach the glacier’s toe.
I imagine Cat was contemplating what was coming next . . .
The creek was moving a bit fast from the rain.
Cat managed to keep one boot clean on the last bit of terminus mud. I did not.
Cat walks past a partially snow-covered moulin. I love how the glacier ice fades off into nothingness.

Once we were on the ice, the rain began almost immediately and never stopped. I tucked my camera into my jacket and only took it out a couple of times. We tried to get up to the cliff that overlooks the icefall, a destination I’ve spent much time at over the last few years, but visibility made it impossible and dangerous. It would have been fruitless anyway since it was a total whiteout; there was no view.

We turned around where we would have had to cross a large snowfield in a crevasses area. At the limit of visibility, I could barely make out some of the rocks we needed to get to, and there was deep water in the snowpack. It was pouring, windy, and cold.



A widening crevasse. You can see toward the back where it becomes snow-covered, which is why it’s best to avoid walking on persisting snow-pack in summer (unroped).

Navigating crevassed areas in the summer is not particularly dangerous because they are visible and exposed. You just walk around them and avoid persisting snowpack, which frequently hides moulins and cracks. But navigating a maze of crevasses in poor visibility is tricky, requiring many more detours than on a clear day.

The last photo I took after descending about 100 feet from our turn-around when we just started gaining a little visibility.

On the way down, we never descended out of the clouds. The stream was noticeably higher and fast enough that we crossed in line together. Then, it was just a 2.5-mile trudge, soaked, back to the truck. It was disappointing that I didn’t get to show Cat this spot, especially since I’ve wanted to take her there for a couple of years. We talked about backpacking in the area later this summer, hopefully with better weather and less snow, so we might get another chance. I felt bad for bringing her out only to get cold and wet and see white-out views of nothingness.

Here’s a photo of the view on a nice day:

The upper portion of the Gabriel Icefall – walls and waves of ice hundreds of feet tall

For more photos of the area, check out my Featured Images from the Gulkana Glacier.

Hiking Guide:

Gulkana Glacier Hike

Gulkana Glacier Hike

The Gulkana Glacier area has much to offer, including day-hiking, backpacking or mountaineering expeditions, or just a roadside view of the glacier.
Read More

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Tunnel Ice

Tunnel Ice

Side of an ice tunnel on the Gulkana Glacier Buy This Print Looking up at…

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