A great follow-up trip to the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier two weeks after we had to turn around early due to the amount of snow left at 4,900 feet. There’s still a lot of snow in the area for mid-July. But this time, the snowline was at approximately 5,300 feet on the main trunk of the glacier and even higher on the southwest aspect of the Gabriel Icefall branch, allowing us to get on the cliffs above for some fantastic views, albeit cloudy at times.
This time I was taking a few of my competition climbing team kids from Team Ascension and family members. There were eight of us in total, including myself. Despite the forecast for rain and scattered showers, when we arrived at 11:00 am, it was cloudy, but no precipitation. The others parked their cars near the airstrip at the pull-off on the Richardson Highway, and everyone hopped in the bed of my truck to drive in close to the suspension bridge.
At the suspension bridge, I could tell the water was probably going to be a little too high at the spot where I can often jump across Gulkana Creek (the origin of Phelan Creek) to get on the glacier. Most of us brought sandals to ford the stream anyway, but we only had three sets of trekking poles between us, something you definitely want in the fast-moving, silt-filled, and rocky streambed.
I was right. We had to ford the stream. But, we found a really easy crossing spot nearby, only about knee-deep at the deepest. Once we were across, there was a short stretch of moraine before gaining the ice, with about a 30-meter stretch of unavoidable silt mud that turned everyone’s boots and ankles grey.
Once we were on the ice, it was slick-going. It was drizzling a bit on and off, but recent rain and chilly nights left the surface much slicker than normal for summer travel. It wasn’t too bad to walk on without foot traction, but the few that brought microspikes had a much easier time, especially on the steeper climbs and descents.
I spent some time discussing safety for summer glacier travel while at the same time looking for moulins to throw some rocks down. You can be safe while having fun at the same time.
We stopped at a few mass balance stations where I could explain how scientists measure ice melt at points near the center line of the glacier. Both the points we stopped at are in the ablation zone of the glacier, so ice melt is expected, but getting some visuals of just how much ice has melted was a bit dramatic.
At the lowest mass balance station, 10-foot conduit sections were left behind from 2020. Laying out the poles end-to-end, as well as the still-standing poles from September 2022, was a shocking look at about how much ice melt there had been since the start of COVID. It’s not an exact representation, as it would be overestimated since a new stake (usually 20 feet of conduit) will usually be drilled shortly before the existing pole completely falls over, but still, it should be a close estimate.
The second scientific site we found was at 5,050 feet elevation (1540 meters) and was a GPS mass balance site. This one uses two GPS antennas and loggers. One is on a drilled station in the ice, so it remains at a near-fixed elevation (a little drift from tipping), while the other rests on top of the snow or ice surface on a wide-based tripod so it doesn’t fall over. As the snow or ice melts, the tripod will lower with the surface. The difference in altitude between the two GPS can give a very accurate measurement of melt by the minute or even second, which can then be compared with temperature or precipitation data and give a really good insight into the surface melt at this location.
For the last stretch up to the cliffs at the icefall, we found ourselves in the cloud base and had two short stretches of snow that we needed to cross. I didn’t bring a rope, but luckily the crevasses in the area were very visible, and the snow was shallow enough that I was able to probe our path with my trekking poles to make sure we weren’t crossing any unstable bridges.
We spent an hour and a half on top of the cliffs. Some of us explored while others rested. It was a fantastic lunch spot. Clouds rolled in pretty heavily shortly after we arrived but cleared out almost completely after about 20 minutes. A small crevasse at the edge of the glacier that was still topped with several feet of ice-hard snow made for a really cool and photogenic spot to explore and see both the snow-ice and glacier-till interfaces. Here are some photos and video from the area.
We made a speedy exit to make sure that we could get to the Buffalo Center Drive-in in Delta Junction before the 10 pm closing. It was of the utmost importance to not miss it. We made a few stops on the way out and streamlined our final stream crossing by passing sandals and trekking poles across at the normal “jump” spot so everyone could keep their hiking boots dry.
By the end of the day, we had covered 11 miles and approximately 2,000 feet in total elevation gain. Despite the threat of rain, we never go more than a few sprinkles, and except for the first and last mile, the hike was bug-free. We made it back to the truck at 7:30 pm, ending our 8.5-hour hike, meaning we had plenty of time to make it to the drive-in. With nearly 30,000 steps for the day, it was a guilt-free meal, too! It was as pretty much perfect of a trip as you can get!
You can find my full photo gallery for the day here.
More info about hiking to the Gulkana Glacier is here.