Trip Report for July 14, 2023 – Gulkana Glacier to Gabriel Icefall

Hikers resting on the top of a cliff overlooking the Gabriel Icefall on the Gulkana Glacier in the Eastern Alaska Range with some fog in the air.
Resting at the cliffs overlooking the Gabriel Icefall

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.

Hikers crossing a long suspension foot suspension bridge over College Creek in the Alaska Range.
Crossing the suspension bridge over College Creek

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.

hiker fording a glacier stream near the Gulkana Glacier
Fording the creek
Hikers crossing the terminal moraine through a short mudflat on the Gulkana Glacier
Crossing the mudflat

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.

Hikers lying down looking down an icy blue moulin on the Gulkana Glacier
Peering over the edge of a moulin
View down the moulin
Snow plugging the moulin about 20 feet down

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.

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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.

Hiker standing next to mass balance poles on a glacier
Mass balance poles laid out on the ground (March 2020 to September 2022). The standing poles were drilled in September 2022, so that’s how much ice has melted this spring and summer.

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.

GPS, antennas, and solar panels for measuring surface melt on the Gulkana glacier.
The GPS mass balance site
Hikers resting on the Gulkana Glacier
Taking a break at the GPS station before heading up to the icefall

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.

Hikers crossing ice and snow on the Gulkana Glacier
Hiking through the clouds to step off the glacier onto bedrock

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.

YouTube short panning over the Gabriel Icefall
Snow formations at the edge of the Gabriel Icefall
Hiker looking at the snow and ice in a small crevasse in the Gabriel Icefall
Steep mountainside and icefall
Steep mountainside and icefall
Jagged seracs in the icefall
Jagged seracs in the icefall
View of Summit Lake from the Gulkana Glacier
View of Summit Lake
Conversing in the clouds
Conversing in the clouds
Two hikers exploring the edge of the icefall
Exploring the edge of the icefall
Hikers on a rocky slope with a glacier icefall in the background
Time to head out
Hiker on snow in the Gabriel Icefall
Exiting the icefall

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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.

Looking back on the icefall at the GPS site on the way out
Looking back on the icefall at the GPS site on the way out
Water fanning out in a small moulin
Water fanning out in a small moulin
A final look back at the icefall before stepping back onto the moraine
A final look back at the icefall before stepping back onto the moraine
Back to the moraine
Two hikers passing trekking poles across a fast moving stream
Passing trekking poles across for the ford
hiker fording a stream with a glacier icefall in the background
hiker fording a stream with a glacier icefall in the background
Hiker crossing a wooden suspension bridge over College Creek
Hiker crossing a wooden suspension bridge over College Creek

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.

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