Ice Cave Exploration

*click* the headlights go off. A looming mass of thousands of years of ice, complete darkness, moist cool air, and tomb-like silence all press heavily on the psyche. This is not a game for claustrophobes.

The Canwell and Castner glaciers are a short 20 minute drive from the cabin trailhead, so with some of our spring break adventure time, we decided to go poke around and look for some caves. Excellent adventure is what we found.

Glaciers spend the summer melting. Small trickles of water seep under the snowpack and gather into rivulets, runnels, streams and puddles. These collections of water drip and flow their ways down moulins (french for "a hole in ze ice zat goz douwn into a glazier") and gather into a river that flows out of the end or "terminus" of the glacier. This river makes a great big 3-D tunnel in the ice, melting as it goes. In the winter, when there is no water in the tunnel, they are very cool to explore. By spring, as the ice has been moving downhill slowly all winter, the caves are as small as they will get all year. Sometimes we find pinched-off tubes or very low ceilings, but sometimes, the tunnels travel for miles deep into the belly of the beast.

Ice caving is pretty risky. It might even be as dangerous as driving in a car on a road. The formations of ice are very big, very heavy and very delicate. If you are in a cave, these formations are above you. This glacier that you are under lies directly on the Denali fault, one of the more sesmically active places in the state. There is often water in an ice cave. This water can be deep, and sometimes it looks just like the icerink floor. The idea is to sneak into the tunnel, whisper, don't bump anything, always look above you, test the ground you're walking on, carry 3 or 4 light sources, and leave soon after arriving.

The Castner was more or less a bust. The grand opening tunnel tapered pretty quickly into matching hockey rinks about 10 inches apart. Clay slid out in front of me, and had a bit of a scare. With a hollow-sounding "tong" he realized that the solid and crystal clear ice we were sliding on was really just a thin layer of ice supporting him above a deep pool of water. A speedy retreat was enacted, and we all got out safely, but wet from the overflow water.

Another tiny Castner tunnel had a thin section of small sharp rocks all frozen together. They wreaked havoc on some expensive formerly waterproof gore-tex shells. whoops.

The really cool tunnel was under the Canwell. We crawled, wiggled, slid, walked and otherwise travelled about 300 meters into the cave before encountering a tunnel too small to continue. The end was lit from the outside, and we could feel the colder air coming in. I decided to try to wiggle through the narrow spot to get into the standing room we could see behind it. Much careful, claustropohic wiggling finally got me through to the other side. To get through, I had to put both arms above my head to make my shoulders narrow enough to slide through. I then kicked with my legs and rotated my body 90 degrees to orient myself with the widest angle of the constriction. I'm not a claustrophobic person myself, but getting wedged into a cold ice tunnel isn't my idea of a good time, so I was reasonably releived when I got through. The standing room was neat, but it was the end of the tunnel. The tunnel continued, and opened into deeper passage, but only after an even narrower constriction.

Very exciting and very fun!

Steffi chilling out under the cool frost formations at the mouth of the Castner.

A headlamp emerges from the depths.

A tight fit.

It's wet in there!


Breaking into Spring!

After recovering in the ski-chalet for about an hour, and getting blood flowing back into the extremities, Steffi and I hopped in the pickup and headed north. The night before the Tour, I had packed the truck with all of the winter fun toys that I own. My closet at home was empty. Tele skis, mountaineering skis, nordic touring skis, ice climbing gear, winter camping gear, sleds, warm clothes, shovels, ice axes, pickets, snow-saws and I even tossed in the kite for good measure. The truck was happily full and heading towards adventure.

That night, after a 7 hour road trip and 50k race, we skied on stiff legs into the Ohana Cobana, our little cabin south of Donnely that looks across the Delta River valley into the Alaska Range. We met my Dad with the Willow, Tsaina and Riley dogs out there, and settled into the cozy, comfortable, simple rhythm of the cabin.

The next morning lead us out into the wilderness. We packed up sleds and packs, clipped on skis and tied into dogs to go spend a couple days exploring a new creek valley across the river and into the edge of the Alaska Range. Augustana creek is the next main drainage south of the Black Rapids glacier. We spent the first day slogging up the valley along the creek and set up camp just before it opened up into the broad glacial terminus.

Our objective for our full day in the mountains: goofing off. We spent the day exploring the base of the glacier, skiing up the medial moraine, and trying to stay on our skis making turns on the uneven sastrugi snow on the way back down. Beautiful sunshine and big mountain vistas filled the day.

Blue skies, big mountains, beautiful german girl.

Cozy base camp setup.

Checking out the ice tunnel.

Chilling out on the moraine. Not too literally.

Terrific Tour

The first real 50k. When a boy becomes a man. This is what separates the wheat from the chaff. It’ll put hair on your chest and grit in your gut. Or something like that. I’d seen people bonk, and I knew what it felt like to hit that brick wall of glycogen depletion, so I was a definitely nervous when I signed up for the Tour of Anchorage.

After eating an unhealthy amount of pasta the night before, and loading up on the oatmeal that morning, we rolled down to the start. The elite men were set to go off at 8:30 am and ski into the sunrise. Cold, fast snow. Fast skis. Jitters. All of anchorage to ski across.

I felt surprisingly fast and relaxed. The top guns took off harder than I usually do in a 10k, so I pretty quickly decided not to kill myself by trying to hang with them. I led the chase pack up the steep hills of the first 10k, and on the downhill, Rob Whitney and I pulled away from them. We worked together, swapping leads every minute or so for about 15k through the winding flats of Campbell tract. I felt in fine form, and I couldn’t think of a better partner to be racing with. Sure enough, at about half way, we caught a glimpse of some of the leading stragglers. Rob picked it up to catch them, and I tried to hang, but with 25 k to go, it just wasn’t worth it to risk exploding.

The next 25k rolled by at a comfortable hard pace. Skiing in no-mans-land was a bit lonely, but I got a chance to really focus on my own skiing without having to coordinate with anyone else. I felt really strong, relaxed and fast the whole way in. On the last hill into the stadium I passed a couple of the leaders who had fought hard and lost. They were really on their last legs. It was all they could do to finish. I felt for them, but I was mostly grateful to have dodged that fate myself.

After being so nervous about racing a marathon, I felt full of self-confidence after finishing 10th overall. I felt strong the whole way. The tour may be flat and somewhat downhill, but I raced hard for 50k nonetheless. Its good to feel all of that training and racing pay off.

Photos by Anchorage Daily News

Hatcher Pass Pow-Pow

Whiiiiishhhh......whooooosshhh......shhhheeeeeeeesssss. Slicing through clouds. Milk. Silk. Icing on a cake. Dancing porpoises on my feet. Brilliant hot shining sun. This is where life really begins.

Hatcher's pass got dumped on, and the AMH crew that wasn't working on Sunday jetted out to rip some freshies. Galen, Jason, Paul, Katie, Mason-dog and myself skinned up in T-shirts. The avy conditions weren't bad where we were, super uniform down to the ground. We skied a couple sweet laps of deep deep powder on the low-angle. Nothing feels better than that 3-D skiing. Hero-snow. It really is intoxicating. I could see quitting school, and just skiing every day.... Nah, I guess I'll have my cake and eat it too. Back to school on Monday.

Katie struggling with thin skins, Mason keeping her company.
Galen digging a pit to check the snow pack.
Paul is almost as stoked as I am!
Jason steezin' his way up the skin track.


Springtime Silliness

Wow, an entire month has slipped by since I've posted anything. Not because nothing has happened, in fact quite the contrary. After plowing through midterms, I've been busy having a super awesome spring. By now the sun is staying out later, the temps are coming up a bit, and the racing season is winding down. Expect posts on:

1. My first 50k race.
2. An epic Spring Break
3. After-school backcountry skiing
4. Ice-climibing romps
5. General Merriment.

I'll be in Fairbanks next week for the US Nationals. These are my last ski races of the season, and I'm looking forward to being on my home turf. I should have time in between races to fill in some of the rowdier adventures of the last few weeks. By now the stories have fermented well, and are ready to be uncorked.