Spring and early summer really are optimal times for Alaskan adventures. Plenty of opportunities exist for sliding on snow in the mountains, but also the trails are drying out and the creeks are free of ice. With all those opportunities, it is too hard to resist making a gigantic pile of gear, trying to shove it in a way too small pack, upgrading pack sizes a couple times, and then maybe picking out a route.
The route wasn’t my idea. I wasn’t even there when the idea was discussed. I came in late to the conversation and was introduced as “here is someone who would like to do that trip with us.” My first response: “yes, now what trip are we talking about?”
All in all it was a 19 hour trip including backcountry skis, glaciers, packrafting, and hiking, in other words, a gigantic pile of gear for a day trip. Basically we were doing crow pass on steroids. Instead of climbing the simple trail to the pass and following raven creek down to eagle river, we were going to skin up to the milk glacier, boot the raven headwall, ski the first part of the Eklutna traverse, and then drop off eagle glacier into the headwaters of eagle river and paddle out to the nature center with a little bit of hiking to bookend the sides.
To make a long story short, that is what we did. But the long story is the fun part. So on to the long story. The weather delayed our trip one day, but the second looked promising. At least there was a little blue sky. By the time all our gear was in our packs at the trailhead it was about 10:30. The big bonus of that part was that a couple friends showed up at the trail head and were able to run the shuttle for us. It saved a big headache, or more likely a big sleepy car crash from happening later. With that sorted out, we headed out hiking for about 30 minutes and then were able to pull on our boots and remove the skis from the packs. As we switch backed up to the milk glacier things were beginning to look ugly. Wet grey clouds hung over the small pass and the building heat and humidity quickly engulfed us in sweat. It was time for some shirtless skinning. Then the weather broke and the mountains and sun emerged. Wet slides kept us company on the left as we trudged up the milk glacier, stopping only for the occasional grab of snow to eat, rub all over, or just appreciate the cold.
Snack time and a reapplication of sun screen happened at the Raven Headwall. Suddenly those wet slides didn’t seem so remote and unintimidating. The headwall we were staring at was steep, baked, and a very similar exposure to the slides we saw earlier. We debated a little about the beacon versus rope conundrum and proceeded on roped up with beacons on. Progress was good for a bit before we decided it was time to wallow around and shift to booting. Not the most ideal stopping spot. Also roped booting isn’t the most fun when I was the fittest, had the best step conditions, and just wanted to get off the headwall. Slow step by slow step eventually we made it to the top safely. Scary moment number 1 was finished.
From there we had sweet party skiing down the west branch glacier and out onto the flat expanses of lower eagle glacier. Eagle glacier even provided a nice glacial pond of the freshest water to refill our two water bottles between three of us. This would be the last water of the trip as we didn’t bring any filtration system.
Eagle glacier is lovely up high and even lovely down low, but it gets a bit nasty down really low. Instead of smooth expanse, eagle goes into an icefall. Skis were racked and the crampons came out as we walked down one fin, jumped a crevasse, and then walked back the other way for the next snow bridge or jump. While we didn’t have any close calls, we can still call this scary moment number 2. It also was the start of really slow going. We took approximately five hours to travel 2 miles due to the glacier, rocks, cliffs, gullies, and alders. By the time we reached the lake where we could inflate our boats it was 10:30pm. We were tired, frustrated, sunburnt, and still had a long ways to go. Of course at this point we find that Anson’s boat is leaking. This slowed us down some, but the eventual fix was more air every ten minutes or so.
A few hours of paddling later, it is getting really dim. I’m a little ways out in front and about to experience scary moment number three: strainer. I sweep around a bend and notice significantly too late that I am headed into a river wide sweeper. I manage to flip, bail, and pull myself onto a submerged branch right at the lip of the strainer. I even saved all my equipment. But at that point we decided safe boating was over. Time for some trudging on the crow pass trail.
The last three miles of Crow Pass feel pretty long during the race; but it was a whole new level for me hiking out at 5am. In between adjusting shoulder straps and wincing from sunburn, I was able to appreciate the gradual re-acquaintance with light and the early morning birdsong. However, each break also brought the conflict of desire to push on and relief to take weight off our sunburnt shoulders.
Eventually we made it to the vehicle and filtered water. However, the biggest disappointment of the trip was yet to come. Apparently milkshakes are quite difficult to come by at 5am on Monday.
We did get to the type II fun stage, but if someone told me how much we would suffer and left out all the good parts, I still wouldn’t have hesitated to go on the trip.