Onto the Glaciers

The boat recedes into the distance, taking our injured ice team member away. We stand on the beach surrounded by tall peaks in all directions. North along the beach we hike, among stranded Mars rover-sized icebergs, and reach our entry point into the Schweizerland glacier system – a very long terminal moraine left behind as the glacier pulls back.

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As we trek towards the glacier, to our right, a loud stream carries the melt from the glacier. It has cut a handsome waterfall through a layer of softer rock. We climb and admire the waterfall from above, standing on hard, deep purple rocks. As we approach the ice, we run into “quicksand” pits – a mix of water and glacier flour – where our legs sink to the knees and come back repainted in gray. All around us, bright moss puts a green splash on this white, gray, brown, and purple landscape.

Ice is plastic – it can bend and flow – but only so much. Especially in turns or in convex surfaces, the ice gets stretch lines and shears, often across the direction of flow or the fall line. These cracks can be deep enough that the bottom is nowhere in sight. They can also look like ice falls. And they can be wide enough that a path around them has to be found. They can be hidden by snow bridges, which may be strong enough to hold the weight of travelers and their equipment, or not. We make sure we are ready for them by practicing on the dry ice at the foot of the glacier, below snow line. We play with our crampons, our harnesses, our dry ropes, slings, and prusiks, our ice screws, carabiners, and Petzl pulleys.

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Now above snow line, we rope so we can minimize potential falls into crevasses. We probe the ground with our poles. Our progress is easier than we expected – the snow pack is surprisingly deep this late in the Summer; the snow bridges are still well established. Spring travel conditions are a bonus! Crevasses are visible only as long, thin lines in the snow – dozens of them. We studiously step over them. We zig and zag to always cross the telltale lines at 90 degrees. We look ahead and assess where the glacial flow is most likely to be undisturbed. As we climb the glacier, we gain a panoramic view of the bay we are leaving behind. I am still marveling at this mashup of coastal and alpine landscapes – a double adventure package!

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For me, a city kid from Barcelona who didn’t know what a cow looked like, this is a new birth – from our fully designed, manufactured, and controlled urban environments to the dynamic, pristine, and savage nature that produced us. In the city, we see our own reflections; out here, we look into our souls.

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