Now that I’m quite close to the end of my time in Copenhagen, I’ve been reflecting more frequently on how amazing this entire six months has been. In particularly, I’ve been thinking a lot about JIRP and how it changed my life. As I try to process what leaving Copenhagen is going to be like, it has been interesting to remember and reflect on what it was like to leave the Juneau Icefield and re-enter the real world. Our final few days on the icefield were a total whirlwind, full of skiing, rain, cold, beautiful weather, heavy packs, excitement, sadness and much more. In the course of just four days, I skied 8 miles to a mass balance camp at ‘the blob’, spent a miserably cold but ultimately enjoyable night digging a pit and camping on the snow in the rain, skied another 10 miles to Camp 26, spent one relatively sleepless night there, then headed out for the two day trip from Camp 26 to our final base in Atlin, British Columbia. I wrote a blog post in Atlin about the final part of this trip off the icefield for our expedition blog, so I’m sharing an edited version of that here.
Llewellyn Glacier at sunset
The Llewellyn Glacier looking like a sea of ice
The final traverse from Camp 26 to Atlin Lake was an epic and exciting traverse. It has by far the most varied terrain of any of the JIRP traverses, and the entire hike is fantastically beautiful and exceedingly long. Though we were all sad to leave the icefield, there was definitely excitement in the air when a group of 12 of us packed up, attached our skis to our packs and headed down the nunatak to the ablation zone of the Llewellyn Glacier. Once we hit the glacier, we began an easy few hours down the ice on the side of the medial moraine. After weeks in the accumulation zone, it was amazing yet very strange to be on bare ice, walking amongst melt channels, crevasses and the occasional moulin. We were all fascinated with these ablation zone features, and we took many pictures and explored the crevasses as we traveled across the ice. As the crevasses grew deeper and larger, we needed to put on crampons so we all could have a little bit more stability. The glacier became extremely broken up, and I will admit to being quite scared as I forced myself to walk across sections of ice no more than two or three feet wide, towering above giant depths. Traversing the crevasses was slow, and we all worked together to get ourselves through the toughest parts, cutting steps and providing support to each other as we maneuvered through each ice bridge. A few hours later, we all were extremely relieved to be able to take off the crampons and return to flatter ice.
Our trail party, complete with skis on our backs, heads down the Llewellyn Glacier
JIRPers and beautiful meltwater channels
Pure, blue meltwater – the beauty of the ablation zone
The glacier gets more broken up with larger crevasses
By mid-afternoon we had reached the toe of Red Mountain. After scouting a route, we left the ice for a quick climb to the top of the ridge followed by a long and difficult descent through scree and alders. The combination of tired legs, heavy packs and unwieldy skis added a significant challenge to the hike down, and again we all pitched in to help each other down the steep and slippery sections. It took us a few hours to descend this seemingly short section, and I took two fairly nasty falls in the process, leaving me with the largest bruise I’ve ever seen covering my thigh. When we had finally reached the bottom of the hill, we were somewhat tired, scraped, bruised and covered in mud, but all in good spirits, telling lots of jokes and stories as we waited for our trail party leaders to scout a route onto the ice. Once we had successfully returned to the Llewellyn Glacier, very slippery ice meant crampons became quite necessary, so we spent one last hour in our crampons before finally exiting the glacier for the last time. Leaving the icefield after seven weeks of amazing experience was quite emotional for everyone. After calling such a remote, foreign, hostile yet beautiful place my home for almost two months, saying goodbye for one last time felt extremely surreal. But we were tired and ready to get to camp, so we all took a few last pictures, filled up our water bottles with one last gulp of pure glacial water and put our feet onto dry land.
Navigating our way around the crevasses
Finishing the broken-up section as we exit the high ice
On the toe of Red Mountain with my skis on my pack
Leaving the glacier for the last time
The next part of our hike included a beautiful segment known as the Ball-Bearing Highway. With the sun setting over the Llewellyn Glacier behind us, we followed the lake at the terminus until we hit the trail right as we lost daylight. After a quick break to get out our headlamps, we continued our hike around the lake in darkness. The surrounding trees and greenery were exciting but overwhelming after two months without large plants. Above us were some of the most beautiful stars I had ever seen, and our journey through the unfamiliar woods in darkness was almost magical. After two hours without much rest, we took one final break at midnight, exhausted but still in good spirits and excited to reach Llewellyn Inlet. At this point we had been hiking for almost 14 hours, but we still were at least a few miles from camp. Spirits were still fairly high, but it was clear to everyone that we were all exhausted and bruised and ready to get to camp. I remember sitting on our packs in silence, passing around extra food and ibuprofen, trying to stay positive as we contemplated attacking the remaining few miles after such a long day. Then, all of the sudden, the sky lit up with a fantastic display of aurora borealis. We all sat in silence for a few minutes, turning our headlamps off, all amazed at the wondrous timing of the first aurora of the summer. We had spent all summer sleeping out under the stars, waking up at random hours all in hopes of getting a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Yet, it was on this night, when we were tired, sad, emotional, hungry and ready to get to camp, that the lights chose to finally appear. Combined with the intense emotion of leaving our beloved icefield and returning to the ‘real world’, it was a really poignant and truly unforgettable moment. Since then I’ve seen the Northern Lights a few more times, but I know that nothing will ever compare to that first glimpse of the lights of the arctic while sitting on the grass at the foot of the Llewellyn glacier. With the northern lights in front of us and shooting stars sweeping across the sky above us, we all felt prepared and excited to tackle the final few miles.
The final stretch of the trail included multiple swamp crossings and some bush-whacking. Bush-whacking with skis on is, well, interesting, and we all often assumed what we called ‘narwhal position’ which entailed squatting and bending over so that your skis come to a point a few feet in front of your head. It was tiring, but it was quite successful. With sore backs and our legs and feet soaked up to our knees, we all sang and talked up the final hill towards camp, screaming and laughing at 1:30 am when we finally reached our campsite at the inlet. Despite the exhaustion, we all began to process the fact that we had completed the entire traverse of the Juneau Icefield, and our sense of personal accomplishment was palpable. We quickly pulled out our sleeping bags and all laid down right on the beach, just a few feet from the water of Lake Atlin. As we laid there in silence, the aurora reappeared, even more magnificent than before. The green lights curled with columns shooting upwards towards the stars, and with one last glimpse at the incredible sky, we all quickly fell asleep.
Lake Atlin when we woke up the next morning
The next morning we were awakened bright and early by the arrival of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, who checked each of our passports and allowed us to officially enter Canada, despite the fact that we had crossed the border days before. We then took a boat ride from our little campsite on the inlet to Atlin, BC, where we would spend a few days ‘readjusting’ to the real world before heading back to Juneau and then back home (or, in my case, to Europe). The boat ride was fantastically beautiful, but also quite emotional as we watched the high ice of our beloved Juneau Icefield slowly slip out of view. Civilization had felt so far away for so much of the summer, and watching Atlin, a tiny, remote town but still a place with cars and phones and stores, come into view was both exciting and terrifying.
We were quite tired on the boat ride to Atlin!
Looking back on this traverse and the wonderful few days we had in Atlin now, especially as I take my finals and prepare to finally head back to my home in North Carolina, all I can think about is wanting to go back there. The more removed from JIRP I become, the more I realize just how incredible it was, and even though my final few days on the icefield were painful, emotional and exhausting at times, I would give so much to be hiking through the wilderness around Llewelyn glacier or freezing while digging a pit near the Blob. In the moment, I knew it was amazing, but there was so much happening that it was extremely difficult to process just how much I would end up taking away from the experience and how I lucky I was to be there. But that’s how life works, isn’t it? You have these amazing adventures, and it often isn’t until later that you can truly appreciate them. Now, looking back on those final exhausting and overwhelming yet beautiful and fun days, I could not imagine a more perfect way to end my time on the icefield.
Sunset from the docks in Atlin