Category Archives: Juneau Icefield

the moments I’ll remember

These past six months where I’ve been traveling, learning and exploring have in every way exceeded my expectations. I remember leaving my house at 5 am for the long journey to Alaska almost exactly six months ago, and though I was extremely excited in that moment, I really had no idea about all of the amazing things that awaited me during my six months. Looking back, this whole experience both seems like a really long time and yet also feels like a total blur. Throughout the six months, I have been keeping track of my favorite moments, trying to make sure I remember all of the little things that have made my time away from home so wonderful. So, now that I’m finally heading back to North Carolina and ending this big, long adventure in just two days, I thought I’d share a selection of these ‘special moments’. They are in no particular order, and they are all just snapshots of what it has been like to live out many of my dreams. When I’m looking back on the experience, I really think it will be these sort of small moments that I’ll remember. Here’s to all of the things I will never forget!

-My very first night out in Copenhagen, experiencing the nightlife and the bars and the people when it was still warm and everything was new.

-Getting off the plane in Greenland, blasted by the cold, completely shocked by the otherworldly scenery and unable to believe that I was actually stepping foot above the Arctic Circle.

-Cresting the hill after our long ski to Camp 18, screaming in excitement as the Gilkey Trench came into view for the very first time.

-Visiting Kronborg Slot and Hornbaek on the North Coast of Zealand and wading into the cold water on a windy, rainy day.

Hiking on the glacier on the Jungfraujoch up to the hut, completely alone and unable to see anything besides stunning mountains and glaciers.

-Finally riding the roller coasters at Tivoli after hearing the screams of riders every single day on my bike home from school.

-Arriving at Stegastein overlook in Norway after biking 15 kilometers uphill, and then speeding down the winding, steep road back to the fjord on a beautiful, sunny day.

-Exchanging gifts as the sun set around our Christmas tree made out of old wooden skis on the porch of the Camp 10 cookshack on July 25th, JIRPmas.

-Drilling ice samples on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and then putting pieces of the ice into whiskey with our professors and watching air bubbles made of 30,000 year old atmosphere escape into the drink as the ice melted.

-Eating picnic dinners on the canals as the sun set in Amager and Christianshavn.

-Sleeping outside at Camp 10 and Camp 18 and watching gorgeous sunsets over the Taku and the Gilkey.

Biking everywhere, all the time, in the rain and wind and snow, and always enjoying every minute of it.

Skiing up the Norris Icefall, dodging large, beautiful crevasses and then seeing our campsite at the Norris Cache finally appear after thirteen hours of skiing.

-Discovering the Royal Library and then proceeding to spend at least an hour there almost every day of the entire semester.

-Finishing a long solo hike in the rain from Mannlichen to Lauterbrunnen, and then enjoying a delicious Swiss beer underneath a beautiful waterfall in the valley.

-Taking ski runs up and down the Ptarmigan Glacier at Camp 17 while watching the sun set over the Alaskan Inside Passage.

-Sitting around the campfire in Sweden, laughing and talking with young Danes, Swedes and Americans and experiencing true ‘hygge’.

-Delicious meals with my visiting family in their beautiful home in Vedbaek.

-Finally seeing my parents in Paris, and enjoying delicious food and wine in the most beautiful city.

-Swimming at 2 am in the rain on our very last night in Alaska, laughing and screaming in the surprisingly warm water as our final toast to our absolutely amazing summer on the Juneau Icefield.

-Seeing the Northern Lights appear in the most dramatic of moments at midnight during our hike off the icefield, and then months later watching the aurora dance across the sky on a freezing cold night in Greenland.

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the perfect ending

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

Llewellyn Glacier at sunset

The Llewellyn Glacier looking like a sea of ice

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

Our trail party, complete with skis on our backs, heads down the Llewellyn Glacier

JIRPers and beautiful meltwater channels

JIRPers and beautiful meltwater channels

Pure, blue meltwater - the beauty of the ablation zone

Pure, blue meltwater – the beauty of the ablation zone

The glacier gets more broken up with larger crevasses

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

Navigating our way around the crevasses

Finishing the broken-up section as we exit the high ice

Finishing the broken-up section as we exit the high ice

On the toe of Red Mountain with my skis on my pack

On the toe of Red Mountain with my skis on my pack

Leaving the glacier for the last time

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

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!

We were quite tired on the boat ride to Atlin!

Atlin Harbor

Atlin Harbor

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

Sunset from the docks in Atlin

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An Indescribably Beautiful Place

Before I arrived in Juneau for the start of JIRP, I knew amazingly little about the program and what exactly my two months would entail. I certainly was aware of enough to be well-packed and prepared, but I definitely did not have a very good sense of what doing JIRP would actually feel like. However, I had seen enough pictures to know one thing that awaited me on the Juneau Icefield: The Gilkey Trench.

Chrissy and I in front of the Gilkey Trench.

Chrissy and I in front of the Gilkey Trench.

I’ll never forget the moment when I first saw the Gilkey Trench. The Gilkey, as JIRP calls it, is an absolutely stunning glacier with perfect medial moraines, surrounding by hanging glaciers and cirques. After weeks of anticipation, the day finally came to leave Camp 10 and ski around 18 kilometers to Camp 18. It was a beautiful but long ski up the Taku glacier onto the Matthes glacier and then finally onto the Vaughn-Lewis, and when we finally reached a point where Camp 18 was visible, our trail party leader gave us permission to ski our own pace. A good friend and I took off, hastily making our way through the final 2 miles to reach camp. We laughed and talked the whole way before reaching the final uphill towards the Cleaver, the rock face/cliff where Camp 18 sits. As we crested the hill, the Gilkey slowly came into view, and we immediately started screaming. The slow appearance of a place I’d long imagined, combined with the other JIRPers who had arrived earlier coming out to the hill to welcome us made the ski down the final slope towards camp easily one of my very favorite moments of the summer.

Gilkey Panorama

Gilkey Panorama

Camp 18, our third major camp of the summer, is located on top of the Cleaver, a large rock face/cliff nunatak, flanked by two large icefalls and facing the Gilkey Trench. It’s an amazingly beautiful and improbable camp location, and our 10 days there were almost heavenly. We ate all of our meals outside, sitting on the sunny rocks outside the cookshack. We watched the sunset every night and spent many, many nights sleeping under the stars, searching for the Northern Lights. On days that were not spent out in the field doing research, we would wander around the Cleaver nunatak and practice our roped-skiing skills by exploring more crevassed areas of the Vaughn-Lewis glacier. We held birthday and costume parties, played lots of games, and even spent free time taking runs up and down Camp 18’s very small ski hill. My time at Camp 18 was beyond wonderful, and it really was the people who made my time there so special. When I visited the Jungfrau in Switzerland in early October, the views from the Jungfraujoch were sort of similar to those of the Gilkey from Camp 18. I was thrilled and so excited about the scenery around me, and it was easily one of the highlights of my time in Europe. However, it couldn’t touch the Gilkey in my mind. Experiencing the Gilkey with my fellow JIRPers was nothing short of incredible, and our shared excitement about the glaciers, the science, the views, the skiing, everything, made it an all the more powerful experience.

Camp 18 from our ski hill

Camp 18 from our ski hill

Words do not do much justice for the Gilkey. Pictures do more, but you really have to see it to understand its grandeur and size. It is one of those places that leaves a permanent imprint on you. It’s hard to describe how it felt to be standing in front of it, experiencing a place that’s both extraordinarily gorgeous and remote. It’s not a place you can bring your friends and family to (well, unless you can afford a private helicopter trip), and, in many ways, getting to ‘live’ above the Gilkey is a once in a lifetime experience. It’s one thing to see a view as amazing as the overlook from Camp 18, but it’s another to get to spend an extended amount of time living somewhere so gorgeous that it would be a major natural attraction if not for its inaccessibility. I can say that every time I looked out at the sparkling hanging glaciers, deceptively large moraines, perfectly formed ogives and dark mountaintops peeking out above the glaciers, all textbook examples of glacial landforms, I just felt so grateful to be there. The Gilkey has much more significance than just an amazing view; it’s a place that still reminds me why I love glaciers and mountains and being in the outdoors, why I enjoy being completely out of contact, how a place so far from home and cut off from society can feel like a home. When I’m struggling through a hard physics or math class and questioning why I make myself take such difficult and boring courses, I think about somewhere like the Gilkey and how it is this hard work that allows me to go to incredible places that I would never otherwise get to experience. Totally worth it.

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Where the science came alive

I had originally planned on writing a few more blog posts about my summer in Alaska to make a more complete record of my summer, but then the whole traveling constantly while also having tons of work started, and my spare time quickly disappeared.  However, for the first time in months, I’m actually on top of homework, blogging and stuff I need to do for more home university. Adding in the lots of time I’ve had to reflect on my amazing experience in Alaska, I wanted to share some pictures and stories from the few weeks I spent on the Taku Glacier this summer.

The view of the Taku Glacier and Taku Towers from the Camp 10 Cookshack

The view of the Taku Glacier and Taku Towers from the Camp 10 Cookshack

Over the past few months, I’ve become more and more confident that I want to study polar science. I’ve been really interested in field science for a while now, but it was not until attending JIRP that I figured how much I particularly enjoy glacier fieldwork. It’s now been over three months since JIRP (oh how time flies), and I definitely think that the more time that passes, the more I appreciate how truly incredible my summer experience was. It’s really not overstating it to say that the Juneau Icefield changed my life. The entire summer was full of hands-on learning, but, looking back, there’s no place that played a larger role in my newfound love for glaciology than the Taku Glacier.  Even though I only spent two months there, I feel a very significant connection to the icefield, and, in particular, to the Taku Glacier.

The broad expanse of the Taku Glacier

The broad expanse of the Taku Glacier

The Taku is the largest glacier on the icefield and where we spent a very large portion of our summer. Camp 10, the largest camp on the icefield, is perched on a nunatak above the Taku Glacier and directly across from the glorious Taku Towers.  Though all of the JIRP camps have their strong points, in many ways, Camp 10 is where JIRP really comes to life. Camp 10 was home to many of my favorite days of the summer. It was at Camp 10 that we celebrated JIRP Christmas (JIRPmas) on July 25th, complete with presents and a Christmas tree made out of old wooden skis and definitely one of the highlights of the summer. Camp 10 was the only place I ever showered or did laundry on the icefield and was home to my favorite bed of the summer (my bunk in the ‘Hilton’, as it is called, was quite spacious and cozy!) and to, in my opinion, the best outhouses on the icefield (the ‘Bombshelter’ was the largest and cleanest, and even had some great old Outside magazines! And the view of the Taku Towers from ‘Dreamland’ is hard to beat). I loved lying out on the porch in front of the cookshack, doing abs on the rocks behind the library, cooking in the spacious Camp 10 kitchen, crowding all of the JIRPers into library for some really fantastic lectures, and sleeping under the stars on the flat rocks near the edge of the nunatak.

 As much as I loved our home Camp 10, however, what I really remember about that part of the summer is all the time I spent on the Taku Glacier. Funnily enough, it was during our stay at Camp 10 that I spent the least time in camp, and I managed to spend the entire day on the Taku Glacier for something like 10 of the 15 days we spent at Camp 10. Though the time spent in camp on JIRP is fun and educational, the real point of JIRP is to get hands-on field experience doing research and traveling on a glacier, and nowhere was that more clear to me than during my time on the Taku Glacier. The Taku Glacier is huge, and, interestingly enough, it is actually the only glacier on the icefield that is currently advancing. This advance likely has more to do with the tidewater glacier cycle than the climate. The Taku Glacier is currently grounded at the end of Taku Inlet, meaning it has stopped calving and thus ablates more slowly. I’ll skip the rest of the scientific talk here, but the tidewater glacier cycle is a very interesting component of glaciology.  Regardless, though, it means the Taku Glacier is a great place for research, and it is where most of the traditional JIRP fieldwork, namely mass balance, GPS surveys and some independent research, is based.

During my time at Camp 10, I went on two overnight mass balance trips, sleeping on the cold, beautiful and surprisingly uncomfortable Taku, also dug several other pits and surveyed the Demorest Glacier and Hades Highway. The mass balance pits on the Taku were generally particularly far from camp, so I got to ski miles every day, exploring large parts glacier in the best way possible. And beyond the continuous JIRP research, the new research project I became involved in on JIRP that I’m still working on now is focused on comparing strain rates we measured using survey-grade GPS units on the Taku Glacier to satellite measurements from the same locations. I spent multiple long days on the Taku, freezing in the katabatic winds taking this GPS data, and it’s exciting to be working to get the results from that fieldwork. Especially because this research I became involved in continues to be a significant part of my life, I still feel quite a strong connection to the Taku. It was on the Taku Glacier that glaciology as a science really came alive for me. I’ll never forget what it felt like to have my feet on the Taku Glacier, skiing, digging a snow pit, setting up a GPS receiver or taking GPS coordinates all while surrounded by perfectly white snow and large, dramatic peaks. To combine my love for mountains, snow, glaciers and skiing with what I think is really interesting science was simply amazing. The Taku Glacier is beautiful, stunningly beautiful, and, especially because of all of the great science, despite the occasional long hours, exhaustion and cold, I loved every moment I spent there.

Sunset over the Taku

Sunset over the Taku

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There’s always another ice lens: JIRP Mass Balance

Digging a 3-6 meter snow pit, shoveling snow all day long, in the sun and in the rain, out in the middle of the glacier, what’s so fun about that?

Along with the traverses, skiing, lectures and personal research, JIRP also focuses heavily on maintaining its two long-term records on the Juneau Icefield: mass balance and GPS surveys. Throughout the summer all JIRPers are required to do at least one day of mass balance and one day of surveying, but most do many more. I particularly really enjoyed taking part in the mass balance research and dedicated two weeks in total of my summer to digging mass balance pits. In essence, mass balance is a way of determining the overall health of the glacier by looking at how much snow (measured in snow-water equivalent) the glacier received and how much snow-water equivalent the glacier lost through ablation (melting). As we spent the vast majority of the summer in the ablation zone, we determined how much snow the glacier received by digging snow pits down to last year’s annual layer (the last winter snowfall before the summer ablation season), then taking measurements of the snow density every 10 cm. Mass balance has been at the heart of JIRP’s research since it began in 1946, and the Juneau Icefield (more specifically, the Taku and Lemon Creek glaciers) have the oldest continuous mass balance record in the Western Hemisphere and the second oldest in the world. JIRP digs somewhere around 20 pits strategically placed around the glaciers every summer, and the data can be compared to the same pits dating back over 50 years!

Demorest pit - one of the sunniest of the summer!

Demorest pit – one of the sunniest of the summer!

At first glance, mass balance likely doesn’t seem to be particularly enjoyable. It really is just digging snow, often for hours, until you hit the annual layer and can take the density measurements, which usually takes at least another hour or more. Before I came on JIRP I had been told that I absolutely had to do lots of mass balance, and I admit to being kind of confused as to why I needed to spend so much of my time digging snow. However, I almost immediately became obsessed with digging pits. Doing mass balance meant you were able to spend your days right on the glacier, out in the sun (or in the cold) doing real glaciological research and getting a great workout! And, despite how it sounds, it was generally amazingly fun. We’d often bring speakers and blast them until they died, dancing to ridiculous songs as we shoveled. As digging a 4-meter or deeper pit requires a lot of teamwork, we would usually dig with between 6 and 10 people, and we all would take turns digging in the deepest hole (we’d dig approximately four steps, each 1 square meter and increasing in depth). During those hours spent in a pit, we’d talk about everything, literally everything, and honestly some of my favorite discussions of the summer occurred deep down in a pit. The days themselves were varied, but the pits still managed to be fun even in gross weather. My very first pit, a small pit on the Lemon Creek Glacier, occurred on a very cold and rainy day, but even though I was soaked and my feet were numb, I still returned to camp excited to dig more pits. I had no idea how much more fun they actually would grow to be! The sunny pits were incredible, though I still have not managed to get rid of the massive tan lines I have from all those days spent on the snow when the sun was beating down. And the views from each of the pits (except the few times we had to dig in a white out) really could not be beat.

Taku pit

Taku pit with the Taku in the background

Northwest Branch pit 1 - another beautiful sunny pit

Northwest Branch pit 1 – another beautiful sunny pit

Another huge bonus of digging lots of mass balance pits was getting to ski and see a lot of the icefield. Our first few pits on the Lemon Creek Glacier near Camp 17 were no more than 25 minutes from camp. However, as we traveled further onto the icefield, the pits became further and further away, often requiring a 2-hour or more ski just to get to the site where we were supposed to dig! As skiing was easily one of my very favorite parts of the summer, I loved doing these extra long skis and getting to visit parts of the icefield that I otherwise would never have seen. There were also four mass balance overnight trips that involved digging two or more pits while camping on the glacier. I was able to go on three of these trips and each was amazing. On my first trip, we skied around 10 miles down the Southwest Branch of the Taku Glacier, dug a pit (incidentally the deepest pit of the summer at over 6 m!) then camped right in the middle of the glacier (and even built an igloo!) and dug another pit on our way back. The second trip was the Northwest Branch trip, where we skied out to a campsite right in front of Glacier King (perhaps my favorite mountain on the icefield), dug a pit, then skied another 5 miles the next day to dig another pit, skied back to our campsite, spent the night there, dug one more pit the next day then skied back to camp. The sunsets from the Northwest Branch trip were absolutely beyond amazing. Each night the sun lit up the sky behind Glacier King with almost every hue in the spectrum, coloring the snow and the surrounding mountains. On the second day, we were skiing back to our campsite fairly late (around 9 pm), when, perhaps recognizing our exhaustion and hunger, the sky gave us one of the best show of light and color I’d ever seen. The sky burned red as the sun descended over glacier, then turned into pink and even blue and green. I remember looking at the snow around me, amazed at the depth of the color reflected in the white. It was incredible. The last trip occurred on a freezing, rainy night over the Canadian border on the Llewellyn Glacier. However, despite how cold and wet we all were, we kept our spirits high and savored our very last pit, as the next day we began the journey off the icefield and into Atlin.

Our Northwest Branch campsite

Our Northwest Branch campsite

Sunset in front of Glacier King

Sunset in front of Glacier King

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Me (looking quite tan) enjoying the Glacier King sunset

The final mass balance trip team when we finally emerged from the whiteout

The final mass balance trip team when we finally emerged from the whiteout

I truly cannot imagine my JIRP experience without mass balance. Throughout the summer I always maintained that every day spent on a glacier is a good day, and even though mass balance trips could seem extremely long and exhausting, I always returned to camp so grateful that I had chosen to go out that day.  So many of my favorite memories occurred while digging pits, and I definitely became more than a little obsessed with mass balance over the course of the summer! There was that time our pit on the Lemon Creek glacier ended up being right on top of a crevasse (don’t worry, we figured this out before we dug too far into it!), the Demorest Glacier pit where Adam strung his hammock right over the pit, our Northwest Branch pit where we saw a helicopter land a mile away and watched some tourists walk around and take pictures, our very first pit in Canada on one of the most beautiful days of the summer… so many wonderful memories! I even had a shovel that I was extremely possessive of and always had to come with me whenever I dug a pit. I swear, my backpack still looks a little off without the perfectly sized bright yellow shovel nicknamed ‘the bad mother’ attached to it!

On one of our very last pits, I was getting a bit frustrated with the large number of ice lenses (layers of solid ice, up to 6 cm thick, found within the snow pack). Despite how strong all of those pits had made me, I still had a really hard time breaking through each ice lens. As we broke through one, I remember saying, ‘don’t worry, there will always another ice lens’ to someone digging next to me. It reminded me of how every time I finish a paper in college, I often think, ‘well, great, I’m done with this one, but there’s still always another paper to write at some point.’ I remember specifically thinking, ‘I bet two months from now, when I’m writing a paper, I’ll be wishing there was another ice lens for me to dig through’. So now, here I am, over a month after I dug my last snow pit and desperately trying not to work on the paper I have due tomorrow, thinking exactly that. I wish there was another ice lens…

Curious as to what digging a pit looks like? In his video with lots of pictures from the summer, photographer Adam Taylor includes a wonderful time lapse of the Demorest pit. Time lapse starts at 5:08. Definitely worth watching! I’m in the red hat and black shorts…

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The best two days of the summer?

Though all of the JIRP traverses are exciting and unique in their own way, perhaps none are quite as ‘epic’ as the two-day ski to Camp 10. After two weeks at Camp 17 where we learned safe glacier travel techniques, we were all  ready for the two-day trip to Camp 10. Unfortunately, we found ourselves stuck in a 5-day whiteout, meaning we had a lot of time to kill at Camp 17. After lots of cabin-fever type shenanigans, the weather broke and the first trail party (myself included) got ready bright and early on a beautiful sunny day for the long traverse. The first day of the Camp 10 traverse is perhaps the most intense traverse of the trip and the difficulty of the terrain meant that an advance party of experienced staff had skied most of it (and then returned to C-17) in advance, placing willow wands along the route in some of the trickier places. Day 1 of the traverse is when you really cross into the heart of the Juneau Icefield, and likely because of the amazingly varied and exciting terrain, I look back on that day as perhaps my very favorite day of the summer, and, honestly, one of the best days of my life!

Hiking over rocks with the Lemon Creek Glacier ablation zone in the background

Hiking over rocks with the Lemon Creek Glacier ablation zone in the background

Our Camp 10 traverse began with an easy downhill ski towards the ablation zone of the Lemon Creek glacier, followed by a three-hour ski straight uphill to the shoulder between Split Thumb and Nugget Ridge. The view from the shoulder (known as ‘lunch rocks’, as its where JIRP trail parties normally stop for lunch) was truly amazing. Usually this part of the traverse is totally fogged in, but we had stumbled upon clear blue skis and a view of the entire icefield, all the way to Devil’s Paw, the highest peak on the icefield and one of the US-Canada border peaks. Refreshed by the view, we put our skis on our packs and hiked up Nugget Ridge. When we got close to the top, we slid on our harnesses and roped up for the ski down to Death Valley.

Skis on the pack and ready to go!

Skis on the pack and ready to go!

Taking our break at lunch rocks

Taking our break at lunch rocks

The spectacular view of the icefield from lunch rocks. Devil's Paw is the large three-pointed mountain in the background.

The spectacular view of the icefield from lunch rocks. Devil’s Paw is the large three-pointed mountain in the background.

Standing on the shoulder of split thumb (look back to my last JIRP blog post to see a picture of split thumb from above Camp 17!)

Standing on the shoulder of split thumb (look back to my last JIRP blog post to see a picture of split thumb from above Camp 17!)

Chrissy and I in front of Split Thumb

Chrissy and I in front of Split Thumb

Skiing along a glacier is usually fine without a rope and harness as long as you know where the crevasses are. Though we practiced lots of roped skiing and crevasse rescue during the first few weeks of JIRP, we rarely actually had to rope up during the remainder of the summer. However, we do use all of these rope skills during the ski down from Nugget Ridge. A crevasse isn’t dangerous if you can see it; rather it is the hidden crevasses covered by snow bridges that pose the largest threat. Skiing down Nugget Ridge did not look that different from other places we skied, but the JIRP staff know from past traverses that there are large crevasses often lurking beneath the snow, making roping up necessary. The staff who found our route down the ridge did lead us past one huge crevasse though, just to show us what has made Nugget Ridge challenging in the past! With ten of us in the first trail party, we skied down Nugget Ridge on two rope teams. I took the very last spot on the last rope team, meaning I was the very last person down the ridge. Skiing on rope teams is quite lonely, as you’re about 10 meters away from the next closest person, and because you have to go very slowly to make sure you’re all keeping the right amount of slack in the rope, it can be quite a long, cold and boring experience! As beautiful and exciting as it was to ski through some marvelous crevasses, I was definitely happy to un-rope and get back onto flat snow for the three miles across Death Valley.

About to descend into Death Valley, looking at the Norris Icefall. That night we camped just above the icefall

About to descend into Death Valley, looking at the Norris Icefall. That night we camped just above the icefall.

When we had finally crossed Death Valley, it was already around 8 pm and the group was definitely ready to reach camp. All we had left in front of us was skiing up the Norris Icefall. While this sounds quite technical, we were able to ski up the side where the crevasses were smaller with snow between them. Though I will admit to being a little scared at first, I personally think crevasses are super cool, and I skied up at the front with our leader Jeff and made sure to peer down into every crevasse! Once we had all made it through the icefall, we found a sign left by another staff member who had snow machined there from Camp 10 earlier that day to set up our campsite. We followed his tracks until suddenly, magically, 5 tents and a cache of food suddenly appeared, just a few hundred feet away. Seeing such a perfect and beautiful campsite, all set up and prepared for us after a wonderful long day was amazing. We all quickly took off our skis and boots and prepared mac and cheese and peas for a late-night dinner on the cold glacier. Before we knew it, we were all cozied up in our tents and ready for a good night of sleep!

Chrissy inside our tent at the end of a long day

Chrissy inside our tent at the end of a long day

After such a long day, we decided to have a slightly later start the next morning. We were finally packed and ready to go around noon, and after skiing up a small hill we hit the classic JIRP sign ‘No service for the next 18 km’ with an arrow pointing to the snow machine track. That was how we spent the rest of the day: just skiing 18 km, following the snow machine track all the way down the Southwest Branch to Camp 10.  I absolutely love cross-country skiing, and despite the fact that we had been on skis for two weeks now, this was our first true cross-country day (with no major uphills or downhills) and, at least for the first few hours, I was in heaven. After not having skied since my last high school Nordic skiing race, being able to just truck on for hours was exactly was I was looking for. Of course, after skiing on my own (we all sort of went our own pace) with a heavy pack for four hours, I definitely started to get a bit bored, but the magnificence of the scenery and my own elation at cross-country skiing again kept me going. By 5 we had reached the main branch of the Taku, and though none of us could pick it out then, Camp 10 was in sight! We had a great system going where we broke every hour, and after our final stop right in the middle of the Taku glacier, I took off for Camp 10. We arrived to a delicious warm meal cooked by the few students, staff and faculty members who had helicoptered to Camp 10 and had thus been waiting for us through the white out! Camp 10 (also known as the Nunatak Chalet) is the largest and oldest camp in use today, and nothing quite compared to arriving at the warm, clean cook shack with a spectacular view of the Taku Towers in front of us. It really was an amazing traverse.

My only photo from the second day of the traverse. Our line of skiers making their way down the Southwest Branch

My only photo from the second day of the traverse: a line of skiers making their way down the Southwest Branch

I unfortunately do not have many photos of the traverse because I was often too cold or too tired to stop and take out my camera for a picture. However, Jeff Barbee, a JIRP alum and professional photographer and filmmaker, was the leader of my traverse, and he made a wonderful short documentary about the first half of our summer, including many images and video from our traverse to Camp 10. Please watch! It’s always wonderful to travel with a professional photographer!

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Sunsets, Skiing and Cabin Fever: Life above the Lemon Creek Glacier

Camp 17! From left to right: The Jamesway (boys cabin), The Staff Shack, Ptarmigan Terrace and the large Cookshack. The Armpit (way in the background) was the girls cabin

Camp 17! From left to right: The Jamesway (boys cabin), The Staff Shack, Ptarmigan Terrace and the large Cookshack. The Armpit (way in the background) was the girls cabin

Camp 17 is perched on a small ridge between the Lemon Creek Glacier and the Ptarmigan Glacier. With the beautiful islands and mountains of Juneau on one side and the magnificent icefield on the other, Camp 17 is a truly incredible spot and where we began our icefield journey. It is one of the smaller camps, both in geographic size and in number of buildings, but we all managed to fit for the two weeks or so that we spent there. Our arrivals at Camp 17 were staggered over a number of days, and as I was in the very first trail party, my first few days were spent cleaning and enthusiastically cheering and welcoming every trail party as they made their way up the final slope of the Ptarmigan. Once the entire group had arrived, we immediately began our icefield safety training, as Camp 17 is a perfect location for learning safe glacier travel. The Lemon Creek Glacier is small and extremely well-studied due to years of JIRP research, so any hazards are known and can be easily avoided. Learning glacier safety is as important of a part of JIRP as the glaciology and field research, and we had a full two weeks of practice time built into our summer experience!

Naturally, we started our safety training with ski practice. Lots of ski practice. After all, we all needed to be able to safely traverse the icefield on skis! The range of skiing levels in our group was definitely quite large! We had a few people who had never been on skis before, some who had skied just once or twice, people (like me) who had grown up skiing and then some really talented skiers who have long spent their winters in the mountains.  For the first few weeks, we would split up into groups by ability and practice on the various slopes around Camp 17. After not having skied since high school, I’ll never forget my first afternoon back on the snow. It was a fantastically beautiful day, and a group of the more experienced skiers had decided to do some runs on the Ptarmigan Glacier, the best ski hill on our route across the icefield. The clouds had lifted for an amazing view of the mountains on the islands around Juneau, and we skied run after run down the Ptarmigan, slogging our way back up the steep slope again and again. I was so enthralled by being back on the snow that I completely ignored a strained hip flexor and some nasty heel blisters. I then had to take a few days off later to recover, but regardless, it was worth it! I also really enjoyed skiing with the beginning skiers and seeing them improve so quickly. It was amazing to watch fellow JIRPers go from barely being able to stay vertical to traversing the icefield on skis in just two months! Our few days of ski practice also included a lot of exploring, such as skiing to the saddle across the Lemon Creek for a beautiful view of the dead branch of the Norris Glacier or skiing around Lake Linda, the supraglacial lake that drains annually located at the top of the Lemon Creek. Even once official ski practice had ended, many of us spent our free afternoons and evenings doing runs down the Ptarmigan, enjoying the snow and the views.

Group ski practice

Group ski practice

Chrissy and I posing in front of the icefield on a beautiful day!

Chrissy and I posing in front of the Norris Branch in the sun!

Skiing up to the saddle

Skiing up to the saddle

Sunset ski on the Ptarmigan Glacier

Sunset ski on the Ptarmigan Glacier

After a few days of ski practice, we began the official glacier safety training. We spent a few evenings learning all of the required knots, and I definitely became a little obsessed with making sure my knots looked ‘perfect’! We even had a knot-tying competition where we were split into teams and raced to complete the knots first, with extra style points of course. It was shockingly competitive but definitely a fun night. Our first outdoor activity was self-arrest practice, where we took turns throwing ourselves down a steep slope in various directions and practiced stopping ourselves with our ice axes. It was strange at first to run downhill until you fall, but it ended up being a really fun and exciting activity. After all, who doesn’t love ‘sledding’? We then spent a number of days working on roped skiing and crevasse rescue practice. These lessons began with schematic explanations at camp followed by practice in a moat (the hole in the snow around a large rock formation) near camp. We would take turns being the victim and all practice pulling each other up using a z-pulley. Crevasse rescue is an extremely important skill for icefield travel and it definitely can be a bit confusing to learn. Fortunately, our first few days of practice were absolutely gorgeous, but once the weather turned sour, standing around practicing rope skills in freezing rain became a little brutal! But regardless, we all learned the skills we needed to get across the icefield.

Self-arrest practice with a beautiful view of the Lemon Creek Glacier. Split Thumb is the large mountain directly in the center of the picture

Self-arrest practice with a beautiful view of the Lemon Creek Glacier. Split Thumb is the large mountain directly in the center of the picture

Roped ski practice

Roped ski practice

Crevasse rescue practice in the moat

Crevasse rescue practice in the moat

We all took turns jumping into the moat to practice self-arresting on skis

We all took turns jumping into the moat to practice self-arresting on skis

Grayson practices rappelling

Grayson practices rappelling

Crevasse rescue practice in the freezing cold and rain. This is what JIRP really looks like!

Crevasse rescue practice in the freezing cold and rain. This is what JIRP really looks like!

Daily life at Camp 17 was extremely enjoyable. Because there was little field research to be done at Camp 17, we spent most of our time as one big group, leading to lots of group bonding. Days were filled with lectures, field trips, safety practice and free time, and we often had the evenings free. We all quickly adjusted to life on the icefield, learning to live with the strange quirks of icefield life. I loved not having to think about my wallet, keys or phone, never having to worry about buying food for dinner or sending out those emails. We were all so present, so dedicated to life on the icefield, and our time was either spent outside or sitting in the cookshack, playing card games, reading or writing letters to loved ones at home. We were fortunate to have absolutely amazing weather for our first week at Camp 17 and we were able to go on some really beautiful hikes around the area. Every night we would all sit outside and watch the colors change as the sun lit up the snow and surrounded mountains, different every time.

On the shoulder of Cairn Peak, overlooking the Salmon Creek Reservoir

On the shoulder of Cairn Peak, overlooking the Salmon Creek Reservoir

It was a beautiful spot

It was a beautiful spot

Looks kind of like Norway, right?

Looks kind of like Norway, right?

Panorama overlooking the Lemon Creek Glacier with Camp 17 on the left

Panorama overlooking the Lemon Creek Glacier with Camp 17 on the left

More beautiful sunsets

Another beautiful sunset

Annie and Mary watching the sunset above Camp 17

Annie and Mary watching the sunset above Camp 17

After about 10 days at Camp 17, we had finished the safety training and field research on the Lemon Creek Glacier and were all about ready to leave for Camp 10. However, almost as soon as they announced the trail parties, the weather turned awful. We were stuck in a white out for no less than 6 days, and after the senior staff hiked down the Ptarmigan to get a helicopter out to Juneau and then to Camp 10, we were left with just the junior field staff and all of the JIRPers for four more days in the whiteout. Fortunately, despite our cabin fever, we all made the most of the situation. We had a ‘glacier games’ competition which involved competing in various skiing and snow events for spam lids as medals (I’m proud to say I won the cross-country skiing sprint!) and a talent show. We had a night of ‘JIRP talks’ where we had the opportunity to talk for 5 minutes or less about anything we were passionate about, and even played a game of JIRP cranium/monopoly invented by Adam, a particularly dedicated staff member. During the white-out, Lake Linda began to drain, so a few of us willing to brave the rain and cold (and ski when you could barely see the snow in front of you) bundled up and skied down to the lake to explore the large blocks of ice left on the snow after the water disappeared. When we reached the lake it began to clear a bit, so we hiked up to the headwall moraine and looked down over the drained lake. It was amazingly cool (though my camera died midway through the field trip) and I remember being so happy with all the gear I had brought that enabled me to go on an adventure like that in horrible weather and still feel comfortable! After one last night where we had a smelly but very fun dance party, we woke up to blue skis and warm temperatures, so I and the rest of the first trail party very quickly packed up and took to the snow for the amazing two-day traverse to Camp 10! It was a quick goodbye to Camp 17, but we were all definitely ready to get to Camp 10 and experience the heart of the icefield.

Looking back, Camp 17 is usually seen as the worst camp due to the bad weather and slightly less incredibly amazing views (JIRP has ridiculously high standards for good views). This is true in some ways, as I do remember frequently being wet and cold and wondering if my stuff would ever dry, and well, Camps 10 and 18 are simply too beautiful for words. However, I absolutely loved our time there. Because we were always together, we bonded really quickly, and had some of the most fun and outrageous moments of the summer. I loved getting to downhill ski every day and it was so amazing to be having so much fun while still knowing the real heart of JIRP was still ahead!

The view from the window   above my bed

The view from the window above my bed

The inside passage from above Camp 17 with a great view of the Juneau Airport in the foreground!

The inside passage from above Camp 17 with a great view of the Juneau Airport in the foreground!

The inside passage at sunset from Camp 17

The inside passage at sunset from Camp 17

Beautiful night on the water

Beautiful night on the water

Mount Fairweather rises above the peaks on a clear day!

Mount Fairweather rises above the peaks on a clear day!

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Thunder, Swamps and Snow: the hike to Camp 17

Perhaps the most special part of JIRP that separates it from other field camps is the fact that over the course of the summer, all JIRPers complete a traverse of the Juneau Icefield. The total distance is around 80 miles, spread over six or seven traverse days. Though the total time on traverse is only a small fraction of the summer, in many ways the traverse days were the defining moments of my JIRP experience. Spending an entire day (or longer) in the woods, on the snow or on the ice is a really amazing opportunity. Though I spent a lot of time on the icefield doing research, the traverses definitely gave me the best sense of the magnitude and beauty of the Juneau Icefield. I was fortunate to (almost) always have wonderful weather on my traverses, and the views from each day were absolutely unforgettable. And, the reward at the end of each traverse never disappointed. There’s nothing quite like arriving at a warm, cozy camp late at night after traveling for 10 to 15 hours!

Before I describe the individual traverses, I need to preface with a brief explanation of the three different kinds of fun, a common topic of conversation on JIRP. Type 1 fun is both fun when you’re doing it and fun when you look back on it. Type 2 is not very fun in the moment, but really fun when you look back in perspective. Type 3 is fun while it’s happening, but not fun later (usually best to avoid this kind of fun altogether). JIRP is largely a mix of Type 1 and Type 2 fun, but the traverses tend to fall largely into the Type 2 category. Traverses on JIRP are hard (really hard), and I definitely spent a lot of time on each traverse wanting to be anywhere but there, only able to think about getting to camp! However, when I look back on it now, I honestly consider the traverses to be some of the best days of my life, and despite all the pain and exhaustion, I would give so much to be able to go back to those days now. Though I understood the general concept of the different types of fun before JIRP, my experience this summer definitely solidified my belief in the value of Type 2 fun. As we all agreed on JIRP, it’s generally good to surround yourself with the Type 2 fun kind of people!

It’s really hard to convey both the amazement and difficulty of each traverse in a short blog post, but I’m going to do my best here and start by writing about the first traverse, from Juneau to Camp 17.  Hiking to Camp 17 is a unique traverse as it involves no skiing and is mostly just hiking uphill, with the views improving as you slowly get higher and higher above Juneau. It is usually viewed as the hardest of the JIRP traverses, but it’s immensely rewarding, as when you finally reach C-17, you’re officially living in a glacial environment. I must confess that I don’t have many pictures from the traverses. I tried to enjoy the scenery (and make sure I made it through safely), so I ended up not taking many pictures. But I’ll share the ones I do have!

The first trail party at the trailhead, ready for our hike up to Camp 17!

The first trail party at the trailhead, ready for our hike up to Camp 17!

I was in the very first Camp 17 trail party, which meant we were tasked with hiking all the way to Camp 17 in one day (some groups split it into two days). The hike began with a beautiful few hours through Southeast Alaska’s lush temperate rainforest. Around lunchtime, we hit what is lovingly (or not so lovingly) referred to as the ‘vertical swamp’, a section of the trail that essentially involves climbing straight up a steep slope for two hours, bushwhacking and sliding through the muddy dense forest. Our Camp 17 traverse happened to occur on the hottest day of the summer, slowly us down fairly significantly. Midway through the vertical swamp, we had all completely run out of water and were quite dehydrated. When we finally hit the snow patch, we took a long break, filling our water bottles with as much snow as possible, and then continued up through the woods until we hit tree line.

The river we walked along at the beginning of the hike

The river we walked along at the beginning of the hike

Resting and filling our water bottles with dirty snow

Resting and filling our water bottles with (dirty) snow

The view of the inside passage through the trees when we first hit some snow!

The view of the inside passage through the trees from the first snow patch

Unfortunately, right as we broke through the trees and hit the ridge, it started to thunder. Thunderstorms are extremely rare in Southeast Alaska, so we all laughed at our bad luck and quickly hiked to a small patch of willow trees where we assumed thunderstorm position. I personally love thunderstorms when I have a safe place to watch them, but in that moment, exhausted and somewhat exposed on a ridge, I was definitely scared. It was an extremely long hour of sitting alone on my thermarest, jumping every time thunder boomed over my head. After I panicked watching one bolt of lightning close enough that we could see it, the thundering suddenly stopped, and we decided to keep moving. At this point it was already 7 pm, meaning we had been on the trail for 11 hours, and we weren’t even remotely close to camp. However, the fact that we had survived one of the more terrifying hours of my life definitely raised my spirits, and I was psyched and ready for the final trek up to camp.

The view of the ridge above the tree line

The view of the ridge above the tree line

Looking towards the terminus of the Ptarmigan glacier

Looking towards the terminus of the Ptarmigan glacier

At this point we had begun to reach the glaciated zone and the views were becoming more and more stunning. We hit the Ptarmigan glacier at around 9 pm, and I figured we were close. However, hiking up the Ptarmigan is no easy task. Especially when you’ve already been hiking for 13 hours, the Ptarmigan essentially feels like an endless hill that just gets steeper and steeper as you continue. After about an hour of hiking straight up with no end in sight, I had absolutely lost my will to continue. I was dehydrated, hungry and exhausted and I simply stopped in the snow. This was probably my hardest moment of the summer (fortunately it only got easier from there!), but with the help of my trail party leader, I managed to keep going, kicking in steps and stopping about every 30 seconds to catch my breath. I’ll never forget the feeling when Camp 17 finally emerged above the snow at the top of the glacier, the clouds breaking and revealing the gorgeous views of the Alaskan Inside Passage. We were greeted by the lone staff member already in camp with warm chili and hot chocolate, and, as there were only six of us in camp, we all quite quickly picked out bunks and fell asleep! It was a difficult, beautiful, but ultimately perfect start to my JIRP experience.

Sunset from Camp 17

Sunset from Camp 17

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JIRP 2013: a summer of wonder and discovery

“When the weather breaks and it’s calm and it’s beautiful, you sit up on the summits or on a high ridge and there’s a strange thing that happens to you. You begin to sense your own minuteness and the shortness of life, and yet at the same time – in a split second – you sense the eternity of the universe around you.”

– Dr. Maynard Miller, JIRP Founder and Director

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to write a number of blog posts about my experience on the Juneau Icefield Research Program. It’s partially so I can have a personal record of my summer, but I also want to share my personal experience on JIRP with friends and family and anyone else who is interested! It’s especially difficult to talk with people about JIRP because I’m currently abroad, far away from my family and close friends, so it’s helpful to be able to share my experience, even if it’s just virtually. Plus, I think writing about JIRP will help me process my summer and start to figure out how I want to incorporate everything that I learned into my education moving forward. So I’m going to start now by writing a little bit about experiencing such a beautiful place.

During our eight weeks on the program, we hiked and skied 80 miles from the Lemon Creek Glacier just outside Juneau across the icefield all the way to Atlin Lake in British Columbia. The traverse days were easily some of the best days of my entire life, but they only occupied about one week of the trip. We stopped for about 2 weeks at each of the three major camps located in very different places in the icefield. There we would study and practice glacier safety, help maintain JIRP’s long term GPS and mass-balance records, work on our personal research projects, listen to lectures and just generally explore the amazing place that is the Juneau Icefield. The approximately 30 of us who completed the entire traverse grew quite close as a group, holding parties and holiday celebrations and spending many nights sitting out together under the stars, enjoying the incredible sunsets and searching for the northern lights. We learned and explored and discovered together, and it was so empowering to be constantly surrounded by people as excited and as enthralled by the icefield as I was. I loved nearly every moment of the summer (even the hours when I was very cold, wet and tired and far from camp), and it was easily the very best summer of my life.

Though I have many, many favorite parts of the summer, I think perhaps the most special and unique part of JIRP was simply experiencing life on the Juneau Icefield. In the past two years I’ve been to a lot of beautiful mountainous places, but none compare to the magnificence of the icefield. Ice and mountains as far as you can see, with nuanced shades of blue and white that not even a professional photographer can capture. Crevasses merely a few feet wide at the surface that expose huge caverns of ice and air below. Sunsets lighting up the sky with every color in the spectrum, turning the snow green and then pink and then blue again. Water bluer than the sky pooling in crevasses or flowing over the surface in melt streams before plunging hundreds of feet to the base of the glacier in a terrifying moulin. Even the days we spent in complete white-outs were somehow exciting (at least initially), as there’s nothing quite like the sensation of skiing a slight downhill, moving fairly quickly even as your fogging glasses slowly lower your visibility from a few feet to barely even the ground in front of you. The daily changes in the glacier meant that every day brought new adventures, new chances to experience the beauty of the icefield.

On JIRP, it was extremely important to never let yourself get too content with the world around you. I tried to always look at the scenery around me like I was seeing it for the first time, trying to maintain that sense of wonder and awe. The icefield humbles you, overwhelms you and yet also inspires you and reminds you of the human connection to nature. Its change is an indicator of the immense impact humans can have on the natural world, yet the icefield also impresses upon you the enormous resilience of wilderness places. It is nearly impossible to leave JIRP without an intense connection to the icefield and a desire to do more to protect and understand these beautifully wild areas. Perhaps no one better described this sensation than JIRP founder and director Dr. Maynard Miller in the legendary quote shared above. Dr. Miller founded JIRP upon the principles of the Emersonian Triangle: books, nature and action. By both experiencing and studying the icefield, JIRPers are fully immersed and connected to the icefield. This combination of books and action with the truly incredible and immense nature of the icefield is truly what makes JIRP such a powerful and inspiring experience.

This unreal scenery was at times hard to capture, but I thought I’d start by sharing some of my favorite pictures I took this summer. If you click on the mosaic of images at the start of the post, it will show you all of the pictures in larger size. Thanks for reading and please check back for more posts about JIRP!

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and here we go!

In 24 hours I’ll be in Alaska… what? I’ve been counting down the days for so long now I can barely believe that it’s finally here! It’s also crazy to think that I have only one more night in North Carolina until December (though considering the fact that I’ll be heading to the airport around 3:30 am tomorrow, I’m not even sure it counts as a night!). I’m feeling relatively prepared, and though the intense excitement for my six months of travel has now turned into a lot of intense nerves, when I board my first flight tomorrow, I’m confident I’ll be fully excited and ready to get there. Unfortunately it takes three flights and over 12 hours of travel to get to Juneau; I’ll be flying from Raleigh to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Seattle and finally Seattle to Juneau, arriving at 2:15 pm Alaska time. Fortunately, most JIRPers don’t arrive until Friday, so I’ll have the first day to relax, sleep, explore Juneau, and get my bindings mounted to my skis (you can’t exactly do that in North Carolina!). Then, on Friday, I’ll start JIRP and finally get to meet all of the people I’ll be spending eight weeks with! Should be an exciting next few days.

So I likely won’t be able to update at all while I’m in Alaska, so this may be my last post until I return. Fortunately though, we will be updating the JIRP blog via satellite phone and USBs delivered by helicopter! So, for any and all information about what I’m up to during the summer, check out our JIRP 2013 Expedition blog! It’s juneauicefield.com/blog, so fairly easy to remember. Also, you can follow JIRP on facebook, as lots of info and updates will be posted there and even our youtube channel (we’ll be posting videos occasionally!). I’ll be doing all personal contact via snail mail (which is particularly snail-like for us considering we have to wait for the occasional visit of a helicopter to send and receive it). But, I’d love to receive mail so write me! I promise I’ll write back (well, until I run out of stamps):

Sarah Cooley

c/o JIRP

P.O. Box 20298

Juneau, AK 99801

So for what may be my last blog post for a while, here’s seven things I’m thinking about for my upcoming summer!

  1. Learning about glaciers: As much as I love skiing, living off the grid, hiking and being in the mountains, the main reason I’m doing JIRP is because I’m genuinely really interested in glaciers. Glaciers have shaped some of the most incredible landscapes on the planet (Yosemite, Norwegian fjords, Patagonia, etc), record the history of our climate and represent a feasible way to see geologic change on a human time scale (if you’re not familiar with geologic time, let me tell ya, it still blows my mind every day. For geologists, 1 million years old is very recent…). And to top it off, they are fantastically beautiful and quite sensitive to changes in the climate. I’m super excited to have the opportunity to not only learn about glaciers but also to do it in a hands-on, field camp type experience!
  2. Do I have the right stuff? The equipment list for JIRP is notoriously difficult and extremely daunting. Unlike NOLS, you cannot buy/rent anything when you arrive in Alaska, so I had to find everything on the list’s 12 pages either online or here in NC. It’s quite comprehensive, including backcountry skis, boots, ice axe, crampons, pack and sleeping bag, harness, ropes and basic climbing gear, full Gore-tex rain gear, a seriously intense first aid kit, and a whole lot of clothing and boots and other stuff. It’s honestly taken me a significant portion of May and June just trying to get it all together. I’ve been to REI so many times that the employees actually know me and will say to me, ‘oh, you’re that girl who’s really into glaciers, right?’ I’m not sure whether I should be proud or embarrassed! Fortunately, I’ve been able to get advice from a recent UNC grad who attended JIRP two years ago (and is working on it this summer!), but it’s still been quite challenging! I’m now packed and ready to go (even though I can barely fit everything into my bag!), so now I’m just hoping that I brought everything I need and that all my equipment will work properly over the course of the summer.
  3. Skiing: I grew up skiing all the time in the winter in Maine, mostly Nordic (cross-country) skiing but also doing some alpine skiing on the weekends. In high school, Nordic was absolutely my favorite sport. We had a full 5k groomed ski loop at St. Paul’s (well, we did when there was snow) and so I skied basically every day in the winter for the entirely of my high school experience. Unfortunately, when I decided to go to UNC, I had to accept that I would no longer be able to ski quite like I used to. So amazingly, considering all the time I’ve spent skiing in my life, I haven’t stepped on skis since my last high school race during winter of my senior year. I miss it a lot, and one of my priorities after college is to move to a place where I’ll be able to ski regularly in the winter. But, fortunately, I do get to spend this summer skiing every day! It’s a different kind of skiing than I’m used to, as we use backcountry skis. We’ll be ‘classic’ skiing, but we’re using thick, metal-edged skis with fishtails that provide the most traction and safety on a glacier. I’m also excited to hopefully learn how to telemark this summer; apparently some of the camps have small hills to downhill ski on nearby!
  4. No contact: I was initially nervous when I heard we’ll have extremely limited contact for the majority of the summer, but now I’m extremely excited. I love that I get to leave my computer at home and won’t have to deal with online stuff. Even not having cell service will be freeing! While it’s a bit challenging to have no contact right before I leave to study abroad in Europe, I’m relying on my mother to make it work. Regardless though, it brings me back to camp when I was younger when we only had snail mail, and getting letters and packages was so exciting. Since we’ll be able to blog and we’ll have occasional helicopter deliveries, we won’t be totally out of the loop, but it will make contact difficult. Though I’m sad I won’t be able to talk to family and friends at all, I’ve always spent my summers somewhat or completely out of touch with internet and other capabilities and I’m grateful this summer will be no different.
  5. The scenery: I’ve looked through numerous pictures of past JIRP expeditions to learn more about the program, and I must say, the scenery is absolutely incredible and completely different from anything I’ve ever seen. While I’ve been to Alaska before, the scenery I’ll be experiencing on this trip will be wildly different than the beautiful but relatively tame Talkeetna Mountains I hiked through last time around. It’s hard to believe that this area with almost no color, just white, gray, blue, black and brown, is found in North America, not really all that far away! When I first looked at the pictures taken from the heart of the icefield, I swear, it really looked like Antarctica or at least somewhere in the far north. While Juneau is definitely considered ‘way up north’, it actually is at the same latitude as Copenhagen and other parts of Scandinavia/Northern Europe. The weather system combined with the altitude of the nearby mountains creates this huge icefield despite the somewhat moderate latitude. I’ll do my best to take pictures that somewhat convey the magnitude and beauty of the icefield, but I somehow think you have to see it to really feel it!
  6. The food: So from what I’ve heard about JIRP, the food is quite terrible and is probably the worst part of the summer. Now, the food wasn’t exactly good in Peru, but if I ever got hungry/sick of eating plain white rice, I could go to the market or to a restaurant and buy some decent food. Unfortunately, I won’t have this luxury on JIRP. Our registration packet included a section on dietary restrictions that basically said, ‘we don’t allow you to have dietary restrictions’. A common JIRP lunch would be a sandwich consisting of spam and bread. Ick. I’m going to do my best to eat all of the food, but it may be difficult at times! Here’s hoping being in a remote environment with no other options makes all food taste good!
  7. The fun: JIRP has a lot of really wonderful traditions. They celebrate most holidays while we’re on the icefield, naturally celebrating the fourth of July and anyone’s birthday, but also celebrating other holidays that don’t occur during the summer. There’s often JIRP Christmas, usually on July 25th, JIRP Halloween, JIRP Thanksgiving, etc, and most people make some attempt to dress up (which can be quite interesting given the extremely limited supply of clothing). There are also polar dips in the ocean/lakes (which in Alaska basically means swimming year round), midnight soccer, shovel sledding, sing-a-longs, games and music. JIRP’s definitely not all work!

All my stuff:

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Final product! The pack is really a lot bigger than it looks, and the ski bag is also stuffed full of clothes!

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Thanks for reading! And be sure to follow the Juneau Blog for updates in the future! Also, for more info, check out this awesome video that gives a great overview of JIRP!

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