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Published: February 13th 2010
I didn't know if we could do it. I'd been looking at aerial photos of South Crillon Glacier where it meets Crillon Lake for a couple years. The right side looked maybe doable but the left side was not clearly visible in any of the photos. Problem with the right side was the big crevasses in the middle of the steep glacier. The idea was to cross from Crillon Lake over South and North Crillon Glaciers to the back end of Lituya Bay. I'd been on North Crillon the year before, so I knew it was possible to get on it, and down from it, along the east side. The float plane was scheduled to pick us up in 4 days. If the pilot couldn't find us in Lituya Bay he would look for us at Crillon Lake.
We camped on the east side of the lake with a nice view of the terminus of South Crillon Glacier. In the morning we crossed in the pack rafts and started up along the western edge of the glacier. There should be a name for this type of terrain because it is nasty work. Where a glacier slides along its valley walls
the footing is treacherous. The steep-walled mountain is constantly sluffing rock, big and small, onto the edge of the glacier. At these low elevations the glacier ice is melting constantly, so the rock at the edge is always loose. Every footstep is taken with the anticipation that the backpack-sized boulder beneath your foot may shift. Many do not but enough do that vigilance must be constant. And sometimes there's not much rock, just grit on glacier ice, which can be icy slick.
Nate hikes a lot in southeast Alaska and has distance-time estimates he uses to predict time between points. 2 miles in an hour on easy beach and muskeg, 2.5 miles in an hour downhill in open terrain, 1 mile an hour in difficult bushwacking conditions. He has a new one now. It took us 6 hours to go about 2 miles along the loose rock edge of South Crillon Glacier. We camped on a snow field under a low cliff right on the edge, the tent carefully placed against the cliff where only marble sided chunks of rocks peppered the snow. Nate spent the clear night on a flattish boulder out on the surface of the glacier,
Desolation Valley with North Crillon Glacier Below
The head of Lituya Bay, sealevel, center left; Mt Fairweather, 15,300 feet, upper right
away from the rocky slope.
Next morning we continued along the edge. We topped the height of land and hiked along-side North Crillon Glacier. Eventually we had enough of the loose rock and headed out on to the glacier. This is iffy because crevasse fields can stop us cold. We had crampons but do not carry technical gear, so we are limited.
We got through to some flattish ice and actually walked up glacier a bit for a late lunch on a prominent medial moraine hill. The flat ice and medial moraines were easier walking than the edge and we made it close to the terminus by night fall.
I had hoped we could get down to the flood plain from the middle of the moraine. In 2009 the outlet along the western edge of North Crillon Glacier flowed more or less straight out across the flood plain. We'd paddled up the eastern outlet at high tide and walked along the entire glacier face to the western outlet. But as we descended North Crillon and arrived at the terminus it was a different world in 2010. From the ice we could see a sweeping braid of river
channels across the entire outwash plain, curving from the western outlet across the plain with multiple braids mingling with the outwash river from the eastern edge. Leaving the pack I surveyed closer to the edge and found the bulk of the outflow wasn't even visible from the moraines, it was smack up-against the face of the glacier, eventually splitting away and flowing into the eastern river. No decent there... This was a problem. All the water from the western outlet merged with the eastern outlet, producing a torrent of white water against the eastern shore. We'd paddled up the east river the year before! Studying it with the binoculars some of it now looked like class 3. Great... If we couldn't make it to Lituya we'd have to backtrack all the way to Crillon Lake, in one day.
Typically glacier outflow rivers are low in the morning and higher as the day warms and the glacier melts. We figured it was a bad time to try to run the river, so we camped on the glacier near the eastern outflow and got up early. The river was lower, the tide was higher. We improvised life vests by belting our
Thermarests around our chests, put our rain coats on and zipped tight, then headed out. We hit some class 2 but the pack rafts came through just fine. Sorry, no photos, I was busy...
The panorama shows Mt. Crillon on the left and Cairn Mt on the right, looking up South Crillon Glacier from Desolation Valley.
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