Bagley Icefield

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Moonrise over the Chugach Range.

Flying into the Wrangells.

Our first glimpse of the Bagley!

Legendary bush pilot Paul Claus

Kiting in paradise.

Camp 1 on the Bagley.

Day 1, April 4th, 2013

With clear skies over the Chugach, Jason and I left Eagle River at 4am to meet up with the pilot from Ultimate Thule Lodge at the Chitina airstrip.  We had a good feeling that we'd get to fly all the way into our drop off point because of the clear skies.  With temps in the 50s in Eagle River, it was a rude awakening to arrive at the Chitina airstrip with temps well below zero and a 20 mph wind cooling it down even more. With time to spare, we made last minute gear adjustments and decisions and even had time to catch a nap before legendary bush pilot, Paul Claus showed up at 2pm in his Cessna 185 to pick us up.

The flight from Chitina to the Bagley Icefield is nothing short of amazing. We are determined to be dropped off near the Canadian border near the base of Mt. St. Elias, the fourth highest peak in North America at 18,008'.  I've spent a fair bit of time in Wrangell-St. Elias, but I was blown away with how immense and remote the Wrangells really are.  And for the first time we got a glimpse of the icefield(which seems endless from the air) and made careful note of several large crevasse fields.

Jason was kind enough to let me sit in front, and have a headset so I could talk to Paul.  I guess it only seems fair because he was in front on the way to the Harding two years ago.  Paul has done some really hardcore expedtions all over the world, oddly enough, to many of the same places I've been, and we had quite a few mutual friends as a result  He's one of the best bush pilots anywhere and it was a real treat to finally meet him. 

We landed right at the base of table mountain, directly across from Mt. St Elias and within a few miles of the Canadian border.  We were all surprised by a breeze blowing across the icefield from the east.  We said our goodbyes with Paul and wasted no time getting kites in the air....me on a 15m Ozone Frenzy and Jason on his 19m Flysurfer.

The kiting turned out to be epic.  Clear skis, good wind, and in an hour and a half we cover almost 9 miles, easily.  The Bagley is nearly 5 miles across here and we have the place to ourselves, so we get to feeling quite small amongst these giant peaks.  The wind dies and we set up camp and have everything in order by dark.  Snow melted for water and food, tent set up, gear stowed, sleds secured.  This is our first day and night out, so it will take some time to get our traveling and camping systems down, and find our rhythm.   A few hours before sunset we both comment on how quickly the temperature is dropping and sure enough, it's already -10F!  Before the night is out it hits -20F. 

 

Loading the 185 in Chitina.

Endless icefield, a kiters paradise.

Mt. St. Elias, 18,008'

Jason and Troy finally on the Bagley.

Flying big kites in front of Mt. St. Elias.

A beautiful sunset, but -10F!

Another fine day kiting with Mt. St. Elias in the rear view mirror!

Pulling sleds across the ice.

Another perfect day with good wind, sunny skies and an unbelievable campsite.

Day 2, April 5th.

The wind blows all night long and we wonder if we shouldn't be traveling at night.  At best guess it's a steady 20 mph.  It's still cold (-20F) and clear at 8 am and we calculate the windchill......-48F!  At that sort of temperature we would be risking frostbite, so we decide to wait for the sun to warm things up a bit before we break camp. 

By 10 am we have the big kites in the air again and are able to kite for a little under 2 hours before the wind dies.  The wind is very fickle here and we try to utilize it at every opportunity, but sometimes we are tricked into thinking it will be good and it's not.  I try doubling the lenght of my lines, hoping that the wind a little higher on the icefield will be stronger.  No such luck. 

It' warm and sunny and we both agree it's pretty relaxing to be lounging in the sun and gazing at these beautiful mountains.  We get in an hour nap before we harness up and begin dragging our 135 pound sleds across the ice, headed west.   We crank out 3 miles before setting up camp, anticipating the inevitable severe drop in temperature again.

Although we don't really love pulling the sleds, we prefer to use the wind, sometimes it is just what is needed.  Jason comments while setting up camp, that walking really allows one to think everything through and organize ones thoughts.  I couldn't agree more. 

We both appreciate another amazing day on the Bagley.  We get in 13 miles kiting and 3 miles walking.  We are now  25 miles from where Paul dropped us off and we both enjoy the change in scenery as move down the icefield and soak up another stellar sunset.

Making miles across the icefield,

Jason organizing thoughts on the Bagley.

Another sunset to savor.

Manhauling on a good surface.

Jason hiding from the sun.

Taking a break from manhauling.

Day 3, April 6th

Still under clear skies, chilly temps(-10F at 8am), and no wind, we pack up camp and begin man hauling our sleds west.  We actually have a good surface for this, but after several hours we make a few miles, but are quickly loosing enthusiasm.  We decide to stray from straight down the icefield and veer towards the mountains, in hopes of climbing and maybe skiing down one or several of these spectacular peaks.  About an hour into it and a fair bit closer to the mountains, I begin to see the tell- tale signs of crevasess.  As it turns out, to our utter amazement, we have walked right into the crevasse field that we both so carefully noted from the air.  Unreal.  Fortunatly I figured out what was going on early to keep us out of trouble.  About that time, a slight wind came up from the east.  So we decide to put up the big kites and hopefully use wind power to get us out of the crevasse zone. This proved to be no easy task, as we had to tack back up wind AND up hill to get back out to the middle of the icefield, out of danger. 

This ends up being a lot of work, diving and looping the kites to keep them powered up creating pull.  After several frustrating hours, just near a big plateau we get the perfect wind for the big kites and it propels us up and over and back out of the danger zone.  From then on we have plenty of wind and really lay down some miles.  At one point Jason decides it is getting too strong for the 19m and we decide to switch to smaller kites before it becomes dangerous.  We switch out to the 7m Ozone Frenzy's and it ends up being the perfect kite for the increasing wind speed.  We have visions of putting in some serious miles before sunset in 3 hours. 

We make 3 miles in a half hour and the wind totally dies down to nothing.  With clouds building on the horizon in several directions, we know the weather is about to change.  We set up camp, melt snow, have dinnner, and crawl into the tent just as the first snow flakes start to fall.  Things are cooling off quickly but with an impending storm, we don't expect it to get too cold over night.

Total for the day, 15 miles!

An impending storm on the horizon.

Troy hiding from the sun.

Sunset with a low pressure system moving in.

Digging out after the first night of the strom.

 

Buried after the storm.

Jason looking for sun!

Day 4, April 7th

The wind picks up in the middle of the night.  By 2am it's blowing hard enough to wake us up. By 6am, I'm starting to wonder if the tent is going to weather the storm.  It's blowing around 50mph and gusting a bit higher. It has been snowing all night and we are getting some drifting around the tent.  I have the utmost faith in this tent, as it's been all over the world and withstood extreme conditions.  However, when the tent begins to layover on its side, it's time to take action.  We were both pretty nervous for the last few hours before daybreak.  I felt we were riding a fine line between something really going wrong with the wind that we were experiencing.  By 7am, I left Jason in the tent as an anchor, and I went outside to check on the anchors holding the tent in. 

Everything looked resonably good but I knew the tent wouldn't stay stading much longer, I had to get to work immediatly.  With gusts hitting over 60 mph and knocking me off my feet, I set to work building snow block walls on the east and south side of the tent...where the wind was coming from.  After seveal hours I had a four foot wall that I felt would hold us until things let up a bit.

Fortunatly I went out when I did.  The wind picked up and we had 16 hours of sustained winds of 60 mph with gusts to 80 mph!! Enduring that sort of storm is a bit unnerving to say the least.  With the big gusts, we both just look at each other and wonder what might happen.  By late afternoon the wind is gone.  I spend several hours playing in the snow like a kid....building more walls around the tent.   Without much to do, except be in the tent, we use breaks in the storm for cooking food, melting water, digging out the drifting snow, and playing gin rummy. It is quite warm out and everything is quite wet. 

By nightfall, there is still no visibility, and light snowfall.

Tentbound.

More digging out.

Deep snow and drifts.

Jason ended up winning at Gin Rummy, 6245 to 5410.

Day 5, April 8th

Tent bound.  Zero visibility and a foot of new snow.  We spend three hours digging out the tent, resecuring the anchors, refortifying the existing wall, and building new sections of wall around the tent.  The barometer continues to drop so we only expect things to get worse.

We get a call off to our friend Dave Calkins, via the satphone, to relay our GPS coordinates and get a weather report.  No good news except more of the same.  The gin rummy continues and by 6pm there is a full gale blowing outside...from exactly the opposite direction!  It looks to be another long, sleepless night. 

After every trip out of the tent, everything was wet and snow covered everything.

With no visibility, our tent gets lost on the icefield quite quickly.

A blue hole and a bit of sun.

Survival kiting in strong, variable conditions.

Day 6, April 9th

Fortunatly I had the foresight to build a solid wall on the other side of the tent, as the storm ragged all night long from the west.  We talk about the fine line between death and survival out here and we both try to sleep, with that on our mind. 

By morning the wind is gone and we spend several hours digging out and refortifying our fortress.  It's +25F and there is a bunch of new snow with deep drifts and sastrugi all about.  The snow continues to fall and pile up all day as random gust fronts come through and rock the tent as the gin rummy continues. 

So far we have between 3' and 4' from this storm!  At 3pm Jason goes out to have a look around and yells in that he can sorta see the mountains. It breaks up a bit and the sun comes out.  We seem to be in the only blue hole on the icefield.  Everywhere else is still socked in with clouds.   The wind in the distance is kicking up spindrift...commonly called "dust devils".....out here I guess they'd be called "snow devils"! 

I decide to get out the 7m and have a session of full on "survival kiting" as gusts come howling through camp in all directions.  After a half hour and several 1 minute rides of sheer terror, it seems prudent to not have a kite in the air. 

We retire to the tent before dark as the temperatures drop, visibility goes to nil, and the wind returns.  What a place!!

With the storm came warm temps and icecicles!

Heavily fortified camp.

Snow Devils.

Our fortress with walls surrounding the tent.

Day 7, April 10th

It snows at least another foot overnight. The wind is fickle all night and throughout the day.  It will blow and rock the tent and then drop to nothing.  We spend several hours digging out and refortifying our fortress.  We spend the day reading, eating and playing cards. 

I get a call into Ellie at Ultimate Thule.  Another storm coming in after this one.  If there is a break in the weather on the 12th they'll pick us up then.  If not, we'll be here until the storm breaks enough for the pilots to retrieve us.

Boiling water in paradise.

Our walls are so high you can't even see the tent!

Our final camp.

Our campsite disappeared quicking against the vastness of this place.

Flying low over glacial icebergs.

Day 8, April 11th

It's calm all night and we get about 6" of new snow.  By mid-morning there is a slight breeze and I gear up and try to kite with the 15m to no avail.  I get in a few short runs, but with no visibility, and inconsistent wind, it's pointless.  We retreat to the tent for gin rummy. After four days of being tent bound with little to no visibility both our psyches are starting to feel it. 

By late afternoon, we are able to see a horizon in the snow and slowly the mountains begin to appear.  It looks like the storm could move back in at any moment, with big cloud fronts all about.  But there is a light wind and things continue to clear off.  Jason decides to put up his 19m kite, and lo and behold the wind picks up and he really is cruising around camp.  I decide to get out my 15m, when he decides it's too strong for the 19m.  He puts up his 11m and we both have a great kite session as the weather continues to lift, the sun comes out, and we begin to see the mountains. 

I decide to call Ellie to let her know things are breaking up and it may be flyable in a few hours and most certainly in the morning.  She answers and says the Super Cubs took off 45 minutes ago to drop some climbers and they were then headed to get us...and would be to the icefield in a half hour!  The forecast is calling for another storm front the next day, so they want to grab us while they can. 

By the time we have our gear packed the two SuperCubs are on the ground and we load up.  All gear goes with Jay(Paul's son) and we go with Ben(Paul's son in law).  Both exceptional pilots with a wealth of exerpeince in the Wrangells.  Because it is so late, we'll spend a night at Ultimate Thule lodge and fly out in the morning. The hour flight to the lodge is nothing short of spectacular!

Once at the lodge, we sort out gear, settle into the bunkhouse, and have a late dinner with the pilots, crew, and two climbers from Portland.  We spend the balance of the  night talking with the pilots and climbers about various expeditions, paragliding, kiting, and future plans.  It feels great to be in the same room with like minded people, looking for adventure, deep in the Wrangell-St. Elias mountains.

 

A great session as the storm is breaking up.

The Crevasse field we nearly walked into.d

 

Taking in the views from the Super Cub.

Flying through the Wrangells.

Ultimate Thule Lodge, WOW, what a place!

Day 9, April 12th

By 11am we are off the ground heading back towards Chitina.  The 45 minute flight is spectacular to say the least.  We land in Chitina, pack up gear, and head towards Eagle River.

Expedition complete.

We covered 40 miles with kites and felt privileged to have the opportunity, resources, and skill set to be able to play in such an amazing environment.  Truely another classic Alaskan adventure.

Another chilly day in Chitina, expedition complete.

        

The right side of the map is the Alaska-Canadian border.  The line indicates our kite track and distance covered. 

Pre-Expedition

 

February/March 2013

Gear and food are starting to pile up in my living room in preparation for an April departure.

Like all great expeditions, this one started with a wild idea, a close friend, and a map.

Of course a strong desire to explore some new territory, be self sufficient , travel under kite power, and the possibility of suffering are all mandatory. 

With an open ended idea of being dropped off on the eastern edge of the icefield, near the Canadian border and seeing how far we can get in two weeks time is quite appealing.  Kites and the right wind can do amazing things.  But like all Alaska adventures there are always a few surpises and nothing ever goes as planned. This should prove to be a classic Alaskan backcountry adventure.

Our flight departure deep into the Wrangells is confirmed with Ultimate Thule for April 4th.  With any luck, the weather will be clear and sunny and we'll be on the icefield before lunch.

With less than 2 weeks until departure, final preparations are underway.  Physical training is at its peak and all equipment is checked and double checked before final packing. 

Food packing is just about complete as well.  A few last items to add before final pack up and departure.