The Bomber Traverse
I love walking on glaciers. I love feeling as if I've walked my way to another planet. And I love how a living, shifting, moving force feels below my feet. The uncertainty of it all--a thick sheet of ice supporting my weight--is a vivid reminder of how small I am, and of how powerful the Earth is.
(I hesitate to share the whole story of our traverse, because we were so happy that we hadn't read very detailed trip reports before heading out. I caution anybody thinking about doing the Bomber Traverse to stop and think before reading... there are a lot of "spoilers" in this post.)
I just returned from four days and three nights spent in the Talkeetna Mountains with my dear friend Taylor. The mountains we walked through were so different from what we are used to up here in Denali, and we spent a fair amount of time discussing how wonderful it is to explore Alaska. The state is so huge, and we have so many opportunities to explore different terrain. The steep, granite faces of the Talkeetnas were treats for our eyes, and the giant fields of boulders we climbed through challenged our legs and our morale. We reveled in the challenges nearly as much as the views. In a way, it felt like a release just to be somewhere new.
Our first day of walking awarded us with white-out cloud conditions pretty much as soon as we left the trail to find our first pass. With about 30 feet of visibility, we poked around boulder fields where we thought the pass should be, cursing the weather and cursing ourselves for failing to navigate perfectly. The mystery of the storm was intriguing, though. We were both in these particular mountains for the first time, wondering, as blind people would, what was around us? Both above and below were mysteries. Left and right were mysteries. I had a feeling that I knew which way North was, and Taylor's compass confirmed. And then, right as we were discussing the concept of "North," the clouds parted to the North for a split second, and our pass became visible. I wish I had thought to shoot some photos or videos in the whiteout, but I was too frustrated and my hands were too cold. I might have gotten one or two film shots, but I won't know for a couple of weeks.
After crossing the first pass, we had the Snowbird Glacier in full view. The clouds teased us, moving in and out of our way, allowing us to see partway down the glacier, then the full glacier, then nothing at all. We only had a short walk on the ice to reach our home for the night: the Snowbird Hut.
The next day's walk was less eventful, with gray-but-friendly skies allowing us to walk without rain gear or gloves for most of the morning. Some challenging creek-crossings and a fair bit of bushwhacking got us to the Bomber Hut by lunch. As we approached the hut from the valley, both Taylor and I were struck by how foreign it all felt. Taylor said she felt like she was in Iceland; I felt as if I were in Norway. Isn't it a wonderful feeling, to be so transported? The sun graciously shone on us while we shoveled some calories in our mouths at the hut and discussed plans for the afternoon. I'm a bit embarrassed to admit my defeat, but I felt physically beat. Two long weeks of work with no days off and some emotional personal challenges had left me slow and slogging on our trek. Although my mind was fully in it, my body just wasn't keeping up. As much as I was enjoying myself, I didn't know if it would be smart of me to cover as many miles as we had planned. We also discussed the possibility of our passes being socked in the next day. We knew that Backdoor Gap was a challenging pass, and we wondered if we would want to hike there with low visibility. So the plan developed and evolved, and we decided to do some side explorations and possibly head out via the Bomber Glacier the next morning.
Our side exploration took us up a tundra ridge, past countless blue-green glacier lakes, and towards a valley that took our breath away. According to the map, we should be looking down on a giant glacier. Instead, we saw silty, milky glacial lakes dotting a moraine below us. The fingers of the once-massive ice sheet are so far receded that they now all hang separately above the valley. Clutching the steep granite walls that hold them, they now hover above a river of rocks. The world was still, quiet and peaceful. We took in the view with deep appreciation, and then decided to pick our way down the moraine and back towards the biggest glacier. In the moment, it was hard not to feel sad. These massive forces, these shapers of the landscape, are disappearing. Melting into the earth, little by little, year by year. I bet some of the glaciers we looked at and walked on during this trip will be gone in ten to fifteen years. I tried not to think about it for too long, and I tried not to get too attached.
As we made our way back to the hut for dinner, I felt content. My legs were feeling like jello and my back was aching like it never has before, but my eyes were darting from yellow-green tundra to turquoise lakes to granite boulders to milky glacier streams. This landscape was truly an incarnation of my dreams. We were lucky enough to have the peace and solitude of the Bomber Hut to ourselves on a Saturday night. Good company, hot food, and a good night's sleep are not always guaranteed in the backcountry. I felt lucky as hell to have all three.
On our third day in the mountains, we started our walk towards home. It's always hard to leave the backcountry.... and this time, we didn't. Despite the plan to cut our trip a day short, we decided to carry on. The sun was starting to show through, and we had just passed through the most amazingly perfect tundra-glacier-creek bed I have ever stood in. I didn't take any photos of it, but I did capture a short video, after blissfully zoning out and mentally disappearing into it, wondering if it was the most beautiful ground I have ever stood on in my life. Rejuvenated by the experience, I started to regret our climb towards the Bomber Glacier, wondering if we should be climbing towards the Penny Royal Glacier instead. I made my doubts known to Taylor, who was, of course, more than happy to change plans and change our route mid-morning. We sure as hell made the day harder for ourselves by placing a field of car-sized boulders between us and the Penny Royal Glacier and Backdoor Gap, but we slowly and somewhat-surely (with many minor slips) made our way towards our new goal.
After assessing Penny Royal Glacier and planning our best route up and over it, we made our way towards Backdoor Gap. The clouds lifted enough that we could see our route, and we were thankful. Once on the glacier, it was clear that we were in a no-fall zone. The ice fell off steeply below us, and while I snapped photos, I had to be careful not to move too quickly with my cameras for fear of inciting vertigo. At one point, at the exact same moment, Taylor and I lifted our heads with surprise and exclaimed "Is that an airplane!?" as we thought the roar of a jet became audible. As we realized that it was, in fact, and echo of the roar of water rushing under the ice below our feet, we put our heads back down and picked up the pace for a few minutes, agreeing how spooky that spot was. Nature sure has a way of reminding me how insignificant I am sometimes. As we reached the top of the glacier, we eyed our route up Backdoor Gap. It's a steep climb, maybe 20-25 vertical feet of scrambling, with the glacier just below. We started to clamber slowly up the pass, one by one. As I stopped at the bottom of the scramble to take a picture, Taylor crested the pass and exclaimed with so much fervor, "OH MY GOD! OH, my god, dude. You're going to be so glad we did this!!" "I already am," I assured her. But she was right. The view from the Backdoor Gap is the stuff of dreams.
One thousand feet below us sat the Mint Hut: tiny, and fierce red against the autumn-tinged landscape. Above it, two turquoise lakes sat calmly at the foot of the Mint Glacier, which feeds them. A 300-foot waterfall cascaded down the valley to the little Susitna River, about two thousand feet below our feet. The rush and roar of the fall was the only other sound than that of the wind. A thousand feet of steep boulder field sat between us and our home for the night, but I don't think either of us really cared. It was cold out, and my body was screaming, but my chest was burning with a love for adventure and for nature and for friends to share it all with. Some grunts and huffs may have escaped me as we picked our way down, but I would not have traded that day for any amount of rest and relaxation. As we approached the Mint Hut, we decided that it was our favorite hut of the trip. We laughed at ourselves for saying that about each hut of the trip. We applauded ourselves for going the "backwards route," which was obviously the superior direction to trek. We thanked our lucky stars that neither of us had had any particular expectations or visions of what to expect along the way, so that each view and each reward was so deeply surprising and wonderful. After dinner on the grass, we went for a walk to one of the glacier lakes. Upon our return, a couple had arrived at the hut for the night. Since we were too tired to be social, Taylor suggested the genius idea of sleeping out on the tundra that night. We never really get a chance to sleep out in Denali, so we set up our pads and bags on the soft ground and snuggled in for the night.
Sleeping without a shelter isn't the most restful thing in the world, as far as hours of sleep go. But it is restful for the mind, and it is restorative for the spirit. After the most lovely, cold, and clear night, we drank hot coffee and then set our path for the car. As soon as we were packed up and on our way, the rain began. We thanked it for waiting until we were walking in rain gear, rather than opening up on us as we slept. I suppose that there isn't much to say about the slog back to the car, besides the fact that I was lucky to have a friend like Taylor to share it with. Her patience and kindness towards my slow and achey pace were much appreciated. We really haven't known each other all that long, but almost all of our time together has been in the backcountry. We shared wonderful conversation, and continued to enjoy the valley views and the wildflowers despite being wet, tired, and nearly out of food. Twelve miles later, we were back at the car and en route for home.
Trips like this are why I live in and why I love Alaska. I love working hard for a reward. I love covering human-powered miles. I love being miles and miles from the next road, the next town. While we forewent a bit of the wilderness-feel of Denali to do this particular trek, the views and challenges along the way were more than reward enough for the two of us.