Dispatch from the Kenai: Nunatacks, Bergschrunds, and Bears

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | July 5, 2017      
Ice to ocean: The Harding Icefield and Bear Glacier.

Ice to ocean: the Harding Icefield and Bear Glacier.

It’s that time of year. If you want to go backcountry skiing in the Northern Hemisphere, you’ll probably have to work for it. Time for heavy packs, light skis, long walks, and perhaps even issues with animals for whom you’re a food source.

Plenty of winter left in the Kenai!

Plenty of winter left in the Kenai!

The Kenai Peninsula juts into the North Pacific south of Anchorage. The peninsula splits the Cook Inlet from the Gulf of Alaska, carrying the southern end of the Chugach Mountains with it. On the eastern side of the Kenai, epic amounts of moisture become snow, allowing the Harding Icefield to stretch over 1100 square miles between the fishing towns of Seward and Homer. The peaks only rise to between 4,000 and 6,000 ft, but the glacier outflows at sea level.

This place is big, notoriously wet, and one of the final vestiges of the ice age. It is changing fast, but for now a winter refuge is up there through the summer.

Nick Vincent and I headed onto the Harding last week for summer skiing, exploration, and fun.

Pretty fun place to be.

Pretty fun place to be.

The northern end of the Icefield is easily reached via the Harding Icefield trail — a pleasant and popular track from a Kenai Fjords National Park Visitor Center up alongside the Exit Glacier. The trail gains about 3500 ft over 4.5 miles: a reasonably low price to pay to get near endless summer access to snow.

Vince contemplating endless options in the Kenai Mountains.

Vince contemplating vast options in the Kenai Mountains.

Slow to gear up, we didn’t actually leave the trailhead until after 6:30 pm. While I caution against such reckless abandon, this time of year Alaska doesn’t really get dark and there was a special quality to venturing out onto the icefield in the middle of the night. No headlamps needed.

We camped on the lower shoulder of a nunatak and had a few stellar days of non-stop skiing before it began raining.

Turns to the tent!

Turns to the tent!

It was hot, sunny, and exhausting. From up high you could see the ocean to one side and ice to the horizon on the other.

The nunataks up on the Harding were some of the most beautiful places I have ever skied. The turns were pretty good too!

The nunataks up on the Harding were some of the most beautiful places I have ever skied. The turns were good too!

We skied until midnight. We managed crevasses, sloppy wet slides, and sunburns.

The nunatak we camped on gave us three very fun ski lines. A few miles to our east we found the best views. A bit north we found a few steep turns amongst the summer hotpow.

Not bad turns for the last week of June.

Not bad turns for the last week of June.

Our second day, we saw a bear cross the icefield and climb a peak we would have been proud to ski. Bears on ice was new for me. Knowing our camp had the only real food anywhere up there was disconcerting to say the least, but for some unknown reason the bears left us alone. Perhaps the wind was blowing in a favorable direction, or they didn’t prefer humans who hadn’t seen soap for days.

Yours truly making sure the bear spray is accessible.

Yours truly making sure the bear spray is accessible.

The added predator element set in once we started seeing bear tracks near camp. Amazing. I was skiing — on a big Alaskan glacier, up and down nunataks emerging from the biggest icefield entirely inside the United States — with bear spray. This definitely felt like bringing a knife to a gunfight.

Summer touring at its finest!

Summer touring at its finest!

Eventually our weather window closed. Warm, wet, and windy weather came in and the mighty Pacific Ocean answered the sunshine with rain, a reminder how delicate and susceptible our winter world is.

Time to go home I guess.

Time to go home I guess.

We skied out, and hiked down the trail to a line of hikers who thought we were crazy, stupid, or brilliant.

They asked questions like, “Skiing!? Where?” or, “So what are you training for with those heavy packs?”

Right around here it started getting steep, we looked over our shoulders and a bear was climbing the peak behind me (for real).

Right around here it started getting steep. We looked over our shoulders and a bear was climbing the peak behind me (for real).

We were there over a blue bird weekend and didn’t see another soul.

The road to the trailhead has dates posted along it where the retreating Exit Glacier used to extend to. Driving back to Seward passing these signs felt like driving out of the past and into the future. The snow was out of sight; the rainy air felt muggy.

Fortunately for now, the summer skier can still find a huge, fun, and awe inspiring piece of ice on the Kenai Peninsula.

Many thanks to the Outward Bound Staff Development Fund and Billy Roos Fund for supporting our trip! Vince is heading back out to the Kenai with Outward Bound students next week. What a spot they have for their course!


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6 Responses to “Dispatch from the Kenai: Nunatacks, Bergschrunds, and Bears”

  1. Silas Wild July 6th, 2017 10:40 am

    Slopes and summit of Mt Rainier are still quite skiable. Likely all year. Mt. Shasta skinnable from the car at Brewer creek I hear.

  2. Silas Wild July 6th, 2017 10:42 am

    Also Tom Szwedko (tomski from telemarktips website) is finding nearby snow out of his home in Leadville to skin everyday. He gets around 340 skinning days a year.

  3. Wilson July 6th, 2017 11:15 am

    Good report. I wish this came out 2 weeks ago before I decided where to ski. I was at Snowbird Glacier last week. The slush skied like powder. At least that’s what I told myself. The skinning was a little rough with post holing every few steps on what felt like a giant Slushee. But I had it all to myself, I was skiing and the clouds parted for a while. Which made for a wonderful day of hiking, skiing and skinning.

  4. trollanski July 6th, 2017 1:27 pm

    Nice post Alex! Have almost skied up to brown bears on two occasions. Got the same feeling that they weren’t too interested. Seemed like they were hunting goat. I hear there are grizzlies on Baranof island that specialize in hunting up high, and don’t come down to the ocean….Cheers!

  5. Dabe July 26th, 2017 9:32 am

    How do you like your spitfires? Great report & photos!

  6. Alex July 26th, 2017 2:44 pm

    Dabe, Thank you! I really like the spitfires. Sportiva boots fit my feet super well and I think they have found a nice tradeoff between weight, up hilling, and downhill performance. I had the old yellow ones for a few seasons and they were a stellar boot in the lightweight category (some durability issues). I got the 2.0 this spring (what I took to the Kenai), and so far they are great too. I think they made some really nice improvements to their buckle system, and the boot skis a bit better, but feels a bit less comfortable on long tours (but that might just be a molding issue on my end).

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