Wrangell St Elias National Park - Part Two
Second Visit - July 2017
Since this was our second time visiting Wrangell St Elias, we decided to bring my sister and a few friends so they could see just how incredible this national park really is. While our old pictures captured some of the majesty, we knew everyone needed to see it for themselves.
To read about our first trip to Wrangell St Elias, click here.
I went onto the St. Elias Alpine Guides website like before, but this time I booked our group of 6 an ice climbing tour at $145 a person. This time around we knew to bring cash for parking and tipping, sunscreen, bug spray, and supplies for the polar plunge (towels, a change of clothes, and a mat of some kind). We also knew where to stow our gear while we explored the glacier. The only problem we ran into was our transportation to the park…
Our amazing travel van, Aurora, decided to stop running randomly just outside of Glenallen. After four hours of troubleshooting and phone calls, we ended up having GEICO tow our van back to Anchorage while Kevin, my sister, and I piled into our friend’s truck. In the awkward transition of figuring out our van (and paying for the 200+ miles of towing), we ended up pulling into the parking lot outside of the footbridge after 2:30AM. Even though we were exhausted, our night was nothing compared to our two close friends, Matt and Ginger. Since Ginger had to work that night until 10PM, they drove straight through the night and took turns sleeping in the car. By the time we woke up from our uncomfortable three hours of sleep, they had just pulled into the parking lot ready for the tour.
Despite the rocky start, we were all ready to enjoy an amazing day of ice climbing. Since St. Elias Alpine Guides sends a detailed email weeks before the tour, we knew to wait outside the bridge at 8:30AM for our designated shuttle. And just like before, we went to their office to get fitted for crampons, but this time we also got fitted for special ice climbing shoes.
If you forget to bring lined gloves, warm layers, and sunglasses, their office has you covered. Sunglasses are $5 each, sunscreen is free, and they loan basic gloves and layers to those in need. Since we accidentally left some of our gear in the van during our late night transition, we happily accepted the loaned gloves and extra layers.
Our ice climbing guides, Ian and Frenchie, took us to an ice wall first to teach us how to climb correctly. We quickly learned that ice climbing has a completely different feel than rock climbing in a sense where you rely more heavily on your gear and less on your body. Your legs are supposed to take the majority of the weight, with your toes firmly in the ice and your feet flat. So with some helpful instruction from Ian and Frenchie, we all had a great time.
Kevin tried to push through the first time up the wall and almost sliced his leg open from his sharp crampons. So if you bring your own crampons, make sure the edges are fairly dull. The second time around he focused more on proper footwork and form, which helped ease some stress on his muscles and give him a better experience.
While my fear of heights has improved over the years, I unfortunately wasn’t able to make it to the top of the ice wall. The overhang was more technical and I sadly couldn’t get out of my own head to finish the wall. But I’m happy to say that I didn’t have a panic attack or cry, so for me this was a win.
The next thing we did as a group was cross the rocky side of the glacier to reach the area where there were more moulins. Ian and Frenchie set up the ropes and then dropped each person one at a time down into the pit so they had to climb back out. The views inside the moulin were breathtaking, and Kevin said he felt in awe at the surroundings. He couldn’t quite describe the feeling of dangling in such a beautiful and dangerous place, so it’s an experience he’ll remember forever. I dipped below for a view but sadly didn’t have enough guts to climb out. Hopefully next time I will.
On our way back to the office to return the borrowed gear, Frenchie pulled us aside and asked if we still wanted to cross the glacier to reach the waterfall on the other side. Our original plan was to trek across the glacier with our crampons and camp at the waterfall, but we felt too exhausted from our lack of sleep and a full day of climbing on the glacier. We told Frenchie that instead we’d just explore the glacier on our own the next day, but he had a better idea: ice caves.
Now we can’t disclose the location of the ice caves or explain how to get there for safety reasons, but we can tell you that if you talk to the right guide, you’ll get a glimpse at some incredible views. At the time, though, we thanked Frenchie and headed back to our previous campsite overlooking the glacier without a second thought to the ice caves.
The next morning after we packed up camp, three strangers walked up the hill and into our campsite. They seemed just and surprised to see us as we did them, but then they pointed out the huge black bear below. So for about 20 minutes we watched this old bear wander around eating soapberries. The old French woman who climbed up the hill told us, “You must be very unobservant people,” for not seeing the bear, but strangely didn’t know enough English to understand what we meant when we told her we were packing up camp at the time. So I guess take her advice and be observant…
Once the bear left we headed to the ice caves and wow were we blown away. Apart from the sinking gray mud, the entire experience was astonishing. Blue and white ice in all shapes hung above our heads, rivers of glacial water rushed past in different directions, and little pools of water formed in various spots. We didn’t see any other footprints in the cave and never once saw another person come close to finding them.
We wished we could have stayed there all day, but safety and time crunches dictated we leave. We took some last minute pictures and said goodbye to an amazing two days before hiking back to the shuttle stop. And before we officially left for Anchorage, we stopped for lunch at the Potato to enjoy some fresh food, a cold beer, and Matt’s ukulele skills.