Lost On A Glacier in Alaska

Let me begin by setting the historical record straight, to slow the nay-sayers and bloggers who would be only too happy to challenge and dissect all that I am about to relate.  I was never lost ON a glacier (not in this story, anyway) but about nine feet from the lip of ice that marked the terminus.  I had stepped off the ice as easily as the last rung of a low ladder.  I walked about nine feet and became stuck in the quick sand.  If one stood perfectly still, one was fine.  But any movement from your boots and the fine silt would begin to liquify, grab your feet and you would slowly begin sinking.  You would be stuck and dragged down faster than if you met a red-headed hooker on a warm and thirsty afternoon in Texarkana.

It was late August, 1964, the end of the field season for the scientists on the Juneau Icefield. I was just seventeen and the youngest, to date, person to be accepted to work on the Icefield. My duties were to help the research scientists gather data on ice flow, collect and collate weather observations and to carry equipment.  Being a fit teenager, I carried more than my share of pack loads up nunataks to the camps or ski behind what passed for snowmobiles in the mid-sixties.

The season was now over.  But getting several dozen personal off the Icefield and back to Juneau presented a formidable challenge to the Staff.  It ended up working out like this: the group of botanists were to get a helicopter ride to a chosen location on the outwash plain of the Norris Glacier.  There they were to establish a camp and await the rest of the scientists. My team was chosen to make the descent of the Norris on foot…with full packs (60+ pounds).  This group included my brother, Chris, a graduate student from Bagdad (who had never seen snow in his life before that summer), and three others. The remainder of the large group would be making the trip on foot in a few day. During our descent, which took two full days, we were forced to bivouac for a night on a mountain side.  It rained and I woke in the morning wrapped in wet down-filled mummy bag that had turned from a 3 lb. sleeping bag to a 20 lb. mass of soaking wet feathers.  I squeezed it out like a kitchen rag and tied it to my packframe.

When we stepped off the glacier there was no sign of the advance team of botanists.  No doubt they were out somewhere in the few square miles around us with their noses among the moss and lichen.  By now it was late in the day and by now we realized we were quite lost.  We had run out of food, we were wet, chilled and as I said…lost.  None of us displayed any emotion, but I was very concerned (read near panic stricken) by the thought of our isolation.

We decided to split into two groups: my brother and I were to head in one direction, the others were to hike away from us.  In this way, we thought, we’d cover more ground and locate the botanists quicker.  When we parted, I felt my gut begin to heave with unsettled nerves. [Today the area is a landing spot for tourists who want to walk on a glacier.  Sight-seeing planes fly over often.  THIS WAS NOT THE CASE IN 1964!]  Chris and I hiked for an hour or so (it stays light quite late even in August) before deciding to camp.  Camp? I thought.  Where? How? With what?. We shared the last of a large bland cracker.  I pulled out my sleeping bag and it dripped onto my boots.  My spirits, what was left of them, sank. You can share my bag, Chris said.  He had kept his dry…somehow.  I nodded and prepare to ‘put in’ for the night.  I have never felt lonelier in my life.  I honestly felt that our situation had slipped rapidly into the danger (lethal) zone.  I reached into my pack and withdrew a packet of letters.  These were the collected ‘love letters’ from my girl friend (see my Post “Dear John” for additional information) I had received by mail drops throughout the summer.  I walked off among the short pines and placed the bundle under a 6 foot tree.  Someone would find them when it was all over.  Someone would know a little about me.  Was it raindrops or my tears that made the ink run?  I crawled in with Chris and actually fell asleep.  (Chris passed away in 1995.  I miss him.)

In the morning we somehow rejoined the other three.  They had located a bright orange notebook planted atop a small muddy hill with directions on how to get to the botanist’s camp.  Wrapped in a plastic bag was a sizable chocolate bar for us.  I nearly cried with relief.  I was starving but to thank the mountain god that guided us, I gave my share of the chocolate to the others.  We walked off. We were “Brave Mountaineers” as Gordon Lightfoot once sang.

I flew over the site with my wife in a tourist plane in August, 2010, 46 years after that adventure. I looked down for a sizable pine tree…there were many.  But letters and ink and past emotions have long ago decayed and became part of the lichen-covered glacial soil.

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