This Foreign Land of Ice
The world we live in is a beautiful place.
Grey masses of clouds drift through the sky as wisps of sunlight cast through and dapple the leaves of rich color lying amiss on the gravelly, uneven trail. The foliage of trees is an array of warm hues that exude autumn season, and there's not a trace of wind to scatter remnants of summer's dying touch. Only one thing is disrupting the peace...
A herd of 17 individuals hike the never-ending slopes of the well-worn path to make it to their destination, Kennecott, Alaska, a ghost-town stuck in the twentieth century and the source Wto create writing for their website. The place is full of rich history and held one of the wealthiest deposits of copper ore ever discovered. The Kennecott Copper Corporation ran the mill in its heyday, maintaining a booming business by transporting it with the Copper River and Northwestern Railway. Copper ore would later be shipped through the Alaska Steamship Company from Cordova, Alaska to Washington, but unfortunately, the mine only lasted twenty-six years. Kennecott is now a tourist attraction with fading memories – but of interest to a class of writers in the making.
Labored breathing and idle chatter floats through the unsullied air as the group treks on past a streambed with a small waterfall and later, a large boulder with moss clinging to its sides. The two official guides shepherd them along, with one leading and the other at the tail of the pack.
There, one can find me.
The strain of backpack straps nipping at my shoulders and the burn of the trudging has me struggling at the back of the group. My head bows as I watch myself take one step after another and press on. I'm doing my best not to falter as I stick to the slender trail with gear weighing me down.
It feels as if I have a brick strapped to the bottom of both of my dragging hiking-boot-clad feet. A fleece jacket is zipped up over two thick sweaters which I'm beginning to regret having worn. Of course, I thought it was going to be chilly. We are traveling to Root Glacier, roughly a mile and a half away from the historic town.
Finally past the thick of trees, the guides pause at a clearing to give us a breather and recount facts. I toss my pack to the ground and take off a layer to wrap around my waist before going to the edge of the trail where land drops off, staring out at the scene before me.
Taking in the sight of the vast Kennecott Valley that stretches for miles, my eyes absorb details. Snow-capped mountains reach for the sky and into the misty clouds. Through the vapor haze, bright morning skies extend and light falls down in a celestial glory. Dunes of grit spread over the broad dale. It's as if an artist came with his palette and painted it all, not an inch of his canvas barren from the strokes of an experienced hand. Everything is absolutely breathtaking. A slight breeze from the glacier blows wisps of hair into my face. It's like Heaven...
I'm pulled from my reverie as the guides begin to leave. We pick up again and carry off to Root Glacier where the troupe comes to the hillside. The path down is steep. There are hundreds of flat-rock steps and all I'm thinking is, "Well... this is going to be a joy on the way back..." I swear it's like the Masada Snake Path with more plant-life and a rougher cut.
At the bottom of the ramble, glacial ice meets sedimentary sands. Everyone but the guides sits upon the ground as they begin to explain the fundamentals of crampons: my new lifeline for keeping my feet firmly on ground. The spiked-teeth footwear grips the ice like claws so we can fasten to the slippery surface without falling. My eleven classmates and three chaperons listen intently to the instructions given on how to attach them to our boots and I quickly follow them, fastening the grips onto the heel and toe of my own.
When all the people have crampons secured, we begin to stand. Boy, I tell you: this is no easy feat. I ungracefully wobble on boulders with my arms out to steady myself. The sound of sharp metal against rock has me wincing as it attacks my ears.
"Okay then, let’s go!" chirps Becky, the female counterpart to the guide duo.
I make it down the bit of inclinational level I was resting at and join the sixteen others. The guides advise us to get into a line and then we begin to travel up the slope of ice.
David, our other guide, explains to us the art of glacier-walking. "You want to stick your toes outwards so you have better traction, and when you take a step, stomp your foot so your crampons dig in - not so much that you break the crampons though," he adds humorously.
This must be what Spiderman feels like when he's climbing walls! I'm smiling ear-to-ear as I make my way up, glancing behind me to see what I've accomplished.
Until I turn back around.
The smile slowly fades away and I openly gawk in awe. No longer does solid ground splay in front of me, but a whole new terrain - a whole new world - I've never had the chance to encounter.
Our crowd is led through it all. Slits in the glacier carry petite streams of water that I eagerly refill my water bottle with before I quench the thirst the dry air consequentially created. We amble past crags of ice with scars of glacial erosion and moulins that tear down hundreds of thousands of feet. Harsh wind gusts by, threatening to topple each and every one of us.
As we tread, I gaze at the glacier stretching for miles on end. Mountains are elevated to high peaks in cold colors far out into the distance. When we finally stop for lunch, Betsy and David pull large sitting mats out from their packs and we retrieve our food.
The blustery weather bites my cheeks and I attempt to tug my hat lower while eating at the same time. Eying the guides, I work up the courage to pipe up, keeping in mind the conversation Mr. Voley, our teacher, had with us: ask questions. “How many times do you hike up here a week?"
The wind howls and Betsy asks me to repeat my inquiry. When I do, she responds, "Five times," with as much casualness as if she were stating the sky was up. I, for one, am slack-jawed. Maybe it's my lack of exercise motivation. Ah, well.
My speechless blank wits lead my loose lips with a mind of their own to reply unintelligibly, "Wow... that's... a lot of calorie-burning."
I'm not the sharpest knife in the drawer, it seems. And, oh look, there goes any form of gaining a few facts flying bye! Au revoir, chances! I mean, really. Way to leave an impression.
Everyone finishes up fast and we continue on. With a bit more glacier-walking, we then pause at an enchanting and fathomless shallow blue-water pool.
To be frank, it looks magical.
Water bottles are filled and group pictures are taken. The guides let us peek into a hollow bit in the glacier where a thin but steady rivulet of water flows down twenty feet into a small pool. When it's my turn to step into the diminutive space, I whip out my MP3 recording device to record the sound.
A while later, and we're emerging from the dome-like structure of ice we were in to start circling back around to the trail. The guides show us the mother of all moulins before we start back up again, receiving a bonus rush from leaping over a thick brook that could have carried us in its icy clutches to who knows where. At last, we're reaching the point where we put on crampons and the guides stop to let some laggers catch up.
I stare transfixed at Alaska laid out ahead of me, my feet confidently placed to ice hundreds of thousands of years old, and it's in this moment that it hits me.
All I can do in the end is stand here in this foreign land of ice and think... what a beautiful world, indeed.