A Classic Alaskan Adventure: Early-Season Ice Chase in the Wrangells

By Natalie Afonina
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A Classic Alaskan Adventure: Early-Season Ice Chase in the Wrangells

A lot of the best adventures in this internet age start with texts like this one from friends you haven’t heard from in a while:

‘Yeah, why not’ I thought. I’m not doing anything else for Thanksgiving. Why not go chase the blue frozen stuff while the rest of America is eating turkeys and gravy? 

So with a few texts, a quick Google search to verify where I had just committed to going, and five clicks to book a flight, I had my Thanksgiving plans set. 

Wait, where was I going again? Right, the Wrangells. Time to hit up Google and Mountain Project for beta. Mountain Project told me that there are only two roads that access the park. The one we’d be taking is a sixty mile dirt road on the north side of the Wrangell Mountains and “is very desolate”. Good start, good start. Okay, so we can drive there. Cool.

Every good trips starts with a thorough Google Maps exploration.
The valley on the north side of the Wrangells where the ice climbing is located.

Now what about the climbing? Hmm… here good ol’ MP didn’t yield much except that ‘the climbing in the Wrangells is remote and big’. A dedicated Alaska Ice Climbing forum was more fruitful. I found enough information to get oriented and a feel for the place. Routes with names like ‘Sociophobic Tendencies’ and ‘Wing and Prayer’ are always inspirational in their own way.

Two flights, a harrowing 7hr snowstorm drive, a couple evaded Moose, a lot of coffee, some caribou running along the side of the road, and a bumpy 60 mile dirt road later my partner and I made it to Nabesna, the basecamp for this adventure.  

We made it! Alaska is very big.

The great thing about outdoor activities in Alaska in late, late November is that any time you leave will be an alpine start. Even a wake-up at 8am, with a departure at 9am will mean you’re approaching in darkness and daylight will hit right when you’re at the base of your climb, so plenty of time to sleep in. You can leave the 3am alpine starts for the future. Leisurely starts also have the benefit of warming up the cold canyons a bit (even if only psychologically), since the northern side of the Wrangells is in the interior of Alaska and gets quite frigidly cold. 

The flat-white twilight zone tones of Alaska in November near Hatcher Pass.

Which also brings me to our housing for the week. The National Park Service runs a network of cabins that you can stay at on a first-come, first-serve basis. We chose the Viking Lodge Cabin, built in 1970 and equipped with a wood stove, wooden cots, and a couple resident mice. 

Public use cabin maintained by the National Park Service. Great as a basecamp for an ice climbing trip.

The cabin definitely beats camping in the snow in temps that got below 0F at night. There’s an option to rent a room in a small local resort near Nabesna, but somehow hiking into a rustic cabin, melting our own snow-water and gathering firewood felt more worthy of our Alaskan ice adventure trip.

All water had to be melted.
My home away from home. No electricity in the cabin, so bring your own light source (mine is a solar-powered blow-up light).
There is a communal Coleman Stove in the cabin that’s a bit finicky, so we often finished off our cooking on the wood-fired stove.

First step is figuring out how to approach the climb-of-interest without going for an unnecessarily long, post-holey bushwack. We scoped through the clouds and saw what looked like the runnels of the classic route ‘Spring Fling’ or was it ‘Wing and a Prayer’ or just a snow couloir? The clouds made it hard to tell. Time to check it out.

Somewhere out there is the route we’re looking for…

I set our heading on my Garmin watch and started following what looked like a footpath, but quickly turned out to be a meandering moose path. Moose are great at breaking trail, they just don’t tend to take the most direct route or be aiming for the same end location. 

Human trail or well-tracked moose trail? Notice how even though this was taken at 11am, it’s still sunrise.

As you get higher up the slopes of the tundra, the sun hits the southern slopes and burns off the clouds to show off the wide open wildscapes that is interior Alaska.

So much space to explore and more moose-sightings than people during our week climbing here.

Soon, we follow a canyon and find the goods. Beautiful ice runnels snaking their way up, around corners, bending S-like up to the ridge. This is the northern side of the Wrangells, and in these canyons, with their steep walls, they probably don’t get sun for the entirety of the winter months. This lends itself well to keeping the large volume of water frozen. 

The obvious weakness up and right, climbs up a couple more tiers before topping out.
What blue ice dreams are made of. Step after step of flowy ice.

The canyon walls had numerous variations, and we spent the week venturing up and exploring the myriad of choices of routes. Some went, some didn’t.

One of the lines we deemed not in condition (or until I get stronger at mixed climbing).

No Alaska climbing trip would be complete without descents in the dark. And with only a few hours of daylight this close to the winter solstice, it’s a done-deal that you’ll be making your way back by the beam of your headlamp.

Darkness falls. The climbers press on. Fueled only by a family pack of Fruit Roll-Ups and one Clif Blok Energy Chew.

Not gonna lie, having a cabin (albeit not heated) was really nice to come home to every night to dry out. Pro tip: gather firewood before you run out. The slide alder around the cabin is wet from the snow and takes a couple rounds of heating near the stove to dry out enough to start a proper fire without smoking you out.

Our little home on the tundra prairie for the week.
With so much time in the cold, nutrients were key. Ruffles and bacon do the job pretty well if you need calories. Dinner of champions.

So what’s the verdict? Is it worth answering the Alaskan call to chase frozen waterfalls in the dead of the winter night? Absolutely. I’ll definitely be back. Next time probably with a snow machine or some fast skis and some sled dogs to get farther into the range. 

If you are thinking of making a trip out here, feel free to reach out for beta/info since the internet isn’t entirely devoid of information, but also not full of it. And remember to bring your stoke, some bacon, your path-finding skills, and plenty of juice in your headlamps!

Matanuska Glacier on the drive out, where I spent 5 months working and living out of a 2 person Walmart tent a few years back. Good memories in this beautiful country.

by Natalie Afonina-

Natalie is a Grivel and Beal athlete. She grew up competitively ballroom dancing but secretly wishing she was an arctic explorer. Inspired by stories of her Soviet mountaineer dad, she booked a one way ticket to the Himalayas when she was 18, where she saw her first ice climbers scaling the frozen waterfalls of the Khumbu Valley. Inspired, she hitchhiked from Seattle to Bozeman with a pair of donated ice tools and crampons she found in her dad's old gear. Since then she's been chasing ice and alpine adventures around the world while working on autonomous robots and engaging in citizen science projects.

May 18, 2020
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