I don’t usually start venturing into the Alaska Range until March. The temperature becomes a bit nicer, the snow is deeper and more supportive, and we have much longer days. But, Jenn decided to visit in early February, so I figured we could do a little touring and take in some sights around the Castner Glacier. During her summer visit, it rained for nearly two weeks and the clouds never broke. She never got the chance to really see the range. We had a great day hiking out on the Canwell Glacier, but the low cloud ceiling kept us from seeing much of anything.
This trip was different; nearly constant clear skies the whole time. And cold. Bitter cold.
Driving down the Richardson Highway on February 4th, we managed to catch a pretty spectacular sunrise over the Tanana River and Alaska Range. I love getting views like this en route to any destination. It makes for an epic trip before you even get started.
Snow came very late this year and the conditions have been pretty poor. I’ve heard numerous reports of weak layers and unstable snowpack in January. Very sadly, there was already a death from an avalanche in the area earlier this winter. I felt that our ambition for this trip should be purely the enjoyment of being outside, and our time spent exploring. We can save the big mountain adventures for another day.
There were no other cars in the Castner Creek pull-off and the only tracks were that of a meandering moose in the drainage. The car told us that the temperature was -20° F. We broke trail through the creek past a few open pits of water. There was already a light suncrust forming that made travel interesting. I’d only get about 3 or 4 good strides with my skis on the surface before a foot would punch through into deep, unconsolidated snow. Numerous times we heard the deep “whomping” of a snow layer collapsing under our feet and occasionally saw shooting cracks. Our decision to stay off and away from the slopes was probably a good one. Conditions can certainly be different on the mountains than on the flats, but I’ll give it another few weeks before trying.
It’s about a mile to the toe of the glacier from the road. Nearing the glacier some overflow started to appear on the surface. Pushing our way out of the drainage to stay dry we followed a gentle moraine to the top of the northern terminus of the Castner. That’s where the “type II” fun really started. Most of the tongue of the Castner is debris covered, very bumpy, and partially vegetated. There wasn’t much of a crust to ski on anymore so I frequently found myself knee to waist deep in snowdrifts and catching on the willows hiding just below the surface.
We plowed and trudged our way southward on the glacier. On the southern lateral moraine there was a large ice cave. The last time I was here the western end of the cave had partially collapsed leaving large blocks of ice guarding the entrance. Summer water must have melted and carried away the junk creating an easy path to the icy arch.
We hiked down to the entrance. It was a really beautiful view looking through; the arch perfectly framing the peak of White Princess rising above a few ridges. It was getting to be later in the afternoon, the clouds were expanding, and the downglacier katabatic winds started to really pick up. Suddenly we started feeling cold. It was time to head back.
We really couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful day. Maybe a firmer snowpack would have been nice, but otherwise we had no major complaints.