Tuesday, September 16, 2008

The Bomber Traverse. In summer?

With winter fast approaching, the immediacy of getting up high and taking advantage of snow free ridges is starting to outweigh the cold, drizzly weekends we've gotten used to. Bryce asked us if we were interested in trying a one-day blitz of the Bomber Traverse, and we agreed in an instant. We've been foiled on two winter attempts, once by rotten snow, and another time by 2' of fresh, last April. Early September seemed like a great time to try, and Bryce mentioned he'd heard of a group who had just completed the trip less than two weeks back. Let's go for it!

After a bright and early start, we reached the Gold Mint Trailhead and were away by 9. We had braced ourselves for rain all day, but the skies were teasing us with patches of blue, and sun was threatening to peek through as we made our way upvalley alongside the Little Susitna River. The route follows the Little Su to its heaedwaters at the Mint Glacier, where it climbs up and over Backdoor Gap, and onto the Pennyroyal Glacier. The trail has received extensive work this summer, but the brush was still wet from the week's rain, and beavers can outwork even the most productive trail crews, so we arrived at the top of Heartbreak Hill with wet pants and wetter feet, but with our shadows in tow! After ages apart, it was nice to get reacquainted, and we spent some time enjoying each others' company below the Mint Glacier.

The Mint Hut was hard to find, tucked neatly onto a ledge in the jumbled terrain left behind by the receding Mint Glacier. We poked around for a few minutes, signed out names in the register, and then turned our attention to Backdoor Gap. As we climbed higher, the snow started to get deeper, and I started wondering what the Pennyroyal Glacier was going to look like. None of us had ever done the trip before, so we were uncertain what to expect. With no snow, the route was supposed to be very straighforward, but a new blanket of white added to the unknown.

After a prolonged discussion, we decided that the route looked good, and pushed on. The snow was soft, and almost 6" deep. It was a bit of a downer to realize that skis and snowshoes would have been more appropriate than running shoes. I love winter, but having missed out on any type of summer this year, I'm not yet ready to embrace my snowboard quite yet...

We slogged across the Pennyroyal Glacier, aiming to hit a high pass to the Bomber Glacier instead of the normal route down and around the ridge separating the two icefields. We initially aimed for the more obvious of the two gaps, but changed course to hit the higher one. It turned out to be a very good choce, since it led to a steep but straightforward descent to the Bomber Glacier, while the other pass would have left us stranded in snowy talus above 50' cliffs. Thanks for researching the route, Bryce!

The Bomber Glacier is named after an Air Force Bomber that crashed in 1957, killing 6. The wreckage is surprisingly raw, even after 50 years. In my head, I'd imagined a few peices of aluminum protruding from the ice, but instead was confronted with wreckage strewn across an area the size of several football fields. I wasn't expecting to find a real crash site. The writing on the wing was still legible, and the tattered cloth lining the fuselage was fluttering in the breeze. Levers were waiting to be pulled, and the wheels still lay at the bottom of the slope, looking as though they'd just now finished spinning. I've been up Wolverine Mountain in Anchorage many times, where another fatal crash occurred around the same time. The wreckage from that plane consists of nothing more than a few rusted pieces of steel, laying quielty and unobtrusively high on the tundra. The bomber crash site is not at all the same, and I kept imagining the movie Alive.

My feet were starting to really bother me from the cold, and I wanted to get off the snow so I could change my socks and get some blood flow back to my toes. We headed across the remainder of the ice, and started up towards the pass separating us from Reed Lakes. We misjudged the route a little, and ended up too high up the ridge. With snow covering the steep descent, we decided to head back onto the glacier and work our way further down towards the proper pass. Point releases started letting go, and I set off a little wet slb that travelled 50' before getting caught up in its own slushiness. Nothing dangerous, but a sobering reminder that winter isn't far off.

The view down to Reed Lakes was breathtaking. I haven't spent much time inthe Talkeetnas, but they have a completely different feel than the Chugach. Much more rugged, and raw. They seem bigger. We picked our way down below the snow level, and wasted no time ditching our soggy socks and massaging some life back into our freezing feet. Almost three hours on snow with wet running shoes isn't the most comfortable way to spend an afternoon, but fresh socks and some more miles on the trail back out to Archangel Road quickly warmed them up. The descent back to the car passsed by quickly, finishing with a 4 mile road walk back to our car.

20 miles, 11 hours, and another item checked off the list!

For more pictures, check here.

1 comment:

Mac said...

Great adventure, and good to see more writing.