Black Rapids Glacier March 2016

Standing beneath an arch formation, Black Rapids Glacier.

Standing beneath an arch formation, Black Rapids Glacier.

I hiked to Black Rapids Glacier on a beautifully sunny day in March earlier this year. The expected high temperature was in the 30’s, but when I parked alongside the Delta River early in the morning, the temperature was only 3 °F and the sun was blocked by the mountains to the south. I carefully crossed the river ice and started moving quickly up the frozen creek leading to the glacier a few miles away, trying to stay warm.

The first 10 or 20 minutes of hiking were rather chilly until I reached direct sunlight. I stuck to the firm snow along the edge of the creek for a couple miles, then cut across the rocky plain directly toward the glacier as the creek took a detour to the right. After about an hour of hiking, I reached a boulder with a small rock cairn piled on top of it, and from there I could spy blue pieces of glacier ice up ahead. The creek curved back in front of me and I trod carefully across the ice on the final stretch to the glacier. 

I reached a small, couch-sized piece of glacier ice sitting alone in the middle of the creek and stopped beside it for a few minutes to rest. The mountains to my left were casting the valley in shade, and I quickly started to feel just as cold as when I started. With my fingers going numb, I continued up the creek as it began splitting and winding around large pieces of glacier ice separated from the main body of the glacier. 

Eventually, the creek narrowed and the rocky glacier moraine steepened on both sides of it. I would have liked to follow the creek to whatever giant hole in the glacier it must have emerged from, but I wasn’t sure how long of a detour that would have been and I had other sights to see. I climbed up the moraine on the right side of the creek, winding up rocky ridges until I could see a vast ice tongue below me a short distance ahead.  

I found a suitable spot to scramble down to the ice tongue and found myself standing in the sun again on a blindingly bright, white plain of snow-covered ice dotted with several large boulders. I took a break next to one of the boulders, using it to block the cold breeze while I basked in the sun. Eventually, I warmed up enough to break out the camera, which promptly chilled my fingers again. I put the camera away and started hiking around the bend in the valley where the glacier stretches for another dozen miles or so beneath giant mountains.

The snow on the glacier was only a few inches deep on the lower end of the ice tongue and there were several patches of exposed glacier ice. I had scouted my route very carefully beforehand and knew dangerous spots would be obvious. As I gently gained elevation, the snow became a little deeper and the patches of exposed glacier ice started to disappear. I strolled past a couple massive depressions in the snow where glacial streams disappear into the ice in the summer. One of them had a broken plastic marker on its edge placed by a research team. I spotted a massive ice cave where a stream flowing down a valley adjacent to the glacier had eaten away at the ice. I would have liked to explore it, but it was guarded by crevasses.

I didn’t have enough daylight to climb up one of the mountain ridges bordering the glacier, so I decided to climb up the western moraine and hope for a decent view of the main glacier valley.  To reach the moraine, I had to cross over a deep meltwater canyon separating it from the ice tongue—the canyon is clearly visible on Google Earth. In the summer, this would be a nearly impossible task since there would be a raging stream of freezing water flowing through the canyon with steep walls of smooth ice on either side.  In March, however, the canyon is half-filled with snow, and I was able to find a spot where the sides weren’t too steep and crossed over easily. I kicked steps into the snow to climb up the short, steep slope of the moraine.

Unfortunately, the moraine curved across the glacier and still blocked my view more than a mile or two up the valley, but I could now see 12,000+ foot tall Mt. Shand and other craggy peaks rising above the mountain ridges lining the north side of the glacier. I set up the tripod and took a bunch of pictures, then walked along the moraine to get a better look at the ice cave I spotted earlier while I ate the ham & turkey sandwich I packed for lunch.  

Mt. Shand and other craggy peaks of the Alaska Range tower over Black Rapids Glacier.

Mt. Shand and other craggy peaks of the Alaska Range tower over Black Rapids Glacier.

I packed up my gear and started heading back to the highway. Descending the steep slope of the moraine without any crampons or an ice axe was tricky as it was nearly 45 degrees and the snow was very firm, but sliding to the bottom would have been completely safe, if not enjoyable. I recrossed the meltwater canyon and traced my footsteps back down the glacier tongue. The temperature had finally climbed into the 30's and with sun on my back it almost felt like hiking in summer. I started following a much smaller meltwater canyon down the terminal moraine, figuring it would lead to some interesting features. I was rewarded when it brought me to the coolest ice cave I’ve ever seen, except for perhaps the long ice tunnel I’ve visited on Canwell Glacier a few times. 

The ice in the cave was ridiculously clear as it contained very little debris, and the striations usually present in similar caves (and glacier ice in general) seemed to be missing.  I could see daylight penetrating through the ice from above, which is very unusual for the caves I find in the Alaska Range because they typically have a layer of rocks or snow on top that blocks sunlight. There was actually a set of footprints in the dust covering the floor of the cave, but I couldn’t tell how old they were—I’d guess within the last year but probably not the last month. I followed them as the cave curved around and eventually terminated at another entrance flanked with medium-sized pieces of collapsed ice.  In the summer (when there would be water flowing inside) I suspect the cave is even more impressive and photogenic.

My footsteps in the thin layer of silt on the floor of the ice cave.

My footsteps in the thin layer of silt on the floor of the ice cave.

I emerged from the cave and quickly hopped off the moraine so I could move faster as the sun was already starting its descent behind the mountains. I stopped by a massive ice arch I had seen from a distance earlier, and the way it framed the mountains in the late afternoon sun was quite impressive. I put the camera away after leaving the arch and tried to avoid stopping for the rest of the hike as the sun was no longer helping me stay warm.

On these grueling day hikes, the return leg always feels twice as long as the forward journey. I could feel a blister or two developing on my feet and my legs were complaining with every step, but I pressed on, trying to reach the Delta River before dark. After the sun set, I watched the pink alpenglow fade on the mountains for an hour, with Mt. Silvertip glowing a full 20 minutes or so beyond the rest. Institute Peak shined like a ghost in the twilight several miles away, but then the mountains started growing dark. I could hear vehicles on the highway but I still had a mile or so to go. I slowly accepted that I would have to cross the river in the dark.

After what seemed like an eternity, I finally made it to the edge of the river. I pulled out my headlamp and flashlight and started to slowly retrace the same path I took earlier. With the flashlight pointed at the ice, I could easily see the bubbles and rocks frozen several inches below the surface. I no longer felt hesitant and crossed quickly to the other side, relieved that it wasn’t as frightening as I expected it would be. I wasted no time scrambling up the final slope between me and my car, and after 15+ miles of moderately strenuous hiking with 25-30 pounds on my back, my legs finally got to relax as I drove home beneath the aurora.  

For tips on photographing ice caves, read my post How to Photograph An Ice Cave.
Want to see Black Rapids Glacier? Check out my Black Rapids Tours winter offerings.