After a rather cold and snowy January, the first week of February brought several days of crystal clear skies and relatively warm temperatures. I wanted to take advantage of the good conditions to photograph the aurora from the backcountry, and Forrest, my friend who has accompanied me on several forays into the mountains this winter, was down for the adventure. After discussing a few options and studying Google Earth, Forrest and I agreed to ski to a pass between Augustana Creek and Black Rapids Glacier where we would have our choice of nearby ridges with great views looking north. If the planned route turned out to be problematic, our backup plan was to continue skiing up Augustana Creek and ascend the massive snow basin feeding Augustana Glacier.
We set out before sunrise with the temperature in the single digits. After crossing the Delta River, we turned up Augustana Creek, encountering a fresh set of snowmachine tracks. They belonged to a trapper and we were able to follow them for a few miles through the drainage, occasionally passing one of the marked traps set along the creek. Eventually, the tracks stopped, and Forrest and I began trading off the duty of breaking trail through the snow. We watched Dall sheep ambling across the skyline as we passed beneath craggy mountains shining in the early morning sun. The pass to Black Rapids Glacier came into view a couple miles ahead, and it looked as easy as we had hoped.
As we started skiing uphill towards the pass, we gained a good view of Augustana Glacier another half-mile up the creek, as well as some dramatic icefalls descending from the rocky ridges encircling the upper glacier. Some exposed ice formations were visible along the glacier's terminus, and we paused to consider if we should check them out before continuing to the pass. Since we had plenty of daylight left, we went for it and skied the remaining distance to the glacier.
The formations we had seen from afar turned out to be underwhelming, but there were three more thin, dark openings in the glacier a short distance ahead that looked like they might be hiding something. In the first opening was a narrow cave, the floor of which rolled down from the darkness above like a frozen wave. It required crampons to explore, so we continued to the next cave only 50 feet away. As we crested the snowy lip of the entrance, there was a perfect alcove at the front for us to drop our gear and stretch for a minute. The cave extended another 20 feet under a low ceiling to another entrance in the back. I crawled across the cave to the far side and came out standing next to the entrance to the third opening. I took one glance inside at the cavernous interior of perhaps the largest ice cave I've ever seen and instantly realized we would be camping at the glacier—there was just too much ice cave exploring to do and the view for the aurora was terrific.
I gathered my camera, tripod and headlamp, then headed back to the third cave. With my pack stuffed full of bulky winter camping and mountain gear, I brought only my Canon 24-105mm f/4L lens along. It’s not my lens of choice for aurora or ice caves, but it suffices for those subjects in addition to general landscape use and it doesn’t take up much room. Still, I found myself regretting not bringing an ultra-wide lens along.
The cave’s entrance was misleadingly small and partially obscured by drooping snow, but still wide enough to provide good illumination inside.The cave immediately opened into a spacious main cavern, with a wide passage extending into darkness at the opposite end. Forrest and I followed the dark passage until it narrowed and the ice on the floor thinned. There was an appreciable stream of clear water flowing beneath the ice, and the gurgling echoes it made in the giant cave occasionally sounded like voices. I spent an hour taking pictures inside the cave, but didn’t come close to exploring all the possible angles.
With the mountaintops surrounding us cast in alpenglow, Forrest and I returned to the cave “next door” and started making camp. We pitched the tent just outside the entrance, then hung out in the cave waiting for the aurora. The cave was comfortably warm; besides providing shelter from the breeze, it insulated the air inside like an igloo. Forrest began melting snow for water to pass the time, and I dug around in my pack for some hot cocoa mix I brought.
We watched stars slowly emerge through the cave entrance and eventually spotted a weak glow from the aurora between a gap in the mountains. It was still very early in the evening so I expected the show to get better as the night progressed, and I began scouting spots nearby where I would shoot later beneath the bright moonlight. After getting primed, I returned to the cave with Forrest and we waited. And waited. And kept waiting. The aurora fizzled out after its earlier appearance, and it showed no sign of coming back. Disappointed, I decided to get some sleep.
We awoke shortly before sunrise. I ate the rest of my homemade trail mix (Life cereal and almonds), then Forrest and I shuffled over to the cave we skipped the day before. We put on crampons and easily walked up the undulating floor. The cave width was uniformly narrow, perhaps eight feet wide, but we had to crouch in a few spots. Blocking our way ahead was a wall of ice with a hole at the bottom not quite big enough for us to squeeze through. It was very dark where we were standing, but through the hole was another well-lit chamber. We filled our water bottles from a small trickle running over the floor, then exited the cave and began skiing over the top of the glacier. We found the hole that was shining light into the chamber, but it was too deep to enter.
On the other side of the glacier we found two caves with wide entrances sitting side by side. We put our crampons back on and entered the left-hand cave, which featured plenty of classic blue ice. It split into two tunnels which merged back together on the other side of a massive, crumbling column of ice, leading to the chamber with the hole in the roof we saw minutes prior. After circling through, we postholed over to the adjacent cave, still wearing our crampons. Intricate hoarfrost formations hung from its ceiling, and a couple of ice stalactites reached from the ceiling to the floor. Near the front of the cave was a vertical, perfectly cylindrical depression in the wall with a hole at the top where water drained into the cave before freeze-up. The cave angled downwards into darkness where I suspect it connected with the larger cave we visited the day before, but we didn't bother finding out where it went.
Noon was quickly approaching so we returned to our camp, packed up our gear, and started skiing back to the highway. I struggled to keep up with Forrest on my splitboard, which handles a little awkwardly in touring mode without skins, but we still made great time. My legs were thankful for every short stretch where I could coast and double-pole my way forward. As we neared the Delta River, the tall mountains on the other side were shining in the golden afternoon sun, but the cold had drained the remaining life from my camera battery so I couldn’t take any pictures. I was similarly drained of energy by the time I reached the far side of the river, but still had to ski a short distance uphill to get to the highway. Too tired to bother putting my skins back on my skis, I instead irrationally struggled to push myself up the incline, even though it required about 10 times the effort to keep from sliding backward. I finally made it to the highway where Forrest was waiting, and we started the hour drive home to Delta Junction, braking a few times along the way for moose.
My main objective of shooting the aurora was a total bust, but the caves were spectacular. I am very intrigued to see what this area looks like in summer and think I will pay another visit later this year.