In 2017, I visited Wrangell-St. Elias for the first time with St. Elias Alpine Guides and was blown away by the scenery. The snowy peaks, lush tundra, and stunning glaciers seemed to imprint on me during my time there, and the trip was cemented as one of the best backcountry trips I have been on. I wanted others to have that same transformative experience, so I teamed up with SEAG to put together a five-day women’s backpacking trip through the park’s spectacular backcountry.
Our group was comprised of ten inspiring women: two incredible guides (Anya and Anna), seven intrepid hikers (Emilie, Sam, Chelsea, Emily, Madison, Jeanelle, Maddie), and me. The route we had planned to tackle was a challenging one that would take us over the Kennicott, Gates, and, finally, the Root glaciers. This was the first backpacking trip for a couple of the group members and I was so inspired by their ambition in making their first backpacking trip one into the depths of the Alaskan backcountry!
We met in Anchorage at a small airport hotel. It was still early and we exchanged greetings and introductions through sips of coffee. We had a long day ahead of us—a five-hour drive to Chitina in a van and then a scenic flight with Wrangell Mountain Air that would take us into the town of McCarthy, the jumping-off point for our trip to Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. Our van arrived precisely on time and we all piled ourselves and our gear into the van and we were officially underway!
We made it to Chitina by mid-afternoon and found our pilots from Wrangell Mountain Air already waiting for us, standing next to their vibrant yellow planes. Our group was too big to fit in one plane so we split up into a Beaver and a Cessna 172. Not long after arriving at the tiny airstrip, we were hurtling skyward. The trees and river shrank to the proportions of children’s toys far below. On the flight our pilot, Kelly, pointed out mountains and landmarks as we flew over them, naming the passes, and explaining the geology of the land. The flight was beautiful, offering a bird’s eye view of the park.
We flew over the Kennicott and the Gates glaciers, while Kelly pointed out two lakes that twinkled like gems on the emerald tundra and informed us this was Donoho Basin, where we would spend a night. Finally, we flew over the Root Glacier and spied, for the very first time, the Stairway Icefall. The Stairway Icefall is a 7,000’ tall frozen waterfall of glacier ice. It is the tallest icefall in the world outside of the Himalaya, and just looking at it from our tiny bush plane was a humbling experience.
After 20 minutes of nothing but mountains, valleys, rivers, and glaciers, the town of Kennicott came into view. From the air, Kennicott’s rust-red structures stood out starkly against the verdant backdrop. We landed, disembarked, and then scrambled into yet another van!
We had a couple of errands to take care of before we could rest for the evening. First, we headed to SEAG’s powerhouse to put together our own personal snack packs. While SEAG took care of all the meal planning for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we would be responsible for making sure we had enough snacks throughout the day. They provided us with gallon-size ziplock bags and let us have at their snack stash. They had every snack you could ever want—candy bars, pre-made trail mix, the ingredients to make your own trail mix, sweet snacks, salty snacks, fruity snacks, and an endless assortment of nuts and chocolate-covered morsels. We all filled our snack packs until they were bulging.
Finally, after a long day, we made our way toward home for the night: the Blackburn Cabins. These are beautiful handmade log cabins tucked away in a stand of trees in McCarthy. Each cabin is one room with two full beds, a sink, dishes, and an assortment of games; in other words, the epitome of a cozy cabin in the woods. I’m not sure if it was due to my extreme exhaustion, but that bed was the most comfortable bed I had slept in in a long time. I felt as if I was being caressed by clouds!
Our second day of the trip was the day we had all been waiting for, the day we entered the backcountry and began our trek. We headed to the McCarthy airstrip bright and early where we met Austin, the pilot from Wrangell Mountain Air who would be flying us into the backcountry. It took three round-trips to shuttle all of us and our gear to the backcountry airstrip known as The Fosse.
Once we were all in the backcountry, Austin took off for McCarthy, and then we were alone. The drone of the propeller faded away and was replaced by a calm quiet. It was already early afternoon, but we were lucky that our hike to camp would only take about an hour and the summer days in Alaska never seem to end.
The hike to camp took us through a gully between the moraine and the mountains. After an hour of relatively level, albeit rocky, hiking we had one final push to camp up a couple hundred foot gain on steep, slippery tundra. We crested the final ridge and, as our camp spot came into view, it was very apparent that the steep hike was worth it. The flat terrace of tundra overlooked the Kennicott Glacier and had a beautiful perspective on the tooth-like Donoho Peak. After setting up our tents and eating lunch, Anya led us on a day hike to a spot that overlooked Hidden Lake.
Far in the valley below us was Hidden Lake, except it was no longer in its lake form. One week prior it was a lake, but since then a jökulhlaup occurred. Jökulhlaup is an Icelandic word that describes an event where water breaks through a glacier and drains, causing downstream river levels to rise, and leaves a jumbled collection of icebergs in its place. For the first part of summer Hidden Lake is very much a lake, with icebergs bobbing on the surface, but each year there is a time when the pressure of the lake eventually overwhelms the glacial dam. The resulting scene was incredible. The icebergs reminded me of a metropolitan city, with some as tall as skyscrapers.
Once we had snapped a few photos of the valley full of icebergs, we turned around. Unfortunately, as we began to make our way toward camp the skies opened and it began to pour. We threw on our rain jackets and pack covers and quickened our pace, but our speed was no use. By the time we got to camp, we were all soaked.
After changing into dry clothes, I pulled on my soggy shoes and headed to the cook tent. Everyone else was already inside the tent, huddled in a circle, clutching cups and mugs that were steaming with tea, cocoa, or cider. Anya offered me some hot water which I eagerly accepted. I pulled out my apple cider packet and poured the spicy contents into my water. A hot drink had never tasted so good.
Our second day in the backcountry dawned overcast but dry. We gathered in the cook tent again for breakfast. We started with hot drinks and talked about how grateful we were that the rain and wind had died down overnight. We were all imagining worst-case scenarios involving snapped poles and soaked sleeping bags, luckily those thoughts never became a reality.
After we finished breakfast, we packed up camp and headed back down into the gully, to the base of an imposing wall of rocks we would have to get over (or around).
Anya and Anna scouted the moraine, trying to find a good place to get onto the glacier, but it was proving to be a difficult task. The pile of rocks in front of us had a precipitous drop on the opposite side, when we reached the top we found ourselves peering over the edge to a view that made my knees weak. Back down we went, repeating this process a couple of times, until finally, Anna saw a promising depression in the moraine. She dropped her pack and ran ahead to check it out. She came back with a smile on her face and motioned us over. She had found a way onto the glacier!
The outermost edge of a glacier is a tough surface to hike on. It appears to be a giant pile of rocks, but under one thin layer of rock is ice. It is easy to dislodge a few rocks only to find yourself slipping on the ice below them. The terrain requires careful, deliberate steps.
After some up and down on piles of lateral moraine, we finally made it to the white ice, only there was one more obstacle. There was a deep and wide glacial stream separating us from the ice. Once again, we began searching for a route. We paced up the banks of the river looking for anywhere it was narrower or shallower. We continued to search until we found a bend in the river where a giant boulder had wedged itself between the banks. Anya and Anna assessed it and determined it was just the spot we were looking for.
We were going to get across the stream by leaning onto the boulder—a trust fall, if you will—and then straddling it and scooting along to the opposite bank where Anya would lend a helping hand. We did this sans backpacks to make the crossing easier and planned to shuttle the packs across after we had all made it.
One of my favorite parts of this trip was seeing how encouraging and uplifting our group members were when they were supporting one another through an obstacle. Whenever we had a sketchy river crossing or a challenging hurdle in our way, everyone cheered each other on, “You got this!” “Way to go!”
Once all of us and our gear were securely across the stream we continued on. This was our first time hiking on the ice and it was beautiful. It wasn’t long until we came across our first pool—an impossibly still, clear, and blue window into the depths of the glacier. We all gathered around it in awe.
It was already early evening. Our river crossing and blue pool admiring had taken up quite a bit of time, so we set up camp on the medial moraine near the blue pool. Finding flat spots among the rocks and ice was tough, but eventually, all of our tents had homes and we headed to the cook tent for hot drinks and dinner (this quickly became a morning and evening ritual we did not dare miss).
I woke up groggy. It was a cold night of sleep and shortly after climbing into my sleeping bag, I realized that our tent site was not nearly as flat as it initially looked, and I spent the night creeping down to the bottom of my sleeping bag. That said, it was still a unique experience to be able to camp in the middle of a glacier, listening to the creaking and groaning of the ever-shifting ice below and around us.
The morning required more clambering up and down rocky moraine and a few more nerve-wracking stream crossings, but it wasn’t long until we were back on the ice. Hiking on the glaciers of Wrangell-St. Elias is always a treat. You never know what sort of glacial features you will find. We encountered blue pools, countless sinewy streams, crevasses, and moulins.
We were lucky enough to happen upon a five-star moulin on the Kennicott Glacier. Anya lead us all to the edge and let us peer into its depths. It was a beautiful, yet scary, scene. I could see the water falling into the hole, but I could not see where it went. It simply disappeared into the darkness.
As we crossed over to the Gates Glacier, the sky darkened. Once again we pulled out our rain gear. We hiked in silence as we made our way over the ice in the rain.
Finally, we came to a ridge overlooking two shimmering lakes nestled beneath towering, green hillsides came into view. Next to one of the lakes was a flat sandy bench that would be our camp for the night. We all scrambled down to its shores and took off our packs. It was still raining, but now there were rays of sun beaming through the clouds it seemed the rain might let up.
The rain cleared and I decided to scramble up a few ridges around camp for views. The landscape was breathtaking. Miles of ice, towering mountains, and a green basin with aqua lakes. All of the below photos were taken while standing in one place and simply pivoting my body. The diversity of the landscape was mind-boggling!
We had a relatively short hike to our fourth and final camp, so we slept in and had a leisurely breakfast in Donoho Basin. Anya and Anna had a fun, short loop planned for us to hike before packing up camp. First, we scrambled to the top of a ridge just behind camp and were treated to 360° views of the area.
From the ridge we then headed down to the edge of the Gates Glacier to explore its fins. A giant silty pool had formed below the towering edge of the glacier. Icebergs floated around within it, from afar the icebergs looked small, but as we got closer to the lake’s shores they grew until we saw their true size. Some were as big as cars!
While the day had started sunny, it began to rain as we were packing up. Out came the rain gear again.
The hike to our planned camp wasn’t long, but it was brushy, which made for a very wet hike. We were getting rained on from above, and from below drenched leaves and branches whipped at our legs.
As we hiked through the basin I couldn’t help but feel as if we had been transported to an entirely new location. Gone were the icy ridges and blue pools, and in their place were trees and marshy grasses. I had almost forgotten we were still in the land of glaciers when we rounded a corner and the Root Glacier came into view like a mirage; it looked like a frozen river in the valley. Our camp spot for the evening was a beautiful area that overlooked the entire Root Glacier, with commanding views of the Stairway Icefall.
Fortuitously, the rain abated right before we made it to camp, so once again we could set up camp without worrying about the inside contents of our tent getting soaked.
I had hopes for a colorful sunrise on the final day, so I set an alarm for 3:45 am, and kept my hopes high.
After what felt like minutes, my alarm sounded. Through a half-asleep daze, I recalled hearing the gentle sound of rain pattering on the tent fly throughout the night and my hopes dropped. Still, I unzipped the tent and poked my head out of the fly. The sky was clear with a few faint wisps of clouds over Regal Mountain and the Stairway Icefall. If those clouds lingered for golden hour they would turn pink!
A few other members of our group joined me and we stood on a ridge, waiting for sunrise in the freezing cold. As we watched, the gray clouds slowly transitioned from gray to pink and orange. It was such a change of luck after so many rainy days and colorless sunrises and sunsets. We stayed out there for nearly an hour watching the landscape change shades. After golden hour was over I curled back into my sleeping bag and smiled as I drifted back to sleep until breakfast.
Our final day of the trip was going to be the cherry on top because we had ice climbing planned! After breakfast, we broke down camp and headed toward the Root Glacier. We crossed the glacier, headed up and over one final hunk of moraine, and saw the SEAG interns standing atop a towering wall of ice. They had kindly met us on the ice and brought all of the gear we would need for climbing. We settled in and waited as Anya and Anna set everything up for us.
Being on the wall was exhilarating, every movement had to be thought out and calculated, but once I found my rhythm it was enjoyable! Hearing the satisfying thwack thwack of the ice tools finding purchase in the ice, then kicking in steps, and repeating the process over and over. At one point I looked down and realized how far I had come. I was so concentrated on the process I hadn’t even noticed my progress! I reached the top and then rappelled down.
Once we had all practiced, we graduated to the next level of ice climbing: a moulin! The moulin, called Big Blue, was only a couple minute walk away from the wall we practiced on. Anya set up the rope system and we all got ready to be lowered into the depths. I was first.
As someone who is terrified of heights, and deep, dark holes with seemingly no bottom, I was pretty anxious about this climb. Anya got me roped up and then said I could walk down the side of the wall. Trying to quell my fears, I leaned back, my entire body horizontal over the moulin, tethered to the ice by a rope, and began to walk down the wall.
Being in the moulin, hearing the water pouring off the edges, and watching it fall into the darkness felt electrifying. After I took a few photos with my phone and enjoying the unique experience, I called up that I was ready to start climbing. Climbing in the moulin was much different than our practice climbs. Every time my foot failed to gain purchase on the slippery wall my stomach dropped. Logically, I knew I was safe on the rope, but the primal part of my brain was certain that the missed step would be my last. Slowly, I climbed out from the depths, my arms were shaking noticeably by the time I made it to the top and collapsed onto the ice, grinning from ear and ear and pumped full of adrenaline.
The other women went after me and once again we all cheered each other on. It was such an inspiring experience. There were those of us who are absolutely terrified of heights that couldn’t imagine ever doing anything like this, yet here we were, pushing ourselves, overcoming fears, and learning we were so much more capable than we gave ourselves credit for!
After we all finished climbing we made our way toward Kennecott. We had a dinner reservation at the Kennicott Glacier Lodge for 7 pm and we were quite behind schedule, so we had to push the pace on our way back. We stumbled into the lodge a few minutes before 7 pm, dirty and likely a little smelly, but feeling so fulfilled.
We spent our final day retracing the steps we had taken on the first day. As we flew from McCarthy to Chitina, we passed over our route again, but this time was different. When we flew in, the landscapes all blended together, but on the way out I recognized those landscapes as if they were an old friend. I smiled down at the glaciers we had crossed, the moraine that had tripped us up, and the mountains that loomed on the horizon through the trip.
I am so grateful for this trip. Not only did I get to explore and grow acquainted with new landscapes, but I also made new friends. We started as a group of strangers, but we turned into a group of friends as we were brought together by the backcountry. We tested our mettle and learned and grew together. As the tiny plane flew over passes, mountains, and rivers I smiled the biggest smile.
Even in the rain, even during dreariest, most overcast days, Alaska will always be my favorite place and I am so glad I got to share this landscape with some of the most inspiring women I’ve ever met.