Attention to Danger: Hike to the Stairway Icefall


The Stairway Icefall is the tallest ice fall outside of the Himalayas. A few weeks ago I set out to see how close I could get to this colossal tumble.



The elevation difference between where I took the above picture and the top of the ice fall is greater than one vertical mile. Perspective be damned.



I talked a little about the idea of trail silliness in a previous post (link). Basically I’ve found that if you go hiking in a group it’s only a matter of time before exhaustion combined with nature’s talents produce an air of cheerfulness and, at times exaggerated, appreciation of the absurd. More basically, you laugh with each other because you feel like it.


On a map it’s easy to trace your finger straight from where I started in the town of Kennicott up Root Glacier to the base of the Stairway Icefall, but in reality you have to continually navigate around ice walls, fins, and crevasses, always searching for the nearest most gradual route available. Reminds me of riding in Glamis (link).



When I am alone in the wilderness I fall into a very different mindset. It’s a mindset that, while similar in magnitude as a departure from my norm, it vectors perpendicularly from the type of fun group-hiking brings. Sure there are times when I’m alone on the trail, and I peel a smile from ear to ear, charmed by whatever it is that I come across on the ground, in the air, or through my thoughts, but those moments are the exception.


The rule is serious, often solemn awareness.


My plan was to exit the glacier near Erie Lakes, but I couldn’t find a good way off. By about 10pm I accepted this patch of surface moraine as home. Now I can say I’ve camped on a glacier! But beyond the novelty I found it cold and poky and not really worth it if you have other options.



I realize that hiking out on glacier by myself, not to be thought of as in need for four days is dangerous, but the responsibility it places on myself for myself hones my attention and prioritizes good judgement. To steal a twenty-first century buzz-word that’s worth the baggage – I have to be “mindful.” I have to slow down and consider the general route I choose and the specific path I hike. When my path peters out and becomes too steep or too close to a fall exposure, I have to make the call to turn around and try again. When deciding where to camp think about the prevailing wind. In deciding when to break for food, I take a look at the cloud cover. And I especially try to be aware of how fatigue or complacency might be creeping on, forcing out my situational awareness.


Heck, I even work to reel in any feeling of bliss, rightly suspicious of its distracting capacity. I’ll celebrate when I’m back.


Don’t worry – this is mostly a trick of perspective. I’m standing right at the waters edge and the ice was flat and sturdy.


If you know who I am, you know that I’m a bit of a showboat. I don’t understand it much more than to say that I want to be recognized as capable, and the most convincing way to do that is for me to believe that I’m capable. The only way I’ll be convinced is if I prove that I’m capable to myself, and I do my darnedest not to be convinced of anything without some good evidence, thus I create and gather “evidence” – I showboat.


But the value of showboating is discounted out here on my own. I can shoot the coolest picture in the world, but if my camera and I end up 100-feet down a crevasse I won’t come off as being a very capable person. Not to mention that for 99% of the time I’m only performing for an audience of one.


Why did the porcupine cross the glacier?

A: To poke around



Likewise, if you’ve ever hiked with me you’ll know I tend to blunder down trails, confident in my hightop boots, youthfully injury-resistant knees/ankles and, at bottom, my close proximity to assistance should I need it. Those assurances are luxuries which in any one moment might allow me to enjoy a hike more, but overall the peaks of my satisfaction are rounded off by their availability.



The absoluteness of responsibility is partly why I enjoy flying so much. It’s already dangerous enough.   is no excuse to be at anything less than your peak preparedness beforehand and peak awareness during. There is no substitute for your complete effort and attention.



Solo hiking and piloting a plane are things that I must take seriously, and I simply haven’t been able fake my way into the peak capability produced by serious attention and effort in other aspects of my life – areas such as work, school, or in the wide majority of my relationships, for example.


Thinking carefully, I can recall a handful of football games that showed me peaks of my own situational awareness, and this one time I avoided by inches violently rear-ending a car on the freeway in a lane that suddenly blocked up with traffic. But those situations are now unavailable or always undesirable, respectively.


This is where I camped the second night. The crackle and boom of cleaving ice every entered the soundscape every hour or so during the evening, and every five minutes in the early morning. 



You can barely make them out in this picture, but the way the waterfalls coming out of this hanging glacier slowly fluttered in giant sheets of wind was something to see. 



I think that gets at how I justify engaging in dangerous hobbies, but the depth of value I attach to finding something I take seriously is hard to impart.


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