Kelli and I, along with our new friends Mike and Kelsie, donned backpacks laden with supplies we would need for a night out in the wild and began a 3.5 mile hike up to the Harding Icefield, which is North America’s 4th largest icefield with depths up to 2,000 feet thick. The Harding hangs above the small port of Seward and spawns many glaciers that flow down from the heights before reaching the sea, among them Aialak, Holgate, Bear and Exit glaciers. Indeed, the trail followed alongside Exit Glacier as it rose up from the woods, and it was a pleasure to be out and about in the wilds of Alaska, hiking next to a flowing glacier up to an icefield in the sunshine. On our 3,200 vertical foot climb, we saw two black bears, one of whom was crossing the ice on Exit Glacier, dodging around crevasses with a lumbering grace that would make most mountaineers jealous.
After leaving the newly awakening green forest behind for the snowy slopes, we arrived at the small shelter that my buddy Pete and I camped in when I was last here in 1996- the Harding Icefield Shelter. It was still there as I remembered it, although a little more worn by weather. The day was so fantastic that we forwent sleeping in the shelter, electing instead to pitch our tents on an exposed rocky rib that held fabulous, breath-taking, million dollar views out to the vast expanses of the Harding ice. It was truly a spectacular sight, and no amount of clichés or adjectives can adequately convey the grandeur of the scene that lay before us. Of all the many, many campsites I’ve enjoyed over the years, this one ranks in the top 5. The icefield wrapped itself like a great white quilt around peaks called nunataks that were poking thru the ice, and it was quite a sight. I would climb one the following day. The sun was beating down on us at this point, and to escape it we napped in the tents for an hour or so. As the sun started to dip its arc towards the horizon, Mike and I hiked down the exposed rocky rib to the edge of the icefield itself, where we hopped on it and began a traverse out to a group of crevasses that were starting to open up. Some of the crevasses were 60-70 feet deep and looking at them was both thrilling and a bit scary, as they were a possible icy tomb should we fall into one. We didn’t though and after an hour on the great sheet of ice, we hiked back up to our camps and dinner. We all enjoyed a peaceful and relaxing night up there, glad to be in such a fantastic place.
A month later I came back to the icefield overlook, with the intent this time to climb one of those nunataks.
The one I was here to climb…dubbed the Grand Dandini (as it was nameless and listed merely as Point 5,400 feet on the topo maps) rose off in the distance, its summit arcing like the moon. The peak’s north face was divided into three sweeping faces, divided from the icefield by a deep bergschrund, and it looked hardcore and marvelous! I enjoyed a warm and pleasant evening, and was awoken at 11pm by that family of goats that were climbing around my camp. I got out of my tent to photograph them and looked over at the Grand Dandini, which had the bright orange bulb of the half moon hanging off it in the purple midnight sky. Gorgeous! Then I drifted off to sleep again, excited for the coming ascent.
I was again woken up by goats at 5am, and it didn’t take much motivation to rouse me from slumber. I cooked a quick breakfast of oatmeal and hot chocolate, geared up and began a 500 foot descent from the spine down to the icefield. I wasn’t looking forward to making the climb UP to my camp later in the day coming back. I then began a traverse of the icefield, across the head of Exit Glacier. The Grand Dandini loomed above me, dangling like a carrot in front of a mule, and towards it I went. It took me an hour and ½ to traverse the relative flats of the icefield before I reached the steeper lower slopes of the Dandini, with the awesome sharp pinnacle of “the Stinger” looming off to my right. I climbed up thru the mushy snow, dodging around crevasses as I did so. I then attained the eastern shoulder of the Dandini and from there world-class, breath-taking views down to the massive head of the mighty Bear Glacier presented itself. It really was quite a sight looking out to the massive cirque where three large glaciers met to form the Bear, which flowed down into the clouds. One of my primary motives to climb the Dandini was to see the head of Bear Glacier, and seeing it now made this whole effort pay off. I was a little disappointed that the toe of Bear Glacier, which spills out into a lake that Kelli and I are planning on kayaking in the next few weeks, was concealed by clouds, because I wanted to see the lake from above as I was now. But regardless, the views were absolutely phenomenal!
I continued up this ridge that I thought would lead to the summit, but met a dead end at a rocky cliff only 100 vertical feet from the top. I scoped out alternatives to get me there, and found one through a narrow chimney slicing the rock that was rotten as hell. I had to down climb 30 feet down another shattered chimney to access it, and then began climbing through it. The chimney passed through a rocky pillar that was as loose as any that I’ve ever climbed, with every hand hold breaking off when grabbed. The rock was literally held together only by gravity, and I made my way up slowly, meticulously and unsure. It was dangerous and indeed scary, as a fall would send my body tumbling down broken rock 500 feet where it would come to rest on the glacial ice below. But it didn’t last long and before I knew it I was standing on the stunning knife-blade summit ridge. A hundred more steps brought me to the apex of the curved summit dome, and I must say that of all the many peaks I’ve climbed in my life, the views from the Dandini were the most spectacular, awesome and amazing that I’ve ever beheld from any mountain. All around me was ice, in every direction. The Harding Icefield wrapped around other nunataks and went south, and I was joyous at the thought that here I was looking at a section of the icefield that very few humans have ever seen. Indeed, I was curious as to just how many people had ever climbed the peak I was on. Other nunataks poked out of the icefield, and they too were remote and mysterious. There has to be so many peaks out there that have never even seen a single footprint. It was pretty spectacular! Ice, snow and rock was the domain up here, and it was a hardcore sight. Resurrection Bay was hidden in a sea of clouds down below, as was the Gulf of Alaska, but up here I was roasting in open warm sunshine. The Dandini’s marvelous north face dropped steeply down to the icefield, and two of its three faces showed signs of large avalanches. I looked down it, over the icefield I had just traversed back to my camp on a rocky spine, and enjoyed this whole wondrous scene in quiet and peaceful solitude for 45 minutes.
I then began my descent, being a little nervous about down-climbing that rotten rock again, but it passed quickly with no problems and soon I was back on the soft snow. With the ascent behind me, I was relaxed and feeling good as I trudged back across the icefield as I listened to my ipod. I did have a little scare near the end when my foot went through a small and shallow crevasse, but I didn’t know it was small until my leg dropped into the hidden crack and I hurriedly scrambled out of it. My thermometer read 70 degrees on the icefield, and indeed it was a really hot day outside…too hot for Alaska. The heat slowed my ascent back to my camp, but I got there where Kelli was waiting for me. She had hiked up earlier in the morning and together we enjoyed the rest of the wonderful day up there, overlooking the great icefield and the beautiful peak I had just climbed…the Grand Dandini.
In the morning (Thursday) we awoke and a look down to the valley below revealed a sea of clouds coming up to meet the sea of ice, and it was a really spectacular sight. We boiled up some hot chocolate while admiring the view, took our time packing up camp, and then began our hike down, leaving the open sunshine as we entered the clouds. As it’s been every time I’ve been on this trail, we saw a black bear up on the open slopes above us. All things considered, this little trip encompassed Alaska at its wild best!