Ice Climbing

"Belay on"
"On belay"
"Climb away"

These were some of the commands we learned on our first attempt at ice climbing. Right in front of us was a wall of whiteness - ancient pure ice, sculpted by Ma Nature. Louie, our local guide for the day, was teaching us the basics of hauling ourselves up a frozen wall. It's his first season guiding in Alaska but shows an impressive resume from previous alpine adventures all over the the planet. As for me, my only claim to icy experiences was a measly hike on a glacier in Argentina almost a year ago (and the occasional blizzard that hits New York City if ever that counts!).

"Shall we go in?"

The previous day's bush plane ride gave us a gorgeous view of Root Glacier. Now that we finally made it right in the middle of this river of ice, on an unbelievably sunny day, we're even more ecstatic. Our trip to McCarthy already has an included "glacier hike" but everyone in our group wanted an upgrade. For an additional $60 ($125 full price), we'll have a full day in introductory ice climbing. While I've never even climbed a wall in a gym, I figured I could still learn something out from this. We signed our lives away at the St. Elias Alpine Guides office in Kennicott where we also got fitted with our boots, crampons and harnesses.

Getting the right fit

After walking for an hour from the guide's office, we reached Root Glacier's lateral moraine.

But what's a moraine?

As glaciers move over time like a slow conveyor belt, it grinds down either soil or rock from the valley floor that eventually gets deposited as debris most commonly on the side (lateral), in the middle (medial) or at the end (terminal). It is also this gouging action of past glaciers that leave U-shaped valleys seen in antipodal parts of the world.

From our vantage point, Louie pointed areas of the the glacier where fine deposits of debris were covering it - all the while I was thinking they were simply mounds of sand. On the other side was a wooded slope with plenty of berries in season - in other words, bears are also on the prowl. Beware of bears!

From the moraine, we walked down to the base of the glacier where we removed our hiking shoes in place of ice climbing boots - these are heavy, rigid, feels almost like ski boots. Louie directed us as we attached crampons into our boots, making sure each one was snug and tied securely enough. Crampons - with their metal spikes - give traction that allow us to walk and climb on ice. Since the spikes are sharp, walking had to be modified a bit so we don't end up hitting the sides of our pants. In other words, to keep our feet a hip width apart, we have to basically walk just like monkeys!

Louie - our ice climbing guide - checks a small moulin

With the impressive Stairway Icefall looming in front of us, we all walked towards the middle of the glacier. Louie found our spot for top-roping. We went up to the top of the wall through a walkable side and observed him prepare the gear, securing ice screws and ropes upon which our dear lives will depend. Back at the bottom of the wall, we all sat down, ate our packed sandwiches and mentally prepared ourselves for the challenge we are about to face.

The ice wall was staring at me, almost taunting me with its cold face.

The sheer scale of this icy goodness is mind-boggling
This simple crack eventually turns into a crevasse
Walking on meltwater
Better than any bottled 'mineral' water
Louie prepares the ropes

But before we could go up the wall, Louie talked about safety during climbing and belaying. Essential to a safe climb is communication - between climber and belayer. There are standard climbing commands we have to employ. More importantly, that we listen to each other's commands, or else disaster can happen. While a climber goes up, the belayer down below watches carefully, applying friction to the rope when the climber is not moving and releasing friction to the rope when the climber wants to continue moving. This technique is used essentially to arrest the fall of a climber.

Of course, even with the rope, I still wouldn't want to fall  - I'd be too embarrassed swinging up there like a pendulum.

My turn to climb and rappel

Once Louie was satisfied we have understood all the basics - including a quick demo on the actual climb - we each took turns climbing with ice axes.

And climb I did. Twice.

Unlike rock climbing where one's handhold is limited to available cracks or crevices, it looked to me like ice climbing was easier since every part of the wall is basically a handhold . The thing most needed was brute force from both lower and upper extremities to hit the frozen wall - and that was the hardest thing to do for me. I squirmed with all my might. With a sun glaring down brightly, the rays bounced off the wall and I felt so sweaty.

As soon as I hit the top, it was just a matter of rappelling down. That was the fun part.

Not satisfied with the first, I climbed again

Some members of our group still wanted a different kind of wall. Louie obliged and we went walking further into the glacier. Soon, we were looking down at the lip of a gaping moulin - a vertical shaft in a glacier that has been shaped from continuous flow of meltwater and glacial debris. Just looking down at it already terrified me so I gave it a pass. I was just not ready for it - the climb was well worth the effort already. Those few that were brave enough soon found themselves rappelling down into the abyss with Louie on belay. The most difficult part was climbing up because the wall, without benefit of sunlight, was almost like concrete.

It was getting late and we still had an hour to hike before we reached the guide's office in Kennicott. Knowing this was pretty much bear country, we all made sounds, talking to each other loudly as we walked past the lateral moraine and into the wooded section of the trail.

The last thing we want to happen is for a bear to be "surprised" and then charge at us.

While I truly wanted a bear sighting - without being attacked of course - the noises we made surely must have alerted any bear that was munching on plentiful berries nearby. Louie drove us back to the footbridge where he met us earlier that day. We walked from there to our cabins, took a long warm shower and enjoyed another dinner prepared by chef/guide/driver Dave.

Berries - a  bear's favorite
Boy Bawang attempts to climb a wall in Root Glacier

"Belay on". "On belay". "Climbing". "Climb Away".

I was already snug in my sleeping bag yet I could still hear climbing commands. I might be 'climbing' in my sleep but this means only one thing: I shall climb again. Someday.

(Note: Trip was arranged by Get Up and Go!, a locally-owned adventure tour company based in Anchorage, Alaska)


  1. pag ako nakakakita ng glacierm Titanic ang naalala ko..

    gusto ko to i-try.. parang ang saya.. sana may ganyan rin sa pinas.

  2. Awesome! Somehow the image of you as Indiana Jones popped into my head for some reason. Ice climbing definitely looks like a cool thing to do; I haven't done it before, but would love to try it one of these days. I have done wall climbing before (there's a climbing gym near where I live) and I should say that it's a very strenuous activity. On my very first time, after doing it for a couple of hours, my hands ached that I couldn't even squeeze the sponge on my kitchen sink to wash my dishes.

    Anyway, ice or not, heights fascinate me. I'm actually excited to bag a few peaks in Guatemala this coming January. And yesterday, as a procrastination tactic, I was checking out Mount Meru in Tanzania.

    Oh, and how the heck did Boy Bawang end up in Alaska?! :D

  3. Batang Lakwatsero,
    Imposible na yatang magka-snow sa Pinas unless gayahin ang Dubai with indoor ski. At least, may rock climbing/bouldering naman sa Montalban, Rizal di ba?

    The challenges posed by a rock climb is something I can never do - even if I try the indoor wall like you did, I'd probably be 'frozen' in my track, unable to move up hahaha!

    Climbing or a trek up a mountain is very doable for me as well. If ever I have the budget for it, I'd like to go up Kilimanjaro in Tanzania. I wonder what mountains in Guatemala you're after - volcanoes perhaps? Sounds exciting!

    Boy Bawang was one of my 'trail sustenance'. He eventually became a part of my poop haha!

  4. There's several I am planning. I definitely am considering climbing Pacaya (a live volcano) and Tajumulco (the highest peak in Central America). But I also have plans to do other things, like visit archaeological Mayan ruins. I'll definitely blog about it when I get back.

    Haha, you have to tell me where I can get Boy Bawang in NYC then; I visit there every now and then, and as much as I hate to admit it, there are quite a few things from home that I miss.

  5. now this is one adventure i can truly say - no please, i'll pass :)

    kidding aside, you are truly lucky to try many different adventures. this one's way too much adrenaline for me i think. although i really wanted to try cross country skiing. i can handle snow, i think. it's the height that i am not crazy about.

    btw, amazing images. i wish i took these pictures.

  6. FANTASTIC, dennis!
    i am in awe at your photos on the process of ascending that ice wall! ang galing! ...my netbook's screen nearly chilled with those ice walls. ang husay ng experience mo; you are blessed! and so are we for you're generous in sharing your spectacular experiences.... so amazing!

    ps : thanks for those new words, i learned something today. hehe

  7. Jeruen,
    Wow, you've got both natural & cultural immersions covered in this trip! I suppose you're doing this as a DIY trip. Hope to read your TR once you're done!

    Boy Bawang was a pasalubong - I just can't recall if I saw this @ the Fil-Am Grocery in Queens. Check it out, they've got lots of stuff you already miss.

    Photo Cache,
    I tried to learn how to ski only earlier this year and I must say, I have still so much practice to do before I can hit a slope :) You know what, if snowfall this winter is substantial, I'll do snowshoeing for sure!

    Doc Gelo,
    Thanks Doc! I was happy at least I got to conquer 'myself' again with this ice climbing thing. It was hard work but hey, I'd do it again.

  8. reminded me of a challenge in amazing race. saya nga naman diyan. specially the moulin.

    as always... inggit ako

  9. WOW! This is definitely a must-do activity in my bucket list. I used to think it's rather extreme and full-on but you made it sound fun and quite easy :)

  10. dong ho,
    I think you're referring to last Sunday's Amazing Race episode. Climbing up was fun but I really just can't tackle going down the moulin though :(

    lakwatsera de primera,
    Climbing up a wall requires some hard work - arms and legs - but yes, it can be fun.

  11. This such amazing experience...thank you for sharing...your so blessed! ka inggit tlga! buti pa nga c boy bawang nakasama...hahahaha:)

  12. as always, it's an amazing experience. antaas ng stamina mo. kala ko pa nagsasalonpas ka din? joke lang ba yun?

    btw, how about your camera? hindi sya na-damage? or may freeze-proof kang dslr?

  13. Sunny Toast,
    Tirang pasalubong yun kaya dinala ko na para maubos.

    hahaha! kahit may salonpas (or equivalent) na nabibili dito, oks na ako sa Omega. :) My DSLR functioned well although I was worried about draining my battery - buti na lang, it was not so cold that day!

  14. Winner ang last photo! Gosh, what a group of adventure junkies. Naghanap pa ng ibang walls to climb. I might be happy to just climb one, then call it a day. Haha! Couldn't handle the cold!

  15. Pinay Travel Junkie,
    I could have done a 3rd climb if we didn't move elsewhere but as soon as I saw the gaping hole in a moulin, I gave it a pass. Perhaps next time hehe!

  16. Wow! All I can say is keep doing these kind of adventures...and more, while you are young and able. Just don't throw caution to the wind.

  17. speechless ako dito, dennis! i'd like to try ice climbing. pero grabe ka. natulala talaga ako sa ganda. wala pa akong masabi...

  18. Ang gaganda ng pictures mo! Biglang gusto kong mag-ice climbing bigla :D Never had a chance kahit na nasa UK ako on a winter. Sana soon :D

    At nagdala din ako ng maraming Boy Bawang :))

  19. bertN,
    I tried my best and I'm so glad I came down from that wall still in one piece.

    sinabi mo pa. nakakatulala talaga ang ganda. I think I've taken more pictures there than anywhere in my entire Alaska trip.

    maraming salamat! I took the opportunity to ice climb kasi it was not an expensive upgrade from the glacier walk that we were originally booked to do.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...