Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Lost and Found: Seven.

For the first time on the trip I managed several solid hours of sleep. Then Eric rolled over and farted at ~4AM, loud enough to wake me (zzzzz... ...brrrrrrrRRRRRT! whaaaaa?!... ...bear?!?). Once awake I wasn't able to turn off the stream of thoughts that rushed forward. Chief among them: La Perouse glacier just a mile or so down the beach. The chill in the air came courtesy of that surging river of ice.

I lay in my bag, eyes open, counting mosquitoes in the top of the 'mid (<200: Average) and reviewing what we 'knew' about the approaching crux: Andrew Skurka, Dick Griffith, Hig and Erin, and Dylan's boss had all walked the beach in front of it. Some even did it at high tide.

Given that--a breeze, it seemed--we should have had little to worry about.

But my traveling partners had mentioned it in hushed tones and uncertain terms several times in the previous days, giving me these hours of horizontal time to wonder what was bugging them.

Up and at 'em, we blew up boats and paddled easily across a nameless creek, then had an unimpeded view of the glacier for the next ~mile. Watching Dylan and Eric shrink in size as they approached it bumped my blood pressure.


Rather than go down the needlessly-anxious road, I looked away, fixating on the waves crashing into shore.


And was surprised to note that about every 20th wave, in one ~60 foot section of beach, did not rise, dump, and crash but turned to mush and just washed up on the beach. Noted.

Dylan's body language says it all.


The glacier had apparently surged forward since our route benefactors had passed; what we found were house and building-sized chunks of ice calving into tidewater. But the tide was still going out, so we backtracked out of the shadow to batten down the hatches and wait for low tide. Maybe, just maybe it would drop enough for us to squeak by.

Terse discussion focused on the hope of walking the beach. But we had to be realistic--it wasn't likely to go. In his inimitable way, Roman suggested that we could just hop, skip, frolic over the glacier. Pffft--nothing to it, he wanted us to believe.

And he might have been right. I couldn't get past the idea that we'd be doing this in tennis shoes, with laden bikes, no rope, no glacier gear at all. Seemed plumb crazy. I kept that to myself.


A guy can only do so much gear fiddling before the heartbeat banging in his ears gets to be too much. I walked away from my bike, camera in hand, to focus on anything else. Eric had done the same, scrambling up for a better view of Plan B.




Mercifully, low tide arrived and we marched down to the water. No pics here--everything was lashed tight. The water *had* dropped substantially, giving all of us reason for renewed hope. We committed, threading our way through blocks, wading out waist-deep in surf to get around and through the jumble. My heart banged like a kettle in my ears--easily audible over the crashing surf. Maybe 5, 6 minutes in we came to an opening, were able to actually get back onto beach gravel for ~100 yards, albeit under an overhung wall that spit cobbles and frozen chunks every few seconds. Tense.

At the end of that stretch it was back to the labyrinth--into and out of the surf, pausing, timing dashes between breaking waves, hoisting the bikes over bergs half-submerged. I don't believe my HR ever came below 180 through here--just pinned.

Next time I looked up Eric was coming toward me, fast. As he came abreast he threw a look over his shoulder, "Totally blocked--let's get the eff outta here."

There was relief in retreat, but we still had to make it back. The section of gravelly beach seemed a safe haven--we relaxed slightly, caught our breath while moving slower, preparing for the last rush out. Eric and Roman hit the exit chute first, Dylan and Doom shortly behind.

C-c-c-c-r-a-a-a-a-a-c-c-c-k-k-k-k...

We all heard it at once, didn't need to look to know. Eric and Roman were out of harms way, but the van-sized hunk of ice was falling toward Dylan and Doom. They broke into a run--forward and sideways--doing what they could to put space between them and it. The many-ton chunk of ice concussed gravel (we could feel it in our chests), spraying softball-sized shrapnel our way. Dylan and Doom took some glancing blows and kept running.

Minutes later, catching our breath and gathering wits on a sun soaked beach, all that remained were cotton-mouths and a scared-straight adrenaline hit. It had been close.

Now what?

Roman lobbied for the over-the-top approach. Dylan seemed to tentatively agree. Eric thought we might be able to surf launch. Doom said nothing, I followed his lead. All of it seemed uncertain, tenuous at best. How far over the glacier? Would we have to camp up there? Could we stay warm with light summer gear and no fire atop a sheet of ice? What if it was cliffy on the far side--forcing retreat in a day, two days?

Lots of unanswerable questions.

Roman asked my opinion, perhaps sensing that I was undecided and might be able to tip the vote. I pointed out my uncertainties about the glacier, our lack of appropriate gear. Point for point he dismissed my arguments, often with good logic, sometimes (crevasse rescue?) with nothing more than smoke and mirrors.

I mentioned the section of beach I'd noted earlier, and the possibility of surf launching there. It wasn't far back, so we saddled up and went to have a look.

45 minutes later Eric and I were inflating boats and cinching things down tight. Raingear on, cameras double drybagged and stashed in packs, boats tempered as hard as possible given the hot air and cold water. Eric was ready first, dragged his boat ankle deep and waited. The agreement to try this route hadn't been unanimous, hadn't even been an agreement. Roman wanted to see if Eric or I could do it at all--feared that his little boat would prove hard to enter, harder to punch through the waves. Dylan was rightly concerned about swamping; his boat lacked a spraydeck.

We agreed that there was no hurry: It mattered only that we all make it out through the breakers--once out we could regroup, bail the water from our boats, proceed.

The waves rolled in, cycle after cycle dumping and crashing at our feet. The occasional mushburger lapped up on the beach, but never with enough warning to rush through it--always another dumper right behind. Eric finally committed, perhaps prematurely, pushing his boat through a chest high wave, filling it and soaking himself. In a heartbeat he was inside and furiously paddling, past the surf zone. Success!

My turn. Doom stood at my side, ready to help shove me out when the time was right. So hard to read the waves--just a split second to decide whether to commit or wait. Many, many times he was already pulling and running forward as I held my ground and pulled back. Throwing me to the wolves it felt like! Finally we committed at the same time, but three steps in the wave reared and dumped, filling my boat instantly. We dragged it in, emptied, then started again.

Maybe 5, 6 long minutes later the right break came and we were on it. Doom was so amped to get me out past it that he gave one last shove as I tried to pull myself into the boat. I stumbled, the bottom was gone, nothing to push against, it was all I could do to pull myself to the boat, then up and in. But I did get in, did paddle hard, did make it out to where Eric bobbed along grinning. He handed over a water bottle and I bailed the errant water from my boat. Two for two.

In a very short time all 5 of us shared smiles, congratulations as we rode the swells along the face of the glacier. Roman: "It was cool and felt clever, sneaky almost, like we were getting away with something risky as we paddled a few miles of the Pacific Ocean past a huge glacier."

Pushed along by a ~3mph current, Eric offers thanks to his Sheri Tingey™ bobblehead, while Doom tempers.


It did feel cool, clever, sneaky to sit high and dry in our little boats and spectate the passing of the glacier. Visually inspecting the route we might have taken over the top gave me the jeebies.

Eventually we came to the end of the glacier, to lumpy moraines and chunky boulders, then gravelly beach. Time to land. As we angled in toward shore the swells grew larger and faster. Hmmm.


I spent an autumn living in Hawaii, learned the most rudimentary basics of surfing in that time. Most of the study there had been on the faces of the waves--how to read which ones to commit to for the best chance of a long ride. This was different--we wanted the opposite of what a surfer wants, but needed to commit to the surf zone regardless. As we followed Eric in I quipped to Doom, "This is pretty much a crapshoot, isn't it?!" I looked toward him to see his response, but never got one--his eyes grew big as saucers as the wave behind us stood up and started to break. I can't remember what he yelled--something loud.

As in so many other critical moments of my life, I hesitated. Doom spun and paddled hard to get behind it, Eric did the same. As I sat frozen with indecision Eric motored past me, calmly uttering "I'm outta here" as he passed. When finally my brain convinced my arms to move, I managed but two or three feeble strokes--hardly enough to gain any momentum--then the full force of the wave came down. I flipped, got maytagged along the bottom, then swam a few strokes to where I could stand. Dylan came running down to help collect my strewn gear. As we tossed the last of it ashore, Doom and Eric glided gently in on a lamb of a wave, stepping out scarcely ankle deep.

Fortunately it was another sunny day. An ~hour later all gear was dry but for one of my DSLR's--it never would breathe again.


We packed up and moved on, riding a mix of sand and gravel, walking a bit, easily crossing several rivulets but forced to confront two (three?) more gnarly streams pouring off of Finger Glacier. Two of these we waded to ~midway, hastily aborted, then hiked and stumbled upstream to find a paddleable channel. So much easier to float than flail, but not always an option.

Dylan appreciating the Fairweather Range--now that we're past it.


The closer we got to Icy Point the more fun the riding became. Stretches of walking were short; skill and oomph and desire were sufficient to keep us on our bikes for 10, 15, 20 minutes at a stretch. It was technical but doable--even with our non-technically adept (brakeless, single speed) setups. It was fun.




At Icy Point, Astrolabe Peninsula lit up on left horizon.




Roman and Doom raced ahead, friendly rivalry developing as they tried to ride more and harder lines, each pushing the other to ride better, cleaner.


We made camp on a gravel bar at Kaknau Creek, spectating sunset cloud pyrotechnics while congregated around the fire, laughing with relief about a most memorable summer solstice.