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THE CROSSING

In May 2015, the young Frenchman adventurer Vincent Colliard  and veteran Norwegian explorer, Borge Ousland, crossed the Stikine ice field in their quest to cross the 20 largest ice fields of the World. The integral crossing of the Stikine ice field  has never been done before. Although satellite images helped, route finding was challenging, complicated and sometimes dangerous. The complicated route lasted till the last day on the ice when they carried 40 kg back packs uphill through dense bushes to avoid the glacier terminus, but eventually had to retreat and tackle the chaotic ice. This expedition was rewarded with a “good feeling” when they paddled with their inflatable rafts between the ice front of Great Glacier and Stikine River. Borge and Vincent skied approx. 180 kilometers in 16 days and were back to civilisation on day 17.

Borge and Vincent established themselves in Juneau in order to get their equipment ready. Then, there were dropped off by a boat in Sawyer, located in the Northern part of the ice field. The starting point on the ice was  57°55’N and 133°09’W. There, they began their ascension up to the plateau, and crossed the glacier from North to South. Weather has been very clear during most of the journey. According to Borge and Vincent, if the weather would have been bad for several days, their chances of success would have been quite limited. They had exit by a glacier called Great Glacier at around 56°49’N and 132°20’W, then paddle on the Stikine river for half a day before being picked up the next day by a boat which took them back to the town Wrangell in Alaska.

The glacier

Stikine Icefield
Location
Alaska

Alaska’s southernmost ice field, Stikine – coordinates 57°04’N 132°13’W, is one of the three biggest icecaps in Alaska. Its southern location and relatively low elevation make it vulnerable to changing climate. It is demanding and dangerous, located on the Alaska-British Columbia boundary in the Alaska Panhandle region. The Stikine is North America’s version of Patagonia; spectacular with many impressive spires, most famously the Devil’s Thumb.

The Stikine river
A haven for wildlife

Stikine River, or Stik-Heen, which means ‘Great River’ in Tlingit. The Stikine River certainly lives up to its name. Traveling 400 miles from headwaters in British Columbia to its mouth near Wrangell, it continues to carve its channel through glacial valleys and delta flats.

The delta is a haven for over 120 species of migrating birds in the spring and fall, including tundra swans, Canadian geese, sandhill cranes, mergansers, waterfowl and over 150,000 shorebirds. In April, the second largest concentration of eagles in the world occurs with 1,600 eagles gathering. In late April, 10,000 snow geese stop on their migration northward. There are other wildlife such as sealions, otter, bear and moose.

Special Equipment
From kayak to sled

Starting May 9th Borge and Vincent will walk and ski across challenging Stikine ice field. The Distance on the ice will be around 170 km and total duration of the journey will be 4 weeks. They will need to use kayaks to reach the ice and will turn them into sleds for skiing.

DAILY REPORT

First complete crossing of Stikine ice-field. Unsupported

Børge and I left Juneau this morning on a boat with captain Eric as we had the plan to be dropped off near by a glacier branch called Sawyer, located in the North of the Stikine ice-field. As we approached the ice-field, the mountains got steeper and the fjord became more narrow. We discovered this wild landscape and suddenly looked at each other. No need to talk. The access to the ice was going to be tough. Around mid-day, we were waving Eric seeing progressively his boat becoming smaller and smaller in between the ice-floes before disappearing. We felt small. The mountains around are steep and the glacier was well alive as we heard the ice calving and falling into the water of this deep fjord. “We’ll camp here tonight” said Børge showing a small sandy platform surrounded by rocks. Meanwhile, we decided to carry a part of our gear towards the side of the glacier further up. We needed to find a safe entrance. “We have been too high on the terrain” said Børge. “But we saw a mountain goat” recalled him smiling. Indeed, it was a white beautiful one ! It probably wondered what these two guys were doing on a steep terrain carrying skis and orange plastic sleds on their back. “Whatever” it might have thought. We had to go down and find another line which could bring us near by the ice. We found it and by the end of the afternoon, half of our gear was on the ice Gps marked. Moreover, we could have spotted a flat ice patch no so broken in the middle of the arm which means we could be pulling our sleds by tomorrow, way lighter and faster than carrying the equipment on our back. “That’s a nice perspective” I claimed. It is good to make progress and even on half a day. Finally, we went back to our camp further down in the fjord. The sound of the ice and the rivers around us will cradle our sleep until the morning.

An intense 11 hours day… Started the day carrying our equipment towards the ice. On this kind of unsupported expedition, we were not able to carry all our gear in one go, so we needed to load half of it on our back and travel two times back and forth. Walking in average steep terrain do not usually bother us the walk but things got different as we had a 30-40 kilos backpack. However, we were glad to reach the ice few hours later. We even started to pull our sleds, thinking that we could progress nicely. Well… not really ! Very short distance covered for many hours of hard labor. The ice in Sawyer is vey challenging as we navigate hardly in between the cracks and the pools which constantly surrounded us. “Tough !” declared Borge. We still managed to find a camp and pitch our home. We were in the claws of Sawyer but both determined to fight and progress on this wild piece

Back to carrying. We had to get out of Sawyer ice because we couldn’t find any possible way to travel. There were big chunk of ice big as cathedrals. ‘’It’s chaos around here’’ I shouted while being roped up with Borge. So we had to go on land on the side of this massive glacier and carry again our gear in steep terrain hauling our equipment on the steepest parts. We finally got back on the ice late in the evening shaking our hands as we saw a possible snow field for the next day.

The possible snow field that we saw yesterday was indeed practicable. We even got to try our skies… until we had to use crampons again and find a way through all this  crevasses. “Huge!!” declared Borge skiing over a big crack. What a battle! When we thought it was over, Sawyer showed us that it wasn’t… In crevasses area, walking on skies was much safer than walking with crampons. Skies distributed our weight on different places whereas walking with crampons increased the risk of falling through snow bridges. We also saw some bear tracks in the middle of this complex glacier. Unbelievable! It was probably grizzly tracks in regard of the size of their footsteps. Another track might have been a black bear though. Finally our hopes became reality when we could have reached a proper snowfield to progress on, even though we had to stay roped all the time. By the end of this long day, we were now on safe ground for the night. Tired. But one question remained, did we have the control of this expedition ? It was day 4 and we had barely made any progression.

We have been skiing rope-less for the whole morning and enjoyed the freedom of it. The weather was just perfect today! Considering our slow progression so far, we definitely needed ‘’Mother Nature’’ to cooperate. Our plan was to ski towards the Southern part of Sawyer and we knew that an important challenge lied ahead of us. We needed to ski up a mountain pass before going down on the other side and connect with South Sawyer. We reached the pass around mid-day where we leaved our sleds and ski freely in order to recognize the way down. It was always tricky to plan a route from above… and especially on a narrow pass where we didn’t have much options. We decided to strap our sleds so they had a catamaran shape. With this system, we had a better control when we went down and the sleds were more steady. The upper part went well and we felt in control. However, further down, we discovered a recent and massive avalanche track. A huge side of the mountain has slided to the bottom of the glacier. On the way down, we were quite anxious. It was narrow and we feared the mountain on the other side. We had to hurry. Moreover, it was getting warmer and warmer. This south exposure faces got most of the sun. It could be fatal if a similar snow patch disconnect from the top as all the snow would consequently collect in the bottom of this narrow valley. Bad moment. Away from the danger, we took a break and looked back feeling lucky.

Weather was very cooperative again on day 6. We have been skiing 28 kilometers on the South part of Sawyer. This very challenging area is now in our back. We definitely needed to find out where this name comes from as we will remember this place for a long long time. Stikine was in the bottom of our list, ranked number 17 world largest icecap. Event though, we have realized that it is probably one of the toughest! Or the toughest ?

The weather was still beautiful here on Stikine ice field. We started the day with the intention to ski down a narrow valley which would bring us down to Dawes area on a quite straight itinerary. However, after scouting and looking the satellite images, we decided not to go the route planned because of the risk of avalanches and the danger of icefalls. Instead, we have opted for another route further East, smoother but physically pretty demanding. This option added a detour of approximately 30km. On the way, lots of steep mountains making this place pretty intimidating. We are now in the tent enjoying a warm meal after a 12 hour up and down ski day. Better safe than sorry, right?

Stikine was very special compared to other icecaps. Usually, the entrance and the exit points of icecaps are the most critical places to ski across. And the middle of the ice is basically the safest area. However, things were quite different on Stikine. Challenges were all along the field. Altitude difference, narrow mountain passes and complex crevasses made this place different from traditional ice field. We were struggling now to find a route as we were in the middle of two glacier arms connecting together and forming the ice of Dawes which goes all the way to the Pacific. We decided to leave the sleds in the middle of the glacier and find a route first. Back on solid ground on the side of the ice, we trekked uphill in order to have a global view. After some exchange with Borge, we decided to avoid the middle of the glacier and go on the sides where the ice met solid ground. It means that we are back carrying. Unfortunately on our first carrying attempt, we had to turn back. The passage is too steep and all these rocks hanging made us re-consider our plan. We took the second option. Longer but maybe safer. At this stage of the expedition, we were not sure to be able to go all the way across the ice field. If we can not find a way to travel through the ice of Dawes, we would need to call the expedition off. But we strove to give our best and tried to move forward as much as we could. This was a one more key moment of the journey. Hard work brought rewards when, late in the evening, we set the camp above the many difficulties.  Again, what a day !

Yesterday has been an amazing day, skiing for 11 hours in between camp 8 and camp 9. We used the rope in the beginning to travel through safely but manage to ski freely the rest of the day on the snowfield. Finally one day safe listening to some good music while skiing. Loved it! Nonetheless, there are always surprises on Stikine, aren’t they ? Well, we had to be roped again as some huge crevasses appeared by the end of the day near by our camp.

At this point of the expedition, we had some chances of success but we still needed to be very focused. The satellite images were precious information for navigation and they allowed us to find quickly our position and to determine quickly the options ahead of us. Day 10 was another day with some music. Is there a better feeling to ski with a friend in between beautiful mountains – listening to some Johny Cash for Borge and some Jack Johnson for me ?

Again great conditions here in Stikine with a beautiful weather. On the way we could have seen an optional exit point called Patterson in case we could not go out either in Le Conte or Great glacier. We kept in mind to exit in Great glacier because it is Stikine’s southern most piece of ice. So we skied for 12 hours and about 30 km. We really wanted to set camp near by our next challenge for the next day, the technical descent towards Great glacier going down from 1900-1600m almost back to sea level. Steep mountains!!

Woke up at 03.00 this morning in order to have colder conditions. It means hard snow, less avalanches and risk of ice falls reduced. So we speeded up our way hoping to reach the start point of our way down. We got there at 06.30 am. Once upon there, we decided not to attempt the descent at this place. Too dangerous! So we turned back. However, we have seen a possible way down in the far distance. We took a chance to go there and have a look. Finally we arrived at 16.00 on the top of the col leading to the potential route. We scouted it and it looked good. Tomorrow !

Woke up at 03 am again. We could definitely feel the tension that morning. We tried to be as much efficient as we could. The sooner down in a safe place is the best. The ice doesn’t like the warmth. We needed to cross a mountain face in order to reach a smoother highway that would lead us towards the lower part of Great Glacier. We sometimes had to crawl in the snow  to avoid breaking snow bridges. The lower part was a large plateau of ice that travels all the way to the water of Great Lake. What a feeling of gratitude when we came down the face! If this option would not have worked, we would have been forced to ski towards the North and attempt the branch exit called Patterson. But on the map, this exit is not located completely to the South of the ice-field. Then, can we call it a full crossing ?

Challenges were not over. Ahead of us was the exit branch of the icecap. We have been skiing, abseiling and struggling on Great glacier for about 10 hours today but we managed to go through. This is our last night on the ice ‘’normally’’ but the adventure was not over as we still needed to carry our equipment up steep terrain on a forest before going down on the other side and reach Great Lake. We hoped to paddle a part of the Stikine river with our rafts on the 23rd, in two days.

What a day ! We started this morning packing our backpacks hoping to get out of the glacier. Our goal was to reach the top of a 900 meter mountain before going down on the other side and camp near by Great lake. After 2 hours of struggling with our 40 kilos backpacks we decided to turn back. The bushes were too dense!! But we still managed to get a good overview towards the glacier terminus. Back on the ice, we battled the rest of the day until we finally reached the glacier front. We screamed of joy! We were exhausted though. Tomorrow is our last day of food, we need to paddle across Great Lake and then be picked up in the morning of the 24th by a boat. Border line we were! But success across the whole ice cap!!

Left the ice this morning and spent the day paddling across the lake, then carrying our gear across the forest and finally paddling again on the Stikine river. When Borge and I arrived on the 16th day and came down the river in a raft, we took a long look at the glacier moving away from us. And later on, having dinner on the riverbank around a campfire, we had time to reflect. It was then that we realized the commitment of our achievement: having never given up and resisting the temptation to abandon the expedition. We feared that we wouldn’t reach the Southern exit of the glacier on schedule but we made it!

Good to picked up by the boat which came up the Stikine river. At this stage, we had no batteries and food left. Couple of hours later, we came to the town of Wrangell. But do we really want to get back to civilization?

CONCLUSION

We became the first expedition to complete successfully the traverse of Stikine ice field from North to South. It proved challenging and sometimes dangerous. Pretty much every single day on this expedition was special. ”What a day!” became basically our quote at the end of each day. The glacier is active, it is subject to many different pressures, with ice melting in the compressed valleys changing the configuration of the environment. Certain branches of the glacier, in particular the entrance, surprised us. We hadn’t planned to have to spend 4 days on foot in Sawyer, crossing crevasse after crevasse for several kilometers. There were some very fractured sections of the glacier with chaotic complex ice, and no possibility to avoid them or get off the glacier. Going off the ice on solid is also quite challenging in regard of the steepness of the mountains around. Yet some of the area forced us to take long detours in order to avoid large crevasses fields and avalanche dangers.

On a ‘’scientific level’’, we have discovered a snow, greyed by soot, made up of particles resulting from the partial combustion of hydro carburants. In these grey zones, the sunlight’s reflection is stronger and, as we know, a grey or black color absorbs light and matter heats up. Here is an example of a bird’s feather they found along the route. The snow surrounding the feather had melted so much that the feather was at the bottom of a hole. The same thing had happened to the carbon particles, as with the grey colored feather. But if the feather fell naturally onto the snow, the soot came from industrial activity which means, without a shadow of a doubt, the implication of humans in global warming.

Sharing the adventure

THE JOURNEY