Kahiltna Trip: Part Three

The Price of Solitude

More Whiteout

More Whiteout, but getting better.

We packed up camp quickly, trying to get motivated for the icefall. It was still whiteout conditions, but the wind was gone. As we slowly descended more and more of the landscape was revealed and by the time we reached the top of the icefall, it had mostly cleared.

We used my camera and checked the aerial photographs I had taken.

“We need to right next to Hunter.” I said and led us around a few crevasses and into the fine gully between the mountain and the icefall. It was a perfect path. We descended down a steep slope to the Thunder Valley branch of the Kahiltna.

The beautiful Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna.

The beautiful Thunder Fork of the Kahiltna.

Very few people ever get a chance to visit Thunder Valley and that is a shame because it was nothing less than spectacular. The sun was hot, though ambient temp was still only 0F.

“We need to stop here, I need some time to photograph” I pleaded. We had only been travelling a few hours, the weather was great, a perfect day to get lots of miles of skiing in. But after two days of nothing but whiteout, I needed to get some photographs.

I pulled out my camera and began photographing. The next thing I knew the lens was fogged, not on the surface, but inside. I pulled out my other lens, within a few minutes it was fogged too. I was pissed.

“I need time to dry out the lenses, why don’t you guys ski down and find that smooth path through crevasses.” I knew they were antsy, and I figured this would keep them occupied while I figured out what to do.

I stuck both lenses on my pack and pointed them directly at the sun. Slowly the condensation on the inside faded except for a nickel sized circle in the middle. I realized that we needed to camp in order for the lenses to dry and for me to have time to photograph. I started digging a camp, checking the lenses every few minutes, but the small circle of moisture wouldn’t go away. I did everything right, kept the cameras cold, batteries warm. I couldn’t believe that the sun and probably the heat from my gloved hands had created enough warmth to cause condensation on the inside of the lens.

“Okay, I need to dry them out fast, but how?” I thought to myself. I kept digging, watching the beautiful light change, watching photographs vanish. After a few hours, they were still fogged. It was time for an experiment.

“Here goes nothing.” I put one of my lenses inside of my jacket, next to my body and zipped it up. I figured there was already condensation, so maybe my trapped body heat would dry them out. It would either work or make things worse. After twenty minutes I pulled it out, dry. I switched lenses, twenty minutes later, both were dry.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris descend through the upper Kahiltna Icefall, Mount Foraker is in the background.

Sy and Chris were just coming back and I yelled at them to take a different route so I could take their pictures. With the camera on the tripod I shot a series of images of them in front and travelling through the icefall. Their tiny shapes were a perfect way to add some needed scale to the enormous scene.

I was photographing quickly, when Err.

“No, not again!” I screamed. I let the camera sit.

“Okay, maybe it just moving slow and needs extra time to process each image.”

So I waited thirty seconds or so before taking another image or before turning off the camera. That seemed to work.

The beautiful Thunder Mountain

The beautiful Thunder Mountain

“So we are camping here for sure.” Sy said, looking at my snow walls and the half set up tent.

“Sorry, yes.” I replied. They both began working on my half-ass site building job. Even though it was clear, a wind was starting to come down the glacier, right through our secret path.

I was having trouble taking images, my hands were cold and each time I touched the camera or tripod, the life was sucked out of them. Even wearing my warmest mittens didn’t work. My cable release was frozen stiff and was cracking, so it was not useable. So each shot I would use the self timer to reduce vibration.

Chris started up the stove and began brewing hot water for dinner. I was unable to keep warm, I needed to eat something, I had all my clothes on. The breeze was getting ugly, we all huddled in our little cook area, hiding from the wind.

“It’s -25F!” Chris said after checking his thermometer.

“What? it is not even dark yet!” I complained, we all knew that the night was going to be cold, really cold. The wind was eating us up. But without those hot water bottles, it would be a cold sleepless night.

When the last bottle was filled we charged into our bags. Chris, checked the thermometer one last time, -35F, add the wind and it was really cold, possibly -64F.


“I can’t read my book, the pages are too cold.” Chris said. Over the night huge crystals form around the tent. If anyone touched the side of the tent, it became a snow storm inside. Not being the type that uses a pee bottle, I got up once to take a leak. It was clear and beautiful, it took two hours for me to warm back up from being outside for less than a minute.

We all vowed to not return to the Alaska Range in March!

Next: Part Four: The Games Mountains Play

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