Ice Climbing Spencer Glacier
By Mike Edgington
Gunshot-like noise reverberated around the mountains as we paddled the lake towards Spencer Glacier. The fracturing ice was a powerful reminder that the glacial mass ahead is a dynamic landscape, a solid ice river slowly flowing downhill to join the calm liquid embracing our gliding kayaks.
Our small party would be ice climbing the glacier later in the day under the expert instruction of Benny Lieber, the guide from Girdwood-based Ascending Path.
Spencer Glacier is named after Edward Spencer, the Alaska Central Railroad timekeeper who disappeared Nov. 16, 1905 taking the ice trail between the tunnel camp at mile 52 and the grading camp three miles north. The body of the teenage Oakland, Calif. native, who had only lived in Alaska for four months, was found the following year almost half a mile from the trail.
The close association of the glacier and railroad continues to this day. During the winter, when Placer River and Spencer Lake are frozen, Spencer Glacier is accessible by snowmachine, cross-country skis or fat-tire bike. In the summer, the most practical approach is by the daily Glacier Discovery Train to the Spencer Glacier Whistle Stop, which has operated since 2007 under a partnership between the Alaska Railroad and Chugach National Forest.
Interpretive guides point out wildlife and narrate the natural history of the area on the train, and guided hikes are available with National Forest staff from the Whistle Stop to the lake. Approximately 12,000 visitors made the journey last summer, a figure that’s been steadily increasing at a rate of about 10% per year. Eventually a series of trails will link several Whistle Stops along Placer Valley, although the trail to Grandview is at least a couple of years from opening, according to a Chugach National Forest spokesperson.
Back on Spencer Lake, the sound of fracturing ice is often followed shortly afterwards by calving. We were not treated to that spectacle this time, so we did not have to ride the resulting waves. Lieber explained that as a valley glacier terminating into a freshwater lake, Spencer is a fairly safe recreational location, relative to the tidewater glaciers of Prince William Sound and Kenai Fjords where it’s necessary to stay a significant distance from the calving.
Our group, the Withers family visiting from South Carolina and the author, were fortunate to enjoy the glacier reflected in the flat morning water before the typical afternoon katabatic winds. While the general public is limited to taking the afternoon Glacier Discovery Train to Spencer, Alaska Railroad has recently allowed commercially guided trips to disembark from the morning Seward train. This move allowed Ascending Path to introduce a longer multi-activity tour to the area without requiring an overnight stay.
Ascending Path will be familiar to many Girdwood residents and visitors, and this summer they relocated their operation base to the Girdwood Brewing Company building. Ascending Path Owners Matt and Heather Szundy also recently relocated back to Girdwood after several years living in Anchorage.
“Girdwood is an ideal location for an eco-tourism guiding business,” Matt said. “It’s surrounded by the Chugach Mountains!”
Szundy started the business in 1995 as a mountain guide, moving into the larger Alaska tourism market in 2003. They currently offer a range of trips from guided nature walks in Girdwood Valley to glacier heli-hiking in the Chugach. His focus remains on small, guided groups.
“I love inspiring others to experience the awe of the wilderness,” Matt said.
Szundy pointed out the good relationship between the local commercial guiding businesses and the Chugach National Forest as critical to the success to this slice of Alaska’s tourism industry. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) regularly takes capacity studies to determine allowable use levels and recommended activities for each area.
Ascending Path operates under a USFS commercial permit, along with the other two guiding businesses at Spencer, and developed an operations plan describing activity management. Sometimes USFS priorities and commercial guides conflict, but the working relationship encourages compromise. For example, Ascending Path’s kayaks are bright red, which aids safety by making them more visible in any incident, but storing them at the water’s edge impacts the “wilderness experience” for other users of the area. The compromise is storing the kayaks under a large brown tarp that blends into the rocky beach.
Once on solid ground at the glacier’s side, we drag the kayaks high onto the moraine, stash the provided paddling gear and make our way to the climbing cache at the glacier’s edge. All gear is provided, so our guide Lieber helps fit harnesses and crampons while giving instruction on glacier travel.
“The number one rule is: don’t drop gear into the crevasse – or fall in yourself,” Lieber quips. After about a hundred yards on the ice one of our party, Rachel Withers from South Carolina, points out how wearing crampons is similar to wearing high heels for the first time.
After a mile, we reach the day’s ice climbing site at “Benny’s Breakfast Bowl,” named after Lieber who discovered it a few weeks earlier. As Lieber sets top rope anchors, he points out several changes since his first visit, highlighting the dynamic glacial environment. In contrast to traditional rock climbing, it’s easy to create new anchor points with ice screws and threads, but they start to melt away after a few hours under the sun, so regular checking is a necessity.
It’s the first time ice climbing for each of the Withers family, but with encouragement and guidance from Lieber, everyone makes it up several lines in the bowl, starting with gentle angles and progressing to more strenuous vertical ice.
Ice climbing gear has improved dramatically in the almost thirty years since the author last climbed on frozen Scottish waterfalls. There are few physical activities that feel easier in your early fifties than early twenties, but thanks to decades of design innovation, ice climbing is a surprising way of reliving your youth.