Hiking wish: Harding Icefield Trail in Alaska


Carefully I place my right foot in front of the left and plant my hiking pole into the snow. It sinks in deeper and deeper with every step I’m taking. Even though it’s not exactly warm, I’m sweating like crazy. I’ve taken off every layer until I reach my tanktop, this one will have to stay on in the cold Alaska air. My breath is completely out of control and I keep on wondering why the hell I ever agreed to come along on this tour. While everyone is steadily plowing forward through the snow, I feel totally hopeless as an inexperienced hiker. I mean, sure, I had done some hiking before, but nothing could have prepared me for this. Slower than I would like, I continue the steady climb up. And up. And up. I finally dare to look up from my feet crushing the snow and see a giant glacier right next to me, way into the depth. In the ice there are bright blue pools filled with ice water and as I continue working harder than I’ve ever had to work before on a trail, I slowly become smaller and smaller in this massive world.

 

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Alaska Baby!

It’s my first time in Alaska. I’ve joined a group tour as part of a so-called study trip I’m taking as an assistant tour guide. Immediately upon arrival in Alaska only a couple of days earlier, I felt completely overwhelmed. By the extraordinary people and by the untouched nature. By the grandeur of this country that also carries the nickname “The Last Frontier”.

 

Before I knew it, only 12 hours after my arrival and a restless night, I was up in the air on a bushplane, admiring glaciers from above. 3 Days later I was on my first real challenge, called the Harding Icefield Trail near Seward. The Harding Icefield is 777 square km and one of the largest non-polar icefields in the world. One of its glaciers flowing down into the land of the living is Exit Glacier, which we are going to experience up close and personal…

 

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Exit Glacier and the trail that is to the right of it


 

Even though it’s almost summer, here it feels more like it’s early spring. Plants only have baby leaves (or no leaves at all) and there is still a lot of snow on the track. It’s our first real hike and before we take off, our guide gives us a warning. “This trail is well-known for its black bears. Please stay close to each other and make noise if you end up away from the group.” Within an hour and a half, we spot our first bear. It’s a black bear, scrambling  across the mountain slopes, looking for food. Even though the bear doesn’t come close, witnessing this still sends shivers down my spine. This is for real and it’s called Alaska. Quite something different than a stroll through the city park…

 

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Find the bear…

The first part of the hike is tough; there is no friendlier way to describe it. Just plain tough. My body hurts as I have trouble keeping up with the group’s pace. While the sweat drips from my forehead and my nose keeps on running, I try my best at keeping close to the rest of the group. I don’t really want to run into a bear after all…

 

Soon after seeing the bear, we reach the pack of snow that is still left from the winter. The trail is marked with bright orange flags and it’s easy to follow. There are people who are ahead of us and have somehow left a trail that we try to follw. The snow gets deeper and deeper, at a certain point I am in knee deep. By now, we’ve almost reached the tree line and all I can see when I look up is a big, white mass.

 

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Except on the left, because over there is the magnificent Exit Glacier, streaming down into the valley from the majestic Harding Icefield. Time to really enjoy it is unavailable, by the time I have caught up with the rest of the group and regained my breath, they are ready to get going again. So off we are, step by step, plowing through the snow following the orange markers.

 

After 3 hours the guide decide it has been enough. The snow is too deep to continue since most of us aren’t properly equipped with gaiters and such. At this point, we’ll make a short break for lunch and head back down. I can’t help but feel relieved. This trail has been hell and I feel like a total failure. I should have been able to do this, but I can’t. I’m not fit enough, have not pushed my limits far enough during my work out sessions at the gym and I don’t have enough stamina. The way down is easy, we just bum slide through the snow. It’s fun and before I know it, we are down at the car park again.

 
This was 8 years ago

Each time I tell clients at work about this trail and that they have to attempt it if the weather is good, I felt a bit of a pain going through my body. A couple of years ago,  one of my colleagues came back with the following stunning picture. And all I could think was: I WANT THAT!

 

saskia-harding-icefield

Photo credit: Saskia van der Meij


 

Ever since that day in 2007 I knew I wanted to make it up to the views of Harding Icefield. Back then the circumstances weren’t good but one day, I would be able to make it all the way up. I went back to Seward in 2011 but only on a daytrip from Anchorage. I hiked up to the mouth of the glacier but never all the way up, there was no time and I wasn’t prepared (I didn’t bring any hiking gear that day). The weather was gorgeous so it could have been my chance.

 

And now I’m going back to Seward again. This summer I’ll spend 2 days in this beautiful place and guess what … if the weather allows it, I’m going to hike up to Harding Icefield. All by myself this time. At my own pace. I don’t worry too much about it because my physical shape is much better than 7 years ago and looking at the altitude climbing it’s nothing I’ve never done over the past couple of years. Basically the only two things I’m worried about are the weather and the bears. Ah yes, those bears, they might just step out from the bush and give me a giant scare like they did in Yellowstone National Park. Luckily I’m there during the weekend so at least there will be plenty of other people on the trail.

 

As for the weather, my dear readers, I need your help. Please cross all your fingers and toes for me that during the second weekend of August, the weather will be good enough to hike up. Because after all I’m not just flying all the way to the other end of the Northern Hemisphere only to be disappointed by a thick pack of clouds, right? I’ll let you know how it went…

(Many thanks to my colleague Saskia whose pictures I used above and for the cover!)
 
May is hiking month on we12travel. During this month we’ll share our passion for walking/hiking with you.
Some of the previous posts include:
– The best hikes in New Zealand 
– The best destinations for newbie hikers 
Confessions of a Hiking Travel Blogger
 
Thank you for sharing!