British Juneau Icefield Expedition 2016

You Win Some, You lose Some

Our plan was to spend nineteen days ski mountaineering and climbing, on the Juneau Icefield, in Alaska. We hoped to get dropped off, by ski plane, on the Llewellyn Glacier where we intended to explore the surrounding peaks before moving on to the Hades Highway Glacier. From here we would be able to access and try some routes and lines on the Devils Paw, as well as other peaks. Once we’d had enough there we planned to move on again to the Taku Towers area before getting picked up by ski plane.

Our plan lasted well……well actually only until we landed in Juneau. After a busy day collecting supplies we went to see our pilot to discuss and sort out the final details. All went well and we planned to get dropped off the next day. Unfortunately that was not to be. Bad weather and poor visibility in the mountains meant we couldn’t fly. We then spent the next five days on standby waiting for a weather window. It never came. We looked at the forecasts and it looked bad- no weather window for at least a further three days. After looking at all of the other options we decided to try our luck accessing the mountains from the other side of the icefield.

Getting flown in to the Llewellyn Glacier

So after a 6 hour ferry ride and a 4 hour car transfer later we arrived in Atlin, British Columbia. We’d arranged a drop off with a local pilot. All went well for once and in two runs all six of our team got dropped off on the Llewellyn Glacier. That was the last of our luck used up. With now a much more shortened trip it meant that we didn’t have much time left for exploring and trying skiing or climbing objectives. Then the weather window that enabled us to fly in closed and the weather turned bad.

Pulling sleds in a whiteout

Plenty of overnight fresh snow

Several days spent pulling heavy sleds in a whiteout gave way to two good weather days. The forecast we’d receive said that it was set two hold for the next five days. So we spent another two days pulling sleds in order to get to the Devils Paw so we could ski and climb there in the remaining good weather.

Devils Paw comes into sight

Devils Paw and the surrounding peaks. Note: our base camp is just visible on the glacier

We made it to the Devil’s Paw but unfortunately conditions weren’t great. All climbing options were out due to being buried under a lot of fresh snow. Ski touring/mountaineering was the best option, given the conditions, but steep slopes were to be avoided due to the large amount of fresh snow and warm temps meaning there was a high avalanche risk. As such we chose an easier angled objective and spent the first day ski touring, but only went as far as the col on a mountain to the east of the Devils Paw as the summit slopes were clearly heavily loaded and prone to avalanche.

Touring up to the col

The next two days were spent in our tents whilst it rained on the glacier!

Then we woke to yet another bad weather day, whiteout and snowing, but at least it was colder again. We used the day to cover some ground towards our planned pick up point. The next day there was reasonable vis in and out and the odd light snow shower so we made the most of it and climbed and skied a peak, on Ivy Ridge, near to our camp. After a chat with our pilot that evening it became clear that we had to get picked up in two days’ time before the forecasted storm came in and prevented us getting out for the following few days meaning we would miss our flights back to the U.K. The following day’s weather wasn’t great so we decided to get some distance covered and headed down the glacier towards our pick up point. Once we’d covered it we then ditched the sleds and headed for a nearby peak, in the Washington Basin, in the hope of getting one last ski tour in. But the warm temperatures were back and so was the high avalanche risk, so we turned back.

Ski Touring on Ivy Ridge

The next day we hoped to wake up to clear skies, as forecast, so that the plane could make it in to come and get us. Instead we woke to thick cloud. We decided to head down the Taku Glacier in an attempt to lose height and hopefully drop below the cloud. It helped and as the day went on the skies slowly cleared. We made a quick phone call to the pilot to give him our location and the current weather, and kept our fingers crossed, to see if he could make it in to get us, he decided to give it a go. We made a make shift run way, a few bags at spaced intervals, and waited for the plane. The first 3 of our team, and half of our kit, were picked up and taken back to Juneau. Whilst the other half waited for the planes return the cloud started to creep back in and we started to wonder if we’d make it out before the storm came in. Luckily we did.

Loading up for the flight out

All in all we didn’t achieve what we wanted to, bad weather and conditions put pay to that, but we did have an adventure and a laugh along the way. At the end of the day sometimes you win some and sometimes you lose some, especially in the mountains. 

We'd like to thanks to the Mount Everest Foundation for supporting our expedition.

Left to right: Tom Bide, Rachel Bell, Mandy Tee, Jake Phillips, Carl Reilly and Anita Holtham.

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Jacob Phillips

Onwards & Upwards specialise in providing instruction, guiding and coaching in climbing, mountaineering and walking. We tailor every course to your own specific needs and aspirations whether that be your first steps in the mountains, climbing your first trad route or tackling your first ice climb.