Into the Blue

I was the last one out of the helicopter. My boots hit the ice with a satisfying crunch as the steel spikes sunk into the glacier. It was cold, and the air we inhaled had a crisp edge to it, a foreign texture that chilled the lungs with every breath. It had been 50 degrees where we took off from, not five miles from where we were now. The mountain air cut through our windbreakers and rustled the T-shirts we had on underneath. I thought of everything I had left behind. The thermal shirts and leggings, the extra pair of socks, and the sweatshirts we all had worn in expectance of the cold. The guides that prepped us for this excursion back on the mainland had told us we were over-dressed.

“It’s a lot warmer today than it was last week,” said the girl that helped us pick out our snowsuits. “You’ll get warm up on the glacier in all that gear. We’ll keep it safe for you until your flight back.”

While we picked though the spare clothes they had in the main tent on the glacier, we could hear the tour guide radioing base and telling them that they needed to dress people warmer. As the wind whistled through the tent windows and entrance, I thought of the double insulated, wind resistant jacket I had bought for this trip that was now hanging warm and unused in the Glacier Trek office closet. I put on a hoodie and zipped up my snowsuit. It would have to do.

There were five of us in total, standing quietly in a half circle around our tour guide. My sister, Jessica, and her husband, Brian, were to my left and a couple that appeared to be in their mid-twenties stood to my right. They were interested in only each other, so I didn’t catch their names. Mike, our guide, briefly explained the use of the ice picks, carabiners, and cord bundles that we all carried. After the basics were covered, we began the hike.

Distance meant nothing as we walked on in single file. There were no landmarks or distinguishing structures to judge how far we had walked; only miles of white, glistening hills in every direction that gave way to towering walls of mountainside.

We had been walking for about 15 minutes when we cleared the top of a slope and saw a large hole in the ice ahead. As we neared the edge, the sound of rushing water and the vibrations from its long fall reverberated through our bodies. Our guide drove a spiral spike into the ice 15 feet from the rim and secured a cord to it. We all would have a chance to look into the pit.

When it was my turn, I slowly inched toward the edge of the chasm. I felt the rope grow taut as I leaned over the side to look into the eye of the glacier. A powerful river of water was coursing through the ice and into the darkness beneath me. I could feel the breath of moisture rising up from the cavernous abyss. It was like an endless waterfall.

I tested the rope and leaned out a bit further, so that my head was over the edge.

“If you fell in there, they would never find your body,” Mike said with a shadow of a smile, breaking the silence. The thought of being crushed by thousands of gallons of water beneath a mile of ice was a little much for me. I took one more look and returned to the safety of stable ground.

As we walked on, the hike became increasingly more difficult. Large cracks in the ice hundreds of feet deep, jagged outcroppings of glacier, and gaps only crossable by a running leap stood in our way countless times. One wrong step, one moment of imbalance and you’d be gone, lost into one of the hundreds of crevasses of the Mendenhall Glacier.

We had almost reached the cliffs that we had initially signed up to climb when Mike stopped us. “You have a choice. We can either get in some ice climbing, or we can explore the cave that is over this next slope. It was flooded last time I tried to take a group through, but it should be fine now.”

The ice cave was chosen and we resumed the hike. Up and down near 90 degree slopes and over three foot gaps, we continued to trek until we reached the biggest crevasse we’d seen yet. Nearly 50 feet long and 9 feet wide, it gaped at us as we stopped in front of it. Mike drove a spiral spike into the ice about 20 feet from the opening and turned to face the group.

“So, who are we lowering down first?”

I ended up going fourth. I was nervous and my hands were shaking a little. It wasn’t because I was afraid of descending into it; it was the method that we had to do it. To be able to fit through the gap we had to slide backwards on our stomachs into the cave and we couldn’t grab the rope we were secured to. It was like the game where you close your eyes and fall backwards into someone’s arms, except there was no one to catch me.

I got down on my stomach and dangled my legs over the opening. I looked up to see Mike and Brian giving me the thumbs up to go. They were the only things stopping me from plummeting down into the unexplored depths of the glacier. I let myself slide over the edge and come into contact with the inside wall of the cave as my full weight was supported by the rope. The wall was wet and quickly soaked through my gloves as I braced myself against it, all the while moving slowly downwards. 10 feet, 20, 30.

My feet touched something solid and I looked down. I was standing on a slab of transparent ice no more than a few inches thick. Its edges were cracked and white, as if the smallest amount of pressure would cause it to crumble. Below me was an endless stretch of darkness immeasurable in depth. I placed a hand on the wall behind me and looked to my sides.

It was all bright blue. So vibrant and so deep that it couldn’t be drawn or photographed, it had to be seen and experienced. It was like being in the center of a gemstone as the first beams of morning light filtered through. I could almost see my reflection in the beveled surface of the wall as I traced my bare hand along its curvature. The absence of the howling wind rang loudly in my ears. My breath hung suspended in front of me, a motionless cloud slowly disappearing from view. The quiet was overwhelming, broken only by the whispers of the cave as the wind passed it by.

All too soon, my turn was over and I was raised, soaking wet, to the surface of the Mendenhall. Back to the cold, harsh wind and bleak white landscape, to the sun that stung my eyes. Standing at the top, the color could barely be seen down below; hidden completely to someone not already looking for it. It was an hour’s walk back to the base, but it didn’t feel like it. I had a lot on my mind. I wondered how many people had looked in the Mendenhall’s Eye, how many had caressed its walls.

And how many people had gone their entire lives without gazing into the blue.

Bryan Powell

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Filed under Fall 2013, Nonfiction

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