The Ice field Ranges of the St. Elias Mountains represent the largest area of glaciation outside the polar regions in the world.
Most of these western glaciers are young, warm and active and are losing snow and ice rapidly.
The upper Seward Glacier, where we were standing, collects its moving ice load from feeder glaciers on Mount Logan, Mount St Elias and the chain of seven sister mountains, Mount Cook and Mount Vancouver.
These mountains are so large that the Seward appears to be flat. In fact, Peter von Gaza, my ski partner, and I descended another 500 metres over 40 kilometres skiing east before climbing 300 metres over Water Pass and down to the Hubbard Glacier.
Only at the outlet, descending into the lower Seward at the US border, does the slope become apparent.
From the funnel in the rocks at Corwin Cliffs, it is only 50 kilometres to the Pacific. The lower Seward drops 1,000 metres and feeds the huge pancake-shaped Malaspina glacier, which is the size of Rhode Island.
The combined Malaspina-Seward glacier system, including all tributaries, has a total area of about 5,000 square kilometres.
Key western glaciers have been monitored continuously since the mid-1960s.
Craig Lingle, a glaciologist with the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska found that, in just over 20 years, melting has reduced the average thickness of Malaspina and Seward Glaciers by about 18 metres.
This is a snow and ice equivalent of about 41 cubic kilometres of water.
Lingle indicates that the ice lost by the Malaspina-Seward Glacier system accounts for almost one half of one per cent of global sea level rise during the past 20 years.
Although this glacier system is one of the largest in the St. Elias Mountains, it is not alone.
Andy Williams, our pilot, flies over the icefields almost daily in the spring and summer months taking researchers and adventurers to and from the Kluane Lake airstrip.
At the end of our trip he said that he has seen the tributaries of the Kaskawulsh Glacier shrink over 15 years, or so. This was very sobering.
I think of the continuance of ice and snow in Kluane as permanent as the rocks.
Another international group of scientists from 11 agencies led by Natural Resources Canada have been studying ice cores at different elevations.
The ice cores are being analyzed for isotopes of oxygen as well as man-made and natural pollutants.
The 187-metre core from the highest drill
location on Logan (5,300 m) represents 35,000 years of snow deposition due to minimal accumulation at the edge of the troposphere.
The core analysis results seem to indicate that the top of Logan reflects more of the global weather patterns and conditions than what is happening at lower elevations just a few kilometres away.
Gerald Holdsworth, of the Arctic Institute of North America, has been spearheading much of the ice core research on Logan since 1975 and he has produced excellent research and educational materials on Logan.
He and others preceding him, such as Walter Wood, have made the St. Elias Mountains more than just scientific pursuit — it has been their passion.
We felt very fortunate to see this pink 5,489-metre mountain facing us 10 kilometres across the Seward.
This is the second-highest mountain in both the US and Canada as we share the summit.
Huge quantities of snow fall on its flanks from frequent coastal storms pushing inland 50 kilometres from the Gulf of Alaska.
Our view of the north face appeared to be particularly dangerous because of the lack of protection from ice falls and avalanches.
It is usually climbed from the south side, which is a huge undertaking as parties start close to sea level.
Mount St. Elias was the first land sighted in Western North America by Vitus Bering from his ship, the St. Peter, on July 16, 1741.
Expeditions attempting to climb to the peak began as early as 1886, each team getting higher and making good route maps, but being hampered by bad weather.
In 1897 an Italian party, led by Prince Luigi Amadeo di Savoia, the Duke of Abruzzi, finally reached the summit during a short window of clear weather.
The view was apparently incredible and was described by the expedition physician.
The Prince was able to see and name Mount Lucania in the Canadian St. Elias Mountains and Mount Bona over the US border.
Mount Lucania was named after the ship on which their expedition had come to North America. Bona was named after a royal yacht.
He also named the Columbus Glacier, which flows west (the opposite direction from the Seward) at the base of the north side of the mountain, and the Quintino Sella glacier on which we had just descended to the Seward.
This was an honour bestowed to the father of Italian mountaineering.
From the Seward Glacier and over Water Pass to the Hubbard Glacier we would see a different set of mountains.
The only available bump left to name was a 150-metre-high nunatak. We duly named this one Peter’s Nunatak, after von Gaza, as he had camped nearby on a previous trip.
Our mountain list in order of appearance: King Peak, St. Elias, Logan, Augusta, Vancouver, Cook, the group of Alverston-Hubbard-Kennedy, King George, Queen Mary, Badham-Donjek and MacArthur Peak.
We hoped to cover 15 kilometres in four or five hours and avoid the afternoon “slush hour” snow conditions, so we were off at 7 a.m. the day with a breakfast of frozen bagels and cream cheese lodged in our stomachs.
(Part three in a four-part series.)