My skis slushed along in Ben’s tracks, the rope between us a dark line across endless white. The glacier slouched into vague hummocks in the dawn light of 2 a.m. in June in the Yukon Territory. Above, snow-laden cliffs and ridges hung off the mountains.
We were traveling on a former route of the Southern Tutchone Indians. In place of our skis, rope and high-strength emergency anchors, they used snowshoes with animal claws. They maintained absolute silence so that crevasses wouldn’t suck them in. These glacial ramps, which they viewed as living beings, were their passage from the interior to the coast.
Click. Click. Click. Ben’s probe sliced through the two-foot layer of snow to peck at a thousand feet of solid ice just below. The rope moved forward two more steps. I followed – exactly in his tracks.
Slish. The probe dangled in bottomless air. Another crevasse.
We needed a bridge only the width of a pair of skis. Probe right, probe left. At the other end of the rope, just wait. No movement. No talk. The glowing ball of the moon rose over a peak. I sank into the surface silence.
Yet, actually, the quieter things seemed, the louder I realized was the glacier. In fact, if I hadn’t known better, I’d have sworn the ice was humming.
The upper reaches of the glacier had been a wide plateau, rimmed with 500-foot dollops that looked like giant drips of icing. It had been an utterly soundless place.
However, now we had lost elevation and dropped into a classic U-shaped valley. Even at night, when we hoped the colder temperatures would reduce the risk of breaking a crevasse bridge, water gurgled down the rock faces above us. Sheared-off cliffs and unstable talus edged the giant ice highway, clattering steadily. The completely unvegetated valley resembled the bottom half of a pipe. Was it tuned to the harmonics of constant erosion?
By the time the sun broke over the mountain walls, we were at the relative safety of a moraine. We climbed up to its summit and watched the first rays sting a line of blue meltwater lakes. They shivered on top of the snow like opals.
And, all around, when we stopped to listen, the ice muttered deafeningly. Even today, Southern Tutchone elders describe this as a “land that listens.” Couldn’t it also sing?