“Great Stick Emily!” is what I heard from about fifty feet above my head at the top of the mulian I just got lowered into on the Davidson Glacier in Haines, Alaska. Below me was a murky gray glacial lake and on both sides of me where turquoise blue ice walls. It had been two weeks since we had flown all the way from Northern Michigan to this wild place in Alaska.
This summer I had the opportunity to travel to Haines, Alaska with a group of fifteen sixteen year old girls and two co-leaders through an all girls camp in Northern Michigan. Our trip consisted of three weeks doing various outdoor activities like hiking the Chilkoot Trail in Skagway, sea kayaking around the peninsula of Haines, white water rafting down the Blanchard River in Canada, and ice climbing on the Davidson Glacier in Haines.
The part of our adventure that sticks with me the most is our three day ice climbing on the Davidson Glacier. It started off with a bumpy zodiac ride out to the beach in front of the glacier. From the beach we hiked about two miles back into the dense green forest filled with Devil’s Club and tree tops lined with mist. We set up camp in a break in the forest right before the trail that leads to the glacier. Once our camp was set, we followed our guides over to the beach below the glacier, right next to the roaring river that is created from the glacier melting and receding. Our guides took our attention away from the glacier to give us all an orientation on helmets, harnesses, ice axes, crampons, and some basic climbing techniques. We tested all our equipment prepared for the following day. It was hard to sleep that night due to all the excitement I felt and that my girls expressed to me; none of them had ever ice climbed before and they had no idea what was in store for them.
We woke up quite early the next morning to hot drinks and warm granola. We quickly packed up our gear and got hiking to the glacier. It was about an hour hike through a glacial landslide that was created from the receding glacier. We got all our gear situated and made our way onto the ice. We climbed three sections of the glacier that day. We first climbed a sixty foot vertical ice wall, then we were lowered into a crevasse with clear water flowing through the bottom creating an S shaped river. Our last climb was another repal into a mulian that was filled with glacial water at the bottom. With the weather being overcast and a light rain it made the glacier look as blue as Lake Superior on a cloudless day.
It felt so good to be back on the ice. Climbing on the Davidson was completely different from the Northern Michigan University ice climbing class I took at Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore last winter. Every strike of our axes stuck the first time and was secure. Every kick from your crampons stuck right in and gave you all the support you needed to rest and carry on. The ice was soft and comfortable, unlike the Michigan ice where three hard strikes might give you one good stick and that’s only a maybe. This ice was perfect for first time climbers like my girls.
At first, my girls were hesitant and looked to me for encouragement. I told them all that they are strong and to take their time and feel it out. We were in no rush, we had the weather and daylight on our side. They turned around, got clipped into the belay, picked up their ice tools and jumped right onto the wall in front of them.
I remember my first time ice climbing when I was their age. I was scared, hesitant, and fearful of the whole experience. Who even goes ice climbing? Let alone women? I turned right to my counselor like my girls did to me for some guidance. I clearly remember my counselor saying “remember how strong you are, Emily” and that was all I needed to convince myself that I was strong enough to climb an ice wall. I said the exact same thing to every one of my girls that day on the glacier.
I feel that in the past few years, the increased use in technology and social media has taken away experiences like these found in the backcountry. To learn as a young woman truly how strong you are and can be. When I was growing up, I learned all of this from strong women in the backcountry. They taught me my strengths and weakness. They taught me how to take both and work together with them to find my true self. I feel that day on the Davidson Glacier was my chance to pass on the lessons I had learned as a girl and find the passion to continue passing lessons on. The best part of the whole trip was not the climbing itself, but watching my girls turn into the strong women that they truly are.
Emily Gantner is from Birmingham, MI and now calls Marquette her home. She is a senior at Northern Michigan University studying Outdoor Recreation Leadership and Management.