Safety on Glaciers and Icefields: Juneau Icefield, Alaska

In 2022, Bethan Davies participated as faculty in the Juneau Icefield Research Program in Alaska. Here, Sofia Guest, a student on the program, reflects on her experience and how she learned about safety in hazardous mountainous environments.

Sofia Guest

My name is Sofia, and I am a recent Environmental Sciences graduate from the University of Alberta. A few years ago, I was working on a glacier in Switzerland. I realized how remarkable they are and wanted to spend the rest of my life learning as much as possible about them. Most recently, this brought me to the Juneau Icefield Research Program, where 30 other students and I spent 2 months skiing across an Icefield in Alaska, learning how to safely do fieldwork to study glaciers.

Safety on risky fieldwork

One topic we spent a lot of time on and which I would argue is the most important to understand is safe glacier travel. Doing fieldwork on glaciers is inherently risky; it is mountaineering with thousands of dollars of extra heavy equipment. We work in remote locations where we might not have cell service or other safety backups. Instead, we are surrounded by snow, ice, crevasses, cold, and rocks. All of which can cause harm.

The JIRP Traverse route, where students, field staff and academic faculty ski 75 miles across the icefield. Credit: AAC Publications

Managing the risk

These terrains can be navigated safely by understanding the environment and risk mitigation. By understanding glacier dynamics, we can predict where hazards, such as crevasses, are likely to form. Then we can make educated decisions on how to travel safely. Sometimes safe glacier travel just means wearing skis, which will spread your weight out over the snow-covered crevasses so that you don’t break through the snow.

Working on steep snowy slopes can be slippery. We use crampons and ice axes to travel securely and to ‘arrest’, or stop, sliding after a fall. Credit: Sofia Guest

Sometimes safety means we travel in a team, all tied to a rope, all knowing how to set up haul systems so that if somebody does fall through the snow into a crevasse, we can pull them out. Practising these rescue systems beforehand is also very important so that If you are travelling on a glacier and somebody falls into a crevasse, you know what to do and don’t panic.

Negotiating crevasses with safety. Credit: Sofia Guest
Practicing our ropework so that we can help someone if they do have a fall. Credit: Sofia Guest

Something specific to glacial field work is that we often conduct research in one spot for a long time. We need to know how to be safe while there, too, not just travel to and from the research site. One way we do this is by probing. This means we take what is basically a long skinny stick, then shove it down through the snow to see if it hits ice or if it goes through the snow to nothing but air. If we don’t hit ice, we know that we are currently shoving our probe into a crevasse and that we probably shouldn’t stand there. Falling into a pit of ice would not be fun.

Is it safe? Credit Sofia Guest

Having said that, crevasses are not the only risk. We wear helmets to protect from falling ice and rock if we are in places where we could have ice and rock hit our heads. We wear appropriate clothing, knowing that getting stuck in a massive field of ice with no escape means that we could get freezing cold. We always bring extra food, water, and clothes in case we do get lost or stuck.

The wonderful beauty of ice. But tricky to cross. Credit: Sofia Guest

In essence, the first rule of glacier fieldwork is to keep yourself and your team safe. This is done by knowing your environment, bringing the proper gear, and practising rescue systems beforehand. Knowing these important skills can allow you to have a remarkably fun time exploring and doing important research in beautiful regions of the world.

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