I opened the door of the tiny plane and hopped out, sinking into the wet snow up to my shins. Squinting behind my sunglasses, I scanned the sea of snow-covered peaks glistening against a blinding blue sky. We were completely alone. Tiny specs of life standing in the middle of the Yukon’s St. Elias Mountain range in Kluane National Park, the world’s largest non-polar icefield, 8500 feet above sea level.
To the west stood Mount Logan, the area’s tallest at 19,551 feet. It was invisible, hidden behind a wall of clouds. Despite the veil, I conjured the mountain in my mind along with the lifeless bodies of the two elite Alpine climbers who died there in 1987. No one knows for sure what happened, but after all these years they’re still hanging from their rigs entombed in ice and snow. A strange thought I know, but I’ve always found stories like that morbidly fascinating.
I was in the Yukon Territory, near Alaska. I’d finished exploring Dawson City for a few days and now I was ready to take on nature.
Our morning began in Silver City. And when I say city, that’s a major oversell. It’s mainly a few wooden buildings situated on the southeast shore of Kluane lake, the largest in the Yukon. Otherwise, it’s all wilderness and the Alaska Highway. There’s a family owned B & B, a research station that’s part of the Arctic Institute of North America, a small ramshackle ghost town, and the headquarters of Icefield Discovery, the company hosting our flight-seeing adventure.
Icefield Discovery has operated out of Silver City for over 30 years, first supporting the research needs of the Institute then branching out to include flights for climbers (the company has the only fixed wing plane that can land in many of the areas that climbers favor), and tourism.
Sherpal our pilot, a veteran aviator with shaggy dark hair and kind eyes, explained our flight plan. We’d fly up the Slim’s River valley to the toe (the end) of the famed Kaskawulsh glacier, then continue to its head where we’d land, weather permitting, on the icefield where their camp is located at the base of Mount Queen Mary. (Fun fact: A glacier is only called a glacier when moving through a valley. Otherwise, it’s called an icefield.)
Sherpal opened the door of the plane and invited me to take the backseat. I happily accepted, thrilled to have it all to myself so I could slide from side to side and photograph the ride.
Our winged chariot was a bright yellow Helio Courier originally built by the C.I.A in the early sixties. A STOL aircraft equipped with turbo chargers and wheel skis, Sherpal explained, “was made for short take-offs and landings.” Ideal for glacier exploration.
We began our journey, gliding up the Slims River Valley after a quick and easy ascent. Historically, the glacier’s meltwater used to drain through this channel, feeding Kluane Lake and the Bering Sea beyond. But last year the glacier receded, turning the meltwater east towards the Pacific Ocean. In a mere four days ,the Slims River was gone, leaving miles of latte-colored mud and a cracked and scarred landscape.
Minutes into the flight, Sherpal pointed towards the toe of the Kaskawulsh glacier up ahead. Even at 9,000 feet, the tentacles of the beast snaking through the mountains were enormous.
Once overhead I could see the surface all mottled and lumpy. Deep crevasses that looked deceptively shallow from above, were in some places large enough to swallow the plane. Strips of jagged rock, like a spine of a giant dragon called media moraines, outlined the glacier, defining the path of the icy multi-lane highway.
We followed the glacier west a few minutes towards its head. Where moments before the landscape was full of dark tortured rock and bare peaks, the scene transformed. It was as if we’d flown through some magical portal and been transported to the arctic. Everything was covered in snow.
Sherpal lowered the plane’s skis and we began our descent. Without a single bump we landed on the Kaskawulsh icefield and came to a gentle halt. To our left were two long white and orange tents.
What’s that about? I asked. “People can stay here?”
“We have various packages,” said Sherpal. “Most people like to ski and depending on your level, where you’re at, you can take some really challenging slopes on Queen Mary Mountain, or you can do some pretty easy stuff, very gentle cross-country skiing…It really depends on how much you challenge yourself.”
There was no way I’d ever ski Mount Queen Mary, my skills don’t rate, nor my bravery. But cross-country skiing? That could be interesting.
“It’s safe?” I ask. Remembering the dangerous crevasses we’d passed over. He assured me that the base camp was in an area where guests could explore and ski safely.
I was intrigued. Less about what I’d do during the day. I fantasized about being in that incredible wilderness at night under a blanket of stars. Oh the photographs I could make!
I walked the icefield a bit, and checked out the tents. There really wasn’t anywhere to go per se. The experience was more about being there and taking in the view than about exploration. After half an hour, Sherpal said it was time to go. He had other clients waiting.
The dark area in the top right of this image is an example of a medial moraine.
On the return flight, Sherpal flew lower so we could see all the nooks and crannies of the battered yet magnificent glacier. From up high, the sheer breadth of the landscape and the expanse of the Kaskawulsh was the appeal. With the change in perspective it was easier to get a sense of its scale and complexity.
True to the Helio Courier’s reputation, the landing was short and sweet. As we taxied to our stop I saw a couple standing near the office and I knew they were Sherpal’s next guests. We deplaned and I smiled catching their eyes.
“You’re going to love it,” I said. “It’s one hell of a ride.”
Here’s a little video I put together of the adventure…
How you can fly over the Kaskawulsh Glacier and land on an Icefield in Kluane National Park
Silver City, off the Alaska Hwy where Icefield Discovery is based, is about 1.5-2 hour drive from White Horse, the capital of the Yukon Territory. Unless you plan on camping or hiking in the park, (there’s little else to do) I recommend you make your flight-seeing adventure a day trip using White Horse as your home base. Be ready for little to no cell service for most of your drive.
Because my flight was first thing in the morning, I stayed at the Dalton Lodge in Haines Junction the night before, about 40 minutes from the airfield. Dalton Lodge is family owned and caters to avid fishermen and a Europeans. It’s clean and comfortable and the food is good. The walls are paper-thin, however. I could hear my next door neighbors phone alarm and anything anyone said near my room.
The greater the lead time when booking your flight-seeing appointment, the greater the chance you’ll get the date and time you prefer.
The season is from mid June -> September.
A 1 hr flight plus a glacier landing is $325 per person.
It’s $250 per person for a 1 hr, Major Peaks of St. Elias tour.
Inquire directly if you’re interested in camping. It requires 3-4 people to book and a 3-day minimum.
How I captured the images
I used a Canon 5D Mark 3 with a 24-105 f4 lens.
For this flight I wasn’t able to shoot out an open window (you can have the door removed for an extra fee), so I wore dark colors so I’d be less likely to catch a reflection in the window. Most of the time I put the lens up to the glass.
Be advised, the vibration of the plane makes it difficult to hold the telephoto steady. It will try to unwind on you. Make sure to hold on tight once you’ve decided your focal length.
I was a guest of Tourism Yukon during this trip but the sentiment is my own.