There was one day this summer, on a Matanuska Glacier adventure, where I was more scared than I think I’ve ever been outdoors. Additionally, that day showed me what incredible things you can do with the right training and equipment. Quinn, a fellow intern, Adam, a second year ice climbing guide, and I were on a mission to explore a huge moulin. The moulin had recently formed on the glacier.
A Deep Look into the Matanuska
Moulins are drainage holes in the ice that form when meltwater mills down into the ice. This meltwater creates a sometimes vertical and sometimes horizontal hole. Most are quite deep. Only some grow to the immense size of the one we were about to get into. Standing over the moulin, we couldn’t even begin to see how far down the irregular slit in the ice went beneath the surface. The ice had melted in such a way that there were shelves and large ice chunks growing out of the abyss.
We geared up with full rain gear and donned headlights on our helmets. Soon, we set up a rappel system, and went for it. I had not rappelled anything in years. That is to say, starting on a sharp overhang with tons of gear hanging all over me was not ideal. My knees were shaking as I was standing on the top trying to figure out how to get over the razor edge that morphed into extreme overhang.
After about 5 minutes of floundering about, and with considerable prodding from Quinn, I just went for it. I hopped over the edge, not sure what was going to happen. That was decidedly the hardest part. Then, the cavern opened up around me as I descended past the first 15 feet into a large space that we estimated to be about 30 feet wide.
The Mouth of a Moulin
This ice climbers ascends an ice wall out of a uniquely shaped moulin
When people try to describe what it’s like being in a large moulin like this, a common theme is that it’s like being in a sensory deprivation tank. You are suddenly very aware of the fact that you feel you aren’t supposed to be in this space. There are so many ways you could end up dead, and only one way out. However, as I descended into this breathtaking open space my inclinations started to shift.
The sunlight beamed down into one side of the cavern and a massive torrent of water pounded its way onto the ice below me. I wasn’t really thinking about the dangers anymore. Lowering down, I could see a small shelf of ice where Adam had set up an anchor for us to clip into. I got off belay so Quinn could follow us down into the chasm. After we had all made our way down, we took a minute to explore and take it all in. As moulins go, this was certainly the biggest and baddest I’ve ever seen.
The three of us ended up spending almost three hours in this hole. Due to the unique way water had melted the hole above us, climbing out was an option only for Adam. He has multitudes more experience than Quinn or I. Instead, we opted to ascend the rope up about 20ft, where Adam would then lead climb out and place protection for Quinn and I.
An ice climber climbs up an ice wall inside the Matanuska Glacier
At one point, all of us were tied into one anchor that hung on a vertical wall of ice directly over the huge bottomless pit of the moulin. We had very little space, as gravity pulled the two people on the outside into the one in the middle. It was here that we made our plan of escape.
I managed the 70 meter rope that I had in my pack. Simultaneously, Quinn would belay Adam with it as he would lead climb all the way up and out. As Adam took the first few swings at the bulletproof ice that hung above us, I became aware that for the next few minutes, we were incredibly exposed if he were to fall.
Fortunately for us, Adam is an extremely skilled ice climber. In the end, I gave a good attempt at trying to climb out. However, my arms were shot before I had even started. I had to be partly hauled out by Adam. Simultaneously, Quinn ascended the rope and pulled out the screws Adam had placed beforehand.
When all three of us had finally made it out, exhausted, muddy, and cold, we were absolutely elated about the experience. I kept thinking about what Adam had said that day. And I lingered on his observations; few people in the world have the resources, knowledge, even possibility to do something like what we just did.