Glacier’s Edge

I knew this was going to be one of the most memorable experiences of the trip for my students. Heck, even though I’d been there before with my daughters, it was still a breathtaking view and among the most unique phenomena I had ever seen. To be at the receding edge of an alpine glacier anywhere in the world I am sure is amazing (and tragic, considering the rapid rate glaciers are receding) but to be at a glacier’s edge in Siberia, in the Altai Mountains – doubly amazing!

That day I had a pretty swollen ankle but I still made it up the ridge trail that looked down into the valley that, not many years ago, still held the snowy mass. The picture accompanying this article is pretty much as far as one can go along that ridge – to the foot of the Acturu glacier. I was not surprised when some in my group decided they were not yet close enough and expressed, excitedly, that they wanted to head down into the valley and walk up the scree to the edge of the glacier. I wanted to let my ankle heal as we still had lots of hiking to do along the way, and so I gave permission for them to go without me. My colleague Natalya said others had ventured up the valley, and we had seen some people crossing, so how bad could it be? Almost before I could shout the time I’d expect them back at the base camp where we would have lunch, the three I considered ringleaders of the group were off, jogging. Behind them six others started following at a more leisurely pace. I worried the runners at the head had already been out of earshot, so I urged these students in the rear to be sure to spread the word that they must all be back at camp by 3:00. At the time, it was just after 1:00. I wasn’t too worried. After all, Natalya had let her 15-year-old son go with them.

The trail down from the ridge was fairly short and so we were back and preparing lunch at a picnic table within 30 minutes. After another 40 minutes, Carter, Owen, and Tommy came into view, heading down the ridge. Soon they were at the picnic table, having run all the way. They had left the rest of the pack behind, had made it to the edge, and touched the glacier (engaged in “manly glacier conquering,” to be precise), and were highly invigorated! I only began to worry when I heard bits and pieces of conversation about what the edge of the glacier had been like. Words like ‘sketchy’ were being tossed around a little too much for my comfort.

Jules was the next in. She was glowing. I will never forget what she said. With a huge smile on her face and cheeks rosy with exertion she looked at me and said, “That is possibly the coolest thing I have done in my life.” She proceeded to tell me that it was a good thing I wasn’t there, and described loose rock, dangerous footing, and fairly swift-flowing rivers carving themselves through the snow and ice at the edge.

Now I was truly nervous, and angry with myself. I should have known better. Anxiously I watched the ridge through my binoculars, waiting to spot the last three students, and Natalya’s son Sergey. Eventually, about 3:00, they at last came into view and I breathed a sigh of relief.

After they had made their way to us and while we milled around eating our lunch of apples, cheese, cucumbers, and hard salami, I listened to them recount their experiences, and looked at their pictures of hands on the glacier. I thought about the extremely close connection between risk and gain. It was one of most memorable experiences in my students’ lives, and certainly of this wonderful trip. And having that experience had been very risky. Had I known what I learned after the fact about the risks of walking at the edge of a melting glacier in July, would I have allowed them to go unaccompanied, or at all? Absolutely not! Am I glad I didn’t know at the time? Absolutely!

A version of this essay was first published in The Apollos, in 2015.

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