On the Trail of the Glaciers: Alaska 2013

27 July 2013. The team reaches the base camp at Gustavus, a small village that acts as logistical base and entrance to Glacier Bay National Park, where our photographic activities will occur. Before entering the park, we had to do a course on wilderness safety: Glacier Bay is an full reserve where humans are found in complete isolation, and the black bear and grizzly are a constant presence that should never be underestimated.

For our first objective, we head toward the slopes of Mount Wright to repeat the historical photo of the glacier Muir taken by Frank La Roche in 1893, exactly 120 years ago.

We move forward in thick vegetation, and since we are in a full reserve we can only move the branches without damaging them: with our rucksacks weighed down with photographic material, it takes us more than an hour to go one kilometre. Going up a narrow canyon, we arrive at a splendid hill where the panorama stretches from Mount Fairweather, 4600 metres above sea level, to the eastern branch of Glacier Bay. The glaciers are now far, more than 50 kilometres further north, while at the end of the 1800s, they took up almost the entire visual horizon. 

In the following days, the goal was to repeat a few photographs of the front of the Muir glacier, taken in 1891 and 1941. After approaching by boat, we land and are forced into an up-close encounter with grizzly. Later, we manage to identify the point where William O. Field took his photograph in 1941: the thick vegetation means we can’t take one from the same point, but the vantage point is identical.

After a few days, we manage to reach the White Thunder Ridge. Here, 300 metres perpendicular to the fjord, Field placed his historic photographic station in 1941. At the time, the fronts of the glaciers Muir and McBride were united and almost at your fingertips, while today you can barely see the front of McBride. I repeat Field’s images and I notice great changes in the landscape in just a few decades.

When weather conditions prove favourable, we decided to dedicate a few days to a boat survey in West Arm, the starting point for climbing the summits where the explorer A. J. Brabazon, in 1894, took several photographs that showed the confluence of the two greatest glaciers of Glacier Bay, Grand Pacific and Johns Hopkins. We also manage to reach the Reid glacier, where, roped together, we climb with crampons to carry out monitoring and take a few images of the huge open crevices on the front, that help us understand if this glacier is in an advanced stage, as hypothesised by our glaciologist Riccardo Scotti.

On 27 August, after four weeks on the ground, the expedition report is a success: 28 photographic comparisons, six panoramic, all the images georeferenced, and documentation on the incredible withdrawal of the glaciers. In just over a century, the fronts of Johns Hopkins and Grand Pacific have retreated over 15 kilometres, and those of Reid, three and a half. According to the opinion of glaciologists, the stunning disintegration of the Glacier Bay cap from the Little Ice Age to today implicates a volume loss of 3450 cubic kilometres, equivalent to an ocean level rise of one centimetre.

Text by Parallelozero, loosely taken from: “The Travel Diaries of Fabiano Ventura © 2009 - 2018”