A “Boreal Chef” Backcountry Adventure
This story originally ran in the Spring 2014 (V8i1) issue of Yukon, North of Ordinary.
A couple of years ago, I went on a ski trip into the St. Elias icefields, the world’s largest non-polar ice cap, in Kluane National Park, with a trio of guides and mountaineers who had 120 years of experience between them. I was new to backcountry skiing, new to altitude, scared witless by tales of avalanches and crevasses, and befuddled by harnesses, pulleys, carabiners, and ropes. In the months leading up to the trip, I kept terror at bay by focusing on provisions.
The learning curve for icefield cooking was steep, but I concocted some pretty good fare that honoured the imperatives of expedition food: lightweight, packed with calories, quick to cook, and yummy. The constant need to melt snow for drinking and cooking, and the lower boiling point of water at high altitudes, had to be factored in to every recipe. One of my favourite snacks became Logan Bread, invented in 1950 by the Mount Logan expedition from the University of Alaska, and since altered by every cook or expeditionary who tackles it (or the mountain).
In late May, packed and provisioned, our party of four (my husband Hector, companions Jill and Afan, and myself) arrived at the Kluane Lake research station, just west of Haines Junction. As all Mount Logan climbers and icefield parties must do, we waited several days for good flying weather. On the morning of May 23, we looked west into the clear mountains above Kluane Lake and knew we’d fly that day.
Our pilot, Donjek Upton, took us up two at a time, landing on the icefield underneath Mount Queen Mary. Mount Logan loomed to the west, its 5,959-m summit obscured by swirling snow. I looked around at the alien world of ice and snow that would be home for the next two weeks and thought, "Buck up, girlie. Here we go.”
Journal entry: May 24, 2011
3:00 p.m. – We’ve been here since 11:06 a.m. yesterday. We landed in sun on this vast, white field surrounded by peaks after a long ride ... long in changes, from the sandy, silty mouth of the Slims River, past Sheep Mountain, over the source of the Kaskawulsh River through a pass—maybe two—to an icefield directly in front of us and the huge chunk of Mount Logan straight ahead. How far? Afan made us guess. Ten kilometres? Twenty? Correct answer: 40. Distances are not what they seem.
We constructed a camp from blocks of snow: walls, tent platform, kitchen counter, benches, and, downwind, a snow outhouse. Thus began the ritual we would repeat over the next 13 days.
The kitchen spreads as far as you will let it—pots, pans, two stoves, and measuring cups, which double as bowls. The spoons and cooking utensils are stuck in chinks in the wall and bristle towards us.
We skied to a small pass overlooking the Kaskawulsh Glacier. From there we could see our ultimate destination, but I haven’t got the geography figured out. I’m too full of carabiners and t-blocks, 3-to-1 pulley systems, and thoughts like “Do I really have to pee or can it wait?" and “What does a hidden crevasse look like?” We drink gallons and gallons of tea.
Journal entry: May 25, 2011
The cloud moved in last night and descended to the ground. This morning it comes and goes and is still too present for us to decide on an excursion.
Auditory hallucinations: I’ve heard ravens, seagulls, a loon, and a flock of redpolls.
The egg: Jill has packed a fresh egg with her for three days. Today we consumed it, in pancakes. The food has been exceptional.
We skied in the fog to the closest weather station and looked down at Hubbard Glacier, across at Logan’s east ridge. People have died there. Crevasses were visible below us. A field of billowy snow lay between us and the next weather station, so we skied across, climbed up, and had lunch on a rock below the station—a cornice to the right and empty space beneath our feet. One wrong step....
No sound up here except the wind, jets (occasionally), and Donjek, flying overhead with another load of climbers. We embarked onto the flowing glacier system and travelled 12 to 15 kilometres every day for the next eight days, blessed by a run of extraordinary weather. Connected by rope, thought, and spirit to each other, we traversed through a similar, yet constantly changing, landscape of spectacular icefalls, mountain peaks, shimmering snow, bright sky, and burning sun.
The daily routine went something like this:
7:00 a.m. – Tea.
7:30 a.m. – Breakfast and melt water for bottles.
8:00 a.m. – More tea while rolling sleeping bags, packing clothes into appropriate stuff sacks, selecting lunch from our lunch sacks, packing pulks, donning ski boots and harnesses, packing up the tent, filling in the outhouse, fixing the rope that will harness us together, and bidding farewell to camp. “Goodbye little camp!”
At first, the pace was irritating.
Journal entry: May 27, 2011
Here’s the thing: there is this vast passageway of glaciers the eye can follow with ease for kilometres and kilometres. However, the skier plods along the landscape—in a harness, attached to a pulk, roped to another skier, plod, plod, plod. And yet we make progress, day by day, and the slowness and constraint stops mattering.
We travelled 20 kilometres along the Kaskawulsh Glacier and are now on the top end of the Hubbard Glacier looking down towards the black triangle of rock that marks our right turn, 15 kilometres away. Tomorrow.
We negotiated crevasse fields and skirted sunken holes that look as though a whale had sounded and sucked the surface down with him. On our third evening, we had a scary time roping our pulks down a steep slide onto the flat below. My marriage was briefly in trouble.
Journal entry: May 28, 2011
What I see in front of me: complementary colours (orange rope, blue shadow); a dark hole in the snow (bird grave); ski tips; Hector’s tracks; helicopter; fields of white surrounded by peaks; tumbling ice; rock faces; sky, sky, sky.
Journal entry: May 29, 2011
What we eat: oatmeal with saffron, cardamom, and dried mango; buttermilk bannock and bacon; pumpkin butter, salami, smoked salmon, and goat’s whey cheese; fruit cake; cream-cheese brownies; date bars and oat bars and lemon shortbread cookies; curried lentil stew and smoked salmon corn chowder; Thai green curry with goat. We toiled up the next pass in the heat, blessing every small breeze,hemmed in by icefalls and the evidence of avalanche. We skied down a long, wide, delicious slope to our last camp. There we waited for Donjek to pick us up. We were fooled several times by sightseeing planes. I had given up writing journal entries, but started again during that waiting period.
Journal entry: June 4, 2011
There is mist on the lower end of the Kaskawulsh, clouds rolling up the Dusty Glacier and clouds at eye level over the tops of the mountains. We sit and read, eat, snooze, chat, and repeat, with the occasional bout of mild exercise. It’s no less beautiful than it has been all along, but we have lost the magic of daily travel, climbing passes, moving through the landscape, which is alternatively itself—ice, snow, mountain, rock, and sky—and a metaphor of itself—sea, desert.
Last night the wind blew ferociously, and we fortified the camp walls until we were safe, in a citadel, a desert encampment. I went to sleep dreaming about the desert and the teeming city of Kayseri, in Turkey. No richness of woven carpet here. Here, diversity is a beautiful dead bird, a bee, a fly, and our companions’ changing outfits. Afan wore his hat black side out for the first half of the journey, changed it over to red side out, and is now back to black. Is this a portent?
This entry was cut short by the sound of Donjek’s plane—it really was him this time. Jill and Afan, whom we’d agreed would fly out first, were halfway up the pass in front of camp on an excursion. We watched them turn around and ski furiously back towards us. Hector and I stuffed half the camp into their knapsacks and pulks (keeping the essentials) and they loaded up and raced down the glacier to where Donjek had landed, about a kilometre away. We packed the rest of camp, and 90 minutes later Donjek returned for us.
We flew down the length of the south arm of the Kaskawulsh and watched the glacier disintegrate into cracks and chasms. Small streams and ponds formed on the ice. Mud and rock appeared. Ribbons of brown flowed through the white. As we descended further towards the Slims River and distant Kluane Lake, I looked out at the slope beside me and thought, “What is that terrible green mould?" It was moss.
1. Combine dry ingredients, including all fruit and nuts, and mix well.
2. Beat eggs; add oil and sweeteners. Add dates once they have cooled, then mix wet ingredients into dry, adding the additional water only if needed to make the mixture cohere. Expect it to be stiff and gloopy.
3. Spoon into two greased and floured 9-inch by 5-inch bread pans and bake in a 275°F (135°C) oven for 90 minutes. Insert a toothpick during the last 15 minutes; if it emerges clean, bring the loaves out of the oven.
4. Cool on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pans. When completely cool, cut the loaf into 1-inch slices. Wrap the cut loaf in a paper bag and then a re-sealable plastic bag. Freeze until ready to use.