3 routes · Hiking · Ski Touring
Harding Icefield Traverse: Exit Glacier to Tustumena Glacier
One possible route for crossing the Harding Icefield, an acclaimed Alaskan objective and bucketlist adventure for many.
Ski Touring Difficult
- 58 km
- 1.8 km
- 1.2 km
- 1 day +
- Low Point
- 124 m
- High Point
- 1.4 km
The source of most glaciers in Kenai Fjords is the massive Harding Icefield, a formidable mass of ice overlying a mountain range. A human-powered crossing of this barren expanse is an ultimate Alaskan expedition, requiring advanced snow travel, navigational, and survival skills in a frozen wilderness.
With the exception of short forays from the top of the hikers’ trail in the national park, any trip onto the Harding Icefield is a multi-day, self-supported expedition. Even a short excursion could become a long one if the weather turns bad or if something else goes wrong. Skis are the primary mode of travel, with both alpine touring and Nordic touring setups commonly used. The best conditions are typically found in spring when adequate snow remains for skiing. Access becomes more difficult later in the year, as the snow melts off the margins of the furrowed glacial ice.
Additional gear and expertise are needed for glacier travel and crevasse rescue, plus camping on the brutally exposed icefield. A bit more about equipment and safety can be found on the national park’s website, but the information is intentionally scant because this is a trip only for those who really know what they’re doing.
The track mapped here is a general route commonly taken from Exit Glacier to Tustumena Glacier, and ending near the average spring snowline on Tustumena. Continuing below the snowline necessitates difficult glacier and cross-country travel, so many expeditions opt for out-and-back trips rather than full crossings. A point-to-point traverse, though theoretically a shorter trip, is more complicated logistically because it requires arranging at least one aircraft or boat for pickup or dropoff.
The only road and trail access to the icefield is at Exit Glacier, which is the main visitor area of Kenai Fjords National Park. It’s so named for being the exit point of the first successful traverse in 1968, and still makes the most common starting/ending point for trips across the icefield. A maintained trail leads up the valley of Exit Glacier, and a road reaches the trailhead from Seward. This road does not typically open until mid-May, however, so spring expeditions must ski/walk its additional seven miles, or arrange snowmobiles.
Note that the track mapped here is only one suggestion out of infinite route possibilities. Once above snowline, the icefield is largely free of hidden fissures and other obstacles (though they can still exist), so travel is nearly unlimited across the expanse. The various clusters of nunataks (exposed peaks) beckon climbers and skiers, and any of the peripheral glaciers can make alternate access points, allowing endless route creativity for experienced adventurers.
Sources: https://www.nps.gov/kefj/planyourvisit/mountaineering.htm http://packrafting.blogspot.com/2009/08/more-harding-media.html https://thingstolucat.com/harding-icefield-traverse/
Serious gradient of 30-38 degrees where a real risk of slipping exists.
Best time to visit
- Ice axe
- Glacier kit