Playing with ice


An oft-ignored warning sign along the Byron Glacier Trail/Craig Medred photo

Why is it so many spend so much time worrying about social media providing a platform for “fake news,” and so few if any seem concerned about the same media facilitating the promotion of attractive dangers that could easily get someone killed?

Despite an unusually warm fall – Anchorage was 7 degrees above normal for October after a record hot summer – posts have been popping up across social media featuring and promoting exploration of the Bryon Glacier ice caves just east of Alaska’s largest city.

Few of the posts seriously warn of the dangers, and they regularly collect “let’s do this” comments from people clearly unaware of the risks.

Only a little over a year ago – in July of 2018 – a 32-year-old Minnesota school teacher was killed when a large block of ice from the Byron cave fell on her.

Brittany Katherine Boegel wandered into the popular cave with an unidentified man and a 6-year-old boy, the Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported, “and the ceiling fell. The man and boy suffered what (Alaska State) troopers said were minor injuries.

“The ice buried Boegel. Family members and others pulled her out and attempted CPR. Emergency responders carried in medical supplies including an automated external defibrillator. She died at the scene.”

Two years before that, 21-year-old Jacob Colby James was lucky to escape with his life when heavy snow fell from a cave-like structure along the Byron Glacier Trail just short of the ice cave and buried him.

The Byron Glacier is in the Chugach National Forest’s Portage Glacier Recreation Area about 50 miles east of Anchorage.  The state travel guide calls the area “one of Alaska’s most visited attractions, primarily due to its accessibility on the main tourist route.”

The main Byron Glacier ice cave is just beyond the end of a 1.4-mile, generally well-maintained U.S. Forest Service trail that runs along Byron Creek. If you do a search for “Byron Glacier ice caves,” you will get hits for dozens of posts on Facebook, Instagram, WordPress, YouTube, Pinterest, Revovly and more.

The caves are most dangerous to enter in the warm weather of summer, but Anchorage’s KTVA.com has a nice link to a video shot by hiker George Klug that shows huge chunks of ice falling from the ceiling of the cave in February of this year. Klug told the TV station he shot the video only 10 to 15 minutes after a group of people walked under the ice.

Old-style media, KTVA duly reported Chugach National Forest spokeswoman Alicia King pointing out that the trail to the glacier is marked with numerous “warning signs because of its many visitors and easy access from the Seward Highway.

“‘We don’t recommend that you go into those structures, into those cave-like structures; we recommend that you stay away from large piles of snow, because they could collapse at any time,’ King said. ‘Despite the fact that we’ve had this really nice cold weather, there’s still the possibility of those natural hazards: the rock falling, ice and snowfall, crevasses widening.'”

Who cares?

Such warnings are rare in social media or confusing like this one from Kayla Hutson at VaguelyCrunchy.com:

“There are ice caves inside the glacier itself, but we don’t recommend climbing inside them because it can be really dangerous. There are the obvious slipping hazards, but the biggest danger is glacial calving, which is when massive ice chunks that weigh hundreds (or even thousands) of pounds break loose and crash to the ground below. The glacier doesn’t care if you happen to be standing there when it lets one of these deadly chunks fall. With that being said, we did explore the dripping glacier and ice caves in the summer and had a great time. But in doing so we heard tons of cracks in the ice, and even had a close encounter with a giant boulder-sized ice chunk crashing down a few yards in front of us.”

Translation: People tell you it’s dangerous, but we didn’t get hurt.

In Iceland, where ice-cave tours are an attraction, the ice-cave season starts in November and ends in March.

“This cooler period is pivotal for finding ice caves that are safe to enter,” a local tour operator told Microsoft News reporter Mia Taylor.

The need for cold is the same everywhere, and in many years the Byron caves are made safer by November because of the difficulty in reaching them due to snow accumulations in the valley. The weather in the Anchorage area so far this year, however, has been so warm the snowline is near 3,000 feet in the Chugach and Kenai Mountains.

The Byron Glacier is only a couple hundred feet above sea level.

Adventurer Herrick Sullivan from Seward hiked in to the glacier packing a hammock and some ice screws at the end of October, sank the screws in the ice of the cave’s ceiling, strung his hammock over the creek that runs through the cave, shot some photos of himself lounging and posted them on Facebook at Hiking in Alaska.

“A great morning at Byron Glacier with Virginia and Michael. This is the closest we ever get to ‘indoor’ entertainment!” he wrote. “The river running through the main cave is really high right now. Water running off the entrance is carrying rocks/debris. Be extremely careful if you choose to venture inside.”

The photos thoroughly belied the risks.

In the many comments below, a debate soon began about safety with some warning of the dangers and others posting “I wanna go there.” There was also the rationalization that many things are dangerous and thus people should be left to make their own decisions on risk.

The problem with that as with other dangers largely unique to Alaska –  glacial rivers, calving ice, grizzly bears, extreme cold, avalanches and the unavailability of rescue – is that most people don’t have the experience with which to judge the risk.

Alaska ice skater Paxson Woebler drew attention to that issue this last winter when he posted a video of the ice on Portage Lake rolling after a huge piece of the Portage Glacier came tumbling down as glacial ice is wont to do.

Portage Glacier is adjacent to the Byron Glacier valley and is covered in snow most winters. But warm weather and rains last year at times turned it into a huge and spectacular outdoor skating rink.

Luckily, no one was killed when thousands of pounds of glacier ice calved onto the rink, but it didn’t take much searching around on Instagram and Facebook to find that but for fortunate timing, the falling ice or the hole it opened in the lake could have killed many.

“My girlfriend and I were scrolling through photos from Portage on Instagram yesterday,” Woelber said at the time, and they found photos of people “actually climbing around ‘inside’ the calving face, between the big plates on the face. One person posted a photo of herself holding her infant on a big pile of fresh rubble underneath the calving face, with the caption ‘me and my baby at Portage.'”

People are simply not very good at judging the risks associated with this type of phenomenon.

Sullivan in a Facebook message said he didn’t “think anyone could possibly view my post and come away with the idea that what we did is a safe activity requiring no prior experience. Also I offered a pretty specific warning about conditions in/on the cave. Personally, I was pretty alarmed to see pictures of people with their dogs (without helmets, crampons, or any noticeable safety equipment) deep inside the main cave. If anything, I worry that those images will make the ice cave seem like a suitable destination for the inexperienced and unequipped.”

A helmet is certainly a good idea in an ice cave to protect against rocks or chunks of ice falling from the ceiling, but it isn’t much use in the event of a collapse of the sort Klug filmed. It might even encourage a false sense of safety as various studies of helmets have found they often do.

Scientists at the University of Bath in the United Kingdom in 2016 concluded that people take “increased risks when using protective equipment.” The research published in the journal Psychological Science focused on bicyclists.

Earlier studies had already concluded that if people were conscious of wearing “safety equipment,” their risk-taking increased, but scientists Tim Gamble and Ian Walker found that even if people weren’t thinking of the safety equipment as safety equipment, they still took greater risks.

“…We demonstrated that risk-taking increases in people who are not explicitly aware they are wearing protective equipment,” they wrote. “In a controlled study in which a helmet, compared with a baseball cap, was used as the head mount for an eye tracker, participants scored significantly higher on laboratory measures of both risk-taking and sensation seeking. This happened despite there being no risk for the helmet to ameliorate and despite it being introduced purely as an eye tracker.”

The study would suggest that someone who packed a helmet to Byron Glacier in the interest of safety might actually be more likely to ignore the danger of warm weather and destabilizing ice and venture inside.

Sullivan said he does recognize that Byron presents special case in Alaska.

“I rarely witness the sort of naive behavior now commonplace at Byron,” he said. “As I see it, the issue with Byron is a.) it’s really close to Anchorage; b.) it’s a short and moderate hike in from the parking area; c.) it’s visually stunning and a highly desirable destination. Accessing most glaciers involves a challenging approach which deters most inexperienced people.

“Byron has no such built-in deterrent (except the snow/avalanche hazards which are also often overlooked by visitors (in winter)). As to the remedy? I don’t think the admins of a Facebook hiking group should try to be arbiters of what is and is not ‘safe.’ I don’t think ommiting Byron content from one FB group will have much effect. Ice caves are dangerous, but so are avalanches, bears, packrafts, and skis. We can all work to raise awareness about the dangers of these activities, but ultimately it has to be up to the individual to decide what activities are suitable for them.”

Much the same, of course, could be said of fake news and its need for arbiters.

(Editor’s note:  I have been in the Byron Glacier ice cave in subzero cold and in temperatures above freezing. The latter was nerve wracking but I was on assignment for the Anchorage Daily News looking for a bear KTUU-TV had reported was hibernating in the cave. The bear, if found, would have been the first to ever be recorded trying to sleep through the winter in a noisy, dripping ice cave. The story turned out to be a hoax. KTUU now appears to have removed the story from its website, but a copy can be found here in the web archives. In his own YouTube video of the cave, the man who told the bear tale mentions the cave’s dripping ceiling. A dripping ceiling in an ice cave is a good indication you shouldn’t be there. Even the bears have the sense to stay out of such places.)









9 replies »

    • And better at discovering new things. Risk and reward has served human kind well, sometimes the young and bold pay the price for advancement.

  1. Just to clarify, there is a subtle, yet big, difference between the (popular) snow field and the actual Byron glacier. Byron glacier proper is higher and less accessible. The snowfield (pictured) and its aforementioned “ice caves” are from annual winter snow sloughing-off from higher elevations (note recent white additions pictured). Big avalanche year means big snow pile, low avalanche year means small snow pile. Still dangerous nonetheless, big rocks also come down that chute in summer.

    • agreed. caption on the photo should probably say that. but there’s nowhere else than there to get a photo of the sign and an “ice cave/snow cave” and the latter could kill you too.

      • The sign could kill too, if conditions were right and the angle of attack was just so and a helmet was being used improperly. I joke, but you might recall conversation in the past with people who do not understand the proper use of helmets and how they impact (no pun intended) the decision making process of those wearing them (as mentioned in this article).

  2. Playing daredevil and risk-desensitization has served Homo sapiens extravagantly well.

    Albert Einstein ‘naturally assumed’ that Antarctica had previously been found & occupied by hunter-gatherers. For many decades, a leading motivation for exploration there was to be the one who proved it … and the thought remains in the back of the mind.

    We didn’t lose anything on Mars, or the Moon, but we are anxious to look for it.

    An Alex Honnold climbs El Capitan without ropes, so wannabes will of course die trying. That’s an essential part of the formula. Sometimes, maybe bat-suits & base-jumps, it’s a bridge too far, but the exceptions only prove the rule.

    Even more valuable than Honnold’s impressive display of nerve, is the willingness to fight. The urge to challenge that we see in Alex, is very close to (difficult to affirmatively distinguish from) what leads us into battle & war.

    • We are hard wired to explore and with that expand the reaches of humanity. I for one do not doubt ancient man reached Antarctica, they probably didn’t last long an we may never find a trace. We have found signs of ancient man everywhere we have looked on this planet except Antarctica, perhaps in the handful of decades in arguably the most inhospitable place on earth we simply haven’t stumbled across a small smattering that would confirm we were there before. Some wayward prehistoric vessel surely touched shore in Antarctica at some point in our history. Shackleton was able to sail to relative safety after his exploration went wrong, some of our ancestors had worse luck than he did.

  3. Speaking of Ice…
    Although rainfall and warmer temperatures have reeked havoc on snowpack and skiing conditions, the ice climbing will be in premier condition as temperatures drop below freezing this week.
    I was just out at Caribou Creek near Eureka and the early season ice climbs are forming up nicely over there.
    Temperatures East of Chickaloon are more “Interior” in nature and it was at least 15 degrees colder over there than here in the Valley.
    A new guidebook called “Alaska Ice Guide” has just come out and is one of the first comprehensive ice climbing guides for S.C.
    Get out and enjoy one of the truly unique opportunities here in the far North…
    There are several AMGA guides who offer courses and instruction for the novice climber as well as online sites to locate partners for your next climbing adventure.

  4. Oh let’s not blame Social Media for the willfull lack of common sense. Everybody loves reading about the Darwin Award.

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