Intrepid glacier explorers drop into heart of the ice to solve `surge' mystery

When you talk about the untouched Alaskan wilds or the last frontier, don't forget glaciers . . . the insides of glaciers. Glaciers cover 5 percent of the state and no one -- except Mark Wumpkes and Doug Buchanan -- has ever ventured to the heart of one of the moving ice masses.

The two report having been caught by the rapture of the jewel-like interior of the subglacial watercourses. Encouraged by glaciologists intrigued by the possibility of direct observation of what had been theoretical assumption, the long-haired mountaineers formed a glacier exploration and data collection company.

``Scientists take one look down these holes and say, `Whoa, look, I'm not going down.' It's not like tennis or softball or anything,'' says Mr. Wumpkes.

And at least one scientist agrees with Wumpke. ``We're [scientists] so hidebound there's room for people like this. We're trying to encourage these guys . . . and they don't realize it but they're breaking ground [for us],'' says Will Harrison, a glaciologist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska.

``Imagine a pastel blue glass with bands in it and light shining through,'' says Wumpkes, describing descent on a rope down a 200-foot vertical ``moulin'' or ice shaft. These glacier holes drop to ``plunge pools'' which run off horizontally through polished winding channels lit by the refracted beams of a climber's headlamp. These channels drop vertically and wind horizontally downward.

Describing the glacial innards, Wumpkes recalls: ``There are frozen waterfalls. . . . Ice crystals grow a foot or so long with long spidery filaments. . . . There are hanging VW van-sized blocks of ice. . . . You can see your buddy through the ice like glass around the bend and you can hear him hundreds of feet away. . . . It's zero degrees [C.] all year round.''

``Our goal is bedrock,'' Wumpkes says. ``We want to see the interface of glacier and earth [where water is believed to flow, lifting surge glaciers up and floating them].''

Their next trip is scheduled soon, he says, ``and this time we're going prepared for serious wading.''

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