Pioneering glaciers

by • March 19, 2013 • Safety MattersComments (0)1242

Jim Whisman’s day out with family turns tragic, and fast

“It’s absolutely not safe to ride on glaciers,” said Jim Whisman, a self-described explorer and lifelong Alaskan. “But I’ve been doing it for more than 20 years and here’s why.”

He handed over his phone displaying a breathtaking photograph of spectacular snowfields rimmed by rugged mountains and brilliant blue ice. It’s of a man, standing between two snowmobiles, his helmet visor flipped up and a smile lighting his face with an expression that seems to be asking, ‘Where are you?’

“I’m still alive,” Whisman pointed out, “so it can be done safely. But you gotta learn how. And you gotta follow the rules. Rule number one, you stay in my tracks until I tell you otherwise.”

Whisman said he learned by following an old trapper, who did a lot of backcountry traveling with horses.

“That old man must have been 75,” Jim said with a chuckle. “The old guy knew where all the keyholes and accesses to these glaciers were and where it was safe to travel so I learned the routes. Plus I’ve pioneered a bunch of routes myself since then.”

Passing through an ice channel is both beautiful and treacherous. Always travel with experienced riders who know the area well. Photo by Jeremy Martin

Passing through an ice channel is both beautiful and treacherous. Always travel with experienced riders who know the area well. Photo by Jeremy Martin

Whisman, now on the uphill side of 50, has covered a lot of ground in Alaska since 1971, either in a long-haul big rig, or on a snowmachine or motorcycle. He’s flown even more.

“If the wheels ain’t turning, you ain’t earning,” he said with an infectious, rumbling laugh.

In all the years he’s been riding on glaciers in the Chugach around Whittier, Grand View, Seward, Turnagain and beyond, he’s had only one accident.

“And that was my own damned fault,” he readily admitted. “I moved over about 50 feet and was tooling along and all of a sudden I see this rollover and realize there’s a hole. I couldn’t stop so I punched the throttle and stuck into the bank on the other side. I’m standing there waving my arms trying to stop everyone else but they couldn’t see me until it was too late.

“First my son goes in, then my (ex) wife bails as her machine sticks on the rim. But then our friend goes in on top of my son. Fortunately our boy landed on a shelf about 25 feet down and was able to jump out of the way, but our friend’s hand got pinned between the two machines and shattered into about 40 pieces.”

Jim said he was terrified because he couldn’t see into the hole and had no idea how big it was or if they had survived at all.

“I’m just thinking, ‘I gotta get down there and get them out.’ ”

But before he could help the men trapped below he had to move his wife’s machine from where it hung on the rim of the crevasse.

Using carabiners and ropes, Jim managed to winch the machine out of the way and rappel into the crevasse, where he found his son and their friend.

Next, he sent two riders back to Moose Pass to call 911.

“That was another mistake,” he said. “They didn’t follow instructions and made a decision to do something different, so here we are waiting hours and no one is showing up.”

After sending the boys for help, Jim, the only one in the group with medical training, focused on stabilizing and wrapping his friend’s injured hand.

Then he began building a snow shelter. Once it was ready, he wrapped the injured man in an emergency blanket and had the girls lay down on either side to keep all of them warm.

“By this point it’s starting to get late in the day,” he recalled. “It’s cooling off, the wind is coming up and we’re just waiting. I was thinking by now someone should be coming and if they’re not, I gotta do something. It had been about seven hours by now and I needed to get these people off this glacier and get my friend to a hospital.”

He managed to get the machines back on their tracks and onto the trail and just as the daylight was fading, looked up and spotted lights from a helicopter in the distance.

“They were a long way away so I started up the machines and pointed the lights at them praying they’d see us.”

It worked and relief washed over the group when they saw the ‘bird’ headed their direction.

“I was so grateful they saw us and were able to get my friend out. But then my wife and son and I all had to ride our machines out in the dark. Not a fun experience at all.”

Jim’s story ended with no lives lost but a huge reminder that glacier riding, no matter how many years of experience you may have, is a high-risk activity that can never be taken lightly. If you want to experience glacier riding, go with someone who knows the route, has medical training and the gear, equipment and knowledge to use it in an emergency.

To learn more or sign up for an North America Outdoor Institute snowmobile safety course, go to or call 907-376-2898.



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