Icefield Musings and a Remembrance of Dr. Arthur Gilkey, 1926 – 1953 (Blogging From the Field #40)


Post by Matt Osman, photos by Matt Osman, Kristin Timm, and Erika Schreiber

[This post is part of a series of real-time communication from participants in the 2012 Juneau Icefield Research Program.  The program begins June 23rd and concludes August 18th.]

There is something intensely satisfying about the chance—or perhaps more-so the privilege—of being here, submerged in such a pristine aura of beauty and power typifying the Gilkey Trench. Our camp here at Camp-18, overlooking the trench a few thousand feet below, I suppose ultimately serves to remind us of this privilege (all windows in the camp seem to be suspiciously directed at the trench). This landscape, I believe, instills a sense of humility that only the most impressive and otherwise unique and spectacular localities in the world can perpetuate in us. Many of these “unique and spectacular localities” have, over time, been made publicly available to our society at large scale accessibility, an archetype coming to mind being the Grand Canyon, AZ.  This accessibility is not a complaint; the right of easy access to unique and spectacular places is a necessary public good serving those of all demographics, age, health, etc.  The landscape enveloping us here at C-18 (and admittedly, much of the Juneau Icefield in general), I’ve decided, is one of these unique localities in the world. But, unlike the Grand Canyon, the people who have stood on these pristine mountains towering over the trench are extremely limited in number, amounting to no more than perhaps a few thousand.  We are, here at C-18, extremely, EXTREMELY, privileged.

The Gilkey Trench, in all its glory (Photo by Kristin Timm)

Amidst the gorgeous scenery engulfing us here at C-18, I find myself repeatedly drawn back to the same innocuous corner located towards the back of the cookshack—the one subtly shadowed by our enormous food-panty.  Yet, it is not the huge bounty of food that draws me to this corner (despite, I’m sure, others admittedly justified assumptions… I’m hungry A LOT on the Icefield!). In this corner, there is instead an old black and white image (circa 1950) of a young man, stated by the caption of the photo to be Dr. Arthur Gilkey (1926-1953). Gilkey was one of the original pioneers of the Icefield and the man whom the above-described trench is named after. For the record, I do not have any personal affiliation with Art Gilkey, nor did I have any knowledge of him before arrival at C-18 (those familiar with early American mountaineering lore may recognize him as the doomed member of the infamous 1953 Third American Karakoram Expedition).

The Art Gilkey portrait at Camp-18 (Photo by Matt Osman)

From this unfamiliarity, it’s hard for me to say what it is that draws me to the photo, but I suppose there are a number of factors that play into it.  Speaking for myself, as well as those I’ve been fortunate to meet here, I think I can pin down a few qualities fundamentally inherent in the JIRPers of past, present, and future. There is a fierce need for a sense of adventure and exploration and a drive for unattained knowledge and unique experiences. It is this self-selective process that is unique to being a part of this group and entire experience on the Icefield. The mix of shrewd confidence and contentedness that appears on Gilkey’s face represents a similar persona.

But I’d like to think there is something more underpinning Gilkey’s expression… There is that similar sense of privilege. We were told upon arrival to Alaska, about 7 weeks ago, that no matter what, we would all be transformed into different people in one way or another over the course of this journey. I think each of us have already been transformed by the Icefield. We have each been both humbled (physically and mentally) and proud for being here, and we have ultimately felt privileged to be here. One can only imagine Gilkey must have felt the same way 60+ years prior, being one of the original explorers of the Icefield alongside Dr. Maynard Miller. I think that Gilkey’s photo ultimately captures how he felt—and how each of us feels today.

Sunset from Camp-18 (Photo by Erika Schreiber)

Again, I don’t know as much factual truth about this man’s life, or the other original explorers of the Icefield as I’d now like to. In geology, we often use the rule of uniformitarianism, stating that naturally occurring processes that happen today must also have occurred in the past.  Such is the case for what Gilkey’s photo represents to me.  A scholar, mountaineer/explorer, and original pioneer of the Icefield, Gilkey’s short life and legacy is now portrayed forever in name and character in the beautiful landscape surrounding us, and perhaps more importantly, in each and every one of us here.

P.S. Happy 16th Birthday Ben!!!

[Editor’s note:  A number of online sources tell more of the story of Art Gilkey.  One particularly nice piece can be found here.  Also, the early days of JIRP (of which Art Gilkey was a part) are chronicled wonderfully here.]


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August 8, 2012

Art Gilkey was on of my Grandfather’s best friends and he often spoke fondly of him.


August 8, 2012

Very heartfelt and inspirational story. Best one I’ve read yet.

Jeff Strasser

August 9, 2012

Great thoughts, Matt! I am envious of your experiences this summer! I hope your work there wraps up well and that your travels eastward go smoothly. Dr. Wolf and I, along with Elizabeth and Vernon and 16 incoming freshmen, will be departing the mountains of Wyoming tomorrow for our own long trek eastward.
See in in about a week and a half!

Ron Davis

August 10, 2012

Very interesting! I followed the hyperlink to learn more about Dr. Gilkey. What a loss! I’m sure he would be very proud to be connected to this program.

Gail Parsons

August 10, 2012

Hi Matt,

Dr. Strasser sent me your blog. What a wonderful experience. Looking forward to hearing about your adventure. See you in a week. What great thoughts. The pictures reflect the words.
Swenson Geoscience Building secretary


August 11, 2012

Dr. Strasser isn’t the only one who’s jealous. :) Great blog post. Can’t wait to hear more about your experience when you get back!


August 11, 2012

Hi Matt,
Sure enjoying your blog and the fantastic photos. And I though the winter scenery in Minnesota was beautiful….
Maybe see you back at school on Sept. 17 or 18.