Every year since 1988, Scott McGee has spent his summers traversing the Juneau Icefield as a part of the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), a program for students and scientists from all over the world to study and monitor the icefield's glaciers.
Q & A with Juneau Icefield veteran Scott McGee 111109 NEWS 1 CCW Staff Writer Every year since 1988, Scott McGee has spent his summers traversing the Juneau Icefield as a part of the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), a program for students and scientists from all over the world to study and monitor the icefield's glaciers.

Photo By Scott Mcgee

After leaving the accumulation area, traversers must take off their skis and walk on the ice itself. Even though there are numerous crevasses, traveling through this area is actually very safe. This is because all the crevasses are fully exposed and there are no snow bridges to fall through. It is easy enough to just walk around the crevasses, as in this photo.

Photo By Scott Mcgee

Here, a GPS survey is being conducted at the base of the Vaughan Lewis Icefall to determine surface velocities, elevations, and strain rates. The movement here was measured at 39 cm/day.

Photo By Scott Mcgee

It's not uncommon to find the remains of birds that became lost on the Icefield, such as this former seagull.

Photo By Scott Mcgee

The skiing McGee and his crew do on the Icefield is usually fairly boring. Basically, it involves getting from one place to another while carrying a full backpack. There's not much one can do with 50 or so pounds on their back, so when they get to a camp and shed the pack, it's time to have some fun.

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Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Story last updated at 11/11/2009 - 11:53 am

Q & A with Juneau Icefield veteran Scott McGee

Every year since 1988, Scott McGee has spent his summers traversing the Juneau Icefield as a part of the Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP), a program for students and scientists from all over the world to study and monitor the icefield's glaciers.

JIRP was started in 1946 by Maynard Miller, who "is still going strong and hasn't missed a single summer," McGee said. Thanks to Miller's contribution, many peoples' lives have been significantly affected, including McGee's. He hasn't missed a single summer himself for the past 22 years. The science community can also thank Miller for kicking off what has become one of the longest continuous mass balance records in the world.

McGee's first experience with JIRP was as a student. He now heads up the program's GPS survey work.

The CCW spoke with McGee last month from his Anchorage home to see why he has chosen the Juneau Icefield as his summer destination for 22 years and counting.

Why did you first set foot on the Juneau Icefield and what were the events in your life that led up to that?

SM: I guess I've just always been interested in glaciers and that sort of stuff. When I was about 9 or 10 years old I was fascinated with Dr. Miller's article about the Juneau Icefield in National Geographic Magazine, and I guess that's how I first got interested in glaciers. So when I was in college (at Alaska Pacific University in Anchorage) I mentioned to my professors that I was interested in ice and glaciers. One day, I was in geology class and my geology professor gave me the JIRP brochure. I thought it sounded like a pretty cool thing to do for the summer, so I applied and got accepted.

What thoughts and feelings did you have during your first experience on the icefield?

SM: The first summer was great. It's one of those things that just gets in the blood. You have to experience it to really know what it's like.

For me, the big attraction is that we don't helicopter up. We all hike up from town. Over the next two months we ski across the icefield and end up at Atlin Lake, then a boat takes us to Atlin. The nice thing about being up there is you're isolated from the world. Helicopter supply flights come in periodically, but there are no radio stations. We're just sort of out of touch with the world. After being in a place where you're not really concerned with what's gone on in the world, it's interesting to get back to town and discover what's happened in the previous two months.

What are the challenges of that isolation?

SM: Actually, I enjoy the isolation, so it's not so much of a challenge for me or others who have been up there a lot. But a lot of first time students have never been in that kind of environment before. They've been hiking or climbing, but skiing 80 miles across an icefield is pretty new to most students. The challenge for them is not so much physical, it's more mental. They're asking themselves, "What did I get myself into? Can I really handle this?" We put them all through pretty good safety training at the beginning, so they all know what to expect. The big challenge for them is just adapting to that environment initially.

How would you describe the teamwork and friendships that are formed on the icefield?

SM: The friendships are usually pretty long term. I'm still in touch on a fairly regular basis with a couple of the other students that were with me during my first year in 1988. That's the same with a lot of the other students. They'll keep in touch with other participants over decades. We're sort of like a big family up there. Everybody learns about everybody else, who likes what, what irritates who, and so forth. It's neat because we're sort of like our own little society up on the icefield.

What is the importance of the work you have done with JIRP to the residents of Southeast and Alaska in general?

SM: JIRP's most important contribution is the training it provides to the students in the earth sciences. It really turns them on so they become more and more involved in earth sciences at their universities. A lot of students that have gotten their start in JIRP have gone on to become leaders in their particular field. As an example, the leader of the Mars rover missions was a high school student in JIRP in 1974.

What are a couple of your most memorable experiences on the icefield?

SM: During my second year we were doing the ski trip from Camp 17 to Camp 10, which is usually a two-day trip. It took us five days because for three days we were stuck in a storm on Nugget Ridge, just a few hundred feet below the summit of Nugget Peak. We tied our tarps together to make a shelter, and lashed it down with our climbing ropes. It was 70 MPH wind for three days. There were a few times I was laying in my sleeping bag thinking, "If this tarp blows away it could get real bad real quick." But it held and we made it to Camp 10 just fine.

The last couple years, at the beginning of the summer I've done what we call the "reverse traverse," skiing from Atlin to Juneau at the beginning of JIRP, then doing the trip back across the icefield to Atlin with the program. The reverse traverse is kind of fun and memorable because it has just been three or four of us and we have the entire icefield to ourselves. It's hard to explain, but it's sort of a neat feeling to know that you're the only people on the icefield.

Do you have one particular favorite spot on the icefield?

SM: One of my favorite spots is Camp 19. It's down in the Gilkey Trench and looks up over the Vaughan Lewis Icefall. It's one of the more remote spots on the icefield that we get to. It's a tough place to get to because we have to do some climbing with fixed ropes and so forth. If you get to Camp 19, you know that you're in a special place.

For more information about Scott McGee and his work, visit To learn about the Juneau Icefield Research Program, visit

Libby Sterling may be reached at