The Mendenhall Glacier
Nine hours hiking over physically strenuous terrain. That seemed daunting to me and almost out of reach, but my sister convinced me to sign up for the 10 mile Mendenhall Glacier Trek. I was dreading the hike in the weeks leading up to our trip.
The Mendenhall Glacier is located about 13 miles from Juneau, Alaska and is one of the only glaciers in the region that is accessible by foot year round. The glacier is rapidly melting away and has retreated almost 2 miles in the past 50 years. My sister and I made a quick stop in Juneau as we were traveling north to Anchorage to visit our brother. I had heard about the Mendenhall Ice Caves and was thrilled to get the chance to view the famed natural creations, but the journey to the glacier wouldn’t be easy.
We signed up for a guided trek with a local company, Above & Beyond Alaska. They were very upfront about the challenges of the hike and required all hikers to be in good physical shape. I’m pretty active but don’t work out regularly. I could feel my palms begin to sweat as a sea of worry consumed me – would I have the endurance to complete this hike? I knew I wouldn’t accomplish anything without trying and I couldn’t pass up a once in a life time opportunity to see the glacier!
We met our guides and trekking group in the early morning on the day of our hike. The provided us with a pack, helmet, ice axe, crampons, and harness – what had I gotten myself into that I would need a helmet and harness!? After everyone was geared up we hit the trail at a speedy pace. Although the first few miles were relatively flat, with just a few uphill switchbacks, I was already out of breath and doubting that I could complete the trek.
We hurried through Alaska’s temperate rainforest and after a couple of hours the trail disappeared into a mountainous terrain. We finally stopped for a quick break and our guides explained that the faster we got to the glacier the more time we would have to explore the ice. There was no longer a trail to follow; we would be climbing up and over boulders, and taking a slower pace for this more technical section of the trek. With just enough time to take a sip of water and catch my breath we were moving again.
This section of the hike was exhilarating. Using both hands and feet to climb and propel down steep cliffs with rope, I felt like I was truly off the beaten path and trekking through the Alaskan wilderness. Each turn offered a breathtaking new view of Alaska’s vast landscape. We reached the top of the mountain and I was mesmerized by a stunning sheet of blue ice flowing out of the valley in front of us. The Mendenhall Glacier was more massive and spectacular than I had imagined. I couldn’t wait to hear the crunch of the ice beneath my feet.
We descended the mountain and were at the base of the glacier in about an hour. With helmets on, harnesses fastened, and crampons secured, we took our first steps onto the ice. I’m not sure why, but the ice was harder than I had expected. I really had to stomp my spikey shoes into the ice to get a good a balance.
Our guides took us over the glacier and showed us the many features of the ice. We peered down into ice tunnels, walked along the edges of deep crevasses, and even filled our water bottles up in a natural waterfall of glacial water.
I was anxious about standing on what looked to be a frozen river, but the guides informed me that the dark blue ice is actually the densest and a cubic meter of blue ice weighs more than 1 ton!
The breeze picked up and I was struck with a freezing chill of wind that funneled through the valley and rolled over the ice. I put on an extra layer and we were guided down to the west end of the glacier. The well-known Mendenhall Ice Cave used to tower over an opening near the glacier’s edge, but over the past year most of the ice cave had collapsed with the constant nature of the glacier’s movement. Smaller portions of the cave still remain, but the ice is very vulnerable and it is highly advised to use extreme caution when entering the caves. Our guides made their way into the caves first, to evaluate the safety conditions. I eagerly awaited their assessment hoping that I’d have the unique chance to explore an ice cave. Although I had seen some pretty amazing features on the glacier itself, I sure didn’t hike all this way to be told that the cave was unsafe to enter! My eyes were fixed on the cave waiting for a queue that it was stable enough to enter.
Our guides appeared at the cave’s entrance, and to my relief they held up their hands with a big thumbs up! I hurried over and was immediately mesmerized by the glowing green bubbles of ice surrounding me. I had never seen anything like it before. Astonished by the natural beauty, I crawled deeper and deeper into the cave.
There was a small flowing river at the base of the cave. I closed my eyes to tune in my other senses. I could feel and smell the crisp glacier air channeling through the cave. I could hear the serene trickling of water. And then, all of a sudden, SPLASH! I was startled by sound of a loud shriek and a woman falling into the river. Fortunately for her the small river wasn’t very deep and she was wearing waterproof pants and shoes. It reminded me of how dangerous this beautiful place was. I made my way out of the cave, soaking in the last few seconds of my adventure.
The world is an amazing place with many natural wonders waiting to be explored. For those who have a little courage and determination, there is no end to what you might see and experience. Some of the most spectacular sights can’t be seen from a car window. I urge you to get off the beaten path and discover what the world has to offer!
To get an inside look at our entire 2 week trip to Alaska, including an up close an personal experience of the Mendenhall Ice Caves, check out my Highlights of Alaska video: