Glacier Hikes in the Alaskan Wilderness

Hiking on a glacier is one of those must do things in life for a mojotraveler. Bruce and I have twice had the pleasure of playing on glaciers in Alaska.

alaskaThe first time was on the Root Glacier in the middle of Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. We stayed in the little village of Kennecot and walked along a dirt path for about two miles before reaching the access point to the glacier.  It was late May and the sun beat down on us with the intensity of a Kansas City summer as we sat on rocks strapping the ice-clutching crampons to our boots. But the breeze blowing across the glacier reminded us that we were in the presence of centuries-old packed ice and snow.

Hiking on Glaciers

alaskaWith sharp-tipped hiking poles in one hand, we stepped gingerly out on the ice.  Bruce immediately landed on his rear-end, but saved the camera in his fall.

Soon we got the hang of it, moving up and up, just slightly faster than the glacier moved down. We stepped gently over tiny streams of barely melted ice, trickling a path to the ocean. So pure and fresh it was that our guides encouraged us to fill our bottles and drink.

alaslaWe peered into blue pools called moulins that were as deep as the mountain itself and life-threateningly dangerous if we stumbled and fell. The ice picks, axes and ropes that our guides carried around their waists were reminders that this was not any old walk in the park.  They told a story of the previous summer where one woman stepped too close to a moulin, slipped and fell. Before it was over, a helicopter crew specializing in such conditions finally brought her back to safety.

It was a day-long endeavor that left us exhilarated and more than a little sore in various body parts.

 

Hiking on the Mendehall Glacier

glacier3Our second glacier experience required much less physical exertion. It was a shore excursion from a Holland America cruise. The port of call was Juneau and we signed up for a helicopter flight to the Mendenhall Glacier.  It was kind of like being a star in our own action/adventure movie – running bent at the waist to avoid being caught up in the churning helicopter blades.

helicopter flightsIt’s about a 20 minute flight around the Juneau Ice Fields and then about 30 minutes on the glacier itself.  The crampons for this experience were included on the insulated boots provided to us by the TEMSO helicopter group.

And geez, we were glad for that extra insulation. I was wearing three layers of sweatshirts and vests, along with the inflatable life vest required for all passengers, and I was freezing!

Our guides told us again about the moulins and crevasses that make glacier treks so treacherous.  We again watched frozen ice become trickles of water as the climate warmed our surroundings. A frozen waterfall nearby reminded us of the intensity of the Alaskan wilderness.

mendenhall glacierThere’s something so humbling about experiencing a glacier at this intimate level. You realize this part of the world is more than beautiful pictures in travel brochures or a highlight for your holiday newsletter to family and friends.

It’s a part of the universe that we too often take for granted, ignoring it until the day comes when we want to play on a glacier again, and the glaciers are all gone.

 

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