6:22 PM GMT-5
Trekking on a Glacier
Location: Mendenhall Glacier, Juneau, Alaska
Coordinates: 58° 28.01’ N 134° 31.3’ W
[Author’s note: I wrote this blog shortly after coming off the glacier, but then I got busy with school and travel, and didn’t get around to publishing it until today.]
Glaciers are, contrary to common belief, alive. Not alive in a literal way, but alive in the sense that they move, and breathe, and change. They take on personalities, and constantly shed off their old skins in favor of a different face. They have an indomitable will, while being incredibly vulnerable.
We helicoptered onto the Mendehall glacier, and at that point my imagination was running wild. I couldn’t decide if I felt more like I was soaring into Winterfell on the back of a dragon, or beginning a secluded research expedition in the wilds Antarctica. Either way, it was the first time I’d ever had the uncanny sensation that I had reached the end of the world. The way the bare, brown peaks shot out of the snow and into the sky made it look like the mountains had somehow formed a wall separating the known from the unknown; our world from another. The Juneau Ice Field, which is the size of Rhode Island, stretched out for miles in every direction, making the world white and barren for as far as we could see. In any good fantasy world there’s that point where the known world—the map, the animation, the story—simply ends. Soaring onto a glacier via helicopter, I was sure I’d reached that point.
Base Camp for our ice climbing trek was exactly the image you’ld summon to mind when thinking “base camp.” Trunks of equipment, brilliantly colored coats and gear, a tiny bubble of a tent, and a place to land the choppers, all casually perched in the middle of a glacier. After leaving the helicopter and beginning to suit up (including crampons, which make walking up and down vertical walls of ice significantly easier), I was finally able to take in what it was like to stand on a glacier.
From afar, glaciers look stoic and indomitable. They seem to be made of a sheet of solid ice, firmly packed and absolutely static. This is not the case. Up close, it looked as if I was standing on millions of tiny diamonds, each of different shapes and sizes, but all clear and perfectly formed. These diamonds were, of course, ice crystals, but I had never seen ice that was so absolutely clear, nor had I ever seen ice that was so beautifully constructed. The surface of the glacier shone in the sunlight, and the idea that I was in some magical land in some fantasy world was reinforced.
After a safety talk by our wonderful guides, Dan and Dan, we started into the heart of the glacier, moving through valleys of ice and enormous crevasse. Many places that had looked tiny from the chopper were, as I stood in them, taller than me and wider than my wingspan. The sheer enormity of the glacier blew me away; the ice is vast and all-consuming, and it has no problem putting your own insignificance into perspective. When standing atop a 3,000-year-old glacier—its movements still impacting the land and people today—it is hard not to feel small. This isn’t necessarily bad; in fact, I found it rather comforting to gaze up at a massive reminder of eras and civilizations past, and know that whatever daily inconveniences flit in and out of my life, this glacier will still be here, moving, breathing, and changing.
Everything really came into perspective when I completed my ice climb up one of the glacier’s valley walls. Going up a vertical incline of what felt like a hundred and fifty feet (okay, it was actually only seventy, but *still*), I learned that ice climbing is a game of trust. All your weight rests on two, tiny metal points that stick out the front of your crampons—why the laws of physics allow for that, I have no idea. Some additional help comes from two ice picks which, when dug in over your head, are good for pulling up; this also, however, brings the challenge of prying them out of the ice without launching yourself backward. The first step is a leap of faith, but once you realized that the crampons really are holding you, it becomes a little bit easier. I scaled the wall, and felt like a real, honest-to-goodness adventurer. Sure, I wasn’t in any life or death situation, braving unpredictable forces of nature and a violent landscape in a last-ditch effort to find shelter, or some daring story like that. But I was pulling myself up the side of a glacier, climbing something that had been there long before me and will be here long after. I was in the elements, in direct contact with nature, and it was incredible. At the top, I could look across the glacier, back to base camp, and over to Juneau—the ocean, the sky, and the ice all in harmony. And for a brief moment, I was a part of that.
After rappelling back down, I celebrated my victory by drinking straight from a glacial stream. Glacial water has no particulates or microbes, which made it some of the cleanest water I’ve ever tasted. We dumped out our water bottles and refilled them before beginning our trek back.
On the way to camp, we came across a moulin: a small, near-vertical hole in the glacier created by the constant battering of meltwater. Deep and dangerous, moulins can reach to the very bottom of the glacier, where they perhaps meet a river that eventually reaches the ocean. On the other hand, moulins can simply be dark and enclosed caverns that, if fallen into, would mean a five hundred foot plummet greeted by an icy bath. They are steep and unexpected, and this particular moulin obstructed our path. Before turning back and attempting to trek back a different way, our guides rigged a rope system such that we could climb over the moulin and look directly in. The experience was both terrifying and exhilarating (emphasis on the former). I could hear the meltwater rushing down through the moulin into some unexplored depths, and I could see the blue ice darken into black as the hole deepened. It was a death trap, certainly, but it was also one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen. While I was happy to get my feet back on solid ice, I was grateful for the chance to experience a moulin so safely.
We wrapped up our trek with a few more sips from glacial streams, a visit to a recently-collapsed ice cave, and a brisk walk through a stunningly steep crevasse. We left our crampons at base camp and headed back onto the chopper, soaring away from the glacier and back to the real world.
After six years of cruising, this day takes the cake for the best adventure. Equal parts excitement, nerves, and humility, spending a day with a glacier put the sheer scope of Alaska into perspective. This land was—and still is—crafted by the growing and shrinking of ice, and as Three@Sea continued her journey through the narrows and valleys of the Alaskan panhandle, I was continually reminded of the life which these glaciers seem to take on. They are dynamic and vibrant, ever-changing and beautiful, dangerous and unpredictable. They are wildness at its most extreme, creating the land with every move, arriving long before people and remaining long after. Glaciers, like the salmon in the streams and the lights in the sky, are deeply engrained in the way of life in Alaska, and it was a privilege to spend a day with one.