Some people call it Mendenhall ice trekking. I prefer to call it
Trek-agra, because it gives men and women a bold, new confidence in
not only themselves, but also Alaska adventure travel.
At the Mendenhall, your clients don’t see a white speck of ice
in the distance. Instead, they get up close and intimate with a
frozen river of ice that is one mile thick at the top and 13 miles
long. Their faces are only inches from its icy countenance;
powerless to control it, but empowered by its challenge and
In hotel lobbies and on cruise ships, Mendenhall Glacier
trekking is the most talked about day tour in Juneau. The photos
from these glacial treks draw the most comments, not only for the
spectacular scenery, but also from the incredulity conveyed: “Is
that you doing that?”
As a result, tourists often lament over not taking the trip.
Blame them not. Even the owner says he can’t figure out how to
adequately describe the experience to his customers. Allow me to
try: Imagine taking a mist shower in a glacial waterfall, ice
climbing down into the sapphire-blue world of a crevasse or
rappelling down 80-foot ice walls. People can’t picture themselves
doing such things until they find themselves actually doing them.
And by then, no one wants to stop.
The extended glacier journey begins in the NorthStar Trekking
office at the Juneau airport. Ground Operations Manager Melita
Welling shows us where to suit up in specialized clothing and gear.
Nothing fancy: Plastic climbing boots, crampons, nylon shell pants
and jacket, a harness and gloves. After a safety briefing, we climb
into an A-Star 350 jet helicopter and are soon over the Juneau
We hover over rivers of ice and mountainsides. The mountaintops
are so close I can seemingly reach out and touch the mountain goats
in the green alpine meadows. Owner and chief pilot Bob
Engelbrecht’s narration on icefield and glacier lore mesmerize us
Near the Mendenhall terminus, we hover and land. Mark, our
guide, is waiting for us. I notice two older women walk to the
waiting helicopter for the return trip to Juneau
“You’re going to love it,” one shouts as she scurries along, an
uncommon zest in her step.
Now on the ice, my wife, Nitaya, and I enter an ice canyon where
fingers of blue ice envelop us like a giant hand. Mark drops a rope
over the ledge. Nitaya hooks her carabiner to the end and kicks her
spiked toes into the glacier, buries the ax in each hand into the
ice and pulls herself up a vertical wall of shimmering blue. A mini
waterfall spews out of the ice to her right, baptizing her in an
icy mist. Fifteen feet up, one of the crampons breaks lose and she
drops about three inches. My heart skips. The rope holds. Trust Thy
Guide. She climbs higher and looks down at me. I see a smile of
We trek along knife-like ridges in 80-degree, cloudless weather.
Icemelt shoots out of the glacial walls like fire hydrants gone
berserk, and snake away into winding-blue rivulets. We stop to
taste water that is perhaps 250 years old.
We continue to trek over icy terrain, jump a few streams and
climb onto jagged, two-story icy monoliths called seracs. We take
turns squeezing sideways into a tunnel that burrows to the
Mendenhall’s very heart. The icy walls emanate a transparent,
sapphire blue. The glacier speaks to us in barely audible notes.
Air bubbles formed under extreme pressure hundreds of years ago
release in the heat of the day. The ice hisses, fizzles and pops.
The heavier plop-plop of melting glacier ice keeps a metronome
regularity to the glacial symphony taking place.
We climb back onto an ice ridge and into the sunlight. There we
break for a NorthStar-sponsored lunch of bagel, granola bar, salmon
dip and bottled water. I’ve seldom tasted better.
Nitaya seems confident she can rappel down a 60-foot serac. She
eases over the edge feet first, looks down and freezes. I had
rappelled down earlier, and had butterflies just looking over the
edge. She asked Mark not to drop her. I watch her feet begin to
move, but she doesn’t go anywhere. He lowers her a foot, and she
yelps, catching her breath. Nit pulls it together, kicks her
crampons into the ice, and leans back, allowing Mark to lower her
on the rope. Soon her fear transforms into exuberance. She looks
down at me from 40 feet and smiles as she backwalks down the ice
wall. At the base, she is as bubbly as champagne.
“I did it! I did it!” she said. “I was so scared, but I did it.
I’m so glad I did.”
“People just need to get up the courage and try it,” Mark said.
“Once they do, it’s the highlight of the trip for them.”
After four hours of trekking on the ice, it was time to return
to Juneau. The helicopter flew at 2,000 feet, but Nit and I were
flying higher on natural, glacial-induced endorphins.