Mendenhall’s Cold Blue World

Glacier trekking in Juneau, Alaska

By: Christopher Batin

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 beauty.

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.

Gearing Up

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 Icefield.

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 even more.

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.

The Trek

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 accomplishment.

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.

The Finale

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.


Price: $439 per person

Commission: 10 percent

NorthStar Trekking

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