Ice climbing is not as hard as it looks and can be quickly taught by guides. // © 2014 Christopher Batin
According to scientists, Alaska has about 100,000 glaciers, but only a few of the big ones are reachable from the road system. One of those is Matanuska Glacier, in south-central Alaska, about 100 miles north of Anchorage on the Glenn Highway. About 27 miles long and four miles wide, it’s the largest easily accessible glacier in Alaska.
“The Matanuska Glacier is a highlight that people want to see when they come to Alaska,” said Casey Ressler with the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We always get great reviews from people taking tours on the ice. One of the coolest things is when the guides bore a hole into the ice and my guests drink the meltwater. I can’t help but wonder how many thousands of years old it is. It’s all part of the adventure of a Matanuska Glacier hike.”
MICA Guides, located at Mile 102.5 on the Glenn Highway, is one of the premier guiding services in the area. Whenever family and friends visit Alaska, I take them on a Matanuska Glacier day trip with MICA, because I’ve always received great tours and professional treatment from the outfit’s guides and because Matanuska offers exciting glacial highlights, fabulous scenery and lots of fun.
Owners Don Wray and Tina Green offer many simple and customized options for enjoying this glacier. I have observed MICA’s professional mountaineering guides offer patient instruction to novices and advanced techniques and custom treks for the experts. They claim to have taken 20,000 people out onto the ice since 1999.
Don’t allow your clients to be intimidated by these glacier tours — remind them that this glacier is easy to access and is one of the best values for a glacier tour in all of Alaska. I consider it one of my top must-do Alaska day-tours. Many visitors will be pleased to know that with any glacier trek, technique and some degree of leg strength matters more than arm strength. If your clients can climb a ladder or hike a flight of stairs without holding onto the handrail, they will handle a glacier trek or climb with ease.
MICA’s Ice-Fall Trek is the longest and most popular tour. Clients spend about three hours on the ice hiking along canyons of icy-blue cliffs and getting up close to cascading icefalls. The shorter Glacier Hike is good for children and other individuals who can’t endure lengthy walks. These 1½-hour hikes take place near the glacier’s terminus, where the walking is leisurely. Visitors can choose from four departures per day.
When it comes to the company’s selection of ice-climbing excursions, MICA’s guides start with the basics before graduating to climbing vertical ice. The tour operator has developed its own specialized instruction that works best for novice ice climbers, and it’s a winner. Most visitors have no ice-climbing experience and do quite well. MICA also offers private instruction and ice-climbing tours.
On a recent ice-climbing trek, I was in a group of seven women and two men, all first-timers on glacier ice. After a 15-minute hike onto the terminus, our guides ran us through an “ice climbing boot camp.” They chose a small, 15-foot sloping wall of ice and taught us how to use ice axes, balance on our crampons and climb using our legs. The guides worked with each person until everyone was confident. My daughter Catherine, who is not accustomed to physically demanding exercise, was able to climb to the top of a 50-foot ice wall twice before the end of the day.
I recommend this tour for family groups, as the company has a ratio of six guests per guide. Not all participants take advantage of every single climbing opportunity, but I have seen some guests climb until they were too tired to do it anymore. On average, expect at least two to three climbs per trip, plus a training climb.
The climbing and trekking trip destinations vary from day to day, depending on the number of clients on the glacier. For the most part, the groups stay out of sight and sound of each other, which helps maintain the wilderness atmosphere.
Clients are also likely to learn a great deal from MICA’s experienced guides. For instance, our guide worked in New Zealand during the winter months and Alaska during the summer, and was particularly knowledgeable about glaciology and glacier mountaineering.
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of my excursion was seeing people climb ice cliffs when, just a short time before, they said it was something they didn’t think they could do. The look of accomplishment on their faces proved this to be one of the most rewarding day-tours available in Alaska.
After a long day of climbing and trekking, I was not only famished, but too tired to make the drive back to Anchorage. I recommend having supper and possibly spending the night at the nearby Sheep Mountain Lodge, located at Milepost 113. The lodge offers an excellent restaurant and great food made from local produce. Their fresh sourdough bread and grilled sockeye salmon are the best available in south-central Alaska. The cabins are modern, fully furnished, quiet, comfortable and surrounded by great scenery and hiking trails.
The cost of a six-hour ice climb is $129 per person, plus a $20, non-resident glacier access fee. Treks are $45 and $69. The best value for a small group or family is a private ice-climbing tour or trek.
MICA provides boots, gloves and helmets and clients should bring a small daypack, snacks, lunch, sunglasses, sunscreen, warm clothing and raingear.