Treadmill Rating (out of 10):
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Known as the “Drive-Up Glacier,” Mendenhall is the most easily accessible glacier for everyone. With a terminus located thirteen miles from Juneau, the glacier can be accessed from a US Forest Service visitor center that is located on a roadway from Juneau, Alaska’s capitol. The Tinglits originally called it Sitaantaagu, which translates to the “Glacier Behind the Town.” Mendenhall is twelve miles long and drains into Mendenhall Lake. It is part of the Juneau Icefield, which, in turn, is part of the Tongass National Park.
We did not access Mendenall Glacier by car. Rather, it was an excursion from our cruise ship, the Princess Sapphire. The excursion was outfitted and conducted by NorthStar Trekking. At their office we were given appropriate clothing and gear for the hike: water- and wind-proof outerwear; hard-shell mountaineering boots that seemed akin to ski boots; a fanny pack with tissues, bottled water and a granola bar; gloves and gaitors. We were strapped into harnesses with a carabiner (“just in case”). Then we took a ride in an AS350 series A-Star helicopter through the rain and wind over numerous glaciers, past rock cliffs and snow-capped peaks. A general rule when approaching or disembarking a helicopter: don’t walk towards the back, as you cannot see the rear rotor blade when it is spinning. We flew at an altitude of about 5,000 feet.
We landed on a rough, mile-wide section of ice that was a thousand feet deep. At the glacier our two guides, Grace and Mateos, fitted us with crampons, ice axes and helmets. We looked around at the surreal features of the glacier: towering ice towers, deep ridges, streams within crevasses, steep slopes, holes that went to unknown depths, and the strangely beautiful blue ice (dense glacier ice absorbs all colors of the spectrum except blue, which it transmits). We learned how to use our ice ax to help walk on the rough terrain, as well as how to effectively walk uphill with crampons. And then we embarked on our two-hour, two-mile hike.
It rained the entire time. However, we were so involved in getting ourselves accustomed to hiking in such an uneven surface that we didn’t care. It rains roughly 300 days a year in Southeastern Alaska, which has it’s own rainforests. It took about twenty minutes before we felt comfortable climbing and descending while equipped with crampons and the ice axes. By then we were easily mastering hills and even walked through a stream in a crevasse…during which time my left leg plunged into a hole to a depth over my knee, causing water to pour down my gaitor and into my boot. Again, I didn’t care. The hike and the scenery were all-consuming.
At the end of our adventure we were flown back to the outfitter’s office.
HOW TECHNICAL IS THE HIKE?
This is a technical hike requiring stiff ankle boots, a helmet, ice axe, harness with carabiner and gaitors. Waterproof outerwear is also necessary.
WHO CAN DO THIS HIKE?
Anyone in good shape can do this hike. The minimum age for NorthStar Trekking is twelve.
WHEN SHOULD I GO?
The U.S. Forest Service Visitor Center (where you can also observe bears), is open year-round. Hours are considerably longer during May through September because of the longer periods of daylight. Alaskan days are a real treat the further north you go, with daylight hours extending late into the night.
General training to keep you fit will make this hike very rewarding. This can include uphill hiking, beach hiking, weight training, etc.
The gear mentioned in this article was supplied by the outfitter. However, you should dress in layers for hiking on the glacier. For example, a Techwick shirt covered by another shirt and a fleece, sweater or sweatshirt will keep you warm, and a layer can be removed if you become too warm. Summer temperatures in Alaska can by highly variable. While you may feel comfortable in a tee shirt and shorts near the shore or hiking in a rainforest, glacial hiking can be quite a bit colder. And, of course, bring your camera.