On our second Alaska cruise, the cruise line offered a glacier trekking excursion. The basic idea behind this excursion was that participants are taken by helicopter to one of the glaciers and given the opportunity to explore it. This excursion proved to be too tempting to pass up.
When we arrived in Juneau, I assumed that our excursion had probably been canceled. The rain was coming down in a steady drizzle and the clouds were so low that the tops of all the mountains were obscured. I used to fly small, single engine airplanes in the mid-1990s and I knew from my experiences as a pilot that the strong wind and steady rain and poor visibility were enough to ground a flight unless both the aircraft and the pilot were instrument rated.
Since we didn’t receive a notice of cancelation, Taz and I went ahead and made our way to the designated meeting spot just in case they decided to run our excursion after all. I don’t think that either one of us actually expected to get to go. Imagine our surprise when the tour operator actually showed up in spite of the bad weather!
We were loaded onto a bus along with about a dozen other people and made the short drive to the airport. Upon our arrival we were taken to a small building where we were to be outfitted with the gear for our excursion. The tour guide led us into a small room and told us to remove our shoes and jackets. I immediately noticed that a window was open and that it was about 40 degrees in the room. At first I thought that the tour operators must have been nuts leaving a window open, but it proved to be a blessing in disguise. We had to wear a lot of gear for our glacier trekking experience and I quickly became very warm as I suited up.
We had been told ahead of time that we would have to wear special clothing for our visit to the glacier, but I didn’t realize how much gear we would have to wear until the tour guide told everyone to hit the restroom before they began suiting up because it would be almost impossible to go to the bathroom once all the gear was on.
The first thing that I was provisioned with was a pair of waterproof pants and a set of hard shell boots. I was told to put the water proof pants on over my jeans and to then put on the boots. Once the boots were on, one of the tour operator’s employees came by and laced them up very tightly. At the time I wondered if it was really necessary for my boots to be so tight, but as it turned out, it really was.
Once my boots were secure, the woman who had helped me with my boots put another piece of gear on me. I’m not really sure what it was called, but it was a waterproof covering that went over the laces on the boots. It attached to the boots and the pants in a way that ensured that my feet stayed dry.
As the minutes ticked by, we were outfitted with more and more gear. We had to wear everything from a waterproof outer shell to a helmet and a climbing harness. By the time that I was completely outfitted I almost felt as if I was wearing a space suit.
Once everyone was all suited up we made our way outside for a quick safety briefing and then on to the helicopter. I got lucky in that I was allowed to ride shotgun with the pilot. That made me very happy because my seat gave me a perfect vantage for taking pictures and video during the flight.
Even though some of the others seemed nervous about the flight, Taz and I were both calm. I had gotten to ride in helicopters a few times when I was working for the military, and Taz and I had both taken a helicopter flight several years before in St. Lucia. As such, we both thought that we knew what to expect.
The thing that made this flight different for us was the bad weather. As we flew to our destination, the helicopter went up and down like a yo-yo. The flight would be relatively smooth for a minute or so, and then we would just drop. The pilot would quickly recover each time, but the flight was a bit unnerving nonetheless.
It only took us about ten minutes to reach the Juneau ice fields and then about another twenty minutes to reach our landing site. The pilot managed to make a smooth landing in spite of the heavy winds and the precipitation (I’m not sure if it was rain, sleet, freezing rain, or what, but it was cold).
As we touched down at base camp I almost felt as though I was landing on the moon. The landscape looked otherworldly with the various ice formations, and I still felt as if I were wearing a space suit.
When I climbed out of the helicopter I found out right away that the glacial ice was a lot slicker than I had anticipated. Even with the heavy boots that I was wearing, it was difficult to stand, much less walk. We carefully made our way to a tent that had been set up about 150 feet from the helicopter. The people who were camped out on the glacier outfitted us with crampons and an ice axe.
The crampons made it a lot easier to stand up, but walking was still somewhat difficult. Although there was no danger of slipping, the boots and crampons were a lot heavier than anything that I was used to wearing. Furthermore, we had been instructed to walk bowlegged so as not to trip from getting the spikes on our crampons caught in one another.
After about five minutes of walking, it was time to climb our first hill. There is definitely something intimidating about staring at a hill of solid ice and knowing that you have to climb it, even though you have zero experience with that sort of thing. Thankfully our guides took the time to show us how to properly use our equipment so as to avoid a nasty fall.
We were told that we were to use the spikes in the front of our boots almost like stairs. We would dig the spikes into the ice and then step up as if we were climbing up a stair (hence the reason for the boots being so tight). We were also told to dig in with our ice axes and use those to help pull ourselves up with and to help us keep our balance between steps.
Climbing up the glacier was intimidating, but climbing back down proved to be just as scary. We were essentially told to take really heavy steps to dig the spikes on our boots into the ice, dig in with the ice axe, and hang on tight as we took each step.
After going up and down a few hills, I began to become more comfortable with the techniques that we were using. It was a workout for sure (as well as an adrenaline rush), but I really enjoyed the experience.
As we trekked through the ice fields, our guide showed us some rather unique sights. We saw a large waterfall and some huge boulders that had been churned up by the glacier.
The one thing that I will never forget was the crevices. As we trekked across the ice, we were told to watch out for holes. There were blue holes scattered all over the place. Most of these holes were only about a foot in diameter, but were extremely deep. Someone dropped a chunk of ice into a small hole and it took at least six seconds to hit the bottom.
Of course not all of the holes were small. There were large cracks in the ice as well that could swallow a person. Our guides took us to one especially large “ice cave” to have a look. This hole was large enough to swallow a small car and at least three waterfalls gushed into the hole. The guides tied a rope to my climbing harness and allowed me to go to the edge (or over the edge if I had chosen to do so). For about the first ten feet the hole was a spectacular shade of blue. Beyond that the blue faded to black. The depth of the hole made it impossible to see the bottom, but it was possible to hear a raging river far beneath us. Our guide said that the hole was roughly half a mile deep.
After a few hours it was time for the helicopter to come back and get us. I wasn’t ready to leave the glacier, but I was physically exhausted. Walking around on the glacier was physically demanding and we had been in the frigid wind and the driving sleet all afternoon as well. Something about being in the elements really takes it out of me.
The helicopter whisked us back to the Juneau airport. The flight back felt a lot shorter than the flight to reach the glacier. Upon our return to the airport we removed all of our gear. We all had a few laughs about how wet everyone was. However, the one thing that I really noticed was how much lighter I felt once I had taken all of my gear off.
All too soon we were back on board the ship. I was bummed that our glacier trekking had come to an end, but I was still cold and couldn’t wait to get a hot meal, an even hotter shower, and to take a nap.
If you would like to see our video of this excursion, it is at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3flS5HTwKoM