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Mendenhall Glacier
posted by John : September 11, 2011

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And there it is

No, I didn't fall into the glacier, but I did get my feet chilly for a second day in a row. Yesterday, we flew onto the Taku Glacier. Today, we had a much more modest goal. Well, we did once we gave up on the idea of climbing Thunder Mountain. Thunder was too much for our limited time, so we headed out the West Glacier trail in search of a way to get down to the ice itself. Two years ago, Mary and I ran up the trail to an overlook of the Mendenhall. It poured on us, but the views were still stunning.

This year, the weather was great. Just like the day before. Heck, you'd almost think it was always sunny in Juneau.

We made good time to a point where there used to be a viewpoint, but since the bench was built the trees have grown and the view is no longer worth stopping for. A chainsaw would go a long way toward fixing the problem, but it actually served us well. While we kvetched about the problem we noticed an unofficial trail heading down the hill. Of course, following unknown trail that head down hill almost always leads to tears, but nonetheless we followed.

First we met a woman with some dogs. They hadn't gone much farther and didn't know what was ahead.

Next we met a guy new to Juneau. He was in jeans and a sweatshirt so there's no reason to update the population count for Juneau. Cotton kills and he won't be around long. He told us he was on the glacier three hours ago. Well, crap. That's not so good. We don't have that kind of time. Oh, but wait, he had lunch and just hung out for a while. It was probably only an hour away. He talked about a dicey climb and made it sound like we'd need more gear than we had. Still, we pushed on to see what there was to see.

A long finger of rock juts out from Mt. McGinnis into Mendenhall Lake. In the past, the glacier covered this rock, but it has receded to be on the far side. We found a straightforward route up a gully that required no gear, but the occasional hand on the face was reassuring. At the top we found flags leading down the other side. Never fear, I knocked them all down. The cairns fell, too. The wilderness is safe!

Well, safe except for the tourists from the cruise ships. And the helicopters flying overhead. (Some clarification: I'm not a tourist. Also, our helicopter ride wasn't annoying to anyone.)

Anyway, we continued down on the rock until we found piles of glacial till. Bah! It was soft and slidy. Mary wasn't so sure, but it was just a little farther to the ice so I looked for the most stable route, though there honestly wasn't really much stability to be found. And why was that? Oh, because the till wasn't on rock. It was on a 45 degree ice slope. Yeah, I was already on the glacier.

Of course, rather than turning back I just went down and stepped onto the white ice. Ahhhh... Now if only that weird lady standing there would move. She's ruining my pictures. Mary did come out on the ice with me and we tried to take a group picture. It didn't turn out well. So instead I started wandering out higher. Now don't get all worried. I stayed well away from the crevasses. It's not like there was a helicopter handy to pull me out.

Just like on the Taku, the jumbled masses of ice were amazing to look at and so different than the mountainside glaciers I'm used to on Rainier and Baker. These really did feel like the proverbial river of ice and it seemed perfectly feasible that it would flow down the hill and right into the lake. I waited, but it didn't move and I was out of time.

We turned and headed back over the white ice, the till-covered ice, the rocks (past the tumbled cairns and downed flags), and finally back onto the maintained trail. We made it home in time for dinner, which is good. If we hadn't I might as well have jumped into a crevasse.

Totals: about five miles and 1,900 feet.

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