Our big draw to Juneau when planning our trip was the Mendenhall Glacier. When researching all the exciting possibilities for our Alaskan exploration I came across a company called ABAK Wilderness Trips. They have a variety of different tours to give their customers a taste of the great outdoors of Juneau. We decided on the Mendenhall Glacier Guided Group hike.
This particular hike is about 9 miles round trip, and required serious preparation on our part. We made a point to take a long walk most evenings. On the weekends we would do progressively longer hikes at nearby trails. We knew we would be able to do the hike because we’re not ones to give up, but we really wanted to enjoy the hike, so we worked on our stamina the entire summer leading up to our trip.
On a Thursday September morning the day we had been looking forward to had finally arrived. We woke up bright and early to don our thermals and layers of clothing. Then we headed down to the Sandpiper Café, which was conveniently attached to our hotel. We ate at the café a few times while in Juneau and were never disappointed. Every meal we tried was delicious. This particular morning we chose heartier meals that would stick with us on our hike. After our breakfast we headed up to our room to gather our things and it wasn’t long until our tour guides arrived.
They drove us down to the port to pick up the rest of our group that was arriving by cruise ship, then they drove us to the West Glacier Trailhead. On the drive we were able to get acquainted with our guides and new hiking buddies. Upon arrival, we all cleared the van and gathered our gear. The guides provided us with rain jackets and pants, as well as hiking packs containing food, water, and “Glacier Gear”. It was a good thing they provided us with the rain gear, because it was a drizzly cool Alaskan morning.
Everyone finished fitting their gear and made one last stop at the facilities before hitting the trail. The guides gave us a little run down of what to expect along the the way. They told us not to be afraid to use our hands to steady ourselves with stones and trees as we made our way through the Tongass National Forest, but to watch out for the Devils Club. And oh boy when I saw it, I knew they were right!
The guides thought it would be best to set a brisk pace to warm ourselves. To be completely honest, I got a little nervous when my calves started burning not far into the hike. Fortunately soon the burning stopped once my body warmed up a little. With the drizzling, the rocks were slick and we found ourselves using our hands frequently to steady ourselves with trees and other stones. There were switch back after switch backs, but the occasional break in trees would give us a glimpse of our destination, and would refuel our motivation.
Though we were in a group of strangers, there was a comradery that quickly developed through all the trials and tribulations. We encouraged and cheered each other on. We pointed out slick spots, good places to step, and lent a steady hand when needed. It was amazing to see people from all walks of life come together for one goal and work as a team. We only took a few short breaks to allow as much time possible on the glacier.
About 4 miles in we came to a ridge, and there it was right in front of us, the Mendenhall Glacier. But first we had to navigate our way down this very steep hill with gravel covering its surface. With every step you could feel the gravel shifting under you. It took patience and diligence but we all made it safely to the bottom, and to the edge of the glacier. We took a moment to have a bite to eat, adjust our layers and put on our “Glacier Gear”. We had helmets, harnesses, pick axes, and crampons for our boots.
The very first step onto the glacier was thrilling! It was the moment we had been waiting for. Thank goodness for the crampons or we would have been slipping and sliding. We proceeded to march our way across the glacier, stopping to take in the view and a few snap shots. Fortunately the rain had paused and we were able to take out our nice camera. Our tour guides even gave us an opportunity to hang over the edge to get a better look down within the glacier. Some chose to hang off entirely by their harness, I just leaned over to get a peak.
After an hour or so of exploring the glacier we had to make our way back. Going back up that steep gravely hill was much more difficult than going down, but we made it! The rain decided to continue on our return hike. At some point on the way back my boot came untied. I stepped into a shallow stream and all the water came flooding into my boot! Apparently they are only waterproof on the outside, ha! Our guides took us back on a slightly different route. It was a touch longer walk but had less switch backs.
We made it back to the trail head soaked by rain and sweat. We loaded into the van and headed straight to the port to drop off our cruising friends, then they dropped us off at our hotel. We cleaned up, changed clothes then walked to have dinner. We ate at this little Russian restaurant that made everything fresh and once they were out of ingredients they stopped serving that dish. We split a couple of entrees then sauntered back to our hotel. It was still fairly early but we were exhausted, so we went to bed early.