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West Glacier Trail improvements slate safety as a priority

Work will continue into the middle of October on the 'Aztec torture stairs'

Posted: September 26, 2013 - 11:00pm
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Peter Cross, left, and Matt Adams of the U.S. Forest Service walk by heavy cable that will be used for handrails on the West Glacier Trail. The crew is working about two miles up the trail this fall.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Peter Cross, left, and Matt Adams of the U.S. Forest Service walk by heavy cable that will be used for handrails on the West Glacier Trail. The crew is working about two miles up the trail this fall.

With stone saws and jackhammers, crews continued work this week on the West Glacier Trail, which offers users unique vistas of the Mendenhall Glacier and is perhaps best known for providing partial access to the glacier’s popular ice caves.

The work being done this fall on the 3.5-mile long trail is aimed at a portion of the pathway that is historically treacherous, according to reports from users.

“They call them the ‘Aztec torture steps’,” said Ed Grossman, U.S. Forest Service recreation program manager on the Juneau Ranger District.

Located around the two-mile marker, the steep, narrow step-like section of the trail is often slippery. The rocks are sharp in many places and the hand holds few and far between. On one side is a steep hillside, the other a brushy drop-off.

“(The crews) are trying to correct some of those steps which made navigation difficult,” Grossman said. “Basically, we are trying to increase the opportunity for safe passage.”

Despite the challenging trail surface, many users — some guided and some not — frequent the trail due to the access it provides to a non-maintained user-made trail that leads to the face of the Mendenhall Glacier. Many are looking to experience the ice caves within, which have gained popularity and media attention in recent years.

But the project got started a bit late this year, Grossman said. Hence, they will work into mid-October to get as much of the work done as possible before cold temperatures make trail construction virtually impossible.

The main reason for the delay was tied to the need for specialty materials, such as a steel cable now being used for the construction of a set of sturdy handrails.

“Procurement was hard,” he said. “The heavy duty cable was a special order item which, because of the cost, required the involvement of our procurement team and subsequently a bid process. Then, we had to come up with ways to cut it and work with it.”

Grossman said the project also included the need for a heavy duty rock drill to install the vertical posts for the handrails, for instance. With a rock drill comes the need for water “that involves a couple hundred feet of hose and a pump.”

“So you add up all of those different things and it caused a delay in getting started and the later you move into the season, the harder it is to find weather windows,” he said.

Crews couldn’t haul gear to the work site, Grossman said, which is located about two miles from the trailhead at the end of Skaters Cabin Road. Instead, they relied on supplies and tools to be transported to the site by helicopter. Those same supplies will be airlifted out before winter.

Yet, despite the wind and rain that comes with a fall construction site, the crews are still pushing to get most of the work done this season. Grossman anticipates some will have to wait until next year.

When it comes to money, it’s those who use the trail often that are helping to fund the improvements.

“The project is being funded by monies gathered from guided outfitter operations that utilize public trails,” Grossman said. “They are required to pay a certain amount for the privilege of using public lands.”

He said the fee, paid to the USFS, is based on the end-of-season client tally and the size of the operation. In short, there’s a fee per client.

Other recent projects similarly funded include the Nugget Falls, East Glacier and Moraine Ecology trails. He also said the USFS has future plans to fund improvements to the Denver and Laughton glacier trails in a similar fashion.

For this project the USFS is utilizing $100,000 to fix and repair the most treacherous sections. But Grossman said the final cost of the work isn’t yet available.

“I still don’t know what the work this year will cost, mostly because we are not done,” he said.

In the end, the USFS hopes these improvements will encourage users to explore the full length of the West Glacier Trail, instead of peeling off to follow the unofficial, user-made trails to the glacier’s face.

Grossman said there are no plans to improve any unofficial routes in that area, including those that lead to the face of the Mendenhall Glacier, or the one which leads to the summit of Mount McGinnis.

“Those user-made trails don’t meet our requirements,” he said. “We can barely keep up maintenance on the trails we already support.”

Yet the draw of the glacier is understandable. Grossman suggests visiting the hulking piece of ice by boat or kayak, which makes not only for a safer return trip, but also offers a unique view not often seen by most.

 

• Contact Outdoors Editor Abby Lowell at 523-2271 or by email at abby.lowell@juneauempire.com.

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