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Off the Beaten Path: Exploring the Juneau Icefield

Posted: February 14, 2014 - 12:00am
Bjorn Dihle smiles atop the Denver Glacier during a recent expedition onto the Juneau Icefield.   Courtesy of Bjorn Dihle
Courtesy of Bjorn Dihle
Bjorn Dihle smiles atop the Denver Glacier during a recent expedition onto the Juneau Icefield.

One of the coolest things about living in Juneau is there’s a wilderness of glaciers and mountains just behind town. Known as the Juneau Icefield, it’s said to be the fifth largest icefield in North America and covers roughly 1,500 square miles. All of its nearly 40 glaciers are receding, except for its largest, the Taku.

Most explorers have to pay piles of money and travel thousands miles to get a good glacial dose of misery and deprivation. Lucky for us, the Juneau Icefield is right out our backdoor, offering those so inclined a chance to slog around on glaciers, get hypothermia and look into the void on the cheap.

Typically, people witness the grand splendor of the Juneau Icefield from the cockpit of a small plane or helicopter — a flight worth taking, especially on a calm winter day — but there’s also a small number of folks who choose to venture into its icy domain by foot and skis each year.

Glaciers are hot in the media right now. So is almost dying in the outdoors, as portrayed on reality TV shows.

I will risk my reputation in stating that glaciers are actually very cold and almost dying is not that cool.

Having the right set of skills is critical to staying safe on glaciers, which, take it from me, is what’s really cool. Before venturing out on a glacier, take the glacier travel class offered by the University of Alaska Southeast or have an experienced glacier trekker teach you safe travel techniques and crevasse rescue.

Glaciers, even the lower stretch of the Mendenhall Glacier, deserve a great deal of respect. The Juneau Icefield offers an assortment of recreation opportunities, from mountaineering to extreme downhill skiing to epic ski slogs. I’m uncomfortable going faster than five miles per hour (I have deep seeded control issues), so this column will only address a couple of the more popular icefield slogs.

Getting on and off the icefield is the hardest part of the adventure. A lot of folks use helicopters or a ski plane (Ward Air generally keeps skis on a plane until the latter part of April) to get dropped off at around 4,000 feet on the icefield, where terrain is easy for travelling.

For the purist or dirt bag slogger, the icefield is best accessed by foot from either the end of West Glacier Trail or from just beyond Carin Peak on Blackerby Ridge. Neither are easy routes onto the icefield, especially when you have to make two heavy hauls.

The West Glacier Trail access is more technical due to a couple of icefalls that have to be navigated as you trek up the Mendenhall Glacier.

Blackerby Ridge access is more arduous with an elevation gain of 4,500 feet before you can strap on skis.

May and June are the most ideal months to make an icefield slog.

Juneau to Skagway

This 150 mile or so traverse can be accessed from either the West Glacier Trail or Blackerby Ridge. Either way, you’ll likely have to make two hauls before you can strap everything to a sled and begin slogging. Once you reach the icefield’s plateau at around 4,000 feet, head toward the Matthes Glacier and follow it to the Alaskan-Canadian Boundary line. Keep a northwest bearing as you ski along the backbone of the icefield. A mountain pass near Mount Nesselrode and one on the Denver Glacier, above Skagway, demand good visibility to safely get over. If you elect to hike into Skagway from the Denver Glacier, you’ll have to traverse two mountains to the upper Dewey Lakes trail. Expect days of no visibility, so proficiency with compass, GPS and map will greatly aid your ability to travel.

Juneau to Atlin

This is the bread and butter Juneau Icefield expedition. It’s a bit shorter and much more straight forward than the ski to Skagway.

However, figuring out the logistics of getting to the town of Atlin once you reach the lake, and getting from Atlin back to Juneau, demands some planning.

Sometimes skiers get dropped off by float plane near the terminus of the Llewellyn Glacier on Atlin Lake, and ski back to Juneau. The route begins exactly the same as the trip to Skagway until you reach the top of the Matthes Glacier. Instead of following the backbone of the icefield to the northwest, travel down the Llewellyn Glacier to Atlin Lake.

So if you want a break from today’s world and would like to experience something ancient and beautiful, know the Pleistocene Epoch — minus saber-tooth cats, dire wolves and short-face bears — is in our backyard waiting for you.

• Bjorn Dihle is a writer based out of Juneau. He can be reached at bjorndihle@yahoo.com.

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