The U.S. Forest Service warned Alaskans that the popular ice caves on the west side of the Mendenhall Glacier were unstable. By Friday morning a tour guide reported that the warning had proved prophetic — a large portion of the caves’ entrance had collapsed.
But for Juneauites who have seen the caves in-person, the term “collapsed” may not be the most appropriate, as the caves are still accessible.
“The entrance is not blocked, and that’s our concern that this may invite more people in,” said John Neary, the director of the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, which is run by the Forest Service.
Several large chunks of ice fell from the edge of the glacial overhang near the front of the tunnel, but the ice above the area, perhaps most popular with local photographers — a vertical hole in the glacier called a moluin near the back of the cave — is still “very thick,” Neary said.
“It’s the entry area that was always in much more marginal condition because of its thinness and the rock and dirt on top,” Neary said.
He added that no one appears to have been hurt by the falling chunks of ice.
The popular caves are not the only tunnels snaking under the glacier, Neary said, they’re just more accessible than most and some of the most visually attractive. Still, that doesn’t make them safe for visitors to explore, he stressed.
“We have to say at this point, ‘stay away, it has already collapsed once,’” he said.
A photo of the ice boulders laying at the front of the caves had been shared 28 times on Facebook as of press time with comments ranging from, “I should have gone when I had the chance” to “The beginning of the end for the Mendenhall Ice Caves.”
The caves are especially dangerous during the summer months when higher temperatures speed up the melting of the glacier, but that doesn’t mean the caves should be explored even during the cold winter months, Neary said.
“That’s the bottom line — this is a hole under a melting glacier,” he said. “Even if it’s melting slower during the winter, it’s never safe.”