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Allure of Mendenhall Glacier masks the dangers of its face

Posted: Monday, January 03, 2011

The majestic beauty of the Mendenhall Glacier is a popular attraction for tourists in the summer and locals in the winter, but that beauty masks the incredible danger for those who venture out onto the frozen Mendenhall Lake.

“Every year I think it is really important to remind the public how dangerous it is to walk on the ice and what the potential for trouble is,” Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center interpreter Laurie Craig said on Sunday as she looked out over a virtual winter wonderland of ice and snow. “On a cold sunny day it is just so enticing.”

A recent episode on Dec. 26, 2010, involved a man falling through the ice near the terminus (face) of the glacier and being pulled to safety by a hiking companion. Over a mile from the Visitor Center, the man faced freezing to death.

Six Capital City Fire and Rescue responders searched the area in a four-wheeler towing a covered sled, trying to locate the victim who called via cell phone saying they were near a large falls. In fact the victim, who was eventually treated for hypothermia at Bartlett Regional Hospital, was closer to the other side and behind a large iceberg. Due to terrain the CCR&R walked to the victim and brought him to the sled.

“The glacier is never safe,” Craig stated. “A lot of people think if it is not calving, or is freezing out, that the thickness of the ice will protect them. None of those things can predict what the glacier will do.”

According to Craig even on the coldest day at the glacier, icebergs frozen into the lake are still melting beneath the ice. Eventually they will become top heavy and roll, breaking through the ice and disrupting the serenity of the scene.

The face of the glacier will calve even in winter and Nugget Falls, even if frozen over, still pours water underneath the ice and out to Mendenhall River. That creates a constant, though often unfelt, movement.

When the glacier calves in the winter, or when an iceberg rolls, the lake ice will flex enough to knock over people who are standing on the ice. Water temperatures in the summer average 37-degrees, winter temperatures are mind-numbing.

Craig remembers one frozen February when an iceberg rolled and stirred the ice from the terminus to Nugget Falls “like a margarita.”

“It was like an earthquake,” Craig said. “I wouldn’t have believed it until I saw it, and certainly not until I started working here. It was total devastation across to the falls. The glacier is alive all the time, even in the coldest winter days.”

District Ranger Marty Marshall of the U.S. Forest Service Juneau Ranger District oversees the Mendenhall recreation area, and Ron Marvin is the visitor center director.

“The ice is never safe,” Marvin said. “And we have had warmer weather as of late so it is especially unsafe. There is no absolute safe time. You want to live your life but there are some hazards.”

The two have closed the Steep Creek Trail to the public due to bear traffic but it would be an upper management decision to ever close the glacier to the public.

“Even then I don’t think we could keep people off the ice,” Craig said. “People are lulled into thinking it is safe because it is so beautiful and when they see other people out there they want to go, too. You can’t really have a ranger hiding behind every tree.”

What people do not realize is that the Visitor Center employees are not trained for rescue.

“People fall in at least once a week,” Craig said. “Many times we are not notified. It happens all the time but they just don’t tell us. I am terrified for families that go out with their small children.”

The park service has stationed red rescue ladders at various locations at the glacier, including Nugget Falls, Skaters Cabin, the pavilion and the visitor center.

To properly use the ladder it is placed horizontally across the ice to the victim. The idea is for the victim to grasp the ladder rung and be pulled to safety.

Other tips to rescue oneself include always carrying hand spikes or picks to drive into the ice, kicking your feet to push your body up to a horizontal position, and putting your sleeves as far onto the ice as possible to freeze so you can either pull out or be found. Visitor center staff recommends wearing personal flotation devices as well as being wary when walking on the shoreline near rivers or beaver dams. A safe alternative is the Nugget Falls Trail.

There is also a large orange billboard on the shorelines marking where snow machines and all terrain vehicles are restricted from entering certain lake areas.

There have been deaths on and near the glacier. In October 1975 Seattle’s Bonita Faye Bresnan was standing with Juneau’s Olan Victor Hoberg near Nugget Creek when ice from the East Glacier broke and fell on them. Hoberg suffered numerous injuries and Bresnan’s body was not found.

In June 1993 Welsh climber Thomas Hargreaves disappeared while hiking West Glacier Trial. His body melted out of the glacier in February of ’98 less than a mile from the terminus and was found by Juneau’s Doug Drexel.

In August 1997, Joshua O’Brien fell to his death at least 100-feet off the cliff on the north side of Nugget Falls.

In May 2005, Jonathan Scibner was found deceased after an apparent fall from a steep slope on Mount Stroller White.

There are also miracles. Shokkoufeh “Fay” Attaei became lost while hiking near the MGVC in June of 2005. The supposedly 20-minute hike ended five days later when she stumbled down a mountain at Lemon Creek and found a couple staying at a cabin. Attaei survived on snow and berries and thoughts of her parents.

Born and raised in Juneau, 27-year-old Toby Harbanuk found out the hard way about ice safety. The author of photo books “Glaciers Of Southeast Alaska” and “10,000 Feet, Aerial Photos Of Southeast Alaska” took his first of three winter plunges into Mendenhall Lake in early 2000.

“I clawed and walked out of the water,” Harbanuk said of that shoreline incident near the visitor’s center. “I seriously thought about having gear to make climbing out easier after that.”

Since then Harbanuk has gone in two more times. Once near a large iceberg by the face and the most recent in 2007 at the terminus (face) of the glacier.

“I was taking photos along the face near the Nugget falls, near icebergs, near the face where it has been broken from recent calving,” Harbanuk said. “The ice wasn’t solid enough to support my weight in a few spots as I discovered.”

Harbanuk said he was walking 100-feet from the face among a variety of ice debris, from vehicle size down to the size of a hat, and in less time than it took to blink was in the water.

Harbanuk was prepared for the mishap, even if he wasn’t expecting it, by using a single ice axe in his hand to claw out.

Harbanuk now wears a life vest to keep his upper body out of the water if he does fall through the ice, has two ice climbing tools on his person at all times, tows his heavier backpack and camera gear in a sled 10-feet behind him so it doesn’t add to his body weight, wears Gore-Tex and synthetic insulation or wool instead of cotton, tries to take a companion and keeps a cell phone on his upper body.

The Juneau Ranger District lists the following ice safety tips: Ski or skate with a friend. Skate with a hockey stick or ice pick if alone. Do not approach the face of a glacier. Do not climb on icebergs frozen in the lake. Do not skate in an unknown area after dark. Stay clear of waterfalls, streams, or moving water. Know the area where you skate or ski. Be cautious of area with fresh snow and no tracks. Do not walk on the ice to rescue a friend, go for help. Keep pets on a leash when on ice. Be observant of ice conditions.

“Any kind of rescue out on the ice will not be immediate,” Harbanuk commented. “Life jackets are just 20 bucks, isn’t that worth it compared to a trip to the hospital? If I did this more often I would recommend a boating float coat. As you get older you get heavier. Alaska is Alaska. The more fun it is the more hazard it is.”

• Contact Klas Stolpe at
523-2263 or klas.stolpe@juneauempire.com



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