Into Juneau's azure ice caves

With proper knowledge and guidance, a trip under the ice can be a safe and amazing adventure for locals or visitors

Posted: Sunday, September 09, 2007

A small, unseen stream tumbles down the slopes of Mt. McGinnis. As it peters out, it disappears under the icy border of the Mendenhall Glacier. The water tunnels its way underneath the glacier, assisted only by the movement of air, forming the "ice caves." And as the years pass, locals, including commercial guide services, continue to equip relatives, friends, and visitors alike with information pertaining to the whereabouts of the caves.

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For some, journeying into the bowels of ice is the only way to attain satisfaction. For such the adventure-primed person, a day trip to the Mendenhall Glacier's ice caves offers amazing sights.

Lifelong Juneau resident Saffron Hayes just experienced it for the first time.

"The ice caves are spooky!" he said. "Big chunks of ice had fallen off by lake and other pieces were starting to split from the roof. There are these flakes of ice just hanging there, ready to fall off. We thought it could collapse because water pours down out of the roof. It takes some courage to go to the back of (the cave) and it's pretty long."

"We got real wet, too," he added. "Next time I will take rain gear and Xtra tuffs."

Excursions to the ice caves take place via the West Glacier trail. The West Glacier trail begins at a turnaround situated beyond Skaters Cabin and the Mendenhall Lake Campgrounds off of Montana Creek Road. The trail proceeds through alder, hemlock, and spruce forest and parallels the lake for a couple of miles before ascending a knoll to a viewpoint and small rest area. Instead of staying up high and continuing on the main path, a small single track descends downhill toward the lake's gray waters. The scant trail tumbles down to the lake's edge and meanders onto the rocky peninsula where a steep section of scrambling inhibits the awesome, in-your-face views of the Mendenhall Glacier.

Once over the steep objective, the ice caves are just minutes away. But route-finding is not as cut and dry as a guidebook or a one-time visitor may say.

Michelle Vouaux and her daughter, Elena, are from Midland, Michigan. They had never visited Juneau until this summer, but they did make the most of their stay. With their locally extended family, they visited the caves twice in a period of 10 days.

"In the Juneau trail guide there is a warning that says the trail is for experienced ice climbers only, but there is no ice climbing in the summer!" Vouaux said.

The rock scrambling does hold some people back, though. Vouaux then pointed out that they went with small kids and stated, "You just need to take your time and you need to dress properly for all weather conditions."

Sean Janes and his wife, Becky, are from Juneau. Together they own and operate a local guide service and have a ton of experience getting people on and off the glacier safely. Their tour company, Above and Beyond Alaska, "caters to small groups and offers low impact experiences off the beaten path." Becky discussed the potential problems that can occur when folks try to find the caves without proper knowledge.

"It's a pretty technical route with several unsafe areas," she said. "It is also a tough trail to mark because in many spots it is like a scramble and there are many different ways one can choose to go. But so many people go in there not knowing what they are getting themselves into. Several people have been rescued on the route. Those who are not from here can get themselves into pretty serious situations."

Sean Janes added, "On the peninsula, it is easy to lose sight of cairns (stacks of rocks as trail markers) and get lost, especially in the rain and fog. You got to do it safely. For those who are new to the area, use locals that really know the route well or a local guide service because there is a lot of analyzing and evaluating that goes into doing the ice caves safely."

Reaching the caves is not the only danger involved with what the Janes described as "a seven-hour excursion."

The ice caves pose a real and imminent threat of danger. Entering the caves is a serious risk for those who do not know how to safely assess the elements. The glacier's melting process is severe.

"You have to analyze the ice day to day," Becky Janes said.

Roman Motyka is a research professor of glaciology with the University of Alaska Geophysical Institute. In a short phone interview, Motyka said ice caves are dangerous, and there is a constant hazard of ice blocks falling.

Caves form as a glacier moves over a disorder in the ground surface and it detaches itself from the floor, Motyka said. The base layer re-contacts with the ground layer forming striations, thin parallel lines made up of sediment, which refreezes to the base of the glacier.

"The plastic and brittle base layer picks up rocks that freeze into the bed of the glacier," he added. "Those rocks can melt out and actually bop someone in the head."

As the Mendenhall worked its way over more than 40 miles of terrain, it gathered and collected sediment in its base layer. Some walls are streaked in dark sediment for well over 100 feet, and seeing striations is a constant reminder that the glacier is on the move and the ice caves are changing. Just since last summer, a turquoise cavern shrunk to a third of its size and the ceiling lost its blue luster due to the ice's thinning density. This year, a small squeeze hole entrance in mid-June swelled to carport-sized gap by late July.

As the entrance enlarged, refrigerator size blocks crumbled away from the roof to obstruct the entrance to the caves. A cave-in recently occurred where the tunnel dead-ends at the lake's edge. The collapse destroyed a small observatory where a dozen or more spectators could stand.

Inside the tunnels, it is difficult to find a dry area from which to observe the surroundings. The wind increases the rate of melting, which launches a rapid barrage of water droplets towards the ground from the ice's sculpted edges.

The opinions people share about their Mendenhall ice caves experience are overwhelming similar.

"People love it and that's pretty much the highlight of trekking on the Mendenhall," Becky Janes said. "Just think about it! That blue ice is like, out-of-this-world because it is something people have never imagined they would see."

When asked about what he thought of the caves, Hayes gently shook his head from side to side as in disbelief.

"It is gorgeous in there, definitely one of the coolest things," he said.

Dennis Sellers, a photographer from Boise, Idaho, described the location as "a paradise that will 'wow' you from every angle."

"The surreal, unearthly abstracts of the dreamlike world are very unique and the only thing that makes sense is the stream that runs underneath the glacier," Sellers said. "With the glacier receding, locals and visitors alike should take advantage of seeing the caves while they still can."

Exactly how long the glacier will support the formation of the ice caves is pure speculation. According to Lori Craig, a U.S. Forest Service interpreter at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center, the glacier is calving at about 200 feet per year.

Matt Heavner, a University of Alaska Southeast assistant professor of physics who has a joint appointment with the Geophysical Institute, works closely with Motyka. Heavner surmised that the caves will be around for a while. He believes that there is less calving and greater stability in the wintertime due to the lower water volumes.

"It is a very dynamic situation and in terms of safety, I don't like to joke about it, but it's probably safer to go in the ice caves then for a pedestrian to cross a street in the city, but that's because there is a lot more cars and a lot more people in the city, whereas there is not that many people going in ice caves."

Heavner advocates the buddy system, implying one should rethink entering the caverns solo.

Dangers can be minimized by planning ahead and going with knowledgeable, well-seasoned guides. As the popularity of the Mendenhall ice caves develops, more people may glimpse a truly amazing landscape.

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