Juneau has some serious perks. The best, in my opinion, is that we have a 1,500 square mile icefield on one side of town and archipelago full of brown bears on the other. Every year I’m contacted by folks eager to make their own journeys into the world of brown bears or glaciers. To safely experience either takes a lot of consideration, preparation and humility. This column is going to offer some advice on how to begin planning an adventure into the desolate depths of the Juneau Icefield.
The Juneau Icefield might best be described as a frozen dreamscape. It’s a good place to ponder the Pleistocene, see some unbelievably beautiful country and get a wicked sunburn or tan. Each year several expeditions venture onto it to climb and ski, often making traverses to Atlin or Skagway. Others fly on in early spring, set up a basecamp and ski lines on different peaks. Some take a boat up the Taku River, walk up the Norris Glacier and out Blackerby Ridge. There are all sorts of trips you can make. The Juneau Icefield Research Program — a project created decades ago by geologist Maynard Miller — coordinates a two-month long Juneau to Atlin crossing each summer. Along the way staff and students explore and study a significant number of the icefield’s forty-some glaciers. For any senior high school and college students craving mountain adventure and interested in glaciers, I recommend looking into the program.
The first step to any successful expedition involves researching, poring over maps and a healthy awareness of both the skills and necessary gear you’ll need to survive and enjoy the icefield. Figuring out logistics can be tedious and stressful, but it’s vital for a successful expedition. You’ll need to know how to cross-country ski (I would never go without climbing skins), glacier travel and crevasse rescue. There are mountaineering and glacier travel courses available most places people climb mountains. The book “Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills,” is a great reference. Practice all your systems before you go and make sure your partner does too. When you begin your trek the use of all your gear should feel routine.
The specifics of your kit for the icefield take a lot more consideration than I have space to write about. I recommend a four-season tent, two sleeping pads and a bag suited for whatever temperatures you expect to encounter. A hard-shell jacket and pants are a must; anything cotton is a must not. Expect extreme cold until the later part of April and, then, expect to get baked when the sun comes out. Hypothermic conditions are present every month of the year. Sunblock, good sun glasses and other means to protect yourself from UV rays are a must. I apply sunblock in my nostrils and on my lips – otherwise it looks like I have big boogers for weeks. One of my favorite items in my first aid kit is athletic tape for all the rubs that inevitably develop on feet.
On most icefield trips you should expect at least half the time will be spent in white-outs. During these times I’ll travel by GPS and compass, making sure to stay roped to my partners. More than once I’ve skied blindly into an icefall or the edge of a precipice. Most often traveling blind on the Juneau Icefield can be done safely, although it can feel a bit disorienting. This isn’t true for all icefields; some have many more crevasses and icefalls. Sometimes, like if you’re trying to get off the Denver Glacier and down to Skagway, you ought to wait for visibility. I’ve wandered into an icefall on the lower Llewelyn Glacier while skiing to Atlin, as well. My partner and I were roped but it still wasn’t that much fun.
Most icefield travelers haul sleds to carry gear. This can be both a blessing and a curse. A sled allows you to have a lighter pack and haul a significant amount of supplies. On the negative side, a sled can have the tendency to trip you up while skiing downhill and will flip over if not packed perfectly. I’ve talked to some folks who’ve vindictively burned their sleds at the end of their journeys. I cut a thin PVC pipe in half and run cord through the pipes to minimize annoyances with my sled. It’s not a perfect system but, with time and patience, most people can master the art of pulling a sled.
There are all sorts of routes you can take on the Juneau Icefield. The hardest part of any trip is getting on and off the icefield. The most common access points include the Lemon Glacier via Blackerby Ridge and the Mendenhall Glacier via West Glacier Trail (getting across the Mendenhall with a heavy pack gets harder every year as the glacier melts and shrinks). Many people — those who like rather than love to suffer — take advantage of getting a bump up on a helicopter or a Ward Air ski plane. There are flying services in Haines and Skagway that can also land you on the icefield.
The amount of time you want to budget depends on the goals of your group, the weather and snowpack. Most people spend nine or 10 days, sometimes more, skiing to Atlin. It generally takes a few more days to get to Skagway. I recommend adhering the NOLS model of winter fuel consumption, which budgets 11 ounces per person per day. Bring at least two stove pumps and baby them. Never leave your pump hooked to your stove or bottle overnight, and be proficient at cleaning your stove.
The two most popular traverses include a ski from Juneau to Atlin and a ski from Juneau to Skagway. The Atlin traverse is significantly shorter and more straightforward. Some travelers get dropped off by floatplane at the base of the Llewellyn Glacier. Others, who are skiing from Juneau, arrange for a boat to pick them up at Atlin Lake. I did this trip in early February and we skied the forty or so miles across the mostly frozen lake to town.
The Juneau to Skagway trip is my favorite. It essentially goes along the backbone of the icefield, crossing back and forth between Alaska and British Columbia. I estimate this route is roughly 150 miles from West Glacier to Skagway. 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 want visibility to traverse two mountains to the upper Dewey Lakes trail. From there it’s all downhill to the Red Onion, where you can stink up the place while enjoying pizza and beer.
• Bjorn Dihle is a Juneau writer and pens this column, “Off the Beaten Path.” His first book is “Haunted Inside Passage: Ghosts, Legends and Mysteries of Southeast Alaska.” Contact or follow him at www.facebook.com/BjornDihleauthor.