Behind the wall of towering mountains that surround Alaska’s Capital City is a massive remnant of the last ice age, 90 mile long and 50 miles wide, the Juneau Icefield is home to more than 40 huge valley glaciers and over 100 sizable tributary glaciers. Like a frozen inland sea the ancient glacial ice can reach a depth of over 4000 feet. The Coast Mountains, some towering over 7000 feet, protrude like islands from its frozen depths.
The weather in Southeast Alaska can be notoriously foul even in June and our strategy has never been to commit to an arbitrary set date but to be ready to roll when the weather forecast offers us a widow of clear skies. When the forecast finally looks to be in our favor we grab our skies and climb aboard a helicopter for a quick thirty minute flight from the Juneau Airport to our destination on the icefield.
On one particular trip up and over the Mendenhall Glacier we flew past the jagged Mendenhall Towers and caught a glimpse of its imposing north face. A truly worthwhile mountaineering challenge by any standard.
Flying in these mountains takes skills beyond the ordinary, so we are always glad to be in the capable hands of the local experts. If anyone can get us in and, just as important, out of this icy wilderness it’s the experienced pilots of Juneau’s own Coastal Helicopters.
On this expedition we set up our base camp on the shoulder of Snowdrift Peak and cut snow blocks to protect our tent in the event of strong winds.
From this camp site at 5100 feet we had a panoramic view of the icefield and the mountains stretching out to the horizon. Staying in one camp allows us to travel unburdened by heavy loads during the day but then to return to a fully stocked camp in the evening. Cold beer and a hearty meal makes for a nice end of the day!
Traveling light with backcountry skies we could cover many miles on the broad flat glacier valleys, it is always great fun to be able to speed along and watch the spectacular scenery roll by.
Several of the peaks in this area were approachable almost to the summit on skies thus allowing us a short mixed rock and ice climb to the top. While taking lunch atop of one of these pinnacles we could plan our route to the next.
Summer hours are long in Juneau Alaska with the sun staying up for eighteen hours only to just dip slightly below the horizon for six hours of dusk. The fiery red sunset skies and residual pink alpine glow lasted for hours making this frozen world seem all the more magical.
Though we usually see no one else during our stays on the icefield we know we were not alone in this frozen wilderness. In the late 1940s the American Geographic Society established the Juneau Icefield Research Project whose ongoing mission is glaciological research and to provide academic and field training at seventeen permanent icefield huts and camps. Their studies into the regions geological, glaciological and climate history are helping to give scientist valuable new insights into our dynamic earths past, present and future.
The Juneau Icefield offers a considerable amount of ski mountaineering, advanced climbing and expedition level traverses and many of it peaks could still claim first ascents and descents. Extensive mountaineering and glacial travel skills are strongly recommended for any expedition entering this area. Be aware as well that severe storms and freezing temperatures even in the summer months can come with little or no warning and last for days or weeks at a time.
For a comprehensive guide to exploring the Juneau Icefield and the vast coastal mountain ranges of the Northwest we would highly recommend reading Exploring the Coast Mountains on Skis by John Baldwin.
“We shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” –T.S. Eliot