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The Mendenhall Cave: An ice cave inside a glacier
The Surreality of the Underbelly: The Mendenhall Cave, Inside a Glacier was originally written in January 2016
Sunday, Grant and I returned from our last minute trip to Juneau, Alaska. If you aren’t familiar with me or the blog, I am a life-long Alaskan and I’ve been dying to visit the southeast of Alaska and well, it finally happened. We were supposed to be headed off to Girdwood to snowboard last weekend, but about 4 days prior Grant said hey, look up my friend ____ he has some badass pictures from inside the Mendenhall Cave… we need to go to Juneau. So a change of plans and 30K Alaska Airlines miles later, we ended up in the southeast for free. If you aren’t from or haven’t traveled much in Alaska, airline tickets to Juneau and most anywhere within Alaska for that matter are atrociously expensive.
Information on Mendenhall Glacier and the Mendenhall cave
Mendenhall Glacier is an over 3,000 year old, 13 mile long glacier jutting out of Mendenhall Valley and into Mendenhall Lake about 12 miles north of the city of Juneau. The glacier is one of Juneau’s most popular tourist stops in the summer (not many visitors show up in January), however; most only view the glacier from the visitor center observation area and the surrounding trails. The real magic happens underneath the glacier.
Mendenhall glacier is receding and it seems to with acceleration as time goes on. The glacier had receded a total of 2.5 miles since the year 1500, but 1.75 of those miles have retreated since 1958. The glacier is monitored by the Juneau Icefield Research Program.
Owing to the recession of the glacier, ice caves have formed by the melting of the glacial ice. Leaving us with a surreal, blue, semi-frozen world lost in time for those willing to brave the dangers to catch a glimpse of unearthly icy cerulean from the underbelly of a glacier.
A visit to the Mendenhall Cave does come with a disclaimer: It is at your own risk. The ice caves are under a glacier. Glaciers are constantly shifting, calving, collapsing, and can be receding or even growing. There is an assumed risk of anything from minor injury to death when taking on the journey to the ice caves. After the collapse of the ice cave’s entrance in July of 2014 read the story here, many tour operators stopped taking adventurers into the ice caves. Have you ever seen a video of a glacier calving? If you have not, well put it this way: Most people don’t survive a chunk of ice the size of a car or household appliance falling and squashing them, in fact, I don’t know that anyone has limped away from that. If you’d like to read more about Mendenhall Glacier information visit the Tongass National Forest Service here.
On January 16, 2016 we threw caution to the wind and made way to the caves
The day before we went to the caves we did go to the visitor center and to Mendenhall Lake to scope it out. Our original plan was to go on the West Glacier Trail as most people do to get to the glacier. After spending a couple hours out there wandering around the lake we changed our plans on getting to the glacier after seeing a man riding a bike around on top the frozen lake and several more people ice skating. Juneau is warmer than where we live in Alaska, so we initially were unsure of walking across the lake.
How we got there
Most people visit the glacier in the summer. The majority of people take the West Glacier Trail from the Mendenhall Campground around the lake to the western flank of the glacier (from reading the descriptions of this trail, it can get treacherous with slippery rocks and steep inclines/declines). The West Glacier Trail is about 3.5 miles each way. In the summer you also have the option of kayaking out to it.
This was January in Alaska and the lake was frozen enough to walk across. We saved ourselves a lot of time and energy by being able to do it this way. There were some parts of the lake, especially near edges and close to icebergs that the ice is very thin so going this route isn’t without risk either. Oh, and by the way: don’t bother coming out here if you don’t have ice cleats or crampons. Lake ice and glacier is slippery.
Expect to take about 30 minutes walking across the frozen lake to the glacier if that is the route you take. We began the trek across at 10:30am. Remember, Alaska has short days in the winter. Had we planned to hike around on the trail I’d advise to leave earlier because the trail will take much longer.
On top the Glacier
We walked up onto the western side of the glacier and made way further up the valley and veered to the east getting distracted by the giant ice formations.
We even found a couple small ice caves up on top the glacier.
My favorite part we found atop the glacier was this giant archway we found, and no, this picture doesn’t give the size of this arch any justice.
After exploring the archway we decided to make our way back to the western flank of the glacier to start searching for the cave opening and as we approached the western edge we could hear the voices of three hikers coming down the last steep hill of the West Glacier Trail. Two of the three women in the group had been down into the ice caves and one of them had spent a lot of time on Mendenhall Glacier. So lucky for us, they were headed for a quick stop at the cave as well before continuing on across the top, so they showed us exactly where it was. Even if we had not run into the hikers we would have found it, we were headed exactly in the right direction, but they were very helpful!
…And into the underbelly
Standing outside the opening of the Mendenhall Ice Cave, looking at it doesn’t look like much. Dirt, rocks and silt with a seemingly levitating roof of dirty snow.
But as soon as you step up underneath the roof a completely foreign world unfolds in front of you. It appeared as if we stumbled into a giant sliced in half geode with aquamarine and white diamonds glimmering back at us.
The deeper you go inside the the cave the ice transitions from aquamarine to azure to lapis lazuli in color.
We criss-crossed the stream that cuts across the floor of the cave.
And eventually the stream turns into a small waterfall and continues on into the abyss of the Mendenhall ice cave.
You’ll find your clothes getting damper and damper as the roof drops centuries old glacial rain on you.
With the silence of you and your fellow extreme caving adventurers you may even here the occasional moan and creaking of the shifting metric tons of ice over your head, followed by one of you whispering, “Did you hear that?”
Being in the depth of the cave was one of the most beautiful, electrifying, yet unnerving experiences I’ve ever had.
After spending well over an hour inside the cave exploring and photographing we both agreed to slowly make our way back out. I’ve not been so torn with feelings about wanting to stay inside and continue staring at the cerulean world and to get the hell out at the same time.
Finally we made our way fully out of the cave.
Lunch atop a glacier
When we made our way back on to the glacier so we could begin our decent back down to the lake we made sure to make a quick stop to eat lunch up there.
Back on Mendenhall Lake
Once we got down off the glacier we quickly made our way back across the lake. Now that it was afternoon and the day had warmed up the top layer of the ice was a bit softer. But walking across the lake and past icebergs will the sun set over us was a nice ending to the adventure.
At about 2:30pm we were back on land at last. It was quite relieving being back on a sturdy surface.
As for the windup…
The Mendenhall Cave was out of this world. There is no other way to put this: You’ll never find something else like it. It’s difficult to even describe being inside of it. Just remember that these caves are constantly changing and without a doubt they will not be here forever. So if you ditch the warnings and advisories against going: sooner is probably better than later.
It ain’t no walk in the park either, your best bet especially if you have little glacier experience is to try to arrange with a trip with an experienced glacier guide if you can find one, although we did plan and make the trip on our own. Be sure to dress in layers, wear boots and a waterproof jacket, bring some ice cleats or crampons and a headlamp/flashlight are all pretty necessary.