Alaska is known for its glaciers. 600 glaciers in the state have names and an estimated 100,000 more are unnamed. That’s a whole lot of ice! Needless to say, we were NOT leaving “The Last Frontier” without getting on one of these babies.
I had actually come across Exit Glacier Guides while reading a post by Gone with the Wynns – whose Alaska itinerary from a few years back had a lot of great suggestions – in which they went on an ice climbing adventure. The company is located in the Seward area and operates on Exit Glacier, the same glacier we saw while doing the Harding Icefield Trail in Kenai Fjords National Park. Looking at the company’s tour options, a nice guided glacier hike to check out all of Exit Glacier’s amazing features up close sounded good to me, but when John learned about the more adrenaline-inducing ice climbing, his eyes just about lit up imagining what it would be like to pick his way out from INSIDE of a glacier crevasse!
We called and talked to a very helpful employee with Exit Glacier Guides about our dilemma, especially since the photos I’d seen of ice climbing looked totally scary to me. The employee reassured us though that even if I was a little nervous about ice climbing that you only have to do what you are comfortable with and that we could both probably get what we wanted out of this tour. There were no obstacles that had to be climbed to get back home or anything, so that made me a little less nervous!
She then went into greater detail as to what to expect for ice climbing on Exit Glacier, which further helped put my mind at ease. First, she said it was a small group of six people per tour. We would want to dress in preferably synthetic layers with a top rain gear layer and gloves. They would give us a pack with the rest of our supplies to carry a quarter of the way up the Harding Icefield Trail and on an unofficial spur that leads to the foot of the glacier (this would be about 1.5 miles and 1,500 feet of elevation gain on a mostly maintained trail with a 25-pound pack). We would then strap on crampons (basically like big, steel kleats that are VERY helpful for walking on ice), our rain layers, helmets and harnesses and get to work on a practice wall near the edge of the glacier. We would then hike out to where one of the guides will have used ice screws to secure a pulley system wherever looked safe and exciting that day. From there, we would take turns harnessing to the pulley system and have the guides slowly rappel us down into the crevasse or moulin (deep “cracks” or holes in the glacier that have formed from erosion, shifting ice and temperature changes). We would then climb our way back up using ice tools and kicking our crampons into the ice. With this employee’s great explanation, even I was starting to get excited about this! Still a little nervous about stepping backwards down into a deep hole, but I was going to be on and (as long as I didn’t chicken out) inside of a glacier!!
Since our friend Rob was going to be out with us on the Kenai Peninsula, this seemed like a perfect adventure for all of us to do together.
The morning of, we arrived at the office around 8am for what was to be an 8-hour day. We met our guides for the day – Jack and Josh – and were fitted for gear, given a handmade turkey wrap and trail mix for lunch and all piled into a van to head to Exit Glacier.
And we were off! The guides told us they always move at a moderately slow pace so that everyone can keep up and not have to take as many breaks. This took a little getting used to but really did help counterbalance the bulky and somewhat heavy packs on our backs. Even with temperatures only in the 50s F, we were pretty sweaty by the time we reached the foot of the glacier! But the chill and breeze coming off of the massive Harding Icefield didn’t make it too hard to start layering up for our ice time.
This was our practice wall. In reverse order of what we’d be doing on the glacier, we’d climb up this wall to practice our technique and then be rappelled down by our guides.
Rob and John took the walls like champs while working on their technique. It takes some practice to get a rhythm down! I almost got to the top myself, but quickly numbing hands – and maybe a little nerves – had me ask to be brought down just short of the top. Climbing itself was easier than I thought it would be though! Or maybe I’m just a natural. Rappelling was the biggest challenge for me – trusting that I could just stretch my legs out towards the ice, sit back and not fall – but since I’m not currently frozen to the ice in that spot, I clearly made it down!
Jack and Josh then showed us the best techniques for walking in crampons and we set off across the ice. We didn’t stop to admire too many of the glacier’s features but we passed some beautiful little blue pools and streams of pristine glacial water running down the ice. It’s amazing how much water a glacier produces! Once we reached our climbing destination, the first set of two climbers were prepped for lowering into the crevasse!
This was everyone’s first time ice climbing – even though some had had experience with mountaineering or rock wall climbing – and everyone agreed that it was a totally different experience! Rob went first of the three of us. Here he is celebrating his first climb!
John was then lowered down and took a minute to take in just how amazing it felt to be surrounded by glowing, dripping blue walls of ice! I was then lowered down. I definitely felt nervous, but the video we took has me looking pretty terrified, haha. I made it though and the guides told me I did way better than the average person who doesn’t like heights! It really wasn’t too bad once we got started – the harness felt very secure. And once I got down, it was totally worth it!
Climbing back up was totally a workout! A lot of the strength required comes from the legs and core as you kick your way up the ice, while precisely flicking the ice tools into the ice to complete the motion. The guides were there to tighten the slack as we went up, so that tension helped make it a little easier, though not completely. By the time we were all done the first climb and I had recovered some energy, I was excited to go down again! The other side turned out to be way harder ice, which made it hard to get my motions to stick in the ice. It really made me really appreciate how precise the movements of strong ice climbers have to be!
By the time everyone had gone again, we were all a little tired, but I was already planning the next time we could go. So proud of myself for doing something that initially sounded like my worst nightmare and actually enjoying it, we basked in our last moments on the glacier and headed off the ice and back down the trail.
Overall, we had a fantastic day on our glacier climbing adventure. Exit Glacier Guides was extremely professional and it was just amazing getting so up close and personal with the glacier while learning something totally new. Another check off the Alaskan bucket list down!