Overnight trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau, Alaska (part 2)

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

My sister and I joined a small group on an overnight trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, in southeastern Alaska in early August. The tour was organized through ABAK and was lead by two fantastic guides, Samuel and Jacob. This is part two (in case you missed the first one you can read it here.) We were 5 miles from Juneau, up in the Coast Mountains of the Tongass National Forest in the Juneau Icefield.

Day 2:

“Hey, you awake?” I nudged my sister who was still cocooned in her bag at 7:30 am. I was excited for another day to explore Lemon Glacier. The night had been a little chilly due to the elevation and howling wind, but once we put on extra fleece layers, gloves and hats around 2 am, we fell fast asleep. ABAK had included everything for this overnight from the tent, zero degree sleeping bags, padded mattresses and even pillows. Comfy!

camping tent glacier alaska women

And the guides even set up our tents so we all had a room with a view…simply open the flap… and a giant waterfall appeared. What a great start to the day!

Peeking out, I saw that the young couple in our group were already up and raring to go.

couple tent camping on glacier, walking on glacier ice, Juneau, Alaska

So we quickly made our way to the dining tent where Sam was already preparing coffee and breakfast burritos.

Campsite of tent in glacier valley with mineral lake and waterfall at Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

The guides took down our tents while we loaded up our gear so that we could spend the rest of the day exploring the glacier and not rush back to clean up. The helicopter would be arriving around 4 pm to take us back to Juneau.

couple tent camping on glacier, walking on glacier ice, Juneau, Alaska

Soon we were ready to head out. Our group included 2 guides and 6 participants, Connor and Mara, a young couple from California, Patricia and John, a retired couple from Ohio, and my sister and I from the Midwest. There were 50 years between our ages but we shared a common zest for the great outdoors and a natural curiosity about what we would find in this icy wilderness. Even if that meant stepping outside our comfort zone at times, challenging ourselves mentally and physically in difficult terrain. We were all up for the adventure!

Pat had a twinkle in her eye as we gathered with our backpacks. “Pinch me!” she said. “I can’t believe I’m here!” Exactly. We shared her enthusiasm. The glacier was new for our guides too, who normally lead day tours to Mendenhall Glacier. Only AKAK has exclusive permits to take groups to Lemon Glacier and we were the first group to stay overnight. It was pretty special.

Walk over rocks to glacier, alaska

A light drizzle fell on us as we left base camp. We hiked past giant boulders, up over rocky moraine, crossed a stream, and twenty minutes later arrived at the edge of the ice. This time no one needed assistance attaching crampons to their boots. With our helmets, harnesses, and crampons  on, we were ready to go!

group attaches crampons to boots for glacier trek

Jacob attached his crampons standing on the edge of the ice that meets the rocky moraine. If you think that the ice looks dirty and brownish here, that’s because it is. As the glacier moves under pressure from the weight of hundreds-of-years compressed snow-packed ice, it carries debris from crushed rocks, dirt and sand as it slowly flows over rocks and down the mountain slope.

man puts on boot crampons for glacier hike

The dirtiest looking ice is found at the edge of a glacier—-wherever it meets rocks or mountain ridges.

walking on glacier ice, Juneau, Alaska

But the ice doesn’t stay dirty or featureless for long. Once we reached the top of Lemon Glacier, the surface was white with streaks of black-tinged ice. And instead of being flat, it was marked by holes, cracks, dips, scallops, ridges and fascinating formations known as moulins and crevasses.

man looks into moulin on glacier, Campsite of tent in glacier valley with mineral lake and waterfall at Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Our lead guide, Sam, pauses to look into a strange hole known as a moulin, a vertical ice shaft that drops straight down to the bedrock below. It could be hundreds of feet deep, who knows?

These mysterious holes start out innocently enough. A little water—from rain or melting snow—trickles into a crack in the flat surface of the glacier. But a moulin can form quickly and widen dramatically like a cathedral underground or remain vertical with twisted sculpted ice formations. As water accumulates it gains momentum and creates a turbulent river, pushing and forcing and eroding its way to the bottom of the bedrock. This river rushing along the very bottom helps the ice glide over the mountain, and affects how fast the glacier flows. Who knew that little hole held such power.

That moulin looked so intriguing… I would love to climb down to see what’s inside. There are some mountaineers that have done so and have captured some amazing images. But we weren’t doing anything that dangerous or extreme. If you stumbled and fell into one, you could easily fall 30 stories and plummet through a freezing waterfall or get wedged on a sharp pointy piece part way down. Either way…not good. Glad we had our expert guides!

 

icy landscape on glacier, Campsite of tent in glacier valley with mineral lake and waterfall at Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

The black powdery silt left behind as lines and striations in the ice show the direction of the glacier’s movement. How boring it would look to be perfectly white. The dark lines also help show the texture and depth of the steep walls in the crevasses. Here is a close up of water rushing through a moulin.

rushing water in glacier, Alaska

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

We never tired of peeking into the cracks or over the edge to the see what was below. Our guides were always ready to secure us in place by holding our harnesses.

guide holds harness on woman looking into crevasse

 

glacier landscape, Juneau, ALaska

As we followed our guides toward the terminus of the glacier–the lower base where it ends–the surface turned even more dramatic. We approached an arresting but compelling pattern of repeating crevasses. Oh. Wow. We stopped in our tracks and just stared.

crevasses on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

So spellbinding to see in person. Danger and intrigue seeped from those giant cracks—just steps away. Makes you instantly want to know—how does the ice do that? A crevasse forms when ice cracks under pressure from extensive stress within the ice. This usually happens when a flowing glacier moves very rapidly and stretches the icy surface during transit. Although there are different types, these crevasses were known as the Transverse Form, as they fanned across the glacier perpendicular to the flow. The depth looked frightening, yet crevasses are shallower than moulins. They form in the brittle top 160 feet of a glacier, and never reach the bedrock far below.

So if a series of crevasses fan out along the surface, how do you get around them? Well, you jump! Only the narrow ones, that is. And even those were aided by our guides who assisted us on either side. Safety first. Thrilling adrenaline, a close second.

guides help woman across crevasse on glacier, Campsite of tent in glacier valley with mineral lake and waterfall at Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Summer is the best time to explore glaciers to reduce the danger of falling into a crevasse or moulin. This is because they are visible in the ablation zone (glacial area that has a loss of mass from melting snow or ice), and not hidden under snow. Ablation zones are where commercial tour operators send groups for glacial trekking. (Moulins and crevasses higher up the mountain in the accumulation zone of deep snow will still remain hidden crevasses in summer months, making trekking dangerous and only appropriate for experienced mountaineers who rope together for safety.)

man straddles crevasses in Alaska

It felt a little scary, but our confidence grew as we walked along the narrow path between crevasses, hearing the crunch of our steel-spiked crampons dig securely into the icy ridge.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Today was Jacob’s birthday. And what a perfect day to play. His favorite way to celebrate? Ice climbing and exploring. Yay!

man ice climbing into huge crevasse on Lemon Glacier, Campsite of tent in glacier valley with mineral lake and waterfall at Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Reaching the angled slope descending toward the terminus, my sister paused to look across at a glacial pond, or tarn, cradled in the adjacent mountain.

woman looks at tarn

The guides moved ahead to consult privately. Should we keep our group together or separate? Should we attempt to head down to the terminus?

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

They came back and told us to follow them. Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

We hiked across the ice and came to the edge of a slope where we could see the terminus and rocky base of the glacier. That’s where we were headed. The steep descent looked dicey. And was. The first chap to follow the guide down took a fall, even though he correctly assumed the cowboy slouch and forcefully dug his heels in, one step at a time. The slope was simply too icy.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So Sam quickly intervened. He screwed a metal ring into the ice so we could attach ropes to our harnesses and rappel down.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA


Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

And down we went…

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Even with the security of the rope, the slope was slippery.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA But we all made it down and arrived at the terminus of Lemon Glacier.

Terminus ice on glacier, Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Large boulders accumulated at the terminus base. Note the dirty ice snaking down is almost indistinguishable from the rock. What you miss by not being there in person was the sound of rushing water…hmmm…always a promising sign around a glacier since water creates the most interesting formations…

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

We took off our crampons and scrambled over rocks to explore. Time to find the source of that water!

man explores ice cave, Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

We followed Sam around the foot of the glacier…and discovered a wall with beautiful blue-green ice, melting water and a rushing glacier stream.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

It was pretty incredible to realize that this was the final exit for all the accumulated water that trickled through cracks, tunneled through crevasses, pulsated through moulins and traveled along the bedrock underneath the glacier until it finally escaped—-here.

ice cave, Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

If one could only track the timeline of a single snowflake!

two women explore ice cave, Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Rain gear? Essential!  Leaving the terminus, we climbed back up through rocks to reach the ice.

rock scramble, Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

The guides went on ahead to secure the rappelling equipment while we reattached our crampons.

icy glacier, Juneau, Alaska

Time to get back on the glacier…These two shots were taken at 24mm and 35mm, not a super wide as you might expect. All photos on day 2 were taken with a single lens, my 24-70mm on a full frame camera.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Going up was much easier than climbing down, but it was comforting to have the security of the rope if we slipped.
Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

One by one we made it back to the top of Lemon Glacier.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

 

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Gorgeous icy landscapes…each depression was filled with wonder and curiosity.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Guides can really make or break an excursion. We were extremely lucky to have such fun-loving, knowledgeable and encouraging guides. Thanks Samuel and Jacob!! And we could tell that they had fun exploring this terrain too 🙂

Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Go, Sam, go!! (No, none of us followed. We just watched!)

Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Jacob spotted a mud pit, and came back with a scoop of mud in his hand. “Anybody want a facial?” Michelle was game.

mud mask from glacier, Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Need to refill your water bottle? Easy. Just dip into that icy cold glacial water.

Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Then Sam decided that was a good place for a polar plunge. Brrrr.

polar plunge in glacier water, Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

He popped up, shaking icy water from his beard. “Anyone else?”  Yep, I shoulda known. My sister, Michelle…

polar plunge in glacier water, Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

and Connor…twice!

polar plunge in glacier water, Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

(I think Sam was a little surprised…)

polar plunge in glacier water, Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Soon we were back at those incredible crevasses…

Man jumps over crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Guides always went first to assess safety.

people walk between deep crevasse while trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

By this time it was getting close to the end of our adventure. Jacob, Pat and John trekked on ahead toward base camp.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier,Trio descend ice ridges past steep crevasses, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Samuel offered to lead the others on an ice climb. The first action was to rappel down the icy slope.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Then Sam instructed us how to climb with the axes. First, plant the axes into the ice (one hand at a time, aiming for dimpled ice is best), then plunge the toes of your boots into the ice (long spikes extend from toe area on crampons) taking 2-4 small steps up. Repeat as you ascend.

guide demonstrates ice climbing

Connor went up in lightning speed.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Next…

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Never one to miss out, my sister ascended despite an injured shoulder, throwing the axes into the ice with all her might.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Tah—dah!

guide cheers woman for ice climbing on glacier, Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

None of us were ready to leave the glacier but we knew that our adventure had come to an end. The opportunity to have 2 days to explore that icy wonderland was nothing short of magical.

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Heading back through the moraine to base camp, I felt very fortunate that cloudy weather hadn’t prevented us from taking this overnight trekking trip. It was one of those tours that actually surpasses your expectations in every way. And an experience I was thrilled to have shared with my sister.

I would love to come back in a few years and see how the glacier has changed. Where will the terminus be? Alaskan glaciers are receding and disappearing. Most of the features that we saw–ice caves, moulins, crevasses–will naturally melt away by next summer. And new ones will appear. The Juneau Icefield currently has 38 major glaciers and 100 minor ones. But that too is changing…

According to a recent Cambridge study (Journal of Glaciology, Volume 62February 2016), scientists predict that the glaciers on Juneau’s 1,500-square-mile Ice Field will lose “substantial amounts of mass” during this century and likely completely melt by the next. That’s staggering. Would be a fascinating time to be a scientist studying that field. If I were a high school or college student, I’d jump at the chance to be part of the Juneau Icefield Research Program expedition team that spends 8 weeks exploring and documenting changes on various glaciers. How exciting!

Helicopter lands beside green mineral lake and waterfall on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield,

Madam, your carriage awaits…

Trekking adventure on Lemon Glacier, Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

Goodbye Lemon Glacier…thanks for an amazing adventure!

Senior Couple Watch Helicopter Land GlacierAlaska Juneau Icefield, Juneau, Alaska, USA

  • David Miller - Kim,
    Your words and photos are fantastic. I can only dream of making a trip like yours. We will be on a cruise in May, but my old body is not made for climbing, jumping, or slipping or sliding.

    Thanks for posting.

    Dave Miller

  • admin - I think you might be surprised…you don’t have to climb and jump. As long as you can hike over uneven terrain, the guides are there to help. Will you be cruising through Juneau? ABAK and other companies offer day trips by helicopter up to Mendenhall glacier. If it’s your dream, do it!!!

  • Pat Warneke - Kim, these pictures are so amazing and so beautiful. They take me right back. The real beauty of them is that I can see the broader picture this time without worrying about sticking my crampons into the ice securely. I would love to purchase the one of John , myself and Jacob heading back to basecamp while the rest of you went with Sam for the ice climb! Let me know how to do that please!

  • admin - Hi Pat, Yes I agree—it is nice to step back and see the trip as a whole and really appreciate the beauty of where we were and the power of those intriguing moulins! What a fantastic experience it was, and such fun company 🙂 (sending you a private message about purchasing a print)

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