When you go on a shore excursion you're basically with people from your same ship, even if there are other cruise ships docked and excursions running at the same time. I don't know why this is for sure, but it is. They guarantee that they'll have you back to the ship before it leaves, which is always nice, but I guess it also means you have something in common with the other people there.
At 10a everyone was present: 5 couples, ranging from young (Melinda and me) to perhaps late 50s. I noticed that everyone was wearing sneakers: no one had an incorrect idea about what we were doing. We piled in to a van and headed to the airport. There, in a non-descript office among other non-descript office and air field buildings we donned our adventuring gear: ski pants, jacket, gloves, boots, harness (for holding the ice ax), and fanny pack (styling _and_ functional!). Anything we didn't need we left behind (backpack, street shoes, etc.). In the building it was perhaps 66F or so, so the cold weather gear was making me sweat, but I knew that it'd be cold enough on the glacier that I'd want it. I left as much unzipped as I could and headed outside for the safety briefing.
Juneau, the town, sits only a couple of miles from the foot of the Mendenhall Glacier. You don't much realize this when you're in the dock or about town, because you can't see it over the hill, but from the air it's clear that it's _just_ around the corner. Our adventure today would take us by helicopter up to the glacier, where we'll hike around a bit, and return about two hours later. We received an FAA-mandated safety talk on the ground, including how to use the life vests should the helicopter drop in the water, and then headed out to the choppers. Each helicopter could hold 6 people plus the pilot, and Melinda and I lucked out to sit in the front seat of our aircraft. I watched the pilot prep and send our helicopter into the air; it doesn't look that hard! 8) Helicopter flights are surprisingly smooth: you just go up, lean forward, and head off in the direction of your destination.
The helicopter flight up to the glacier was meant to be scenic, and it was, but everyone (myself included) was more focused on walking around on ice than on seeing ice from above. So we enjoyed the view but didn't ask many questions. About 20 minutes later we were landing near an orange tent on the ice.
Three people on the ground greeted us and set us up with gear: an ice axe, a helmet, and crampons. The crampons are the neatest things: they buckle over your shoe or boot and give you heavy-duty spikes, about 2" long, beneath and in front of your foot. These spikes dig into the ice on the ground and entirely prevent you from slipping at all. You need to be careful as you walk, of course: don't step on your own foot, and don't drag your feet, but that's easy to avoid.
With everyone suited up we headed out. First, a walk across open ice. The dark blue patches on the ice where we were? It sure _looks_ like water, but: lo, the guide walks across it without getting wet. Yep, ice. Neat.
Within a few hundred yards we reach the first rolling mound of the glacier and we begin to learn what our crampons can do. Naturally, we can walk up low hills just by walking on them. Here, though, we have a steep incline: perhaps 70 degrees up. Plant your ice axe step in the ice in front of you (for balance), kick your toes into the ice as though you were walking up stairs, move the axe, step step, move the axe, step step, and up you go. Magic. Of course, if you don't kick in stoutly, or if you lean back, you slide or fall off. So, don't do that. And, as a note, this was the "Level 2" Ice Trekking excursion. We're more advanced than "Level 1" (walking around on the flats) but less than the ice climbing of "Level 3."
So we walked up some embankments, back down other hills (about the opposite: lean back, plant the sole of your foot flat into the hill, lower yourself down, and keep your axe behind you as you do so), and along valleys in the ice. We hoisted ourselves up one especially steep slope with the help of a rope that one of the guides installed in the ice (6"-8" long hollow-bore metal screw, it looked like). We saw a waterfall, a few pools, several streams, and stopped at one to fill our water bottles with bottled-at-the-source glacier water. Melinda and I and another couple generally were in the lead and the other three couples were a bit behind us. We had two guides, both young women, to round us out to 12 people.
We were snug in our outfits: it was cold up there but we had plenty of REI-esque equipment to protect us. It was a bit windy but not so much. It wasn't the clear silence that you might imagine. In fact, every couple of minutes a helicopter would fly overhead (Temsco has 6 choppers, it looked like, that fly in a line for their site-seeing tours; even on the ground the blades never stop). That's okay: _we're_ the ones doing something exciting and adventurous, and those people in the 'copters above us are just watching. Plus, I'm sure we're in plenty of their photos as tiny specks of red (the color of our jackets) on the ice.
As we ended the hike Melinda asked if we could visit the edge of the glacier, near the rock mountain side (we were only about 100 yards off), so we all headed that way. The glacier often is very near the rock, within a few feet, but sometimes has a substantial gap, and in that gap it's a long way down. Not a lot grows there, not surprisingly because the ice pulverizes anything that does try to grow. We also were given some ideas of safety on the ice: stay away from snow. 12" or more of ice will generally support one person's weight, but you don't know what's under snow. Some of the rifts in the ice go quite deep and it'd be unfun to fall into one.
Two hours were quickly up and we headed back to the orange tent. The tent had been there only for about a week but the ice inside was already nearly 2' taller than the ice outside. Yes, the glacier melts that quickly. It does snow in the winter, though, and a lot of ice comes back. And, there's a lot of ice still there. A lot. It'll be around for the 2009 season, don't worry. 8) We took some last pictures, our departing helicopter arrived, and we headed back to the airport. There, we exchanged our nifty ice trekking gear for our mundane sneakers and backpacks, boarded the van, and headed back to the cruise terminal. Man, ice trekking can work up an appetite!
The ice trekking excursion was my favorite of the cruise. It's something I haven't done before, it was pretty amazing how effective crampons are, and I'm sort of an elitist: I get a kick out of doing things that most other people wouldn't do. I'd be pretty psyched to don cold weather gear and go for another hike sometime in the future.