After an amazing tour of Katmai, Kenai Fjords and amazing Mt McKinley in Denali, the next adventure on the trip was visiting the Matanuska Glacier for some fun ice hiking.
We chose to take a tour with Nova group, to go glacier viewing. The tour office was about 4 hours drive from Denali. I was not keeping so well after a hectic tour of Harding followed by visit to Denali national park. So I was little iffy about doing the ice climbing on the glacier. However since we had already reserved the glacier hiking and ice climbing, and since it was only 3 of us on the tour, it was up to the third member to say if he was OK with not doing ice climbing. Nikhil however convinced me that I can pull it off as this opportunity may not come again. So finally I gave in to the idea.
The Matanuska Glacier, a valley glacier which is about 26 miles long and 4 miles in width, is the largest glacier in Alaska. The glacier can be reached via the Glenn Highway and is visible miles before the actual vista points. Access to the glacier runs through a privately owned park which is the only access point to the glacier. Travelers have to pay an entrance fee which allows the tourists to drive to the foot of the glacier.
Our tour started at 1 pm and weather was awesome, lots of sun and warmth. We took some snacks, a jacket and most important "sunglasses"! We took a bus from the tour office to the entrance of the glacier area. Before the tour, we were briefed by the guide on the area and how to go about the hike. Soon after we reached the parking area, we got dressed with the apparatus for climbing and started our 15 minute trek to the mouth of the glacier.
Initial walk was through a dusty road, covered in fine soil which was an easier walk. Soon we came up to a little area on the left, which the guide said was like a trampoline. The guide jumped over the area and the ground went up and down as if shaking, and soon can be like quick sand, if water seeps in. These areas are created due to a combination of fine silt and water.
From here onwards, we were walking on something called as "black ice", this is essentially ice bed covered in fine black glacial silt and dust from where its gets its name. Upon reaching the picnic table, guide asked us to put on crampons as walking on ice could be dangerous. On the trail, we crossed over some metal planks which were placed to allow to safely cross the crevasses developed in the ice. Must say, putting on crampons was the best thing as it gave me confidence. It was an amazing day with bright sun and lots of clouds, making it a perfect scene for photography.
After walking for about 5-10mins on the black ice, we came up to a wall of ice, with a small waterfall. The running water created a pool at the base of the waterfall, and that water showcased an excellent reflection of the ice wall. Together, we were 2 groups, one was for ice hiking for 3 hours and ours which was for 5-6 hours for Ice hike and Ice climb. Soon after we reached the wall, another guide informed us, that our guide was getting migraine and that they may need to cancel the ice climb if there no other guide available.
With that, we were disappointed, but that was something that was not in our hands. 10-15 mins later, we were update that a new guide Nick will be accompanying us to complete the adventure. Nick was very fast and talkative, giving us information. 3rd member of our group was an Australian who was touring the US. He was a rock climber. I am slow hiker and knowing that, Nick used to wait for us to catch up, so there was no rush.
Following Nick we started climb on the ice and soon we were close to the waterfall but not close enough, So Nick put an ice-screw on the frozen wall and water came out on the side, which we used to fill our bottle. This water indeed was pristine and fresh! En-route, he also showed us the difference between a pothole and a crevasse. Water runs flat on a pot hole as it is not deep, whereas on the crevasse, water seems to disappear. The guide asked us to watch out for those.
After hiking alongside the waterfall, we soon reached a point where we had to climb on the wall. Guide setup the ropes and gave a brief on how to go about it. Nikhil did this with ease. Although I had some difficulty, I was able to make it to the top, which is the tallest area on the glacier, just above the waterfall. We walked further on the glacier for some more time, taking in the view and of course doing photography. Nick was very enthusiastic and good at handling camera which helped get some good pictures of both of us. I have had a very bad experience on slipping over ice, so I was really scared especially when descending. There was a time when I was completely frozen on the descend.
Nick guided us to another climb to look at a serrac, but I was not comfortable with the descent. So he offered to help to that I can get to see, which was very nice.
From there on, we started the descend and made it to the bottom of the waterfall. Here we stopped and rested to eat and drink. Our guide showed us how to use the ice axe and made us get used to it. Nick then went to setup the ropes for ice climbing. At this point I was not sure if I had the strength to the climb, so I ate and relaxed.
Our fellow group member did the first round and he was quick with it. Nikhil went up next, with ease (don’t know how he does that) to the top of the wall. Our guide thought Nikhil was comfortable, so he let the ropes loose when Nikhil was closer to the base, and Nikhil has a fall. It was not bad just funny!
I was up next and was hell scared. Somehow with Nikhil prompting me from below, I went up almost close to the top, when I ran out of strength, and so descended down. It was a hell of an experience!!! Nikhil did the climb 2-3 times which was pretty amazing even to watch after the climb, we set back on the return journey back to the parking area and then back to the tour office.
I had never imagined that I would ever do Ice hike and Ice climbing. It was such an outrageous and fun adventure that I will not forget. This whole experience only took me somewhat closer in understanding how much hikers need to be doing and prepare to go to Mt Everest.
With the Alaska trip, in a nutshell, I experienced some of the most beautiful moments - Watch grizzly in action up close at Katmai, Splendid natural scene of Kenai Fjords, Ice-calving at Surprise glacier, strenuous adventure to Harding icefield, mesmerizing view of Mt McKinley and off course the Ice Hike and Ice climb at Matanuska glacier. These moments are memories for a lifetime, by far my favorite trip!