Pro tip, when the description says strenuous, believe it. I’m one of three reasons why we were almost late getting back. The other two were a couple (very nice) with a husband with worse knees than mine and even less sure footed on wet rock. About two dozen of us climbed into two vans ready to take on the east loop. Our guide asked if we wanted strenuous or super strenuous, the other van was doing strenuous. Not getting out and climbing into the other van was my first mistake. When our guide suggested a short cut that was steeper but would give us more time at the top and I didn’t say ‘hell no’. In retrospect it’s amazing I’ve lived this long when I clearly have no survival instincts and am prone to making poor decisions.
First, let me make it clear that it was a beautiful hike and that the views of the glacier were amazing and that our guide was super knowledgeable. She’s been a consultant giving training to contestants on shows you’ve heard of but shudder at the thought of watching. If you need training on how to survive with nothing but your fingernails for tools, she’s your gal. She carried large, waterproof back pack which I assumed carried emergency gear to set broken bones and treat hypothermia, maybe a defibrillator. All I know is I was breathing hard enough to pop a vein in my forehead at the top of some of the climbs. Second, the Mendenhall Glacier is in the Tongass Rain Forest. That middle word should give you a clue about what to expect. Amazingly I was prepared for that aspect. Third, my gear wasn’t all brand new, it just looked that was because I clean my gear but it probably looked as if I had just bought everything for the cruise. Okay, actually I had bought it for the cruise but I had older, well used versions that I used to cruise as an excuse to upgrade.
Another thing about our guide–it was really important to her that we learned something about the area and its importance to the ecosystem and how all the parts of the planet work together to create and support life. Which is why we stopped by a stream on the way to the glacier to see piles of dead salmon being eaten by ravens. Yes, it was smelly but we did get to actually see salmon spawning and how that process works. She showed us a dead salmon by the side of the trail with its head and belly gone–the bear that caught it had eaten the brain and belly and didn’t bother with the rest. “Bears are salmon snobs” It was a fresh kill, within the hour because no insects had found it yet. Knowing that somewhere close there was a bear full enough not to bother with the rest of the fish was not as comforting as you might think. The same BTW, wasn’t true of my neck which became part of the circle of life of a fair amount of no-seeums and mosquitoes. She also showed us some berries growing by the stream and which were edible (thimble berry)and which were not(Devil’s Club). BTW, every berry in Alaska is red; I’m pretty sure even the blueberries are red.
Path started out fairly level and no more than the usual amount of roots lying in wait to break your ankle. It was what you expect from a trail head. Even the first part of the “up” portion was easy and well within my capabilities. Then things got steeper and rockier. If you’ve ever done LeConte you’ve climbed trails like that. Then it got rockier where it didn’t really matter that the surroundings were amazing because you couldn’t look up to see them–your eyes were looking where to put your foot so you didn’t either trip on an outcrop or put your feet between to rocks that you’d never get your foot out of. At least I was watching every step but then again I’d had my teeth whitened for the cruise and wanted to keep them in my smile and not in a drawer.
We finally gained the elevation of the lake below the glacier. Our guide walked right in, Keen sandals and all, to show us the water color and talk about the run off. And that’s why she’s a survival expert, she’s impervious to cold and wet. I am not a survival expert and stayed where it was dry (mostly anyway).
I’m still feeling pretty good, all of this well within my skill level and endurance. Que the wake up call. After holding up the entire group while I climb and study each step for the rock least likely to give way I’m heaving my lungs out and wishing to gawd we’d take a rest long enough for me to strip off some of the layers the hike description had encouraged us to wear. Thankfully we did take a bit of a rest, only long enough to either take a drink of water or strip off a layer, not both. I went with the layer. As with any trail there are little down sections, not just all up. Yes, everyone else did climb down it but seriously, I’ve seen extreme slides in water parks with less intimidating angles. Apparently there were cracks and little jutting out parts you could step on. Everyone else could see them but I sure as blazes couldn’t. At that point I took my approach from said water parks, sat down and went down on my rump. That alarmed many of the hikers but hey, it’s a perfectly valid technique.
Oh, did I mention that by this point the path was about 87% rock with running water over it? With therapy I may be able to forget the next section of the hike or at least be able to retreat to my safe space when remembering it. That’s when our survival expert guide suggested a short cut that would cut about 8 minutes off the time. I take a look at the short cut and ask if we’ll be going back DOWN the same way. I may be a slow learner but I am still a learner! Nope, we’ll go down another trail. On to the most vertical hiking I’ve ever done. I could have kissed the rock with a queenly incline of my head.
Got to the top and was rewarded with some magnificent views of the glacier along with some information about why no calving for awhile because the overhang is gone. Of course I’m thinking that I’m past the worst. Oh, child, you are so cute when you’re naive! At this point the park has taken pity on the poor souls and put up stretch after stretch of cabled sections. I do wonder how in the hell they got those rock anchors and cables UP there but I’m glad they did. Probably only the illusion of security but as Trollope’s Lady De Croursey would say, I did not need to be reminded of the beggar’s ability to choose. I hung on to those things as if my life depended on it which, actually, it did. If I did that stretch a few more times I’d have a grip that could crack macadamia nuts!
That’s when I overheard our guide mutter that in about five minutes we were about to get very wet. Remember, RAIN forest. The cloud ceiling had sunk dramatically and the helicopters had stopped flying. Que the special effects and bring on the rain. We were given the option of five more minutes of climbing with no views, the world being socked in by rain and fog,or heading back now. There might have been those in the group who wanted more death-defying experiences but I used my authoritative instructor voice and said “down.” Apparently a couple of weeks of retirement hasn’t diminished the power of the professorial tone.
Down it was and yes,that included all those terrifying cabled stretches again, this time down which is much harder and yes, it was raining and the wet rocks were now little creeks. Thank you Black Diamond poles, those puppies are the only reason I’m alive to write this memoir. By the way, when your survival expert guide is going slowly you know it’s treacherous footing. Just in case we didn’t take the hint she stopped and pointed to a spot where she announced that we needed to be careful because three of her hikers had fallen off the mountain at that spot. No need to tell me that twice! No cable in that stretch but I clung to each hand hold like a lichen to a stone.
Finally gentler slopes where all you had to worry about were wet roots and loose rocks on a mission to humiliate the unaware then back in the van where I took a selfie showing the joy of one who has escaped death and can’t quite believe their luck.
Back to the ship to shed wet clothes and hiking gear and onto shore to be a serious tourist for a couple of hours by which I mean buying t-shirts and avoiding aggressive gem salesmen. My best decision of the day? An hour in the hot tub with the jets slamming my quads. Today yes, a little sore, mostly my triceps but glad I made the hike even though the fact that I successfully made the hike doesn’t mean my skills were equal to the task–it means the denim covering my butt was.