Stream carves glacier ice into tunnels, twists and turns. (Gabe Donohoe)

Stream carves glacier ice into tunnels, twists and turns. (Gabe Donohoe)

The icy path of least resistance

This sport requires so much gear.

It was raining all day Wednesday. Well maybe not all day but It did kinda seem that way. Katie McCaffrey, the adventure woman extraordinaire, told me about a new ice cave out at the Mendenhall Glacier. Yay, new content!

This sport requires so much gear. Crampons, Mountaineering boots, Gore-Tex everything, gloves, helmet, waist harness, and so much more. Plus the kayak gear; paddles, bilge pump, sponge, dry bags, life vests, and so on. I basically complained about amount of gear the whole trip. Sorry for the noise Katie. I find myself writing about the trip afterwards and wishing I brought some snacks that were more interesting than Goldfish crackers, cheese and a horrible protein bar to write about.

I am pretty sure the ice caves here are formed from water runoff from the mountain tunneling under the glacier. Once there is a hole the wind takes over and carves out the rest.

A conduit is a crevasse scar (an old crevasse that has sealed back up again with the continuous movement of the glacier). When surface streams look for the path of least resistance on the glacier they often find crevasse scars as a weak point and reopen them. In this case with the conduit, the crevasse scar was being opened from the base up, creating a ceiling to protect the walls of the conduit and keep the dense ice protected and blue (as the conduit expands the walls will likely become more fractured and white because of air pockets forming.

Most people (like me in particular) hike out to the glacier wearing just tennis shoes. But you need spikes on your feet in order to actually see anything cool. Most of the glacier tour companies give their clients these rubber slip ons with metal chains called Microspikes but those only get you so far. You need crampons to actually see the good stuff.

Katie led the way as we jumped in a tandem kayak at West Glacier trailhead on back loop and headed out. After some time paddling we pulled up the kayak on a little pebble beach to the left of the glacier. From there you follow an unmarked foot path to where the ice meets land. I haven’t worn boots since May on the Juneau Icefield traverse. I hate wearing boots. When are Marty McFly’s auto lacing tennis shoes with crampons going to be a reality?

I got a shot of Katie while she gazed up into the conduit, light streaming in. Hashtag no filter. No matter how many times I’m on this glacier, it is still beautiful. How lucky we are.

The way back was slow because we were exhausted. It took about seven hours. An extraordinary way to spend the day. Time to dry out my camera and socks.


• California-born and Alaska-bred, Gabe Donohoe has taken photos daily for the past five years. He is currently a student of the University of Alaska Southeast’s Outdoor Studies program. His photo archives can be seen on www.gabedonohoe.com. “Rainforest Photos” photo blog publishes every other Friday in the Empire’s Outdoors section.


Katie McCaffery leading the way in the tandem Kayak. (Gabe Donohoe)

Katie McCaffery leading the way in the tandem Kayak. (Gabe Donohoe)

Looking up through the conduit. (Gabe Donohoe)

Looking up through the conduit. (Gabe Donohoe)

Looking up through the conduit. (Gabe Donohoe)

Looking up through the conduit. (Gabe Donohoe)

Light glows through ice cave walls as a stream flows through. (Gabe Donohoe)

Light glows through ice cave walls as a stream flows through. (Gabe Donohoe)

One dark blue crevasse after another. Navagating a ridge line. (Gabe Donohoe)

One dark blue crevasse after another. Navagating a ridge line. (Gabe Donohoe)

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