The Mendenhall Glacier Icefield. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

The Mendenhall Glacier Icefield. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

A grand misadventure

Hike across glacier, mountain leads to wolf encounter, late night

This hike was the grandest adventure I’ve had in the course of 24 hours.

My friend Parker Anders and I thought it would take less time to do this hike than a previous one where we hiked across four peaks: Granite Creek Basin to Mount Clark to Sheep Mountain to Mount Roberts to Gastineau Peak. A total of 15.5 miles and we did it in under 10 hours.

So it was OK that Parker worked the night shift and needed to sleep in, and it was OK that I had a couple drinks the night prior and also wanted to sleep in. We had both committed and neither of us wanted to be the one to quit. We began our late trail start of 12:30 p.m. at West Glacier Trail.

[The world would be a filthier place without these pests]

We reached the glacier and both of us eat the usual hiking fuel: a protein bar of sorts — mine was my new favorite stuffed coconut almond butter bar, which was also the first thing I’d eaten that day.

I have walked on a glacier some but never to the extent I was about to.

Our plan was to hike across the glacier to traverse Mount Bullard and finish on East Glacier Trail. If you’re unfamiliar with Bullard, imagine yourself at the Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center facing the glacier — it is the mountain to the very right.

I was somewhat nervous to start the glacier trek but Parker calmed my nerves and showed me how to properly use my ice axe and crampons to cross the crevasses, steep sections and small amount of climbing that was involved. Maybe I was dehydrated but drinking glacial water is definitely the best tasting, most refreshing water I’ve had in entire my life.

[Fire department responds to emergency call for injured hiker at ice cave]

It took us two hours to cross the glacier and make it to the base of Bullard. Trekking on a glacier for that long while hungry and sunburnt takes a lot out of you, needless to say by this point I was famished. Parker looked at me a bit concerned and said, “You know we still have to climb a mountain, right?” I ignored his concerns and dug into my pack to pull out my prized lunch, a slice of cheese pizza from Breeze In, Goldfish crackers and coconut water.

Sights along the hike from West Glacier Trail to Mount Bullard to East Glacier Trail. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

Sights along the hike from West Glacier Trail to Mount Bullard to East Glacier Trail. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

After devouring my food and hydrating, I felt much better. We looked at our route to start climbing — the word steep and the thought “should have brought a helmet” come to mind. It was mostly scrambling to the top, which generally I love, but due to unfortunate mosquito conditions, the entire climb up was fairly unpleasant. Typically, I would take breaks on a climb like ours, but I wasn’t about to give the mosquitos that satisfaction, and for some reason I had it in my head that they wouldn’t be at the top. Of course, I was wrong.

After many false summits, we made it to the top where we realized there would be little walking involved and more scrambling. The ridge felt sheer and I began to question my safety. I told Parker I was going to climb down the east face of the ridge where I would then hike below on the snow on a less vertical section. Parker said he would continue on the ridge and watch over me from the top and we would meet at the end of the ridge.

[A ‘secret’ trail becomes new and exciting again]

I realized a bit too late this was a plan lacking common sense.

I found myself caught between a rock and a hard place, literally. The side I had been climbing down quickly turned into a 20-foot drop-off. While I could attempt this if I had a good platform to land on, I only had a bout a three-foot wide ledge. I was holding myself up with my arms in between a mountain crack, my body facing away from the mountain, with little to no support for my legs. My body started shaking and I knew I had to make a choice: Either drop to an almost certain and rather untimely death or somehow turn myself around and manage to climb back up.

I decided no one was going to save me but myself. I looked above me and found a rock I could grab onto if I could only turn my body around somehow. In somewhat of a fear-driven state, I jumped and did a “Matrix” move in the air rotating my body and grabbed the rock. Without skipping a beat, I quickly climbed to the top and let out a gasp of air as I made it to safety.

I looked at the ridge again, the section that made me want to climb down the side in the first place — it was just so steep and unsafe. So naturally I began to climb down the other side of the ridge landing myself in almost the exact same situation. This time I really felt stuck but luckily, I was in a safer resting position on a rock and I was able to pull out my phone. I texted Parker I’m stuck and to come back for me, but I had no cell service. The whole damsel in distress was never really my thing anyway.

[The daily struggles of a gearhead]

It took about 20 minutes of contemplation and questioning my life choices before I could see a way back to the top. I made it and realized my text sent so I tell Parker I’m safe and have decided to hike the top of the ridge as planned (as if I had a choice in the matter). I started to climb the very steep ridge only to realize that my failed attempts for a safer route were all for nothing — it flattens out at the top.

Andrea Burtzel on the Mendenhall Glacier. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

Andrea Burtzel on the Mendenhall Glacier. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

When I finally met Parker, I told him what happened and that I almost died. He asks me how many times, and I reply “twice.”

“That’s a good day,” he said.

We reached the end of the ridge and were both a little weary of the hike down because it is now 10 p.m., almost pitch black and only one of us brought a headlamp. In my head I curse Parker for telling me I didn’t need a headlamp or bug spray. The other challenge is the mountain is just as steep going down as it was climbing up and there is no trail — we couldn’t even find a game trail. Keep going was our only option. We began our descent in the dark, on a new mountain with no trail, bushwhacking our way down.

To glissade means to slide down a steep slope of snow or ice. I didn’t have snow or ice, but I had a steep slope and bushes to grab a hold of as I slid down on my butt. At one point we reached a field of boulders and Parker started making warning calls like he does for a bear.

There was a wolf just below the boulder we were standing on.

[When Alaska salmon go viral]

The wolf did not scare and Parker said all he could see were its giant eyes, so after we both made quite a bit of racket that did absolutely nothing, we decided to hike on and hope it wasn’t planning to stalk us for the duration of our hike.

To sum up the hike down the mountain — we could barely see, both Parker and I had fallen into a giant hole of sorts, I decided alder trees are the worst, and discovered there are other plants to be cautious of besides Devil’s club — and I had grabbed onto or fallen into nearly all of them.

We finally made it the bottom of the mountain to the Nugget Falls Creek, only the water is rapid and too deep to cross. In an attempt to avoid going back into the woods, I told Parker we should cowboy camp on the rocks and wait until morning.

He declined. So back into the woods we go.

We made it to the dam and climbed a rock wall on the side to the top. A little way past the top of the dam we find a section of the creek that looks manageable; it’s waist deep water and still rushing rapids no less, but at least we didn’t have to swim. I used my trekking pole for balance and very slowly and carefully made it to the other side.

Parker and I found the East Glacier Trail. All I can think is I don’t think I’ve ever been this happy to see a trail.

Our spirits began to lift, and before you know it, we are laughing about our misadventure. We finished our hike at 1 a.m. — 12.5 hours later.

In the end, though, all that I can think is, I can’t wait to do this again.

“It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong” — Yvon Chouinard

• Andrea Burtzel is 29 years old and moved to Juneau from Minnesota in August 2017.

Sights along the hike from West Glacier Trail to Mount Bullard to East Glacier Trail. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

Sights along the hike from West Glacier Trail to Mount Bullard to East Glacier Trail. (Courtesy Photo | Parker Anders)

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