Iconic rock spire behind Mendenhall Glacier falls

At 30-by-30 feet and 150 feet tall, the Rabbit Ears, a pair of rock spires behind the Mendenhall Glacier, have piqued the interest of local mountaineers since climbers John Svenson and George Fisher first ascended the formation in 1974.

But sometime this week, Mother Nature proved that what goes up must come down as the northwest tower of the Rabbit Ears collapsed, sending many tons of rock crashing hundreds of feet into a glacial valley and leaving in the lurch local climbers who hadn’t yet checked the route off their bucket lists.

Guides from NorthStar Trekking, a local tour company, noticed rock debris at the bottom of the formation Wednesday but clouds prevented them from seeing the debris’ origin. When cloud cover cleared, they confirmed one of the Rabbit Ears had been lopped off at the base.

“It happened sometime in the last 48 hours and probably within the last 24 hours,” lead guide for NorthStar Bill Forrest said in an interview Wednesday. “One of our guides noticed some new debris at the bottom of the formation, but there were too many clouds to tell what had happened. It’s kind of a sad day, it just being a local landmark.”

The pair of free-standing spires, shaped like cubist skyscrapers, lean out from one another on the west side of the Mendenhall Towers in the Juneau Icefield and sit on the edge of a cliff Svenson estimates to be a thousand feet high.

“We noticed when climbing it that this thing was just sitting like stacked blocks. We always wondered why these things are even standing there because they are kind of an anomaly,” Svenson said, adding, “It’s a world-class setting. … It is sad to see it go. It was one of the coolest rock formations on the Juneau Icefield, one of the most dramatic and well known. I’ve shown pictures to climbers all around the world and they just freak out.”

The Rabbit Ears aren’t a “big destination,” compared to the Mendenhall Towers — which many consider some of Juneau’s best rock climbing terrain — but are a local climbing landmark, according to longtime local climber Mike Miller, who ascended the Rabbit Ears last summer with his son Dylan.

“The Rabbit Ears are a landmark, a local icon, and local climbers are going to miss it,” Miller said. “It’s definitely a bummer, but it’s Mother Nature doing its magic.”

According to University of Alaska Southeast geologist Cathy Connor, the remaining spire will likely fall sometime in the near future. She explained the most plausible cause for the Rabbit Ears’ demise in a Thursday email to the Empire.

“Mineralized veins running through the base of the remaining spire have been oxidized due to chemical weathering and daily rain, wind, and seasonal freeze-thaw that expands and contracts fracture zones in all of our SEAK rocks. The ever-present pull of gravity took care of the rest,” Connor wrote.

Connor added a handy translation from science-ese: “It’s not easy being a free-standing spire in Southeast Alaska’s alpine country.”

Svenson, a Haines resident, first ascended the Rabbit Ears in the spring of 1974 and used to teach climbing classes and host parties at the base of the spires. He and his compatriots would access the formation through West Glacier Trail, but glacial melt has since made this route more difficult.

The experienced mountaineer has seen many climbing landmarks erode or simply fall in recent years, carrying years of mountaineering achievement with them. In the wake of geological upheaval, he can’t help but feel a sense of loss.

“I’m a Yosemite climber and things are falling off El Capitan (a legendary route in Yosemite National Park). We’re seeing that all over the world, the routes they do in the Alps are falling to pieces,” Svenson said. “If you look at the golden age of mountaineering, it may be coming to an end.”

But with loss, comes gratitude.

“I feel lucky we were up there when it was intact, and not attached to the top when it came down,” Svenson said.

• Contact Sports and Outdoors reporter Kevin Gullufsen at 523-2228 or kevin.gullufsen@juneauempire.com.

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