Glacier and Iceberg Bouldering 101: A Photo Essay

Whenever I visit Juneau, I make an effort to get out to the Mendenhall Glacier to explore and play on the ice. The icefall is the most interesting part of the glacier as it’s littered with seracs, crevasses and caves. In the winter, Lake Mendenhall freezes and traps the icebergs in the lake making a field of ice boulders, and cliffs.  

I should probably mention that there’s nothing safe about traveling on frozen lakes, icebergs, crevasses, glaciers, you name it. It’s Alaska after all, and humans are not on the top of the food chain. As for ice bouldering, well, there’s nothing safe about that either. The outcome of most falls will end in disaster unless you have a big pile of snow beneath you.

Get Beta From the Locals. It’s best to first stack the odds in your favor and get some information on conditions. Is the lake frozen? It’d be a shame to find out otherwise if say maybe you’re halfway across it. Keep in mind that locals will almost always try to sandbag you. Stories will also become longer and more dramatized with alcohol so get beta earlier in the day. 

The White Ice. Sun melts and softens the surface of the ice. The ice that has a whitish color is more aerated and easier to swing into. This can make for some comfortable climbing, until you get higher on the face and it becomes the consistency of snow. Try to swing into the suncupped pockets as you’ll get better ice and good footholds.

The Blue Ice. Blue glacial ice is amazing. It’s bullet hard and colors are intoxicating. It’s a real bear to try and climb, however. Plan on about three swings for each tool placement. One to chip away the outside. One to soften the ice (aka crack it) and another for a reasonable stick. Hope for the best. The pick will likely either shatter the ice or be impossible to remove.

The Black Ice. Blue ice mixed with some glacial silt and debris makes for black ice. You can’t help but wonder if you’re going to find a Woolly Mammoth frozen in the murky depths. You’ll have to find your way to the bottom layer of ice to get to the black stuff. Your best bet to finding this type of ice is in a moulin (glacier sinkhole).

The Glassy Ice alongside the icebergs. Tread near this stuff cautiously. Likely it’s water and not ice. Send your buddy first to check. If you like him, consider tying a rope to him to get him back if the ice is thin.

Deep Water Ice Soloing. Deep water, shallow water, doesn’t really matter in this case. This is just a horrible idea for a multitude of reasons and a sure way to earn a Darwin Award if things go wrong. It does however make for amazing photos. If there’s not a photographer present, deep water ice soloing is just not worth it.

Look Underneath. Sometimes the good stuff is found under the glacier. Caves form under the glacier from streams and moulins, not to mention you’ll get out of the weather. Try to keep in mind the ice is moving which will likely compromise the integrity of the cave. Just be thankful it’s moving at a glacial pace, right?

You’re still interested? Here’s a final bit of advice… Don’t Wait…Each year the glacier recedes more and more. That means you have to walk that much further to get to the goods. Not to mention you might get wiser with age and think better of the whole idea.