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How much experience is needed for crossing the Mendenhall Glacier?


I'm planning a backpacking trip to Juneau with some friends next summer and was interested in taking the North Ridge route to Bullard Mountain (see: The route involves crossing the Mendenhall Glacier though, which I don't have any experience with. Based on the time of year (and the only way I'd consider crossing), the glacier would be dry.

I've been interested in learning mountaineering skills, so I've read enough on the subject to know that you shouldn't just go out without any experience or preparation. But, most of what I find is about the dangers of wet glaciers. When I read Glacier Mountaineering by Andy Tyson, he mentions that travel below the firn line is normally done unroped because you can see the dangers and can't do much to arrest a fall.

So is it smart to travel cautiously across a dry glacier, with the proper equipment, but without much practical experience? (Assuming one thoroughly studies features and danger signs beforehand) Or is this just as dangerous as crossing a wet glacier?

Or, is the Mendenhall glacier in particular a bad idea for someone like me to even think about approaching?

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Glaciers pose a risk to travelers because the ice flows like a river. When they flow over features in the landscape the ice buckles and splits creating crevasses. Other than avalanche and rockfall risk on your route, the greatest hazard is falling into a crevasse or moulin or some other trap that you won't escape alive. When the glacier is "dry" (i.e. bare) it is easier to observe where crevasses are, but that doesn't make glacier travel risk-free. I'd say the two things you really have to be careful about in dry conditions are snow bridges (i.e. snow-plugged crevasses) that could give out when you attempt to cross them, and heavily crevassed areas. One misstep in a heavily crevassed area can mean death if you and your team are not prepared with a) the right equipment, and b) the skills to stage a rescue and prevent falls in the first place. Andy Tyson makes a valid point -- it is really challenging to arrest someone else's fall on bare ice -- but it can be done, and my personal preference is to rope up in dry conditions if I'm on a team with at least two other people and there are crevasses. Some people don't. If I'm entering very heavily crevassed terrain I rope up just in case a belay is in order.

When the glacier is "wet" (snow-covered) you have the same risks but with snow, meaning more uncertainty about what's beneath your feet and the risk of avalanches, which should affect whether you decide to remain roped together. But that's not going to be a consideration for you. I just thought I'd mention it.

I can't speak about this route from experience. It is hard to judge the topology of a glacier from pictures: the rule of thumb I like to follow in the that it's always bigger than it looks, and it's farther away than it looks, and sometimes it is harder than it looks too. But based on some of the pictures on summit post this looks like a fairly complex glacier with ice flowing over convex landscape features in multiple directions. I'm not sure what your actual route would look like based on what the pictures show, but heavily crevassed areas might be a major concern. Another thing to consider is how you'll get off the glacier. Sometimes there's a big gap between the edge of the glacier and the rock, and you may need some technical skills to navigate that if you can't get around it on foot.

As some of the comments point out, your comfort level and skill level comes into play here. What is the risk level to you and your team based on your skill and the hazards? Can you cross the glacier on a path that involves no crevasses or technical barriers? If so, then your objective risk level is low and you could traverse safely with the right equipment and minimal technical experience. On the other hand, if there are crevasses that could swallow you up, do you and your team have the technical skills to mitigate the risk (e.g. set up a belay to minimize risk, perform a team arrest in the event of a fall, perform a self rescue, or perform a team rescue)? Are you prepared to deal with unanticipated hazards? Are you and your team able to make sensible, honest decisions about when to turn back when you have a conflicting desire to reach your goal, or are you all so intensely goal-driven that your judgement could be affected? It's all too easy to rationalize continuing when driven by a goal that is something other than returning home safely, and that can lead to bad outcomes. And remember, everybody on the team has to have the right skills for the terrain. It won't do if only one person has the skills and ends up being the one to fall into a crevasse.

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