Ice Climbing with Exit Glacier Guides, Seward, AK

Being suspended in a crevasse surrounded by blue ice is a cool feeling that not many get to experience. Generally, when glacier hiking the guides work to keep you away from crevasses.  You aren’t even allowed to peer into them, but here you actually get to climb in, take a look around and snap a few photos.

This was our first experience ice climbing. I’ve done ice trekking exactly twice in my life ten years apart, so I don’t  have much experience on the ice in any form, but I wanted to try something different on a glacier and ice climbing on the Exit Glacier with Exit Glacier Guides fit the bill.

Our guides, Rose and Liv, were professional and great teachers. I couldn’t have felt safer which is extremely important when you are walking backwards over the edge of a crevasse. The actual climbing was difficult for me, mostly because I was doing something for the first time that requires finesse and practice. It’s like having your first ever golf lesson in the morning and then having to play a round in the afternoon. The guides are good at teaching you what you need to do, but then applying those techniques on a real crevasse takes practice.

The day starts at the Exit Glacier Guides’ office where you finish signing waivers and are then fitted with boots and crampons. You are also given a helmet, harnesses and lunch – a wrap with a choice of smoked chicken, smoked brisket, smoked pork, veggie or vegan. You should bring gloves, extra layers of clothing for when you are on the ice (It’s much colder on the ice than when hiking up to the glacier), rain gear including rain pants, hiking boots or trail shoes and water. They give you a backpack for all the gear with a waist belt and chest strap.

We left for the glacier at 8:30 and were hiking up the trail by 9. At the trail head you are given trekking poles which you use on the trail and the ice. Rose insisted that we take off all our layers and hike in as little as possible as it gets hot quickly. It’s a brisk walk with about 1,200ft elevation gain in just over a mile. They stopped a couple of times but really kept us moving. You should be comfortable hiking on uneven rocky trails. Compared to the Denali Camp strenuous hikes these folks go about 2 to 3 times faster. Of course, the average age of their clients is about half.

Once we were at the glacier moraine we put on our all our layers and climbing equipment – boots, crampons helmets and harnesses. The temperature had dropped significantly. Rose went over the safety rules for walking on the glacier. She takes these safety measures very seriously – walk only where they tell you it is safe and walk single file. On the ice they gave us instruction on walking in crampons – techniques for walking uphill, downhill and crossways on a slope. All of which are important so you don’t fall on the ice.

We walked a short distance to a training climbing area where they demonstrated climbing techniques on a wall of ice. Each of us then climbed a short ways up the wall and belayed back down. The technique uses ice axes in each hand. You plant the axes on either side of the support rope, then kick the spike at the toe of your boot into the ice face, one foot then the other, and push yourself up with your legs. For beginners it feels awkward but it’s manageable.

Once everyone had their turn we hiked up to the climbing crevasse. Here they set up two climbing stations next to each other, so there were 2 people climbing at once. Along with the person climbing a companion can be clipped in at the top and is allowed to peer over the edge to take photos.

For the climb into the crevasse you first have to belay down, really a slow walk down the wall of the crevasse with your feet flat on the ice. On the uneven ice surface it’s not so easy. My first climb was down a chimney, meaning the crevasse was narrow enough that I could lean back on the back wall. This made it both more difficult and easier depending on the surface of the ice I had to deal with – ledges, holes, general unevenness, etc. It was a challenge but Rose gave me helpful suggestions on how to manage the situation and then let me find the solution. I had a tricky ledge that I had to get back over that caused me the most difficulty but I managed it in the end.

The other climb, right next to the first one, was very different even though they were only 8 feet apart. This section of the crevasse was wider with its own intricacies such as some large indentations in the crevasse wall.

We were three couples (all beginners) so two couples were engaged at a time, one partner climbing the other watching. The third couple sat out. The time went fast. We each got 2 climbs but the second climb was rushed. I was fairly exhausted, mostly because of the inefficiently of doing something new.

We were also rushed on our hike out. We had to pack up quickly and make good time down the trail to make our pick-up time. Nothing crazy, but there wasn’t extra time to stop and take more than a few photos. They really try to maximize your time on the ice, and it takes a lot of time getting there and going through the training. If you are concerned about climbing time or you are an experienced climber I would talk to the folks at Exit Glacier Guides before booking the trip. You may want a private guide.

We were down to the parking lot at 4 to catch our ride back to the office.

For links to all the posts in this series see the Alaska page.

June 20, 2021