A Real Backcountry Adventure in Juneau

Challenging But Rewarding: A Ventures by Seabourn hike to the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Tuesday, July 4, 2017
Seabourns Seabourn Sojourn made her way down the Gastineau Channel early this morning, coming alongside Alaska’s capital city, Juneau. Not only that, but today is Independence Day – and that means we’ve got a full house of cruise ships here.
With thousands of guests slated to pour ashore and streets closed for parades and other Fourth of July shenanigans, I chose to get out of town and do something different.

Seabourn Sojourn docked in Juneau on a rainy Independence Day. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Our small group (foreground) sets out for our hike to the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Ventures by SeabournMendenhall Glacier and Ice Caves” hike was the answer to my desire to get away from the crowds. At eight hours in duration, this $399 per person shore excursion is only offered to Seabourn; no other cruise line has this tour available to book onboard. In addition to tour two local guides, Seabourn Ventures Expedition Staff members Juan and Kirstie would also accompany the 10 of us on today’s adventure.
What an intense adventure it was. Most cruise lines over-rate their shore excursion offerings. A moderate hike is probably an easy hike for most active folks, while an advanced hike is generally an intermediate hike – at least by the standards of those who hike. Not this. When it says, “advanced hike”, it means “advanced hike.”
In fact, this was less of a hike and more of a proper bushwhack/scramble. An all-out, no holds barred journey into the wilderness along a “trail” marked with bits of ribbon lashed to trees and placed under heavy boulders.

Into the Woods We Go: the trailhead is well-established…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…and even includes markers denoting where Mendenhall Glaicer used to be. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

With pouring rain and increasing humidity, photography becomes a challenge! Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

With the exception of the 30-minunte walk from the parking lot and the 45 minutes or so down at the ice caves of Mendenhall Glacier, this baby was almost entirely made of steep ascents and descents over exposed rocks, loose terrain, small streams, and enclosed forest.  It was about the time that I found myself pulling myself up a small cliff face with a system of ropes that I wondered if I’d bitten off more than I could chew. When we had to scramble down, butt-first, on a steep slope filled with loose gravel and watermelon-sized boulders that gave way and cascaded recklessly down the 200-some foot face of the mountain, I knew I was in over my head.

That calm terrain disappears quickly. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

For much of the hike, today was an all-out bushwhack-boulder scramble. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

It was intense. I’ve done adventure hikes in Alaska, British Columbia, Costa Rica, Panama, Mexico, Australia’s Kimberley Coast, and in the Far Arctic island of Svalbard. All of which were demanding, but well within my abilities. Nothing I’ve ever done tested me like today. But once you find yourself coming down, inch by inch, a nearly vertical cliff face with an elevation of a couple hundred feet, you’re committed.
Now, I’ll say this: physically, I kept up just fine. It was more the insane nature of our terrain that started to make me think that Seabourn needs to put a few more descriptors in their shore excursion wording on this one. For example, I managed to destroy my hiking boots in the mud and the water; waterproof footwear (or reasonably water-resistant) is essential.

The scenery: breathtaking. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

Into the Fray: A challenging, but rewarding, Ventures by Seabourn hike into Mendenhall Glacier. Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

I also destroyed my waterproof Columbia pants, which ripped clean through the back on one of our more adventurous slides down some sharp rock faces. I only realized when I got back to the ship that I had an issue, but I should have known. Things felt drafty back there.
I think the description of the excursion also caught the rest of the guests off-guard, as it states there are “some inclines and many areas of uneven terrain.” That downplays the experience a little – the whole thing was nothing but inclines and steep descents, with uneven terrain throughout. This wasn’t really a hike by the strictest definition; it’s a true bushwhack and boulder scramble.

On level ground…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

…we make our way into…Photo © 2017 Aaron Saunders

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