You know you’re in the company of hardy folk when you hear them describe this portion of Alaska’s Kenai Fjords National Park as a “drive up glacier.” It’s true that Exit Glacier is the only area of the park accessible by road, but to describe it as “drive up” gives a whole new meaning to the expression.
We’ve seen a lot of drive-up stuff during our tour of the lower 48. It’s really amazing the ingenuity we use to serve people who never want to leave their car. There’s drive-up coffee, of course, but also laundry, banking, groceries, and – our all time favorite – drive-up liquor. Because, you know, nothing goes with a fifth of whiskey quite like the soft purr of an idling engine ready to hit the road.
But here in Alaska, a place where many towns aren’t even reachable by automobile, “drive-up” apparently is used a bit differently than in the rest of the country. And while you can see Exit Glacier from a distance without much difficulty, if you want to actually set foot on this particular “drive-up” glacier, well, that requires you to climb the height of the Empire State Building (1,400 feet) over the course of a mile-and-a-half one-way hike. And that’s precisely what we came to Seward, Alaska, to do.
Having zero experience in glacier climbing and an equivalent amount of ice hiking gear with us, we signed up with Exit Glacier Guides to take us where we wanted to go. Not only did they provide the wheels for the drive-up portion of the excursion (true to form, we walked to their offices from our Seward hostel) they also provided all the specialty gear we don’t typically travel with – camelback backpacks, hiking poles, ice axes, helmets, and the all-important crampons.
These things are vicious and super cool. Strapping two-inch blades on to your boots makes you as sure-footed on ice as a freaking polar bear. With claws attached, we made our first foray onto the glacier.
One of the reasons to go with a guide for things like this is that the glacier changes from day to day and even from hour to hour. There’s no pre-designated safe path. What was solid ice yesterday may have since been hollowed out by an underground river. What looks like firm ground to the untrained eye can hide a deadly sinkhole.
So our group of about 10 people followed carefully in our guides’ footsteps as they led us up the glacier.
Seeking out wonderful mountain views,
incredible blue glacial ice,
and awesome crevasses.
We learned that glacial ice is different from the types we’re normally familiar with. Years of accumulating arctic snow gets so heavy that it compresses lower layers of ice into a super dense form. That squeezes out the normal oxygen and gives it a deep sapphire color.
We spent about an hour tromping around the glacier exploring such wonders before it was time to take off our crampons. Exhausted and thoroughly impressed, we started the long walk back from this amazing drive-up glacier.