Alaska Cruise – Juneau (Mendenhall Glacier)

As with my adventure with Debi in Skagway, when my mother-in-law asked what excursion I wanted to go on, I looked for the one that seemed the most physically demanding in Juneau as well. That one turned out to be a helicopter ride to a glacier followed by ice climbing and hiking on the glacier (see here; it’s called the Extended Helicopter Glacier Trek).  With this excursion, I was supposed to get an hour ice climbing with axes and ropes, followed by a couple hours hiking around a glacier, into caves, tunnels, etc.

Well… There was a hiccup.  The day before my glacier adventure I got a call in my room on the ship from the people who manage the excursions.  They said that there were not enough people who signed up for my excursion.  However, they then said that there were enough people signed up for the same excursion about 30 minutes after mine, so I’d still get to go on the excursion, just 30 minutes later.  That was fine with me.

The next day I got off the cruise ship with the rest of the family (they were going on a seaplane ride) and found the people who run the excursions.  That’s when they broke the real news to me.  Of all the people who were on the three ships in Juneau that day, I was the only one who signed up for that excursion.  No one else wanted to go ice climbing.  However, there were enough individuals signed up to do the glacier trek (not the extended glacier trek), that I could do that.  Basically what that meant is that I wouldn’t get to do any ice climbing with ropes and axes, but would get to hike around on the glacier for a couple of hours.  And they would refund the difference (it’s an expensive excursion).  I didn’t really have an option, so I agreed and waited around until the van from the tour company showed up.

The van drove me to the Juneau airport and into a commercial area where the tours were based. There I met the other people who were going on the trek with me: two men from Belgium who were not on one of the cruise ships and a guy from California who was working as a tour guide on one of the whale watching boats.  In other words, of the ~7,500 people in port that day on cruise ships, none of them wanted to do the extended glacier trek but me.  Their loss!

At the tour headquarters, they geared us up for the hike – red or orange waterproof jackets, waterproof pants, hard shell boots, gaiters, gloves, harnesses, and helmets.  Then they loaded us into a helicopter to fly up to Mendenhall Glacier.  Here’s a view of the glacier from the airport (just after we took off):

Mendenhall Glacier from the airport
Mendenhall Glacier from the airport

This was part of the flight up to the glacier:

And here was our helicopter leaving after it dropped us off:

Once on the glacier, we met up with our guide who helped us get crampons on and then outfitted us with ice axes.  She then proceeded to walk us around on the glacier and teach us about glacier hiking at the same time.  It was actually really, really informative.  I learned that crevasses can only be 150 feet deep (still plenty deep) because there are two types of ice in glaciers.  The top 150 feet are brittle; whatever is below that flows like molten glass or plastic.  I also realized that crevasses are really only dangerous when you can’t see them (e.g., after a fresh snowfall).  If you can see them, you can easily avoid them.  The other danger on a glacier is a moulin, or hole carved by water that can go all the way to the bottom of the glacier.  Where we were hiking, the glacier was 1,000 feet thick.  So, a moulin at that point could be 1,000 feet deep.  Moulins are far more dangerous, though we walked by some that were full of water, since those were plugged at some point and you wouldn’t fall to the bottom – you’d just get wet if you fell into one of those.  Finally, just getting around can be a little dangerous, but once you get the hang of the crampons and how to maneuver with them and the ice ax, it was pretty straightforward and not at all dangerous IMO.

We saw some waterfalls:

And hiked into some canyons:

me in an ice canyon
me in an ice canyon

Climbed into an ice overhang (not exactly a cave):

me in an ice overhang (not exactly a cave)
me in an ice overhang (not exactly a cave)

And stood abreast of a crevasse (that opened into a big crevasse, but was pretty small here):

me standing over a crevasse
me standing over a crevasse

Here’s a panosphere of what the glacier looked like:

 

We probably spent about an hour and a half walking and climbing around.  I would have enjoyed the ice climbing, too, but even what I got to do was awesome.  And having done it, I would definitely recommend that anyone in mediocre shape consider doing it.  It wasn’t strenuous and was an amazing experience.  I felt very comfortable after about 30 minutes and was ready to try something more extreme after that point.  I didn’t, but I would have!

Anyway, here’s a clip of us flying back off the glacier:

After I got back, I headed back into town.  There was a hike near the cruise ship, that sounded fun, but the distance of the hike meant I would get back just as the ship was supposed to leave, so I ended up just getting back on the ship.

Later that day in the hot tub I ran into a family from Tampa who had gone on a similar helicopter ride, but they didn’t get to do the “extreme” hiking.  They just walked in a big circle around the base camp on the glacier.  But they really enjoyed that, too.

The seaplane ride was, according to the rest of the family, pretty fun.  However, most of the kids fell asleep (too much fun I guess).

Alaska Cruise – Skagway and Laughton Glacier

Just after my mother-in-law booked the cruise to Alaska, she then emailed all of her children and their spouses and asked what excursions they wanted to go on.  My general approach to excursions these days, since I’m starting to get older, but am still active enough to do lots of things, is to try to do the most extreme, active things I can.  When I’m 90, maybe I’ll slow down.  But, for now, I ask, “What’s the most physically extreme excursion available?”

In Skagway, the most physically demanding one I found was a 5 mile round trip hike to the Laughton Glacier.  I convinced Debi to do it with me and the rest of the family would watch Toren as they went on a train ride.  The description of the hike sounded cool, but the part I loved was in the Notes concerning the hike:

Guests should be in good physical condition, able to walk over uneven and sometimes challenging terrain including rocks and tree roots, and hike in all weather conditions. The hike typically covers 5 to 7 miles.

I read this to mean that it was going to be physically demanding.  Um, yeah.  Not so much.

We met in one of the theaters for the excursion and I tried to size up those who were going on the hike with us.  It was only about 8 of us, and they mostly seemed to be active adults, though most were clearly not serious athletes.  As we got off the boat, we found a guide for our hike, who walked us about 3/4 of a mile to where we got on the train.  Everyone seemed to make that walk fine.  ;)

At the train, we met up with some passengers on another cruise ship, increasing our party to about 15 total, with 3 guides.  On the train ride up to the trailhead, they had us make our lunches and provided everyone with tons of snacks, water, and fanny packs.  Since I had my own backpack and bladder, we opted not to take the fanny packs or water, but we did take the snacks (multiple candy bars, trail mix, nuts, etc.)

The train stopped about half way up the track and we got off, then geared up.  It was at this point that I started to feel a little bad for the guides.  There were three guides, all women who were a lot smaller than I am (though they were all very tough and solid hikers; no doubt about that).  All of the guests on the hike had tiny packs that weighed maybe 5 to 10 pounds, at most.  Each of the guides had monstrous packs that weighed 40+ pounds.  I felt bad for them because I knew they were carrying those packs for me, not for them (I felt that way even though I knew they were getting paid to do it). I was tempted to offer to carry one.  I was sure they wouldn’t let me, but I would not have minded.

Once we were all geared up, we headed out.  The trail was very well-maintained.  The elevation gain was minimal.  And the pace was… very… slow.  Plus, we stopped every twenty minutes or so for the guides to ask if anyone needed anything, another candy bar, water, bug spray, sunscreen, to be carried, etc.  The pace was so slow, I couldn’t help but hike right on the heels of the guide leading the group.

We stopped about half way up (1 1/4 miles) at an outhouse for a bathroom break.  At that point, the guides realized that there were some faster and some slower hikers, so they suggested we split into two groups and the faster hikers could take the more “rugged” trail.  I was all over that!  Debi was too.  She’s not as into hiking as I am, and she was wearing borrowed shoes that were rubbing her heels a bit, but she still felt the pace was too slow.  The group split up and Debi and I stayed right on the heels of the guide as she took us up the rugged path.  It was a bit more rugged, but it was definitely not 3 hours of boulder hopping on Granite Mountain.  We did go faster, which was nice.

We stopped once on the rugged path just as we were able to make out the top of the glacier:

Just below the glacier
Just below the glacier (it got washed out in this photo)

Then we hit the glacier.  Since this one doesn’t end in the ocean, you get a very different perspective.  The bottom part of the glacier is largely covered with rocks and sand, though you can see ice through the rocks and sand.

The Laughton Glacier when you first see it on the hike.
The Laughton Glacier when you first see it on the hike  It actually starts just below the icy part in the photo; the two rock/dirt covered hills in the center are part of the glacier.

We carefully hiked up onto the glacier a few hundred feet, found a nice scenic place to sit, and broke out our lunch.  Here was our view:

Where we had lunch on the Laughton Glacier.
Where we had lunch on the Laughton Glacier.
Panorama of the glacier from our lunch spot (click for full size)
Panorama of the glacier from our lunch spot (click for full size)

And if you want the immersive experience, here’s the view as a photosphere:

 

The guides, in their massive packs, carried up huge thermoses of hot water, so we could have apple cider or hot chocolate for lunch.  As bad as I felt that they had to carry those packs, the hot drink did taste great on the cold glacier.

We spent about 45 minutes on the glacier, then headed back out.  We continued to stop every 20 minutes or so, and made another bathroom stop on the way down, until the last 1/4 mile or so.  Then the guides got word that our train was coming and suddenly we were moving!

We made it out to the railroad track with about 2 minutes to spare:

We hopped back on the train, rode it back to Skagway, then walked through Skagway, and headed back to the cruise ship, where we met back up with the rest of the family.

Here’s the hiking route:

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t pay to do that hike again.  I’d pay for the train ride to get up to the trailhead, then do the hike without guides, as a few people did when we were there.  It’s an awesome hike, but if you are at all fit and a competent hiker, there is no reason to have a guide on this hike.

Ireland Trip – Carrauntoohil hike

I’m always up for a good hike, and it often turns out to be a great way to see places most people don’t see.  One of the places people recommended I visit in Ireland was the Ring of Kerry.  As luck would have it, the tallest mountain in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, is within the Ring of Kerry.  I did a bit of searching and learned about an alternate route, the Coomloughra Horseshoe, which starts from a different place than most people who hike Carrauntoohil and makes a loop that tops the three tallest mountains in Ireland, Carrauntoohil, Caher, and Beenkeragh.  I was hoping to do the complete Horseshoe, but was also paying very close attention to the weather.  The route between Carrauntoohil and Beenkeragh involves a climb over a razor back ridge that seemed like a bad idea if it was raining or cloud covered.

I got up early, had a hearty breakfast of sausage and eggs at my B&B, then headed to the trailhead.  No one else was parked at the trailhead, but I assumed some others would be coming along later.

I had okay directions from several websites, but knew I had to do some route finding along the way.  Alas, the clouds were still hanging quite low when I started the hike and, by the time I reached Cottoners River dam, I was in the clouds and could only see about 50 feet in front of me.  I knew roughly which way I was supposed to go, so I headed that way and tried my best to track my route on my GPS.  Here’s a short video of what it was like hiking on the lower part of Caher before I crossed the vegetation line and was hiking just on rocks:

I eventually made it to the top of the first mountain, Caher, and was quite impressed with the elevation gain and ruggedness of the mountain.  It was turning out to be a fairly challenging hike. Plus, the humidity in the clouds led to condensation all over me:

Me at the Caher summit with condensation on my hat.
Me at the Caher summit with condensation on my hat.

Unfortunately, at this point, I had the crazy notion that the trail turned slightly on its way to Carrauntoohil.  Not sure why I thought that, but I got off the actual trail and spent about 30 minutes wandering off the horseshoe before I realized I was off the trail.  Thanks to Google Maps and my GPS, I got back on track and headed toward Carrauntoohil.

Just as I reached the summit of Carrauntoohil, about 30 minutes after I regained the trail, I noticed two individuals on the summit – two Russian-speaking priests in full priestly garb performing a ceremony that included chanting, praying, reciting, reading from books, and so on.  No one else was on the summit, and I’ve never experienced that on the top of a summit.  It went on for about 10 minutes after I arrived and I didn’t really know what to do, so I just kind of sat there, waiting:

After they finished up, I confirmed that they were priests, then took a few pictures as the sun had finally broken through the clouds.

On the summit of Carrauntoohil.
On the summit of Carrauntoohil.

I spent about 20 minutes on the summit, then, because it was still very cloudy, I opted to go back the way I came rather than try the razorback.  It was so cloudy I immediately took a slightly wrong turn and headed down the standard route.  I hiked for about 30 minutes before I realized my error and had to hike back to the route I had taken, which added another 30 minutes or so to my hike.  Once I made it back to the trail, the clouds started to break and I finally started to get some nice views of the area.

Near the summit of Caher once the clouds broke.
Near the summit of Caher once the clouds broke.
The valley below Carrauntoohil once the clouds clear.
The valley below Carrauntoohil once the clouds cleared.
A panorama of the three peaks.
A panorama of the three peaks.

The rest of the hike was quite pleasant and I finally passed a few other people on the trail.

After the hike, I headed back to the B&B, showered, rested a bit, then went to the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club for a delightful dinner of fish and chips:

Fish and chips at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.
Fish and chips at the Killarney Golf and Fishing Club.

Here’s my route from the hike:

 

The Narrows – Top Down – Zion National Park

Mark wasn’t able to join Tom and I on our hike this year as he was hiking with his dad.  Tom had just recently had his first Zion experience and had fallen in love with Zion National Park.  As a result, he wanted to check out some of the more well-known but longer hikes in the park.  Perhaps the most famous hike in Zion National Park (if not the most traveled; I think that is Angel’s Landing) is The Narrows, which hundreds of thousands, if not millions of people attempt every year.  But most people who attempt to hike The Narrows try to do it from the bottom up.  That’s fine and all if you don’t have much time, but it’s absolutely not the best way to experience The Narrows.  To truly experience The Narrows, you need to do it from the top down, which requires a permit.  And, if you want the very best experience, you should probably put in for a camping permit, as there are 12 campsites in the upper narrows that are all reserved through the park’s permit system.  Camping would split the hike into two days and would give you plenty of time to enjoy the beauty of this amazing hike.

Tom and I were lucky enough to be awarded a permit for the top down hike of The Narrows, but we planned to do it in just a single day.  It makes for a long day, as you have to cover 16 miles straight through, and about 14 miles of that is in a river.  But we felt up to it.

We booked spots on a van with one of the outfitters in Springdale, the town located just outside the main entrance of the Park.  We had to be at the outfitters store at around 6:00 and the ride to the trail head took about an hour and a half.  We were dropped off around 7:30 or 8:00, and got started on the hike around 8:15 or so.

For the first couple of miles, you’re basically hiking by a small stream on a farm.  We encountered quite a few cows during this part of the hike, and it’s probably why you’re discouraged from filling water bottles until you reach the junction of the Virgin and Deep Creek as the water is mixed with farm/ranch run off.

cows near the beginning of the hike
cows near the beginning of the hike

But slowly, the river widens and the canyon walls begin to get taller.  Eventually, it becomes impossible to stay out of the river, and in you go.  And then you get the canyons.  And the canyons make this hike utterly amazing:

Tom posing in The Narrows
Tom posing in The Narrows
another shot of the canyons
another shot of the canyons
deep in a slot canyon
deep in a slot canyon
Tom hiking toward one of the slot canyons
Tom hiking toward one of the slot canyons
posing in The Narrows
posing in The Narrows
posing in The Narrows
posing in The Narrows

 

 

 

The best part, IMO, about doing The Narrows top down is that there are, on any given day, maybe 20 or 30 people hiking down the top section of The Narrows with you.  Tom and I ran into maybe 10 people while we were hiking the top part of The Narrows.  The rest of the time, it was a serene experience – just the two of us in an amazing canyon, taking in nature’s splendor.

After about 6 miles of hiking, you reach the junction between Deep Creek and the Virgin River.  The water level changes noticeably at this point.  Prior to here, the water had never come up above maybe our ankles.  However, from here on, water could easily come up to your knees, thighs, and at times your waist.

From the junction you head down the Virgin River and slowly pass the 12 campsites that are on both sides of the river, raised up fairly high to avoid flash floods.  We stopped in one for lunch, then continued on down the canyon.

At about the 10 mile mark in the hike is where you hit Big Springs.  Big Springs is about 6 miles in from the bottom of The Narrows and those hiking from the bottom up aren’t supposed to go beyond that point (we met one couple who had, but they quickly turned around when we pointed out that they were near the last campsite and had hiked too far).  It’s at this point that the number of people around begins to climb pretty quickly.  Of course, not many people hiking from the bottom up actually make it this far.  It’s six miles through a river on very uneven terrain (making for a 12 mile hike).  The outfitters who gear people up with canyoneering boots and equipment must realize just how few are actually going to go far up The Narrows.  My guess is that less than half of those who start The Narrows make it more than 3 miles up the river before they turn around.  It’s probably only 10% to 20% who make it all the way up to Big Springs.

The two of us at Big Springs
The two of us at Big Springs

Anyway, from Big Springs down to the bottom, the number of people slowly increased until, at the bottom, there was a veritable flood of people.  The last 2 miles of the hike or so were kind of ruined by the swarm of people.  Even so, we got 14 miles of amazing hiking.  We exited the river around 4:00 or 4:30.  We managed to do it all in about 8 hours or so, averaging about 2 miles per hour.

If/When I do The Narrows again, I’ll try to get an overnight permit.  That way, I could take my time on the upper part and really enjoy it.  Then, I’d get up early the next morning and try to get out of the river before the hordes of ill-prepared tourists flood the water.  (Honestly, I saw people who had no business trying to hike up The Narrows giving it a shot: pregnant women carrying toddlers in their arms; people in flip-flops; very elderly individuals who looked quite frail.  More power to them for trying, but they weren’t going to get very far.)

If you ever get a chance to hike The Narrows, try to do it the right way, from the top down.  If you think about it, it’s only 4 miles more than hiking from the bottom up, but for 10 of those miles, you’ll be alone to enjoy the beauty of The Narrows.  It is well worth it.

California Trip – day 5 – Riley’s Farm and Heart Rock

We headed out of Anaheim again on the 8th.  Toren has never really spent any time on a farm. We visited a milk cattle operation once, but Toren is growing up in the city.  I thought a farm might be rather novel for him.  A recommendation on red tricycle suggested Riley’s Farm in Oak Glen.  Oak Glen is famous for apples, which Toren doesn’t like.  But Riley’s Farm has a bunch of other activities.  So, we headed to Riley’s Farm on the 8th.

We got there just after a tour started, and another wouldn’t start for a while, so we joined the tour that was in progress.  That meant we missed one station.  It was a colonial era tour and they were showing people what life was like during colonial times.  The guides were in period costume and tried to act the part (I got ours to break character because I like doing that).  The group that we were with was almost exclusively intellectually disabled; it was a field trip.  There were two other boys, a few years older than Toren, who were also there with their mother.  They raced motocross and were home schooled.  And, they were first young boys I had met who have hair longer than Toren’s.

We missed the quill and ink writing station, but caught up to the tour in time to churn butter, which Toren didn’t want to do.  We then weaved yarn:

After weaving, we helped make apple cider:

We also got to dip candles, though they gave us a candle as a starter:

The final activity was some colonial period games.  Toren picked one up pretty well:

We finished up right around lunch time, so we ate at the restaurant on site.  It was pretty good, but the best part was the fresh out of the oven bread, which Toren loved as well:

After lunch we drove to Crestline, California to do a hike I found to a water-eroded indent in a rock that is shaped like a heart.  It was about a mile and a half hike.  Here’s the track:


View Larger Map

And here’s a video of the Heart Rock:

Toren did the whole thing.  He’s a budding hiker!