Juneau Icefield

I’d like to tell you about my most favourite trip of all times. Well, there are a few that concurrently hold the spot #1 but this one comes to mind when I think of a wholesome, expedition-style trip that combines a relative ease of travel with just the right amount of challenge, in a landscape beautiful beyond normal, topped off with having it done with some of the favouritest people in my universe. Let’s talk about the Juneau Icefield traverse.

This is a truly international trip, starting in Atlin, B.C., Canada and ending in a small town of Juneau in the Alaskan panhandle. Therefore, after completing this trip, you can say: “I’ve skied from Canada to Alaska!”

The area, although without any great terrain difficulties, is very remote and you need to have experience with winter camping, glacier travel and navigation by GPS. It is not completely out of anyone’s league though and can be done both in summer or winter. In fact, there is an organization called Juneau Icefield Research Program (JIRP) that takes applicants on a 2-week stint hiking onto the icefield, staying at glaciology huts and helping with the glacier observations and measurements. In winter, the travel mode is only on skis.

Crossing in front of Taku Tower.

The best time of the year to do this trip is coming up – late April through mid-May. The later you go the more snow will have melted off at the beginning and end (first and last day) of the traverse, making getting onto and off the icefield more challenging.

Before the trip you will need to arrange for a few things:

  1. Transportation to Whitehorse, Yukon (we loved Air North!)
  2. Land transportation from Whitehorse to Atlin, B.C. (Atlin Express)
  3. Helicopter drop-off from Atlin to the Llewellyn Glacier – Discovery Helicopters, ~$500 per person, can take up to 4 with skis and gear
  4. Flight arrangement from Juneau, AK back to Vancouver. B.C. A really cool way would be to arrange with a cruise ship company that you will be joining a cruise in Juneau only. Yes, it can be done! Contact Celebrity Cruises or Holland America directly.
  5. Make or borrow a lightweight sled to pull your supplies. A great schematic for making your own sleds can be found here: John Baldwin’s lighweight tobbogan
  6. Ship a box of spare clothes and shoes to the hostel you will be staying at in Juneau (for example Juneau Hostel). Let them know.
  7. Notify the U.S. Customs and Border Protection office ahead of time of your “irregular” border crossing and arrange for a visit and registration at their Juneau office after your arrival

And these are about the only complications about the trip. The 120 km and 10 days in between spent crossing the icefield are a true joy and days filled with marvel. We did it in the north-to-south direction and, being purists (and a little crazy, I suppose) we were planning to cross the Atlin Lake on skis (a looong slog of 80 km on a frozen lake) and omit the helicopter part but the icepack on the lake started to break up at the beginning of May making this option no longer viable. In retrospect, I am glad we took the helicopter to deposit us just above the snout of the Llewellyn Glacier.

1-400,000 topo

I will not go into the daily detail of our trip, the adventure is yours and you’ll experience it differently. I’ll just say that our supplies for 12 days included 2 L of whiskey, the only consumable item that we were completely out of after a mere 4 days of travel. Everything else was a smooth sailing complete with enjoying 11 pm sunsets in an incredible expanse of snow and mountains.

A few pearls of wisdom for YOUR trip:

  • The traverse can be done in 10 days or less. However, budget 3-4 days of complete whiteout or even snowstorm when you will be tent-bound or making little progress.
  • The route finding is generally straight-forward. Do your homework though and load up your GPS with some waypoints / tracks.
  • The Juneau Icefield is vast. In its widest part you will have a 25 km-wide neve in front of you that you will have to cross. Pray for good visibility (or use a GPS).
  • The spaciousness can be mental. Five days into the trip you top out at a pass, look back and will see all the way to the starting point of your traverse.
  • There are no technical difficulties on this trip, if you decide not to climb any mountains. The icefield is fairly flat or gently sloping and crevasses are generally well filled in.
  • The snowpack on the Canada side of the divide is MUCH shallower – 50-100cm compared to 3-4 meters on the Juneau side. Factor this in when you are planning what time of the year to visit, especially if it is a low-snow year.
  • Plan for a full-on day getting off the icefields down the Ptarmigan Ridge and Lemon Creek trail. Later in the season you will likely have to walk the lower portions. The trail is steep. There will be some deadfall to clamber under/over. It took us 10 hrs.
  • You will see no one for 10 days.
  • Carry a satellite phone. Get weather updates and use it to call a cab when you reach Juneau.
  • Go to the U.S. customs office immediately after reaching Juneau to register your arrival. They truly do not mess around.
  • You’ll be stared at, walking through the downtown in your ski boots and smelly gore-tex, by thousands of cruise ship passengers. I would not trade places with them for anything.
Discovery Helicopters staging area in Atlin, B.C. T-45 mins before the start of the trip.
Llewellyn Glacier comes into view.
The heli takes off and we are left all alone in this world of permanent snow and ice.
We do feel small here.
One of the glaciology huts operated by JIRP. They are occupied mostly in summer.
10pm and the endless days of summer.
Taku Towers area (Day 5 or so) was visually one of the most stunning.
This is the only place where we had to pause and carefully pick a route between crevasses.
Navigating a tricky spot on the descend via Ptarmigan Ridge.
23rd of May and spring is in full swing, skis have to be carried, and I am bushed.
Overjoyed after having reached Juneau, Alaska.

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