As the old saying goes, “It is not the mountain we conquer, but ourselves.” This statement rings particularly true for me and reflects my internal yearning to venture out on new epic outdoor excursions each year. From deer hunting in the tropics to horseback riding in the mountains, the bigger the adventure, the better. Pushing our limits and defying that inner voice that sometimes says “I can’t” is a road you need to travel for happiness.
Last summer, my boyfriend, Dan, and I decided to travel to Alaska. Known as one of the most untouched, unforgiving yet beautiful landscapes in our country, the last frontier is a fascinating destination. It’s famous for the Iditarod, gold mining and salmon fishing, but in my opinion the state has so many more bragging rights. To start, it boasts 17 of the highest mountain peaks in the United States. When it comes to lakes, Alaska far outpaces Minnesota with more than three million (but who’s counting?). Plus it’s home to an estimated 100,000 glaciers — which is where my icy idea was born.
Dan and I contemplated a comfortable Alaskan cruise to see as much of the landscape as possible, yet something told me we needed a bigger and bolder adventure. When I learned about the opportunity to explore the Matanuska Glacier with MICA Guides, I was drawn to this idea of being surrounded by ancient white ice and bold blue glacier pools. This natural wonder is considered a warm-based glacier, meaning it has water present underneath and throughout, which acts as a lubricant to move it down the mountain.
This ice mass formed some 22,000 years ago and currently measures four miles wide and 27 miles long — impressive to say the least. For us, the real draw was not only the chance to ice climb and explore glacier pools and 100-foot-deep crevasses but also the opportunity to enjoy a luxury overnight camping experience on the glacier. (Yes, that’s right; you sleep on a very large chunk of moving ice.)
This adventure starts a few hours outside Anchorage in Glacier View at MICA headquarters, where you’re greeted by the friendliest, most organized team. To start, you go through safety instructions and gear selection, which includes ice climbing crampons, a helmet and an ice axe. We opted for the Ultimate Helicopter experience, with transportation to and from the glacier via an R44 chopper. That was an Uber ride I’ll never forget!
After being dropped off at camp via helicopter, we could immediately feel the chill coming from the glacier. Our guide, Brett Winterbottom, was the perfect blend of safety instructor, glacier educator and everyday adventurer with a sense of humor. Although he took a safety-first approach, he pushed us to explore, climb and hike higher and steeper than we normally would, ensuring we had a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
For six hours, we descended steep ice walls and explored the most beautiful blue glacier pools, tall flowing waterfalls and 100-foot-deep crevasses. All our hydration for the next 24 hours came right from the glacier itself, as we filled our portable water containers with clean, pH-balanced water that was 400 years old. The tones of blue on the Matanuska were unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It felt like we’d left Earth and landed on an imaginary icy planet. The glacier pools were varying shades of aqua, and any photo taken was immediately ready for the #NoFilter hashtag.
The glacier is always moving and shifting. It moves so slowly that you don’t notice while you’re walking on it, but the evidence of its constant shifting is everywhere. A highlight of the day was jumping across a crevasse that was hundreds of feet deep. I was roped for safety, yet I hesitated as I wasn’t sure my legs would be able to launch me over the ravine — but they did. This reminded me that we’re capable of rising to the occasion and taking on any challenge life throws at us. Adopting this “I can” mindset comes in handy in everyday life. These kinds of wild adventures are all about conquering ourselves and leave us with a better understanding of who we are.
After our day of exploring, we were greeted by the camp boss with a cocktail by the campfire. I have to admit I wasn’t sure how camping on ice could be luxurious, but it certainly was! Appetizers, dinner and breakfast the following day — think dishes like pesto salmon in the evening and caribou sausage with eggs come morning — were prepared by the camp chef. To our delight, our large canvas glamping tent boasted a queen-size memory foam mattress with piles of fluffy down comforters. The temperatures do dip into the 30s at night, so MICA provides warm down jackets to supplement the long underwear, hats and gloves we’d packed.
The next morning, we unzipped our glamping accommodations to enjoy a beautiful view of the glacier and the hot coffee waiting for us on our front step. We took a moment to enjoy the quiet morning, the cool fresh air and the ultimate stillness before it was time to head back to base camp. The Ultimate Helicopter experience includes a 30-minute private air tour of the entire glacier, which was the perfect way to end our excursion. It was incredible to see how grand this natural wonder is and to think that we’d climbed part of it. I’m still basking in the joy of this wild bucket list experience and can’t wait to return to Alaska for the next great adventure.
Laura Schara is a lifelong outdoor enthusiast and cohost of the television series Minnesota Bound.