I Tried Heli Ice Climbing In Alaska: What It Is And Why You’ll Love It

All around me, the landscape glowed with an impossible blue hue, the kind of blue found only in the eyes of huskies or the bright skies of frigid winter days. My breath came in short, panicky spurts as I tried to calm my beating pulse. My legs trembled like noodles as I kicked the metal spikes sticking out of the toe of my shoes into the wall of ice I was climbing.

I knew I needed to trust the equipment I was using to scale this 200-foot frozen waterfall, but the idea that less than an inch of hammer chunked into ice would hold my entire weight took a level of faith I didn’t have yet.

“You’re doing great, Heide!” a distant female voice called from hundreds of feet below me. “You’re rocking this!”

Another voice, my travel companion Lyle, carried up to me as he shouted out encouragement and instructions in his buttered biscuit Georgia southern drawl. I tried to shout “thanks, guys!” back down to them, but at that moment, I was simply too scared to look down and my breath was too fast to let out anything more than a whimper.

I still had about 50 feet left to climb, swinging ice-climbing hammers into the hard ice and kicking the ice-climbing shoe spikes into the frozen water. Yes, I was terrified, but also exhilerated. 

Mat-Su Valley (Photo Credit: Heide Brandes)

Here I was, climbing up a 200-foot frozen waterfall on top of the Knik Glacier in the Mat-Su Valley region outside of Palmer, Alaska — something I had never dreamed I would be able to experience.

However, when I was hosted by Travel Alaska for a winter adventure and culture trip, the idea of facing that overwhelming fear of falling seemed like a challenge I couldn’t pass up.

I tried heli-ice climbing in Alaska, one of the extreme winter adventures you can choose. At 50 years old, I discovered that, despite the fear and the Elvis-gyrating legs, I loved it. Here’s why I think you’ll love it too.

Alaska Helicopter Tours (Photo Credit: Heide Brandes)

Blue Heart Of Alaska

My travel companion and I traveled from Alaska to Palmer when Alaska Helicopter Tours picked us up from our hotel in Anchorage that cold February morning. The roads were clear in some places from several inches of snow that fell the day before, but as we climbed higher towards the Knik Glacier Valley in the Chugach Mountains, we were happy to have a local who was skilled in driving on icy roads to transport us.

At the Knik River Lodge, we met with Kate and Tom, founders of Alaska Sundog Guiding, who would be our guides and instructors on this icy adventure. 

Tom and Kate (Photo Credit: Heide Brandes)

With a combined 13 years of experience guiding in the Knik River Valley, these two guides were young in years, but seemed as if they had centuries of knowledge and experience with guiding, instructing, and ice climbing. We flew in a tiny helicopter out to the surface of the Knik Glacier where young Kate waited with all the climbing gear.

Knik Glacier (Photo Credit: Heide Brandes)

As we disembarked the helicopter and put on spiked ice shoes, I couldn’t stop gaping at the otherworldly scene around me. The glacier glowed with an eerie blue hue caused by the pressure of ice pushing oxygen out of the water. Towering mountains of blue ice loomed like broken pottery everywhere, and the heavy silence was only disturbed by the eerie cracking and moaning sound of the ever-moving glacier.

Heide Brandes

I felt as if I were on another planet, one encased in ice, turquoise mountains, and glowing gray suns. Ahead of us, a white rippling wall stood frozen in time, a massive waterfall that had turned to ice in the deep polar temperatures of an Alaska winter.

“We’re climbing that?” I asked in shaky disbelief. I had done climbing in the past, but I was far from being an expert. And I had never tried to climb a shear wall using ice spikes and hammers.

“Yup. Tom is going to go up there and set the anchors. We will belay you the entire time. You won’t fall, I promise you,” said Kate, her blue eyes flashing with amusement and pride.

Even as she spoke the words, Tom’s lanky frame and big wide grin bolted up the base of the waterfall as nimble as the mountain goats and Dall sheep that call Alaska home. Within minutes, he had set the anchors to the rope and was “repelled” down on the belay rope faster than you could say, “Holy cow!”

By the time Kate and Tom went over the brief lesson, the safety instructions, and the helpful hints, I had total faith in their ability to keep me safe, even if I did slip off this waterfall. So when the dynamic duo asked who wanted to go first, I didn’t even hesitate to raise my hand.

Pro Tip: Alaska Sundog Guiding provides all the equipment you need for the ice-climbing adventure, but it’s a good idea to bring warm winter gear, a good wool base layer, solid warm winter boots, and a hat that covers your ears and sunglasses. Because you’ll be in a small helicopter, prohibited items include bear spray, lighters, portable battery packs, and loaded guns. Any loose straps on your purse or camera should be around your neck or tucked away.

Heide Brandes

Winning The Waterfall

“You’re almost to the top, Heide!” Kate yelled at me. I was resting on a semi-flat area of the frozen waterfall to give my legs a break and to shake out my wrists. I heard the heart-thump putter of a helicopter fly by, and for the first time during my journey up, I took a moment to look around. My breath froze at the intimidating and singular beauty of the rippling kool-aid blue landscape and the sheer immense size of the Knik Glacier.

Averaging about 200 feet thick, the Knik Glacier sprawls out about 3 miles long from the head of the Knik River and averages about 5 miles across. It’s one of the largest glaciers in Alaska. It’s an untamed force, calving massive chunks of itself on a daily basis from 400-foot ice walls that glow with an impossible cerulean light.

Below me, Kate, Tom, and Lyle were loudly rooting me on. I grinned at the sheer audacity of what I was doing. I thought ice climbing was easier than regular climbing, once you get the hang of using the ice picks and spiky shoes. 

Just like Tom and Kate taught, I swung the hammer in a smooth controlled move to embed the tip in the ice and swung my left hammer a little further up. Trusting the equipment, I lifted my legs to kick the ice spikes on my shoes into the wall until I was basically in a 90-degree squat position.

From there, one simply stands up and does it again. It gets easier. And it gets fun. Only when I was less than 10 feet from the absolute top did I ask to be brought down.

My buddy Lyle scaled the whole thing in a fraction of the time I did, but we both howled with excitement and accomplishment when we won over that wall of ice for the first time.

We had the option to scale that beast a few more times, but we opted to hike along the glacier instead to hunt for ice caves and experience the landscape. Kate and Tom were more than happy to oblige and we were having so much fun, we nearly missed our helicopter ride back to the lodge.

Later that day, as we guzzled celebratory craft beers from Matanuska Brewing Company, an Alaskan-based craft brewery in Palmer, we marveled at the adventure we just had. Was it challenging? Yes. Was it impossible for someone my age? Absolutely not.

In fact, it now ranks as one of the top five “most epic adventures” I’ve had in one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever been. 

And, I hope with all my heart that it won’t be the last time I climb up a frozen waterfall in the dead of winter in the heart of Alaska.

Denali National Park, Alaska (Photo Credit: Uwe Bergwitz / Shutterstock.com)

Pro Tips

If ice climbing doesn’t appeal to you, there are numerous ways to enjoy and discover the Knik Glacier in Mat-Su Valley. During the summer, you can take an air-boat or ATV out to the glacial head, and in all seasons, you can’t go wrong with a flightseeing tour from Alaska Helicopter Tours. Unlike the glaciers at Denali National Park farther north in Alaska, the helicopters land on ice instead of snow at Matanuska and Knik glaciers.

You should be in healthy condition to try ice climbing as it is physically challenging and requires both leg and arm strength. However, the flightseeing tours can accommodate all levels of fitness and abilities.

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