Guiding company investigating ice caves fall

A Juneau guiding company is investigating an incident where one of their clients was injured on a guided tour of the Mendenhall Glacier.

A woman in her 30s fell while belaying down the glacier near the ice caves while on a tour with Above and Beyond Alaska. She injured her back, broke her ankle and had to be flown off the glacier by helicopter at about 12:30 p.m. Friday.

Above and Beyond Alaska co-owner Sean Janes said he believes the incident was handled properly, but the company is conducting an “in-house” investigation to ensure the accident could not have been prevented and that the response was up to par. The company is also in the process of submitting insurance claims.

“We’ve investigating it as a company because it’s an incident we take seriously,” Janes said, adding, “As far as I can tell, we’ve done everything by the book.”

The incident came to the attention of authorities because a third person observing from a distance thought they saw a woman fall in a crevasse on the glacier’s surface and called 911. The initial 911 call described the woman as an ice climber.

Capital City Fire/Rescue was preparing to rescue the woman — readying personnel and placing helicopters on standby — but cancelled their response when they learned the woman was not in danger or in need of rescue. Above and Beyond had informed CCFR they arranged for a helicopter to lift the woman off the glacier safely after the company learned someone had called 911.

Janes said it was the company’s first major accident in 13 years of operation.

“This is our first big incident involving our glacier hikes in 13 years of operating out there, so we have a really good safety record,” he said.

Janes noted that the accident was not a result of natural forces, such as glacial calving or shifting, or the ice cave collapsing.

“It was truly a fall, human error,” he said.

Above and Beyond Alaska is one of the only companies locally that holds a U.S. Forest Service permit allowing them to escort tourists on the West Glacier Trail and to explore the ice caves.

Most companies generally veer away from offering the tours since the ice caves are generally viewed to be dangerous. The Forest Service on its website warns they can collapse at any time. People have been killed and injured in ice cave collapses on Mount Baker and Mount Hood.

The Forest Service website recommends hikers be aware of the risks, go equipped with the proper gear for glacier travel, and to go with a guide or someone familiar with the terrain.

Janes said his company goes through pains to monitor the glacier and the ice caves on a daily basis to ensure they are safe to explore.

“Our guides are constantly looking at the integrity of the ice caves and determining whether it’s safe,” he said. “It’s always a dynamic place.”

Above and Beyond Alaska clients are required to attend an hour to two-hour safety briefing. They are equipped with proper gear — including crampons, ice picks and helmets — to traverse the glacier.

The company offers a variety of tours, including one akin to “Ice Climbing 101”, which includes rappeling and belaying vertical walls of the glacier. Most clients are novices.

Janes said the woman in this case was participating in the company’s “Mendenhall Glacier Trek & Ice Climb” package, which includes trekking across with glacier with crampons and ice climbing with a rope and exploring the ice caves. She was on the tour with three other participants and a certified guide.

Janes said the woman was being belayed down a wall by the guide on a technical rope system when she fell a short distance.

The woman’s name was not released and she could not be reached for comment.

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