Our six-passenger helicopter hovers less than 500 feet from a jagged, toothy mountain as the pilot points to a recent avalanche. We are flying in Alaska, land of 5,000 glaciers and the great Denali, otherwise known as Mount McKinley. Four of us are squeezed into the back seat of the chopper like sockeye salmon in a can. Earlier, a company representative asked each of us our weight. Now, as we soar uncomfortably close to the snow-capped peaks, I have one thought.
I hope I'm not with a bunch of other liars.
Although none of us know one another, we are all on a 14-day cruise-tour of Alaska. The first week we cruise the Inside Passage on the Ocean Princess, and the second week we will stay in Princess' wilderness lodges on land. Today's port of call is Juneau. We are en route to trek a glacier, something I never dreamed of doing while on a cruise. Excursion choices include a hatchery tour, panning for gold, biking, kayaking, sportfishing and this trip -- the helicopter glacier hike.
I have never strapped on crampons or carried an ice ax, but that's about to change. I'm nervous. Everyone else looks younger and more fit.
We fly over Mendenhall Glacier and countless crevasses, lakes and peaks. Twenty-five-year-old guide Henry Webb rattles off their names into his microphone so we can all hear through our headsets. "That's Eagle Glacier. There's Herbert (Glacier). And over there you can see Devil's Paw," he says, pointing. "Someday I'm going to climb it."
The day is sunny, windless and Waterford-clear.
It's a 20-minute flight to Thiel Glacier where we'll spend the morning exploring. The pilot gently lands on the icy surface and we pile out. Another helicopter, with four passengers and a guide, has already arrived.
I immediately don my fleece jacket, hat and gloves. Temperatures on the glacier are normally 10 to 20 degrees cooler than in town. Webb estimates it's 45 degrees. He looks comfortable in shorts and a light jacket.
"I guess this is sunbathing weather for you locals," someone jokes.
Webb grins and continues passing out gear. Earlier we were each fitted with a climbing harness, rain pants, jacket, gators and hard-shell boots. Each of us has a fanny pack with water and a granola bar. Mike Nelson, the other guide, helps several of us strap on our crampons. He then hands us each an ice ax and demonstrates how to properly carry the tool. "Store the ax in your side loop when you want to take a photo or have your hands free."
The last piece of equipment is a helmet. We all look somehow more skilled in $1,000 worth of high-tech gear.
Webb reviews some safety tips: "Watch where you're stepping. Stop before you snap a picture -- don't just look through the lens as you're walking. Glance behind before you take a step back. And don't tread on snow. It can cover crevasses or holes."
My toes are numb and I think what a contrast this is from the evening before. Men in tuxedos and women in sequined dresses dined on fresh silver salmon and California chardonnay. There were handsome Italian waiters with names like Antonio. There was music and there was laughter. Las Vegas-style entertainment. Dancing.
The daydream ends when Webb hollers, "You guys ready to do some hard hiking?"
I gulp and remind myself of what the brochure said. "No experience required. Participants should be moderately agile and able to easily hike two miles."
I look around and try to assess if I will be the weak link.
Ryan, from New York City, looks at ease. Yet his sister, Katie, a recent college graduate, doesn't appear to be a hard-core climber. Like me, she fumbles with her ice ax. Our group consists of five women and four men with an age range of 21 to 55.
Although guides often lead a circle trip, today our route is one way. Up.
Webb takes the lead. Nelson brings up the rear. The 6-foot, 4-inch, lanky 27-year-old is likable and patient. He shows us how to stomp our spikes into the ice.
"Crampons are like having four-wheel drive on your feet," he says, grinning.
The guides demonstrate how to kick our toe into the hard surface so we can scale a slanted wall of ice. Katie performs perfectly, jamming her spikes in. As she makes it to the top, Nelson heaps on the praise and says, "You're golden."
My ankles wobble as I climb. Nevertheless, I make the mini-ascent.
The sun warms us, and I can feel my toes again. We stop for a break and one woman fills her bottle with running water from a small stream. "This is the purest water you can find," Webb assures. "We are the only living things on the glacier."
Webb tells us we are surrounded by unnamed peaks. "Go ahead and name one for yourself," he says, smiling, as he takes off.
There are no trails, paths or signs. The guides read the crevasses, snow and ice like a kayaker scouts rapids.
"The glacier resembles a river in very slow motion. It might move two feet a day," Nelson explains.
We stop to admire a shimmering glacial pond. Its depth looks to be about 15 feet. The color is such a dramatic turquoise, it looks as though the bottom and sides have been painted swimming pool-blue. One of the women sits down high above the lake. Webb quickly objects. "Please move away from the edge. The jacket and pants you're wearing can be slippery."
It would be an unwelcome dip into the hypothermic water. She carefully stands and backs away from the scenic spot.
Our two-hour trek has ended but I'm not ready to leave. The sun shines gloriously under faultless aqua-blue skies. We shed our gear and wait for the helicopter to return at the pre-arranged time, but getting around on the ice proves difficult without the crampons.
After a flurry of loading, we are in the air gazing at the crystalline glacier as it glistens in the sunshine. I feel as though I've done something adventurous and brave, but actually, the brochure was accurate. Anyone who can walk a couple of miles can trek a glacier.
My calves ache, but tonight I'll soak in my private whirlpool tub on the ship. A glass of wine, gourmet meal and chocolates on the pillow await.
Many ships cruise Alaska offering various itineraries. Consult your travel agent. Call (800) Princess or visit its Web site at www.princess.com