Juneau man falls through thin ice, saves himself and then a babushka

Houston Laws
Houston Laws

Mendenhall Glacier Visitor Center officials warn people winter after winter about the perils of walking across the lake ice.

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On Sunday, that warning hit home when one Juneau man fell into the frigid water looking out for an adventurous grandmother standing on thin ice.

Like many others over the weekend, Yana White was hiking across the apparently frozen Mendenhall Lake toward the face of the glacier. She was with her daughter and her mother.

“It was sunny and beautiful and my mom just came over for six months to stay with us,” White said. “She came from Russia. And she just wanted to see and touch and feel the glacier.”

It’d been cold for days, but she said as they got close to the face, she noticed the ice getting thinner. Some puddles were visible, too.

“And my mom felt a little adventurous,” White said with a laugh. “She refused to turn back, and she kept walking and walking toward the glacier. So I stopped because I had my daughter with me.”

White and her daughter turned back. Another hiker’s photo shows White’s mom, 61, standing awkwardly, perhaps 20 yards from a section of deep blue, freshly calved glacier.

White said her mom was scared.

Houston Laws of Juneau is in the foreground of that photo, another 25 yards or so back from White’s mom. Laws said he knows to stay away from the face of the glacier where the ice is thinnest, because water is flowing below. He was keeping his dogs in check. He didn’t see any indication the ice was thin, and there were more tracks in the snow in front of him.

Moments after the photo was snapped, he was in the drink.

“I probably took two steps and then I fell in,” Laws said. “No, fast kaploosh or anything, it was just like a slow elevator speed, up to my chest. … It was like standing on a coffee table.”

For most of us, that coffee table elevator ride would trigger panic.

Tracks on a frozen Mendenhall Lake approaching the face of the Mendenhall Glacier on Saturday. The cold clear conditions were nearly identical, but the ice tends to be especially dangerous and unstable near the face of the glacier. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO)
Tracks on a frozen Mendenhall Lake approaching the face of the Mendenhall Glacier on Saturday. The cold clear conditions were nearly identical, but the ice tends to be especially dangerous and unstable near the face of the glacier. (Photo by Elizabeth Jenkins, KTOO)

But Laws, who’s well-known as an ultrarunner, isn’t most people. He has actually trained for this kind of thing.

“It was kind of like, ‘This sucks. Uh, but like, what’s the next step? I want to get out of here. And I can’t feel — I can’t toe off, I can’t lift off, I can’t toe off, there’s no bottom underneath me,’” Laws said. “So I paddled to the side. Just thinking about the next step was helpful from my past training.”

White said that calmness about Laws was accurate. 

“He got out of the water really quickly,” White said. “He was just — you know, he looked so calm and so cool. It kind of made me think he had been through that before.”

Laws said he hadn’t, besides in a training scenario.

He rolled himself onto more solid ice, then saw White’s mom walking toward the hole he’d just made. She doesn’t speak English, so White translated for Laws, who steered her back to safety.

“When I finally reunited with my mother, she just said, ‘Oh my gosh, Yana, thank you so much,’” White said.

White told her mom to thank the young man who’d helped her, and she did in broken English.

“But later at home, she just said, ‘Yana, I have never felt so much adrenaline in my life. And that was the first time,’” White continued. “And she said, ‘I realize that I have done something that I was not supposed to. And I will never do that again and put people in danger.’”

Laws said he was very cold, wet and embarrassed.

Initially, he didn’t want to talk about it, but his hiking partner cajoled him into warning others on their hike back and sharing the story.

Laws had seen other photos people had shared under what appear to be identical conditions taken the day before his misadventure.

“And, it’s like, identical. The location, the exact location of people’s selfies? Are just right where I fell in. And it was just a day apart.”

It’s a lesson Laws, White and glacier visitor center officials want everyone to learn — but not firsthand.

Laws said he’s fine, and all his digits are intact.