Spring (break) fever: Alaska edition

I have a long-standing tradition of waiting until the last weekend of spring break to even start thinking about completing any major assignments for the following week. This year was an exception in that I brought along plenty of homework to do, but I did not manage to break my pattern of not actually doing it. Now, a full week of classes after spring break, I’m still feeling the repercussions of I-climbed-all-week-instead-of-reading-itis, and my time would be better spent pondering assessment tools for outdoor programming than writing this post. But I digress.

Valdez, as seen from the top of one of countless 40-plus-foot snow mounds in the center of town.
Valdez, as seen from the top of one of countless 40-plus-foot snow mounds in the center of town.

Spring Break 2013 found me in Valdez, best known for the scenic views of its gigantic oil pipeline terminal. Despite its notoriety for having been the point of departure for the Exxon Valdez, it’s really quite beautiful, and offers plenty of vistas that do not include the Trans-Alaska Pipeline. The city itself is alarmingly underpopulated during the winter months; shops are barricaded shut by enormous walls of snow and those that remain open are haunted by the same few locals, whom I suspect are actors paid to appear as residents. I might be paranoid, but it all felt a little Truman Show. (It sounded less paranoid before I saw it in writing.)

It first occurred to me to visit Keystone Canyon when I read Jon Krakauer’s “Valdez Ice,” an essay in which he outlines the adventures of the ice climbing pioneers of Valdez, a group he says Yvon Chouinard once described as a “handful of maladjusted geeks.” Krakauer writes of ice climber John Weiland’s early ascents, then reminds readers that he’s “talking about a sport, not a form of substance abuse.” So you can see why I’m hooked.

I went along on this trip, sponsored by APU Outdoor Programs, as a sort of auxiliary instructor. Weeklong trips including ten or more people require a great deal of attention to detail, so my anal-retentive nature dovetails nicely with my interest in outdoor rec. I secretly relished the chance to help with supposedly mundane tasks, such as planning a week’s worth of menus and inspecting our risk management plan with a fine-toothed comb. The age demographic of the trip was also appealing. I have a much easier time working with college students than actual children, mainly because you can treat them like fledgling adults. (Note: I like kids just fine; I’m just glad they’re someone else’s kids. I don’t want to be in charge of them in any capacity until they’re old enough to drive.)

We rolled into Valdez on fumes (“We don’t need to fill up in Glennallen,” Gil insisted) and checked into our motel, which was less an attempt at luxury and more an avoidance of a potential risk management nightmare (read: frostbite). While everyone else went for a cross-country ski to stretch their legs, I accompanied my fellow instructors—both of whom are considerably more experienced than I and humored me by letting me tag along—back to Keystone Canyon to scout out our options for the week.

Some fifteen miles up the canyon from Valdez sits one of the more beautiful frozen waterfalls you’re ever likely to lay eyes on: Bridal Veil Falls, a breathtakingly NFA 800 feet of fat, blue ice. We slowed the van to stare longingly at the Falls, then coasted the last quarter mile to our own objective, the less impressive “Piece o’ Shit.”

"We have time to climb before dinner," said Gil's tube socks.
“We have time to climb before dinner,” said Gil’s tube socks.

The name doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence, but really, it wasn’t so bad. The short approach—you could have belayed from the van—was appealing given the range of experience and fitness levels in our group, and the formation itself was wide enough to set three top ropes, meaning we’d be able to offer participants a range of six different routes to try.

We had just over an hour until dinner, which, thanks to the excellent time management skills we’ve developed in graduate school, seemed like plenty of time. After a brief, utterly disappointing moment in which we thought we’d forgotten to bring ice tools (“I thought you packed them!”), we climbed until the very moment dinner was supposed to start, then raced back to town. Fortunately, there is no shortage of good cross-country skiing in Valdez, and we still beat our counterparts back to the motel.

The plan was to take half the group climbing on Tuesday, while the other half skied. Wednesday we’d switch, thus allowing each participant the opportunity to risk his or her life trying each activity. Gil would lead the climb, it was decided, and build anchors at the top. Andrew would belay Gil, and I would be responsible for teaching the participants some basic ice climbing skills.

Quick rundown. Part of our risk management plan was to have the participants on top ropes at all times, meaning that if someone fell, a belayer on the other end of the rope would break the fall almost instantly. This way, good climbing skills are less important than good belaying skills; when you literally hold another person’s life in your hands, you’d better know what you’re doing. In other words, a belayer should be completely NFA at all times.

Notice how no one appears to be dying. Success.
Notice how no one appears to be dying. Success.

I went over some basics: what kind of knots we use to tie in; front-pointing, or sticking the pointy parts of one’s crampons directly into the ice; and, of course, proper belay technique. Things went mostly without a hitch, and soon everyone was ready to climb. The instructors belayed everyone for the first few ascents, then turned it over to the participants. We were a well-oiled machine.

I spent most of the first morning as “belay slave,” meaning I belayed while each student climbed a route. I took a break around noon and, watching the participants belay one another, felt an almost smug satisfaction that I’d done my job well. I was itching to get out on the ice, but when one of the newbies volunteered to belay me, I did an internal double-take.

Perhaps the greatest test of whether a student has mastered the skill you’re trying to teach them is to put your life in that person’s hands, and I’m not speaking figuratively here. I looked around to see if either of the other instructors was available to belay me, but Gil was climbing and Andrew was belaying him.

Well, shitI thought. I had two choices. I could wait until one of the other instructors was free, thus revealing my lack of faith in my own teaching ability. It was an easy climb and I was fairly confident I could avoid falling, but that still left the question of lowering: when I got to the top, I had to get down somehow. Could she safely lower me without my own watchful gaze and probably-not-as-helpful-as-I-think pointers? Or, I could take a leap of faith, hope my teaching and judgment were sound and that she knew what she was doing, and finally get onto the ice.

I'd call it a pretty successful trip, overall.
I’d call it a pretty successful trip, overall.

…I really wanted to climb.

Needless to say, she did not drop me, and while not dying or sustaining a serious injury seems like a fairly obvious goal for an ice climbing outing—certainly, one that should be a given—it’s the achievement on this trip I’m most proud of. I didn’t get any homework done, but I guess it’s a tradeoff.

Springtime in Alaska is beautiful but harsh. I’m not quite ready for the ice to melt, but as the days grow longer and warmer, I find myself feeling pretty excited about what this crazy, NFA place has in store for me next.


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