Another climber once asked if I knew the definition of mountaineering. I could have said a million things, I guess, but nothing came to mind. “What is it?” I asked.
“Moving slowly uphill while not feeling very well,” he replied.
Such moments of clarity tell me two things about climbers as a group: first, our chosen activity and its inherent unpleasantness, at least on paper, indicate a slight imbalance in our collective brain function. Second, and perhaps more importantly, we are aware of the first fact, and we have a sense of humor about ourselves.
When I left off, the intrepid students of OS 312 had just completed a nine-day stint in the Talkeetnas, where we experienced less-than-stellar conditions but finished in high spirits. We were picked up at noon on May 9 and had one day to turn it around: resupply and ration food, repair gear, dry out damp and smelly tents, etc. Joe Stock, whose tips and tricks for mountain travel had been peppered with anecdotes about his time on “De-gnarly” and in “Chamonix” (pronounced phonetically, of course), and whose playful antics had kept us sane during a four-day storm on the previous trip, was off on his own adventure. He would be replaced by Mik Jedlicka, whose fellow ski patrollers refer to her (correctly) as “Mik the Shit.” Staying on as our lead instructor would be Heather Thamm, an APU alum and Alyeska ski patroller (and, bonus, professional photographer, thus guaranteeing we’d have some badass photos to make our friends jealous), whose hair remained beautiful and luscious to the point of annoyance throughout our thirteen days in the field. The morning of May 11, we loaded all our gear back into a van and headed to the Kenai Peninsula, about 300 square miles of which is dominated by the Harding Icefield.
Skilak Lake, where our journey began, did not appear to be anywhere near an icefield. In fact, it took us a week to get on the glacier.
The first leg of the trip was a water taxi to the Alaska Wildland Adventures Lodge, which is very cute and woodsy and, on that first day, sounded much more pleasant than battling the hummingbird-sized mosquitoes outside. We cached some gear and nearly all our food and began the first half of a double carry, which is an abbreviated way of saying we brought so much with us we had to make two trips with heavy-ass loads rather than taking it all up at once.
The steep, muddy trail leading uphill from the lodge was made less navigable by the fact that all nine of us had skis strapped to our packs. Our giant antennae, which looked as though they could pick up signals from Jupiter, got caught on every possible overhanging branch, rendering the task of finding one’s way up the trail challenging at best. Even the simple act of placing one foot in front of the other was impaired by our bulky ski boots (ever tried walking up a flight of stairs in a pair of these?), which plunged into knee-deep mud puddles and slipped and slid across the icy trail as we gained altitude.
Soon enough, the pleasant trees of the boreal forest gave way to alders, and I made a face like a cat might if you dunked it in water. (This became known, aptly enough, as my “wet cat face,” and I brought it out whenever alders were near. It really caught on.) I absolutely hate alders, because they are the worst. They’re basically weeds, except that they grow to the size of small houses, and they exist for the sole purpose of snagging skis and packs and what have you.
Sidebar: Alders also suck because they are typically present when one is in bear country. Bear country means bear camping, which means tents are a no-smells zone. Nothing that might attract a bear—sunscreen, toothpaste, chapstick, let alone food—can be in the tent, which means those of us who wake up cold in the middle of the night and like to eat a Snickers to warm up are out of luck. I prefer to keep it nice and toasty in my pocket, so it’s all gooey and delicious when I wake up with the chills. This prompted my tentmates to refer to my corner of the tent as “Fat Camp,” which I didn’t think I deserved until I woke up one morning with chocolate smeared on my face. I find bear camping to be a major bummer due to its lack of nighttime snacking opportunities. Don’t worry; everyone ran out of food near the end of the trip, so I’m back to looking svelte.
Needless to say, by the time we’d completed the second leg of our double carry on Day Two, I’d had about enough of all this flora-and-fauna nonsense and was ready to reach the Land of Infinite Ice. This was unfortunate for me, because, though I didn’t know it at the time, I still had five days of alders standing between me and the ice.
Since the definition of mountaineering includes the phrase “not feeling very well,” it probably will not surprise you to learn that some aspects of this masochist’s sport are even less glamorous than others. In fact, only a teeny, tiny percentage of mountaineering is standing on the summit and smiling for photos. Most of it is much less pleasant (though hopefully less alder-y), and a great deal of it involves carrying your shit from one destination to the next. And, of course, the longer the approach and rowdier the objective, the more shit you have to carry, necessitating the dreaded double carry or—a fate worse than death—the hauling of sleds.
Picture kiddie sleds, because that’s what we were using. A length of rope is attached to the front of the sled to act as a brake when you’re going downhill. Note: If you’re traveling with a large group of twenty-something dudes, expect to suddenly feel the weight of your load increase and look back to see that someone has cleverly put your brake down for the five hundredth time today. This, along with locking one another’s heels while skiing uphill, became a cherished pastime throughout the trip, as it requires some dexterity and good timing to lock the heels at the right moment without drawing the victim’s attention.
As might have been evidenced by my dripping sarcasm, I was the only female student on the course for both trips, though Mik and Heather provided a much-needed reprieve from total dude-dom on the second section. Don’t get me wrong: I’m used to being the only girl. I like wings and beer and dirty jokes, and I’ve been referred to as “one of the guys” more times than I care to admit. Still, I was a little apprehensive when I saw the roster on the first day of class: seven dudes, and me. As my advisor reminded me, though, this was a perfect setting to start researching my thesis on gender roles in high-altitude mountaineering: why read about interactions between men and women on high peaks when you can experience them for yourself?
As it turned out, my worries about hanging with the guys were unfounded; for the most part, I felt strong and fit. It was my goal to carry exactly as much weight as my teammates during the trip, which, as Gil pointed out during one particularly long stretch, was a much higher percentage of my total body weight than it was for my companions. Rope team logistics demanded that there be two sleds for every three people, which meant each of us had a day off from sled duty every two days. My tentmates both offered to take sleds every day, an offer I recognize was intended to be helpful. Still, while I don’t enjoy hauling a sled any more than the next person, it was important to me that I carry my share and be an indispensable part of my team. As a woman in the mountains, I often feel like I have to work harder and be fitter than the baseline just to be taken seriously, but while there were certainly some moments of tension on this trip (stay tuned for my thesis…), I felt very much a part of things. Despite my initial concerns, we became quite a close-knit group, as is often the case after several intense weeks in the field. It was bittersweet to load our gear into the vans, and I’m not just referring to our collective stench.
Still, glacier mountaineering, while challenging in its own right, presents additional obstacles for those of us not possessing a Y-chromosome. For obvious reasons (e.g. falling into a crevasse), it’s necessary to be roped while traveling on a glacier, which means you’re never out of sight of your teammates. Should nature call, it’s not very convenient to have to undo the leg loops on one’s harness, move carabiners and cords and ropes out of the way, and fiddle with endless layers of clothing, not to mention squatting down to pee while the rest of your rope team looks on.
With that, ladies and gentlemen (but mostly ladies), I give you the Freshette, which the manufacturer describes as “a revolutionary answer to a variety of restroom challenges!” I can’t honestly think of another restroom challenge I might face in which I might require a Freshette, but I digress.
The Freshette allows a female “wilderness enthusiast” (again, words of the manufacturer) to position the funnel in such a way that it won’t leak, aim the tubing, and pee as someone possessing male genitalia would: facing away from the group, writing one’s initials in the snow.
I know it sounds very romantic, drawing pee-pictures in the snow and all that, but as it turns out, this takes some practice. On one particularly windy day early in the trip, I had trouble finding a good angle: if I faced away from the group, the wind would blow the pee right back onto me, and the more I thought about it, the more nervous I became. I was, in this instance, unable to take the manufacturer’s advice to “avoid wobbly positions,” and ended up with a steady stream of pee down my right leg. It was just as awful as you might expect.
The good news is, after two and a half weeks in the field, I no longer felt shy about my pee handicap.
“That was not a success,” I announced to my tentmates later, prompting them to emphatically explain the details of the “Rule of 45 Degrees,” which states that the pee-er must position himself (and now, thanks to me, herself) at an angle of 45 degrees to the direction of the wind in order to avoid urine circling back into what they both, separately, referred to as “the pee vortex.” Who knew.
And so, armed with my Freshette and the knowledge to use it properly, I arrived at Skilak Glacier on May 15, ready for whatever life had to throw at me. I had apparently forgotten to specify that I was not up for a three-day stint in the tents, during which wind and snow kept visibility too poor to navigate through the crevasse fields near the bottom of the glacier. Finally, after a storm not quite as bad as the one we’d experienced in the Talkeetnas, we made it onto the glacier, and what a sight it was: before us stretched a vast expanse of rock and ice and snow, as far as the eye could see. Not an alder in sight.
The tradeoff for the NFA conditions (which, in this case, refers not only to the Not-F***ing-Around-itutde of the Harding Icefield, but also to the even more delightful condition of No F***ing Alders) on a glacier is that setting up a campsite is a huge hassle. Each of our three rope teams of three parallel parks next to one another, with about six feet between rope teams. Then, the middle person on each of the two outside teams belays the front and back people while they check for crevasses under the campsite, probing every two feet until they reach the middle. Finally, you have a somewhat lopsided circle in which you know it’s safe to walk, and you mark this area with bamboo wands so no one goes wandering off into a crevasse when they get up to use their Freshette in the middle of the night. Next, because glacial winds are ridiculously strong and can come up suddenly, you have to build a wind wall out of snow blocks around your tents, unless you’d like to get up at 2:00 a.m. and stake them down again. It’s also necessary to make a wall for a bathroom area, and it’s good to mark this with a wand as well, so that occupants might reposition it to make their presence known while taking care of business. (I’ll spare readers the details on that—suffice it to say we brought along CMCs, or Clean Mountain Cans, and that the weight of our loads, overall, did not decrease as the trip went on.)
All this takes a pretty long time, but such is the plight of the mountaineer. There’s something about a really bomber campsite that just feels good. You will literally sleep better at night if you’ve done your job right.
A solid campsite also means getting up really early, because, as I mentioned after my brush with death in January, everything freezes overnight, and it takes a long time to dig frozen tents out of the ground and coax stubborn Whisperlite stoves to life in the wee hours. Upside: Alaska in late May boasts a killer sunrise at 4:00 a.m.
Once we were on the glacier, we had some miles to put behind us if we wanted to leave time for climbing. We put in a brutal twelve mile day and base camped a few miles from the Exit Glacier, allowing us a chance to climb a nearby unnamed peak. Two rope teams of four got an alpine start on Day 20 with Peak 4815 in our sights, and conditions couldn’t have been better: bluebird skies, a cooling breeze to offset the sweltering oven that is a glacier on a sunny day (I know it sounds crazy in the Land of Infinite Ice, but snow is reflective and will thus sunburn the shit out of any exposed skin not coated in zinc oxide), and a solid snowpack for placing protection on the way up. I even led my first pitch.
A narrow, corniced ridge to the (very small) main summit prevented us from climbing past the slightly lower south summit with our huge party, but an hour of basking in the sun was enough to keep spirits high. Also, I had sacrificed one last night-Snickers for the occasion, and it tasted infinitely better on top.
The next two days would be primarily focused on routefinding: we needed to find a way off the glacier without crossing a potentially dangerous moat, which is just what it sounds like, and then we needed to find a way down to the road. We found a snow bridge by which to exit the glacier relatively easily, although it was hot enough that day to cause my legs to break out in giant, gnarly-looking red bumps, which I freely exposed, to my relief and my companions’ dismay. Turns out I’m a delicate flower; too cold and I’m frostbitten, slightly warmer and I have heat rash. It doesn’t have to be fun to be fun, I thought as the breeze cooled my swollen welts and my poor classmates avoided staring at my revolting condition.
Our last day promised to be challenging from the get-go: we had to negotiate our way down a steep section of still-snowy terrain in order to get to the Visitors’ Center at Kenai Fjords National Park, a mile down the paved road from where we’d be picked up the following morning. We were up early in hopes of a frozen crust to ski out on, but no such luck; the snow was slushy, alder-choked, and just generally awful. We tried it without sleds, but our packs were then so heavy most of us sank right into the slush. Out came the sleds, then, weighted with our gear and shit (literally). Like unguided missiles, they dragged us downhill, into treewells, and generally in any direction we didn’t intend to go. Even the more even-tempered among our group bestowed on their sleds such affectionate nicknames as “Little F***er” as they ran over skis and knocked us off our feet.
After all that, the Visitors’ Center was practically a shopping mall. We spent our last night out at a “backcountry campsite,” complete with outhouses, a cook shelter and picnic tables. It was pretty upscale.
On the day of our pickup, we had to walk a half mile up the dry road to reach a spot the vans could access. With skis and sleds strapped to our giant packs, we looked about as exotic as most of the wildlife one might encounter in Kenai Fjords National Park, a fact that had escaped me until I noticed tourists snapping our picture as we marched down the road. We must have looked pretty crazy, I thought, hiking along with all that gear, the Exit Glacier and the tracks from our super-rowdy descent as our backdrop—“Like in The Right Stuff!” Gil kept exclaiming—and it struck me then. We are pretty crazy.
There are some downsides to this lifestyle, I guess. I often spend the first few days of a trip thinking about what my friends and family are up to back home. What am I missing out on, I wonder, by being gone so much? It isn’t always easy—on us or on the people we care about—but it doesn’t take much to remind me why I do it. A spectacular panorama, a night of hysterical laughter (a little gallows humor, perhaps) with tentmates, the feeling of accomplishment of standing on a summit: this is the life I’ve chosen, and I couldn’t be more content.