Alaska Update #12

On July 20 I packed up and left for a 12-day mountaineering course on the Eldridge Glacier with Alaska Mountaineering School, guides Forest Wagner and Noah Ronczkowski, and five other students. We climbed four peaks (unnamed, as are most peaks up in Alaska, except the really big ones), attempted another (turned back due to unsafe snow conditions), explored crevasses and practiced crevasse rescue and ice climbing, studied avalanches and basic snow science (supplemented by hearing small avalanches frequently in the area!), and practiced the basic daily reality of mountaineering. I was nervous about being the least prepared, or the weakest, or being the only lady, but I was hardly that, and learned a lot. I look forward to putting these skills to more use in future expeditions. I anticipate some fun winter camping and even ice climbing in Vermont/NH this winter.

It was great to spend so much time with my colleagues, all from completely different walks of life. An Oxbridge physics PhD student; a Coast Guard bosun’s mate, and Evangelical Christian; a JetBlue pilot, and deeply philosophic, introspective fellow; a local Alaskan trail-crew worker from Indiana; a really bizarre person, self-proclaimed yogi; and me, a New Yorker and student of international affairs student, opera & yoga. I knew that team-building and down time were part of the program, but I didn’t expect how much they would be. I knew that weather delays were highly possible, but didn’t expect to remain on the glacier for an additional eight days.

The day before we were due to fly out, a snowstorm rolled in… and remained for nine days.

And now we’re back. Over the past week I resigned myself, or rather accepted, the daily reality of waking up to the sound of snow on the tent and knowing that today we weren’t getting out, nor tomorrow, nor the next day…. When the sun shone and the clouds thinned, my heart filled with joy, just to see something beyond the white and gray that was our campsite: the fog, the snow, the heaps and heaps of snow, the bedraggled orange-and-gray tents, the even more bedraggled colleagues. In that joy there was the tiniest hope… maybe today, maybe today we will leave.

But today, when the sun shone – and then kept shining, and kept shining – we dug out our tents (last night’s snowfall was 3 feet, breaking two tents) once again, ate a half-cup of oatmeal apiece once again, packed up camp once again, trudged out to stomp out an exhaustingly long runway once again, but this time with some small joy. Maybe today, maybe today we will leave.

And the snow returned, and then it left, and in the evening after hours of anxious anticipation we heard the drone of a plane. This time it was not a tourist plane, there to tell us over the radio that no, our plane had not left yet. This time it was Paul Roderick, the owner of the air taxi company. He had come in a tiny Cessna – with 100 lb of food and fuel, a six-day supplement to our rapidly whittling (now nearly gone) supply – to prepare the way for the larger Otter, or at least to leave us some food.

Living with these seven people – still strangers in a sense – and loving them, learning to live and work closely with them in all their differences and not be bothered, was an amazing challenge and learning experience. We had one absolutely bizarre member of the group, and even he I learned to love.

Impromptu MAD LIBS helped. There were a couple of books circulating, including Lonesome Dove, a thousand-page romantic Western. Here is an excerpt from our Mad Libs version, which does in a way sum up the trip:

“Instead of climbing in the pee bottle, he turned away and sat down near the yogi. They had found ridonkulous hummus where the CMC had dripped, and were lying on Peakbagger, watching the socks delusionally… A half mile from the Whisperlite, he came upon the very actress who had given Claudia the regression. She was attempting to cook the hot drink but was getting no help from Uruk, who hadn’t even provided her with a good snow bank. Uruk was sitting on his nose, his hair sticking up in back, trying to dig a bush plane out of the fog with a pocketknife.”

Seeing and smelling greenery was a shock to the senses. I do believe that something is up with my eyes and ability to perceive such a variety of vibrant colours. Taste, too, is amazing. I ate an apple first thing… how wonderful. After about five days of half-rations I’m eager to eat but can’t overload my system.

It’s amazing to think of the thought and care AMS, TAT, and NPS put into our group’s recovery. A possible heli drop of food was planned for us on Saturday, even an NPS heli rescue. Check out the AMS blog here.

 

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