NOLS Alaska 23 Expedition


This is going to sound really odd. But there’s something comforting in the taste of wet wool. Just back from two weeks of glacier training with the National Outdoor Leadership School in Alaska I’m struck by this enduring memory. Each day while carrying a 60-pound pack sweat poured off my forehead in a briny stream so thick and salty it might have been blood. Despite the bitter cold and a frigid wind it didn’t freeze. Hot and wet it flowed down my face and into my mouth. Only the sheep-fiber flavor of my favorite nit cap betrayed the fact that I wasn’t actually dying. In fact it made me laugh. One day to the next soaked to skin and tired to the bone together my team and I made our way across the Mantanuska Glacier along the Chugach Mountain Range.

In preparation for Expedition Denali in 2013, NOLS put together this training trip to provide those of us with limited mountaineering experience an opportunity to pick up a few important skills. Our instructors taught us the finer points of glacier travel and how to move comfortably in this utterly remote hostile environment. Key to our education the importance of working together as a team. Now safely at home I can reflect upon my time on the ice and share some of the things I learned.

Danger’s in the Details
Before venturing out across the glacier each day we roped ourselves together into 3 to 4-person teams. As a group, five teams, 17 climbers, 13 students and four instructors, we all looked out for one another checking the details of our safety rigs for any signs of danger.
Harness strapped high and tight, leg loops in place, the buckle doubled back for safety, check! A properly dressed figure-8 knot tied and clipped to both strong points of the harness with a locking carabiner, check! Two cordelettes tied to the rope with prussic knots clipped to a second locking carabiner, check! And a pack leash clipped to the rope and girth-hitched to the pack’s haul loop, check!
In the event of a fall this setup would keep us alive. The ritual of checking forged a bond solid bond between our team, a promise to have each other’s back and literally throw ourselves on the line to protect a teammate in trouble.

Move to stay warm, stay warm to stay alive
For 12 days on the glacier we were in constant motion. When we weren’t walking we were digging, piling snow and cutting blocks of ice to build high walls against the raging wind. Even with sturdy tents the elements pounded our positions day after day, each 21 hours long. Every camp was an exercise in ingenuity that required constant attention, but the movement distracted the mind and warmed the body to make survival possible. Huddled together in sleeping bags and warm clothes through hours of fitful sleep in our tents we kept the cold at bay.

Work hard, be nice
Toward the middle of the course one day I brought up the rear in a four-person rope team. We’d hiked steadily uphill for hours over a barren windswept block of ice. Our five teams kept a steady pace over six miles of glacier to set camp just above a maze of crevasses and icefalls called Turtle Flats. Far less fit than I should have been for such a grueling adventure more than once I signaled the line leader to slow our snowshoe shuffle just a bit to catch my breath.

Now in our second week of travel it was all so routine. Working cooperatively as a team we made simple the hard scramble existence of life on a glacier. Where there wasn’t a single living thing for miles in any direction the 17 of us pulled together our energy and talents toward the common goal of survival. Working hard and playing nice we not only survived the experience, but despite the harsh circumstances of the environment I believe we actually thrived, complaints of the weather cast aside as trivial. My face drenched with sweat, shivering against the cold comforted with the taste of wet wool in my mouth our time together gives me unimaginable hope for the future.

The purpose of Expedition Denali is to demonstrate that people of all cultural and social backgrounds can indeed find a place for themselves in the world outdoors. This first mission to the Mantanuska Glacier shows that with the proper training and equipment even the most novice adventurer can live safely and comfortably under the most hazardous conditions.

But key to their survival is the mutual cooperation of all those involved. With the right support, encouragement and sacrifice toward the benefit of each member of the team there are few places we can not go, no heights we can not reach. All that’s required for success is the common desire that we get there together.

The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac and the New Belgium Brewing Company

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I’m a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.

  • Hey James, glad to see you’re still posting inspiring stories about adventure. If you look back, I met you at Sardine on Willy Street…I had overheard your conversation with a woman about Denali. Anyway, you should check out my blog I have been writing about my adventures in the Wind River Range.

    • Thanks for the kind words Austin. It was great to meet you and I look forward to following your adventures.