Alaska is one of the most stunning places that I have ever laid eyes on. It has untouched forests, beautiful lush greenery, epic sized white-capped mountains and wildlife peacefully living about in their natural habitat. After seeing such of small portion of the state I am really only intrigued to explore what else amazing features that it has to offer.
I signed up for a 12-day mountaineering course with the Alaska Mountaineering School. I knew that if I was serious about climbing mountains that I needed to start somewhere. With zero mountaineering skills, extreme sports induced asthma and being out of shape; I knew that I had to have a reality check at some point. When I decided to take my fantasy and turn it into some realism, I figured where better to learn the mountains than in Denali National Park.
Before, I could even think about knots and anchors, I would have had to find the proper clothing and gear to fit me. Since I am 4’10 finding everyday clothes presents a challenge. When trying to find specialty gear for mountaineering it’s a whole other ball game. As much as clothing brands will promote that they make products for women; it’s for a small percentage of women whom their clothes actually fit. When you’re short the first thing, someone will say to you is that you should try the kid’s section. This really only works out if you are tiny enough to fit into children’s clothing. I may be small but I am also very curvy and there is no way in hell that I could fit into a boys or girls size.
I ended up purchasing some clothes that did not actually fit me properly, but unfortunately I had no other options. I actually had to end up buying an extra large in both shirts and jackets. Anything that was smaller would not physically zip up over my breasts. Most jackets are made extremely narrow and even with a sports bra on, they still would not zip all the way up. Of course, the importance of purchasing the proper clothing items is so I can stay dry, warm and alive!
Now for then fun! I began the search of trying to find the proper pair of mountaineering boots. I would have never expected that I would not be able to find mountaineering boots in my size. I guess nowadays you really don’t think of anything being out of reach that there is always a way of being able to find something – somehow, some way. Well, since I also have small feet, I literally bought the smallest size that they make, and they are still slightly big! There were only two brands of double layer mountaineering boots in stock in the entire United States that came in my size. So I didn’t have much of an option when finding boots. Footwear is extremely important since it could be the only thing between you and frostbite!
Fast-forward to when I arrived in Anchorage. I spent a couple nights exploring the city before taking the Alaska Railroad
Quickly after we landed and literally getting my head out of the clouds it was time for reality again. We were here to learn the proper skills in order to survive and climb on the mountains safely. This was everything from learning to set up a tent, to shoveling out a kitchen, cooking food, avalanche training, crevasse rescue, and self care. No one was holding our hands on this trip and we had to learn to be self-sufficient.
We would walk around on a team of 4 roped up and on snowshoes for the duration of the trip. I have never even put on a pair of snowshoes before this! Even though this was a beginner course most people had several years of experience prior to this and had fair amount of knowledge in regards to the basic skills. With that being said, I was definitely the least experienced person on this course and therefore on the mountain. Even though it was extremely frustrating at times I had to push that aside. I was not here to worry about what others thought about me or even what I thought about myself. I had to focus and stay strong. Otherwise, I would never try anything new nor step out of my comfort zone.
I personally found the knots the hardest thing to learn. There are so many different types of knots used for different purposes. Before I was able to understand how to properly tie one know we were moving on to the next. So I told myself at that very moment that when I got back to the lower 48 (trying to sound like a true Alaskan) that I would practice as much as possible so I can come back and be very self sufficient. Most of this training takes years of practice and practicing on a daily basis to know all the skills needed. I am not looking to be the best or the strongest or even the fastest climber. But I do need to be efficient, strong, and a member or a climbing team that is an asset and not a liability.
In addition to the alpine rock climbing, ice climbing, glacier travel class, avalanche training and crevasse rescue we also had a storm. This storm lasted for roughly 4 days where we remained tent bound. We had to wake up every 4 hours to shovel out of tents to make sure that they didn’t collapse. Our tent’s base began to melt and the edges of the tent began to enclave. We had to physically stomp out another campsite next to ours and move our tent over in the middle of the storm. I learned more about survival in the past 2 weeks than I have ever learned in my life. I learned to stay calm, not complain and do what I needed to in order to survive. This wasn’t a movie where you can just pack up and leave. This was real life and we had no choice but to brave the storm and survive.
The moment the changed everything- we were on our way to practice ice climbing as we carefully weaved our way in and out of a field of seracs. Each step that we took had to be with caution. We entered an area which was a bit difficult to maneuver around. We had to cross over a crevasse which had a small snow bridge in-between. If I were just wearing my mountaineering boots I could have safely jumped over to the other side. However, in snowshoes I was unable to leap and I was too tiny to make the crossing successfully without stepping onto the snow bridge. As I stepped on the bridge it collapsed and I fell. As I fell into the crevasse; I tried pulling myself out of it. As I put my pressure on the reaming portion on the bridge it collapsed as well. There I was hanging low deep inside of a crevasse.
The rope caught me from falling all the way inside. However, I was still not able to pull myself out. Not knowing why I couldn’t physically move my leg I started to yell for help. Apparently my snow shoe was stuck vertically inside the snow and the rope was tangled around it. In addition, to carrying nearly 30 pounds of weight inside my 70l backpack, which was now directly on top of me; I was unable to see behind me. Eventually one of our Guides made their way to me and was able to untangle my leg. From there I was then able to pull myself out without them having to create a pulley system.
It was at that very moment when I realized how dangerous mountaineering is, and how much I still have to learn ! In addition, to how much of a challenge this will be for me not only for my size and heigh limitations but also physically as I struggle with severe sports induced asthma. I love Alaska and I love climbing and I am looking forward to the challenges ahead of me during this training period. This will be literally be the hardest thing that I have ever done in my life, and I am exhilarated and scared for the challenges in front of me!
In words of Helen Keller,“ Life is either a dating adventure or nothing at all!”
You can see Denali is dead center
Just pretending that I am a real mountaineer
This is our tent during the storm
Just a causal game of glacier darts
Leaving Denali National Park