Seward Highway, Alaska | 60°59'N, -149°36'W | July 12, 2019
Alaska is one of the world’s great wildlife sanctuaries and one of the world’s most hazardous and harshest environments. A land of self-sufficient and independent people of an adventurous and curious nature. A land awesomely rich in resources and beauty. A fragile land as yet untamed and wild.
— Doug Lindstrand, Wild Alaska
My cell phone signal, barely detectable since my plane touched down in Anchorage last night, has now disappeared completely. No Service. I smile, shove the phone into a pocket of my backpack, and pull out my camera.
We are currently cruising down Seward Highway, overlooking Cook Inlet. Ben, a brand new friend as of this trip, is driving while Britt bounces up and down in the passenger seat, unable to contain her excitement. Nate and I sit in the back, staring out the windows at the misty mountains in the distance.
I still can’t believe I’m here — in this remarkably vast, rugged land that I haven’t wanted to explore for so long.
Three weeks ago, when Britt visited me in North Carolina, I mentioned my obsession with Alaska and how it has remained at the top of my destination list for years. Two days of hiking and several conversations later, she called Ben and Nate to start planning a trip.
The logistics materialized quickly thanks to Ben. A professional mountaineer and resident of Alaska for 20 years, Ben has put together an epic itinerary for the next week: sea kayaking, backcountry camping, white water rafting, ice climbing, and hiking.
This morning, after cramming three days worth of gear, clothes and food into dry bags, we make the short drive from Anchorage to Whittier, and check in at Epic Charters, a small boat outfit serving the Prince William Sound area.
Ben shows us how to pack a kayak, distributing the weight evenly and ensuring everything stays dry. He runs through safety protocols and proper paddling technique. Our adventures together have just barely begun, but already Nate, Britt, and I feel an immense amount of gratitude for Ben’s knowledge and experience. After transferring all our supplies, we settle into our boats and take off.
After three hours of paddling, we arrive at our first campsite. Nate builds a fire on the beach while Ben starts cooking up fish tacos. Britt and I play on the rocks and take photos.
After dinner, we sit around the fire (still in bright daylight at 9pm) chatting about our mutual friends in San Francisco, our favorite live music, and the best mountains to climb in Alaska. I can’t help but smile to myself — this is exactly the kind of conversation I want to have. These are the type of people I want to be around. And this place — I can’t imagine anywhere I would rather be.
Matanuska Glacier | 61°38'29.39" N -147°34'33.59" W | July 16, 2019
“Well, I’ve used crampons and a mountaineering ice axe — but I’ve never climbed a vertical wall with ice tools,” I explain to Brett, our gregarious instructor from Mica Guides.
We’re not dangling from ropes yet— we’re standing in front of an ice wall, going over the equipment. Brett demonstrates the proper motion for swinging an ice tool, then hands one to each of us. I swing hard against the ice and the tool awkwardly bounces to the right. I swing again. No dice. After a dozen attempts, I finally start to get the hang of it — until I switch hands. My left arm (forever the weakest and least coordinated of my appendages) feels like a rubber chicken.
This is harder than it looks.
Yet over the course of the next five hours, my swings become more and more fluid. I am humbly reminded of this adage: you may be bad at it now, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. We all have to start somewhere. I start with a few awkward swings. By the end of the day, I feel the immense satisfaction of the ice tools sinking into solid holds.
Like mountaineering, ice climbing requires solid, steady rhythm. I count in my head: one two, one two. Swing right arm: one. Swing left arm: two. Move right leg up: one. Move left leg up: two. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Also like mountaineering, I get hooked immediately. I cannot wait to do this again.
And I’m not the only one. When Brett asks if we want to do one more climb, Britt immediately and emphatically yells, “yes!”
Seeing the stoke for this new sport sparkling in her eyes reminds me of how I felt my first day on Mt. Rainier two years ago. The alpine world is full of magic, and it feels so, so good to be immersed in it again.
Denali State Park | 63.1148° N, 151.1926° W | July 18, 2019
“Marley, Denali is out today,” Ben says from the driver seat. “You’ll see it just around this turn.”
I put down my book and immediately feel a small knot of nerves (excitement? longing? disbelief?) materialize in my stomach. Like much of Alaska, Denali has captivated my imagination for years. I’ve devoured dozens of books, videos, photos, essays, magazine articles, and social media posts about North America’s largest mountain.
But I haven’t talked to many people about it.
Earlier in this trip, I hesitated to broach the subject of Denali with Ben. I assumed (correctly) that he had climbed it. But I wondered what he would think when I voiced my desire to summit one of the most formidable mountains in the world.
After all, I am still a baby mountaineer. My big mountain experience consists of a few trips to the Cascades. My physical fitness level is mediocre at best. My technical alpine skills are still very limited.
And yet, I have this massive life goal: Climb Denali.
When I inevitably (and somewhat sheepishly) admit to Ben that I very much want to climb Denali, he responds with characteristic kindness and sincere enthusiasm.
“That’s great!” he says. “When?”
“Oh, I mean — not any time soon — obviously,” I say, attempting to back-pedal. “I’d like to do it by the time I’m 40, maybe…”
“Marley, if you really wanted to, you could climb Denali next year.”
As we talk, Ben shares some of his personal experiences from the mountain, and from other big peaks in Alaska. He enumerates information about gear, weather, and timelines. He e-mails me a training plan. But much more importantly, he gives me affirmation. This is not an impossible dream.
There is absolutely no guarantee I will summit Denali. But talking about it in this candid way guarantees I will keep the dream alive.