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As I slid down a 100-foot mountain of ice on my hands and knees with nothing to stop me, gathering speed past 5-foot-deep crevasses and toward what I could only imagine was one of the 10-story cliffs that led to the bottom of Byron Glacier, I thought about three things: the pleading I did with my editors to send me to Alaska to be "challenged" by nature; my guide Ryan's warning to never, ever let my crampons -- the spikes on the bottoms of my boots, currently in the air -- lose contact with the surface; and his story about a 27-year-old ice climber who made this mistake the past year and rode the glacier like a waterslide into a crevasse -- and his death.
Okay, four things. There were also the endless "You will not be sued if I die" waivers I'd signed since coming to Alaska. Death was a word thrown around here with the same frequency as the fatalistic nature-always-wins tales. Not to worry: I grew up in northern Michigan, where high schools have Nordic ski teams, garages have ice augers, and snowmobiles freely rule the roads. Alaska? Piece of cake. Plus, there was my athleticism. At a mere 11 months old, I'd figured out how to run. By age 3, I had worn down a ring of grass running laps around our backyard shed. My energy eventually bred competitiveness, tomboy toughness, and numerous Big Ten titles in college track. It's a mentality that's never left me: I think I can do anything and keep up with anyone. (That same philosophy is held by most middle-aged men who once played high school football -- right up until the day they strain their back throwing a Hail Mary at the company picnic.)
But I digress. I'd convinced my editors to send me to Alaska as their "extreme staffer" guinea pig -- a once-in-a-lifetime fitness vacation that would push me to my physical limits and give me the sort of grueling wilderness challenge most city slickers could only dream about. I was going to spend nine whole days white-water rafting, ice climbing, rock climbing, paragliding, dogsledding, kayaking, mountain biking, and doing yoga. What more could an active woman want?
No matter where you stand on Byron Glacier, you are in the path of destruction, a fact I was reminded of with each mountain-goat carcass tangled up in avalanche rubble that I saw during my ascent. Still, ice climbing seemed simple enough: right pick, left pick, right kick, left kick. I began my climb. My right swing was fail-proof; my left swing barely made a dent. Thrown with my weaker arm, the pick would clang and skitter off the wall, sending a waterfall of ice chips below.
The scariest moments came every time I removed the right pick to reach it higher and my left pick -- never plunged securely, but now bearing my full weight -- would begin to slip out of the ice in a torturously slow movement.
After an hour of climbing, I was exhausted. But with the swagger of an Everest explorer, I shunned the idea of resting. Which may very well have led to my rookie mistake: Instead of jumping across the crevasse in front of me as I was instructed, I barely mustered the energy to place my hands on the opposite ledge, bridge the crack with my body and drag my knees underneath me. Not the best move on a giant piece of downhill-slanted ice. Feet in the air, I slid. There were no branches to grab hold of, no snowbanks to crash into. On this relatively warm spring day, a thin film of water covered the surface, making it a Slip 'n Slide of doom.
Just when I panicked that this could be the end, I managed to maneuver my feet under my body and desperately dug my crampons into the ice. For a frightening two and a half seconds, my boots scraped along until catching. My body wobbled forward and backward, my arms spinning at my sides, until I found my balance. I turned and faced Ryan. Neither of us said a word.
I dragged my bruised body back to the hotel that night, proud of myself for keeping cool under pressure. After a good night's sleep, I was ready for my next challenge: an eight-mile kayak up Eklutna Lake, followed by an eight-mile mountain-bike ride back along the shore. I may not know how to wield an ice pick, but endurance sports? I like to think of myself as something of a veteran. But then I met Kikkan Randall.
The Anchorage-bred Olympian Nordic skier can check off her accolades as easily as items on a grocery list: U.S. Champion. World Cup Champion. Highest-placing U.S. cross-country female athlete in Olympic history. When the Alaska Travel Industry Association asked if I'd like to go kayaking with one of the state's most famous sports stars, there was only one answer. "Of course," I said, picturing us side-by-side in our boats, laughing and paddling at top speeds. During breakfast with Kikkan before our three-hour excursion, I purposely let slip that I had once been a member of my high school's varsity Nordic ski team. Me and Kikkan Randall, I figured, were very much alike.
Apparently only in gender. As soon as we dipped our paddles into the blue waters of Eklutna Lake, Kikkan, her husband, Jeff (also in pursuit of the 2010 Olympics), and our guide began to pull away from me. I tried to mimic Kikkan's powerful strokes -- she was built like a piston. Stroke, pull, stroke, pull went her paddles, as mine sputtered a puny strokestrokestroke.
As I fell farther behind, I put my head down, tapping muscles I'd never used before, and paddled like a madwoman. Ten minutes later, I looked up. About 400 yards ahead, the group had stopped. They were...waiting for me. Cheering for me. Like the "pity clap" used to boost the morale of the last runner to cross the finish line, their good-natured intention was embarrassing.
I shuddered. For all my athletic bravado, I felt like a scrawny-armed journalist who would have been better off in a paddleboat. By the time we made it to shore and scarfed down our turkey-and-Swiss sandwiches, I'd had enough of water workouts. I was ready for the eight land miles. As a runner, at least I knew I could count on the strength of my legs during the bike ride.
Except that as we cycled toward a waterfall the guide wanted to show us ("a slight detour," he said), I kept releasing the bike gears, astonished that first gear was so tough. The hills steepened; my quads began to burn. After 10 minutes of battling the sharp incline with every fiber of my being, I could no longer muster enough speed to keep my bike upright. So I got off and walked. I was officially a failure.
Just then, an ATV came rumbling by us and stopped. A man and his 8-year-old daughter hopped off. "You're Kikkan Randall!" the man exclaimed. "My daughter loves you! She watches all of your races." The little girl stared, starstruck, at Kikkan. And that's when it hit me, as I stood to the side, wheezing from the past five hours: This kid wanted Kikkan's autograph. She was an Olympian. Who did I think I was, trying to compete with her?
Our "slight detour" had doubled the length of our bike ride, and the remaining 12 miles was a test of sheer willpower. My legs wobbled. Thoughts of a better place flew through my head -- specifically, my bed, my pillows, and the warm oatmeal with cinnamon and raisins from room service at my hotel.
Each time the guide stopped on the path to wait for me, my frustration increased. I told him he didn't have to stop, that I was fine and I was going to take my time. He said he couldn't leave a journalist behind -- what if I was eaten by a bear? Everyone laughed.
But then something strange happened: I didn't care anymore. I started to ride my bike at my own pace. I didn't make an effort to keep up with anyone. Yes, they were stronger, faster, and better than me. So what? I felt strangely rebellious -- but against what? My own expectations? I'd been knocked off my high horse of physical prowess, and suddenly I realized I didn't want to climb back on. I was in Alaska, damn it, and I was going to enjoy it.
After a yoga class the next day, I sat in the tranquil lounge, sipping tea with two yogis and a couple of rock-climbing guides. Someone asked how my trip the day before had gone. As I recounted my story, I couldn't stop laughing. How could I convey my competitiveness to a group who had just preached peaceful self-affirmations for the past hour while I contorted my body into pretzel-like poses? I described the streams we'd biked over, the panoramic view of the Chugach Mountains from the waterfall, and everything else that I'd nearly forgotten to appreciate as I obsessed over keeping up with Kikkan. In fact, some of the most amazing photos I took during my trip were from that day.
Later that afternoon, my guides drove me to a rock outcropping between Anchorage and Girdwood. This time, with help from the yoga class, I climbed with grace: I concentrated on deep breathing to keep calm, overcame difficult holds in the rock by taking the time to strategize my moves, and when I made a mistake, I started over and went slowly. When I reached the top, I leaned back on my safety rope and surveyed my surroundings. From the expanse of the mountains to Cook Inlet and its beluga whales, I saw all that Alaska had to offer. And for the first time since I'd arrived, I took it in.Outfit Yourself
Going on an adventure of your own? Check out Rachel's tried-and-tested picks for must-have gear, from layers to luggage.
Originally published in FITNESS magazine, March 2009.