Northern Exposure: My Alaskan Adventure Vacation
The Realities of an Adventure Vacation
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.
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