I’m back from a fantastic experience in the mountains of Alaska. It was an episode filled with firsts: first time climbing a snowed mountain, first time rappelling, first time not taking a shower for more than two days…since I was 14. Not only did I learn the basic technical aspects of the demanding sport of mountain climbing, but I also learned a little about group expeditionary behavior, leadership under strenuous circumstances, and how to overcome one’s self-imposed limits.
Getting to the site
As we hiked up with our heavy backpacks full of gear and the trees gave way to open plains surrounded by mountains, I felt glad that prior to this trip I had trained for the physical demands of the course. We also took turns dragging sleds which contained our entire food for the following 12 days, plus more gear. The views were absolutely stunning, and they would remain so for the duration of the course.
Towards the end of the first day we set up camp on a morraine (an agglomeration of rocks and dirt formed by the motion of glaciers) about 2 miles from our intended site. Our instructors reckoned that it was better to spend the night there and rest than pushing ourselves for the last leg of our hike up. That was my first lesson on adapting to a difficult terrain or environment.
Late that night (or very early in the morning, rather) I went outside my tent and I was instantly fascinated by the spectacle around me. It was far from dark, and I was able to walk around without using my headlamp. It was chilly and calm, and far in the distance I could see a blinking light right in front of a remote mountain, possibly a guide for low-flying helicopters. But what I found most captivating was the complete silence. It was a bit of a surreal experience, being in the middle of all those beautiful mountains in the summer Alaskan night and not hearing a single sound.
The next day we finished our trek to the camp site, and I will forever remember the amazing workout that my legs got by dragging a sled and carrying my backpack up a 30-degree snow slope. To make our walking easier we wore snow shoes, and by doing so I learned a valuable lesson on leadership. When I put on the shoes, I noticed that one of them was broken and my boot would not stay attached to it. I let our group leader, Billy, know about the problem, and after he realized it would not be possible to completely fix the snow shoe he took off one of his and gave it to me. During our hike I noticed that he was the slowest one of the group, and was also the last one to arrive at base camp. A few days later I learned that Billy had suffered a broken ankle in a previous expedition, and he was experiencing considerable pain now. I was completely amazed at, and humbled by, his phenomenal level of professionalism. That’s a true leader right there, I thought.