by Will Elliott
PIKA GLACIER "There ain't no place to put my feet on!"
From the ledge where we rested, we couldn't see Chris, only hear him bellow below, and catch the smoky smell of crampon points grinding against the rock. Left up to us to picture, his predicament was all the more hilarious.
Chris Hardon of Talkeetna, like the rest of us, was a scholarship student on an Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) course this spring in the Alaska Range. Chris was probably the strongest, and maybe the toughest among us, too. A former firefighter once, Chris, finding himself dead-ended in a burning building with no clear route of escape, had pounded and torn barehanded at an interior wall until he wrecked his way to safety. But here on the mountainside, finesse was required, and with it a calm and focused frame of mind Chris was having trouble summoning. He was new to climbing, and consequently, with every step higher in that vertiginous world, his composure imploded a little further.
"Oh, Lordy!" we could hear him howl. "Lord, just take me now!"
If Chris had slipped, of course, he would have merely settled in place. A rope ran from his harness to an anchor above, where Allie Barker, one of our two AMS instructors, reeled it in as Chris cursed and pleaded upward. We weren't laughing at his terror, then, but the fact that it seemed so unfounded, and that a burly, knobby-knuckled guy like Chris was terrified in the first place.
"I cut a hundred trees in twelve hours once!" Chris would often remind us, usually in preamble to saying how much harder he found climbing by comparison. Hearing him grunt and growl and rage up the rock, I could believe it.
Even though others of us had chosen more challenging routes up the peak, Chris's ascent was the most impressive. Uncomfortable as he was on any physical incline, Chris scaled the steeper learning curves of skiing, crevasse rescue and glacier travel with a relentlessness we all admired. These were skills I had some foundation in already, and so while the topography we covered was the same, for Chris the mountains constituted a far more demanding psychological terrain, and demanded greater effort. And still he climbed what we climbed, skied the same slopes. Before bed I'd see him sitting alone in camp, practicing the unfamiliar knots and hitches again and again until he got them right. It was his way of proving worthy, Chris said, of the generosity the school had shown him with his scholarship.
Over dinner in Talkeetna at the trip's end, Jed Workman, our other instructor, told the story of the school's founding, and I hoped that we all, like Chris, had proved worthy of our place there. Jed revealed that years ago, an avalanche caught AMS founder Colby Coombs on a climb with close friends, and that only Coombs survived. With help from the family of one of the men, Coombs created AMS, to help future climbers recognize and respond to the mountains' hazards, so to hopefully never experience what Coombs had.
Cast in those terms, I saw our scholarships not as some loophole by which a group of local kids had scored the luxury of a guided mountaineering trip something too expensive otherwise for any of us to hope for but a profound and gracious gift for which we would all be long indebted.
"Colby didn't make any money on this trip," Allie told us. By my estimate, our scholarships and the other trip expenses had constituted more than a $7000 loss for the school.
"But he believed in this group," she said, "and he felt like it was a good thing to make it happen."
I can't say how the others felt, but in the silence that followed, I think we were each of us resolving to go on with what we'd been given and prove him right.
Our 12-day trip covered glacier travel, snow and mixed climbing, and a host of other skills. Those interested in similar instruction have a number of options. Alaska Mountaineering School in Talkeetna, along with various other local guide services, offer a range of climbs and courses, with an emphasis on building student skills. Non-profit groups like the Mountaineering Club of Alaska (MCA) offer trips and clinics, such as the Matanuska Ice Climbing Festival each fall at the Matanuska glacier. Larger organizations, such as the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) and Alpine Ascents International (AAI), have branches in Alaska, though the NOLS curriculum is generally designed for young adults, and AAI tends toward guided trips rather than skills courses.
The local community of private professionals such as Jed and Allie may be the best bet for climbers with specific goals or limited time. A weekend of one-on-one instruction can be more productive than a longer trip spent learning skills with a larger group, for obvious reasons, as well as being less expensive. Choosing the right guide for a private trip takes more work on the student's part, but local resources like the MCA and Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking (AMH) in Anchorage, the state's preeminent outdoors store, are good places to go for help.
Finally, for those wanting to learn things on their own, mountaineering texts like the encyclopedic "Freedom of the Hills" are free from local libraries. Bulletin boards at retailers AMH and REI, or online at sites like www.alaskaiceclimbing.com or www.alaskamountainforum.com, are good places to solicit partners and information. Better yet, so is the base of any route you see people climbing.
Contact Will Elliott at email@example.com.