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75 Days in the Mountains

By: Camey VanSant

By Marcus

For the past 75 days since May 15, I have been up in Alaska participating in the NOLS Summer Semester. This nearly 3-month trip involves 25 days of sea kayaking, 25 days of mountaineering, and finally 25 days backpacking. Each section came with new challenges and even more lessons and views.

We started off with the sea kayaking which took place in the Prince William Sound which is in the south of Alaska. Throughout our brief we got repeatedly told about how the Sound is a rainforest, however none of us really believed them thinking all the instructors were simply saying it rains a lot. We quickly found out that it is, in fact, one of the few temperate rainforests in the world, which means it does surprisingly rain a lot. And with this rain we found out how no matter how many dry bags, plastic bags, or waterproof jackets you use, you and your stuff will always get wet and cold. However, we slowly started to learn ways to deal with this, although we never really had dry socks again until we returned to Anchorage…

Despite the constant rain, the nature around us never ceased to be spectacular. Curious seals often poked their heads up around our kayaks trying to see what was going on. Pods of dolphins swam alongside us, and once we even got lucky enough to see a pod of 5 orcas – from shore – playing around after hunting. We also had the opportunity to see 3 black bears walking along the beaches flipping rocks with their paws looking for food.

Next, we moved onto the mountaineering section. This took place on the Maclaren Glacier in the Alaskan Range. However, before we could get onto the glacier, we had to do a 3-day approach hike with all our climbing gear, which included ropes, crampons, ice axes, anchors, sleds and more. Safe to say carrying 60lb packs through thick brush and wet marsh was not what anyone was picturing when we were told we were going to climb some mountains. Despite this challenge though, we eventually managed to reach the toe of the glacier where we spent a couple days learning all the basics of glacier travel. From how to walk with snowshoes to how to rescue someone if they fell in a crevasse, we really got crammed with all the vital info.

In no time we were tens of miles deep into the glacier and ready to do our first summit. This involved a long technical ascent through a series of ice falls until eventually we made it to the 12,000-foot summit! It was one of the most spectacular views and surreal feelings I have ever experienced, and it really did feel like I was on top of the world. Unfortunately, that next morning, we woke up to seeing our entire camp being snowed in meaning we wouldn’t be able to get our food re-rations for the upcoming week flown in. We spent those next 3 days sitting in tents, taking shifts every couple hours to put our wet and cold gear back on to shovel the outside of the tent so it didn’t get buried. Fortunately, after 3 days of low food, cold and snow, the storm finally let up enough for a small bush plane to land up on the glacier with our food.

Finally, we started preparing for our last section which was backpacking. This was the supposed ‘easiest’ section as now our packs ‘only’ weighed 50lbs instead of the previous 60! So, we were all very excited to get out into the Talkeetna Mountain range and enjoy our final section. Contrary to our sea kayaking section, this time we got exceptionally lucky with the weather with it only raining 4 or 5 times the entire month, which is basically unheard of for Alaska in July. We spent our days walking, summiting mountains, and fly fishing. Towards the end of this section, we had the accumulation of all our hard work and learning over the past 2 months in our ISGE (Independent Student Group Expedition). This involved being sent off in a group of only 4 students for 8 days to live on our own and create unforgettable memories. Each student group spent a couple days planning their overall route plan, and then on the 18th of July we all said goodbye to each other knowing we wouldn’t see them again until the 27th. It was on one of these evenings on the ISGE that my group and I decided we would climb a small mountain at 10pm, planning on arriving at a smaller secondary peak in time for sunset around 23:30, and then reaching the real peak by sunrise which was at 3:30. This was by far the most memorable night for me of the entire trip. It was one of the first times we had watched the sunrise and sunset or even seen darkness for the entire semester as the sun sets so late.

Unfortunately, our trip ended as fast as it started and as soon as we knew it we were back in Anchorage with hundreds of new memories, books worth of new skills, lifelong friends and some very, very sore feet. I have never been tested so much both mentally and physically in my life. Enduring severe weather, exhausted bodies, and constant mental strain with no way out made me realise how much one can overcome giving me a tremendous sense of self confidence and self-belief. Overall, it was one of the most incredible experiences of my life and would love to do something like it again.

Oh and here’s a link to a YouTube video made by one of my friends on the trip in case you want to see some more photos:

Categories: Marcus