Follow adventurer Andrew Skurka as he skis, hikes, and rafts 4,720 miles through eight national parks, two major mountain ranges, and some of North America’s wildest rivers in Alaska and the Yukon from March to October. Read his blog updates here.
The Alaskan wilderness has brought me to tears twice on this trip, both times while talking on the phone with my mother from a “safe” location where being emotional has no serious consequences.
My first tears were shed in Unalakleet, Mi 281, after enduring continuously for two weeks the brutal combination of coastal wind and Arctic cold, and the associated stress of always being just one mistake away from death. I was recently brought to tears again, on the porch of a Glenn Highway convenience store, Mi 1402, my emotions rubbed raw and thin after skiing 600 miles across the Alaska Range in the peak of variable springtime conditions.
Everyday for the last four weeks I have woken up with at least some amount of anxiety, nervousness, and dread about the exact conditions I’ll encounter that day. The snow may be rotten around my timbered campsite, but then have a supportive freeze crust once I get above the brushline (at least through noon, maybe). I may hike up to the first pass on a sunny, melted-out, south-facing slope, but then step into my bindings again in order to ski through deep avalanche-prone snow on a shaded, north-facing side. When I reach a glacier-fed river later in the day, it may still be frozen over, or I may find lingering ice bridges that offer dry passage, or it may be completely open and require a wet ford. If I need to follow that river, I may find fast skiing on aufeis, or I may stumble along the gravel braids if it’s melted out already. And when I reach my last challenge of the day, crossing a glacial moraine at 3500’, I may be greatly slowed if it’s still covered in 6” of snow from a late-season snowstorm earlier this week.
The uncertainty of the conditions I encounter has been exacerbated by the geographical diversity of my route. I’ve been on the north and south side of the Alaska Range, and in two days I’ll be in an entirely different range, the Wrangell’s. I’m now 600 miles away from where I first entered the Alaska Range. Finally, mountains are notorious for being their own weather-makers, e.g. huge peaks create rain shadows, major passes tend to be wind tunnels, and large glaciers cool the air. If I were in Colorado, I might be able to offset some of these variables by tapping into SNOTEL data or checking message boards, but in Alaska those tools do not exist. I have found that I am my own best source of information, extrapolating what I’ve seen elsewhere onto what I’m coming up against next.
In the bigger picture, I have not been humbled necessarily by the Alaskan spring, but by being outside of my comfort zone for a month straight. Despite alternative lifestyles being easier than the Alaska-Yukon Expedition, it’s the value gained from being frequently outside of my comfort zone – and succeeding nonetheless – that inspire me to stay out here.