Touching The Void in Alaska

by

Going with the flow
Text and Images: Randy Richards

Last July I found myself sitting and staring at my stuff in a hot storage locker in Park City, UT. I had just moved out of my last relationship, and was practicing being in the moment. “Hmmm,” I thought, “I wonder what spirit may provide for the next big adventure.”  Keeping an open attitude, a sense of humor and staying light-hearted, I pondered.  Just then, I got a call from an old friend at Outward Bound, who I’d not heard from in years.

Denali, The Great One

Denali, The Great One

He was asking me if I’d like to teach a mountaineering program in Alaska. It’s been a while since I’ve been on the role call for OB Wilderness in the West. I’d been busy with Alpine Ascents International, Outward Bound Professional and now Mountain Spirit. He was also stepping back in temporarily at his old admin job. I only got the call because he knew me and had his old contact list out.  I wasn’t even in the OB computer system anymore. Regarding this Alaska proposal, I told him, “Let me think about that…. I’ve thought about it, when do I leave?”

Lost Lake just north of Seward AK

Lost Lake just north of Seward AK

Before long, I was on my way from Alta, Utah (thanks to Bob and Glenda Cottrill by the way), to Seward AK, packing bickies in the food room, checking tents and stoves,  and back in the OB swing. I was prepping to co-instruct a mountaineering segment of a sea/mountain combination program for Outward Bound Wilderness located at their Seward basecamp.  I’ve been pretty busy with Mountain Spirit Institute these days but decided to take a bus-man’s holiday and go back to what, in part,  inspired MSI in the first place. We had 10 bright and motivated kids who were eager to learn, climb and mix it up.

Students near Lost Lake

Students near Lost Lake

When I met the group, they had already been 12 days in kayaks. The thing that strikes me about Alaska is the sense of expansiveness, the “no thing ness”. Of course there is plenty there to see in all it’s splendor, but I wonder, after all these years and miles in the mountains, why this experience was so deeply different than my previous days. It wasn’t about the place as much as the experience I was perceiving.

I’ve spent literally years on the trail and backcountry. I learned to climb in the Alps, where I learned not to kill myself. I took classes with the Austrian Mountain Club, but that was only minimally effective as I missed half the lecture content. My Austrian  was pretty limited at the time. But I learned a few things. But I was young.

The author, Alaska backcountry

The author, Alaska backcountry

I think having gone through what life can throw at someone over a few years, has change my wilderness experience. I looked about me at my fellow instructors, and at my students. Of course I knew they were having their own “ah hah” moments as well, while out there,  but I felt as if I were “touching the void” (without having to go through Joe Simpson’s epic). I’m not sure why it was that way, but the silence which I’ve heard over the years had a depth to it that I’d not experienced before. Is it because of where I am in my life? I could lean into the wind’s howl, or its whisper, into the void…

Peaceful Rainbows at BaseCamp

Peaceful Rainbows at BaseCamp

Of course I can’t put it into words. It’s  similar to what Byrd Baylor’s writes in her story, “The Other Way To Listen” where she does a very solid job of telling the story of someone suddenly finding a mountain singing back to him while on a hike.

Alaksa’s Mt. Ascension was an admirable and beautiful peak, with spectacular 180 degree views, with the Harding Ice field to the south, and Lost Lake and a minor peak to the north. The north face of Ascension has couloirs and arrets dropping off directly to the valley floor below.

Summit view to SE from Mt. Ascension

Summit view to SE from Mt. Ascension

The students did well, gaining the upper slopes of the glacier, route finding, laying wands, and making the summit. The coastal fog rolled in, which made finding basecamp, on the eastern shelf of the range, a bit of a challenge.  Our back bearings could have been better.  Maybe more on that adventure another time.

I’ve been rambling on a bit about the mechanics of the climb, which are relatively important. But what was absolutely important for me, was my new and improved experience of the mountain vastness. Maybe it was just Alaska, but I doubt it.

You think you remember, after being out for a while. But you don’t. You can only be reminded of the vastness, of your place in it all, by going back out there. And not just climbing a damn peak, but coming to terms with the end of it all, the cold, the wind, the rocks and the snow.

Students heading south to Seward after their expedition

Students heading south to Seward after their expedition

Solo is a big part of Outward Bound and we at Mountain Spirit have our own twist on it as well. Getting out while you still can, stepping away from the machine just makes sense.  Whether with a group or solo. And as Willie Unsoeld used to say, when it’s time to come back to civilization, you’re better equipped to really contribute something to the cutting edge.

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4 Responses to “Touching The Void in Alaska”

  1. Stacy Tyo-Bartlett Says:

    Hi Randy,

    Great blog…very interesting adventures

  2. mtnspirit Says:

    Stacy, Glad you liked this post. It gets a lot of views. I’m working on another post regarding finding basecamp in the fog, which was an epic.

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