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If you’ve read my ebook, you know that I don’t do camping well.
I tried camping once. I failed. Miserably. It was freezing cold, the ground was hard, and I came down with a flu in the process. I vowed internally to never camp again, which is why we have an RV with a heater, fridge, and tempurpedic mattress.
But sometimes, an opportunity arises that makes camping sound bearable. That was job #50.
“I got a job. There’s a race in Anchorage on Saturday and we’re going to help with set up on Friday,” Heath said.
I replied quietly, trying to hide my disappointment. Heath and I were running out of time to find a job before our flights back home, and we struggled to get in touch with someone on short notice. But the job Heath found wasn’t exactly the glamorous, end of Hourly America, going-out-with-a-bang job I hoped for. It was a job we could’ve done in any other state in the country. I was bummed, but Heath was grateful just to find a job after a few hours of calls and emails, so I didn’t voice my sadness.
Thinking we had a few days before our job, we drove south of Anchorage down the Kenai peninsula. I’ve boasted many times that the Pacific Coast Highway is the most beautiful drive in America, but I was wrong. It’s Seward highway from Anchorage to Seward. The road curves along the base of snowcapped mountains, and the Turnagain Arm, known for beluga whales, is on your right. In the distance, you see more towering peaks, all pristine white with snow like a flawless painting.
It was while we enjoyed this drive south that Heath received a call from a friend of a friend who lived in Alaska. The connection didn’t have a job for us, but had another friend who could put us to work: the chief of climbing at Denali National Park. There is no job title cooler than that.
The crew was planning to make a run up to base camp for all the climbers hiking Mt. McKinley. We would have the chance to fly up to base camp, spend the night on the glacier, and fly back down.
How can you say no to an opportunity like that?!
Only problem, we were 6 hours away with no means to drive up to the park and we would have to reschedule our flights to make it work. But we couldn’t say no! It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. No matter how, we were going to find a way to make it up to the park. So we booked bus tickets, found a place to stay in Talkeetna where we would be taking off, and convinced Delta that the wildfires prevented us from being able to make our flight so we didn’t deserve to pay the $200 change fee.
It was on the all-day bus ride that I realized what I commit to. Sleeping on a glacier. That’s pure ice. The ranger would later tell us it could be as much as 1,000 feet of ice below us. The temperatures would be in the 30s and all I had was a light jacket and a sweatshirt. My Toms probably wouldn’t be able to handle crushing through the ice and we didn’t have a sleeping bag or anything else for staying the night. I imagined what frostbite on my toes would look like and wondered if they would have to be amputated and if I would forever walk with a limp because I wasn’t prepared for my one night on a glacier.
Fortunately, the woman who connected us with the park system met us the morning before we took off to kindly let us borrow heavy-duty boots and 20-below sleeping bags so we could make it through the night. She taxied us over to the ranger office and introduced us to our guide for the day, Joe. Joe had us sign a waiver, probably saying that I won’t sue the national parks when I have to get my frostbitten toes cut off, and led us to the helipad.
Have you ever ridden in a helicopter?
I was really excited about riding in a helicopter. I’ve always wanted to, but never had the money or the opportunity to take a helicopter tour. They seem so cool, like something that villains in superhero movies fly around in all the time.
Then the pilot starts talking about your flame-resistant flight suit that you must wear in case the helicopter explodes and then they show you where the emergency supplies are in case we crash and are stranded on the mountain and then they explain how the blades of a helicopter can chop off your head and then they ask you on a scale of 1-10, how confident you are in the safety of this helicopter. Ummm…I’m about 99% sure we’re going to die in this death-contraption.
*Spoiler alert: We are still alive and no one was decapitated by the blades.
Flying in a helicopter is a lot like if I had the superhuman ability to fly. With large windows all around, you can see for miles and you can feel every little gust of window as you fly about. It’s exhilarating until you remember what the pilot said about why we have to wear flame resistant suits.
It takes roughly half an hour to chopper up to base camp and as you fly, the mountains slowly grow taller and whiter and you feel the temperature dropping steadily until you’re shivering slightly. I’ve never seen mountains this way, stretching out for miles beneath you in every direction as far as you can see. The peaks below us felt close enough to touch, although you could see clouds below you hugging the mountain peaks. They look monstrous and tiny all at once. Large glaciers cut between mountain bases and you wonder if many humans have ever actually stepped foot on much of this land.
“There’s base camp,” I hear the ranger say through my headset, but I can’t see any camp, just miles of snow and mountain peaks and three or four small black dots in the middle of miles of snow.
It takes a few minutes to descend and for the handful of bright yellow tents to come into focus. I count five or six that make up the entire base camp. I have no idea how the pilot could see the base camp from our altitude.
We land and carefully climb out of the helicopter, immediately ducking to crouch at the front of the chopper, the safest place to avoid the decapitation I told you about. The ranger tossed our bags out of the bin and into the snow and gave the pilot the signal to fly off. Just like in a movie, as the helicopter ascended above us, my hair whipping around and smacking me in the face dramatically.
Standing up on the glacier for the first time is breath taking. It’s the most beautiful sight I’ve ever seen. Smooth, flat snow extends in each direction reaching to the base of picturesque rocky mountains. They look so close, that you don’t realize they shoot another 5,000 feet into the air above your head. Every 20 minutes or so, you’ll hear a rumble echoing off the mountain walls and see an avalanche of snow cascade down the rocky mountain face.
It’s staggering to see all of the peaks around you. Nothing is as it appears. One peak, Mt. Foraker (pictured below), looked a short walk away, but was really a half-day walk away. That mountain stands at 17000+ feet, and shoots 10,000 feet straight up from base camp. On slow days, the rangers will climb up the closer peaks and ski down. It sounds impossible, because the mountains appear to rise from the glacier at a step 90 degree angle, but the rangers insisted it isn’t really that steep. The bright snow reflected the light of the make distances and angles difficult to judge.
Most of the people who live at base camp stay on the mountain for weeks at a time, but many don’t actually work for the National Park Service. Most are volunteers who want to spend part of their summer mountaineering. I had no idea such an opportunity existed, but it’s highly competitive and you must have connections to make it up the mountain.
The mountain has its own culture. Everyone there genuinely loves the outdoors and the cold and winter, something a Texan like myself can’t understand. One guy told me he spends each summer at base camp so he can experience winter all year-round. He’s insane.
But I understand the allure of standing on the runway at basecamp. The sheer magnitude of the mountains surrounding you, McKinley in the distance, shrouded as always in clouds. Crisp air. Endless sunshine. It’s stunning. I found myself constantly sitting, lost in thought, staring at the mountain in front of me, just taking it all in.
Our experience was rare. Everyone else who visits base camp must be working for a climbing service or climbing the peak. Tourists and normal people like ourselves aren’t often given opportunities to visit the camp, and especially not to spend the night.
For Heath’s actual job, he spent his time shoveling snow, setting up tents, moving oil drums, and other small tasks around camp. You’ll see and hear more about that in our documentary, but for now all I want to talk about is what it’s like to sleep on a glacier.
Have you ever slept on a slab of ice? No? Imagine what it would feel like. The ice would melt slowly under your body heat, so your sleeping bag will get a little damp, not to mention extremely cold. You’ll feel it in your toes first and you’ll stuff your hands into your socks to keep them from freezing. While you’re preoccupied with your toes, your hips will start freezing since they are supporting most of your body weight. You’ll start considering wearing your boots inside your sleeping bag. Surely sleeping with boots on is more comfortable than living without toes for the rest of my life.
Plus, you’re doing all this trying-to-stay-warm-and-survive stuff while the sun is illuminating your sleeping bag. The clock says 10PM, but the sun screams for you to wake up. I put in headphones, pulled my eye mask over my head and curled into a ball where I eventually fell asleep for roughly an hour. I woke up freezing, stuffing my hands into my socks again just to make sure my toes were still there at all because I couldn’t feel them.
I could hear Heath breathing steadily in the sleeping bag next to me. Fast asleep. I glared at him. He looked so cozy! I hated that.
His eyes popped open and he gave me a confused look. I’m sure I looked confused too, since I was able to wake him up using only my eyes.
“What time is it?”
“I’m so cold.”
“I’m FREEZING,” I whined and shivered.
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. Not be cold.” This is the extent of my problem solving skills in the middle of the night on a glacier.
Heath came up with the brilliant idea to fit us both into his sleeping bag, which we laid on top of mine so we could have extra layers of insulation between us and the ground. We barely were able to squeeze in the same bag if we both laid on our sides and didn’t move at all once we were in position. We were asleep in minutes.
At 4am, I couldn’t feel my right arm. Sleeping on my shoulder on the hard ground caused my entire arm to fall asleep and start stinging. My hip–which was bruised after this night–felt like I had a rod jammed into the side. I had to wake up Heath so he could climb out of the bag so I could stretch out my arm and reposition. We forced ourselves back into the small sleeping bag, with me clinging to Heath for warmth, and passed out until morning. Real morning that is, not the sun is shining into our tent and it’s only 4am morning.
It was a long, not restful night. But when you wake up on the mountain, you’re energized. You unzip your tent, inhaling deeply as you take in the beauty, and you’re just like, dang. This was awesome. I mean really, look at this view:
Like I said, I’m not a camping person. I don’t ever want to go to sleep anywhere that someone can tell me it’s 2 degrees outside (and then follow it up with, ‘don’t worry that’s Celsius, it’s really like 35 degrees,’ as if that’s any less petrifying). But spending the day and night at base camp was the most magnificent experience of my life. The perfect way to end Hourly America.
I’d love to share more with you about what it was like taking off by plane to return to the mainland, plus some other stories about bears and rafting while in Alaska, or you can watch our film! 🙂