As the end of the spring semester at the University of Alaska Southeast neared, most students could be found cramming for a big test or hunkering down in the library to finish off a thesis paper, but there was one small group of matriculators who were preparing for a different kind of “final.”
“On a clear day I would visualize ski lines on the Chilkat range and dream of one day skiing down the Chilkat peaks,” UAS student Alex Botelho said.
Botelho, along with nine other UAS students and two UAS instructors, Kevin Krein and Forest Wagner, did just this as part of the school’s Outdoor Studies program. To officially graduate from the ODS program, each student must participate in the end of the year “Capstone,” which applies all the skills learned over the year into one trip — a final of outdoor proportions, so to speak. This year, the group decided to travel across the Chilkat Mountain range in the spring with the intent to ski between camps along the way. The trip would test the group’s teamwork, their ability to problem-solve and their physical and mental stamina.
Preparations for the spring departure began in January and optimism was high from the start.
“I’m ready!” UAS student Sara Gering said. “I feel like this group is perfect. For this trip, for the way we planned it, it’s going to be amazing. We’re all strong in different areas and we’re all going to be able to get up there and do what we want to do.”
Spirits were high for Botelho, too.
“This Capstone (is) a dream come true,” Botelho said.
Such a trek is not one to be taken lightly. There’s preparation — mentally, physically and logistically. For instance, learning how to ski was a daily exercise for some and for others, spending time in the gym and on the trail was a necessity. The group even took special care when packing for the journey. One might think stuffing food, gear and clothing into a backpack is simple. And it is, for a casual day hike to Herbert Glacier, for instance.
But for an expedition into the wilderness, participants would need more than hiking boots, granola bars and an extra layer. Students had to prepare for two weeks in the Chilkats. They had to be ready with the right gear for traversing across the tops of peaks and they had to be strong enough to place each step confidently through spring snow. Mountaineering, mountain traversing, hiking through ice, snow, rain, forging rivers and lakes, being ready for sporadic changes in visibility, safety in avalanche territory and an unfamiliar environment certainly calls for more than just hiking boots.
After months of training, studying and preparing, the group was as ready as they would ever be. On the morning of May 6, an aluminum landing craft pushed off the docks at Auke Bay. Powered by two Yamaha 250-horsepower engines, the silver belly of the boat carried the nine students, two UAS instructors and 11 backpacks across Favorite and Saginaw channels, through Stephens Passage to their final destination — Howard Bay. An hour and a half later the crew unloaded and were left to navigate the rest of their trip without the power of any machine.
On the first day of their sojourn, the team climbed 200 feet from the beach to an open, rolling muskeg, which was not as far as they had hoped; thick devil’s club and blueberry patches limited their travel that day. With skis and boots strapped to the sides of their already heavy packs, travel was slow.
The team set camp at 200 feet. They would descend back to the beach one more time to haul the rest of the gear to the muskeg camp.
They made a bit more progress the second day, but with the lack of snow and the high density of brush, they were forced to “double carry” for a second time. Finally reaching an elevation that provided snow — around 1,050 feet — they could now remove their skis from their packs, slap on climbing skins and glide.
Corina Torgeson was one of the students who participated. Torgeson faced a difficult challenge — she had never skied downhill prior to January 2013. She said she took every advantage she could over the winter to develop her skills. Southeast Alaska offers a wide variety of challenging backcountry ski terrain, which she said served as the perfect playground and learning environment. She started as a novice, and in a matter months, she gained the skills and techniques needed to negotiate remote and advanced terrain.
For Torgeson, the hardest part was not controlling her skis, but instead her sled.
“Traversing across steep ridges on skis while pulling a sled full of gear (was challenging),” she said. “But rather than having the sled behind me it was to my right, pulling me downward.”
The UAS Outdoor Studies Program is designed to challenge students physically, mentally and emotionally. From the field, students move into the classrooms at the university studying philosophy, geography, hydrology and English. With the combination of both skill and classroom courses, students obtain the knowledge necessary to approach situations with intelligence and a critical mind. Team members work together — as just that, a team — to make vital and challenging decisions.
During the ODS capstone this year, the team faced one major trial — the weather.
“The first few days we had amazing weather, but we were bogged down bush whacking through the trees,” UAS student Anne Thomas said. “We had a few cruiser days on the ridge, but then (bad) weather moved in. We were stuck at our high camps for a couple of days and when the clouds cleared, we could see that all the heavy rain had caused massive avalanches all around us. We decided to descend and work our way back down to the coast early.”
Participant Nate Wiley said the meaningful part of the trip was the emotional connections that emerged through all the challenges. He said discussion, disagreements, injury, experience and ego all played a part in creating the 2013 UAS ODS Capstone trip. In the end, Wiley said, what mattered most and made it come together was the relationships of nine students. Spending the year together in Juneau, participating in hard skill courses, including ice climbing, winter camping, avalanche training, glacier travel, navigating backcountry, rock climbing and mountaineering created a trust and a bond which helped them develop as a team.
“What made this trip for me was the emotional connection we all had,” Wiley said. “If someone was falling behind or having trouble with something, one of us was there to help with no dispute. We care about each other.”
In the fall of 2012, the Outdoor Studies program at the University of Alaska Southeast was added as an option for a four-year Bachelors of Liberal Arts degree. Students can now enroll at UAS and combine outdoor studies with environmental sciences to obtain this four-year BLA degree. The BLA degree allows students to emphasize on different areas of study, including geography, biology, literature and humanities. On weekends, Wagner takes ODS students up mountains, across glaciers, down crevasses and across vertical ice walls while also providing a classroom setting to learn soft skills. On weekdays, Krein offers lower and upper division philosophy courses which help students understand the risks, rewards and critical thought that must be applied while in the elements. UAS also offers Certificate and Associate Programs for ODS-only students.
• Adam Wood is a UAS student and writer who frequently accompanies the ODS group on outings into the Southeast Alaska wilderness.