I thought I did this for fun, until I fell in a cascading slope of granite boulders, in the Talkeetna Mountains, pulled myself up, bloody, and realized just how easily my life could end here before I had time to realize it happened.
One year and six weeks previous to that day, I was driving a Subaru Outback up a knobby, unkempt dirt road which catapulted myself and a crew of three other young men to the foot of the same mountains, just bellow Hatcher Pass, east of Palmer, Alaska.
It was the final days of my first trip to Alaska. The front end of the trip spent in the backcountry of Denali National Park, a three night backpacking excursion, which sapped the energy from most of us. June in Alaska is capricious, the weather fluctuates between kindly and demoralizing. Our trip began in the rain and ended in sunshine, but neither were constants for long. As one man told us, if you’ve come to Alaska, you’d better get used to wet feet, but Denali presented us with challenges deeper than soaked shoes. We were faced with navigation to our own discretion, trails don’t exist in this park, or in most of Alaska for that matter. The challenging terrain, bushwhacking, river crossings, and ridges laden with late season snow. Not to mention flaring tempers, made worse by exhaustion.
After three nights in Denali, the four of us knew each other better than we would have in a year of friendship in an urban environment. It was an opportunity to witness each others fears, strengths, weaknesses, diplomacy, and leadership. We were all on equal ground, for each of us, it was our first visit to what some call the Last Frontier, and, luckily, we exited with more respect for each other but also a growing dissent, due to the imbalance in what we desired from this trip.
That day, in the Subaru, we were debating whether to book an airbnb or find some other accommodations for the night. Sunlight filtered through the adjacent valley as I edged the car from Hatcher Pass road to Archangel road. The conversation made me uneasy. We were more than prepared to camp anywhere and we’d stayed in an airbnb the night before. I wanted to sleep in the mountains, that’s what I’d come to Alaska for in the first place.
However, I’d planned the front end of the trip, the rest of the trip was supposed to have been planned by one of the other guys in the group but, after exiting Denali, thus ending the portion of the trip I’d planned, we’d come to understand that the other planner had not done any planning at all. The back end of our trip was one big question mark.
Let me say that I don’t mind question marks. Question marks are fantastic. Question marks mean there’s an answer out there and, in this case, almost an unlimited supply of them. Question marks are great when traveling solo, as couples, or with vast amounts of time to travel. Question marks just aren’t great when you have three days left on a trip with four guys who have zero knowledge of the area in which they’re traveling, when most of it’s wilderness. Question marks are especially bad when half of a four man crew has reached their limit of camping and the other half is just getting started, considering we only had one rental car.
As the banter continued, no conclusion was concluded upon and we drove further down Archangel road, deeper into what I now know as Archangel Valley.
I lost touch with the debate as I watched the dark gray mountains and deep, tundra covered valley unravel in front of us. These mountains rose up like gigantic teeth, jagged spires, with boulders the size of small cars draping down to their bases. On all sides we were surrounded. Ahead, it looked as if the horizon had been clipped like paper from patterned scissors at craft hour, deep radial valleys rising to a single sharp point, repeating in all directions. Behind the front range, were mountains of equal and striking drama, layering the depth of the scene like the waves of a stormy sea. The sight pulled the air from my lungs.
At the end of the road, which was blocked by a rusty ranch gate, I stopped the car, opened the door, and ran down a boot path into the adjacent valley, leaving the guys and the car behind.
The wind picked up and the rush of Fair Angel creek met my ears. I stood for a long time, staring at the mountains, the creek, and the valley where it flooded out toward the Little Susitna. In the distance, the sun shone warmly against the bright green mountains but, over us, storm clouds were building.
Few moments in my life have I felt the sensation of synchronicity, where, for an instant, life feels like it’s clicking along tracks which where laid before my first breath. It was in that moment, that I knew this mountain range held something for me, something I still don’t understand.
That night, we camped near the spot I’d run to from the car. Though the others found the location appealing, none of them voiced an experience quite like mine, and I knew I was alone. There was something else I felt, that I’d arrived at the beginning of a journey, would retrace my steps soon, and the secret these mountains held would be revealed in time, or one step at a time, not all at once.
My next trip to Alaska brought me deeper into those mountains, the Talkeetna Range. On a fair August day, five others and myself packed our backpacks at the edge of Archangel road, not far from where I’d camped a year previous. We were preparing for a five night, hut to hut, mountain traverse that had yet to be completed by anyone else.
At interval, I glanced to the valley which I’d felt the spark to visit these mountains, but the moment had passed, I no longer sensed it’s whisper. Still, I knew I was brought here for a reason and understood that those sparks are not unlike the glimmer of a lover’s eyes from across a room, the beginning of a relationship, and I intended to find out where it led.
Packed, ready, and humming with nervous chatter, we hurried up Reed Creek and soon ascended toward Glacier Pass, drifting past ruins of old mining buildings and equipment, long forgotten. Crunching over what was left of a snowfield before hopping through a rise of boulders, we reached the pass and I saw for the first time what lay beyond the initial curtain of mountains.
In front of me stretched a wide basin and the flat sheet of the Snowbird glacier, guarded on the opposite side by stubby peaks and a sweeping ridge line. Gray clouds, flecked gold in the fading light, hovered not far from the tips of the mountains. Beyond the initial set of ridges, it seemed that rows of jagged peaks continued forever toward the horizon.
We stumbled and slipped our way down a steep, rock studded snowfield to the top of the glacier. Donning our crampons, we crossed the glacier and continued to the foot of a steep, loose climb of sharp granite boulders. At the top of which we would find Snowbird hut but it wasn’t visible from our vantage.
It was halfway up this boulder field that I began to question every notion I’d had, leading up to this point in my life.
Elated from the dramatic landscape I’d covered in the past few hours and excited to find the first of the five huts we’d stay at during our trip, I made crucial errors and miscalculations in my ascent of the final obstacle.
I hadn’t taken the thirty seconds to stow my crampons after exiting the glacier, a single cleat dangled from either hand. Because of this, my trekking pole was parallel to the ground, secured in my fist, and useless. I was hurrying, confident on my feet, even in boulder fields, and quickly hopped upward to catch the three companions ahead of me. It was also nearing the end of the day, we’d closed in on our destination, and, even insurance companies will tell you, most accidents occur within five miles of home. Complacency is the doom of the wise.
Before I knew what was happening, a large boulder under my foot tipped down under my weight, and the next thing I heard was the pop of my skull against granite. After which, the world turned dark.
I’ve never been knocked unconscious, even though I played hockey for many years and dared my life against many unadvisable acts in my youth. This time was no different, I was coherent. I could feel my knees against the rocks, my hands against the boulders, as I lifted myself from the fall. I scrambled to touch my face and grope for damage that would warrant the sudden change in my eyesight. The whole time my mind screamed, fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck-fuck.
I’m not sure why the mind defaults to vulgarity when faced with trauma, but mine does, it’s also really fantastic at graphically depicting all the possible outcomes after incident. I was almost certain I’d gone blind, split my skull, fractured a disc in my neck, and was doomed to bleed out without seeing a single thing again.
It’s also worth noting that I am not prone to drama, in fact I detest over dramatization, because I see the world mechanically, and if everything has a purpose and function, when something goes wrong, there is a cause, a solution, or, if nothing else, it must be discarded. I hold dearly my own life but I don’t count myself special or gifted beyond the snare of an early or sudden death.
In those moments of darkness after the fall, I glimpsed into the instant nature of the end. It’s nebulous, drifting around our atmosphere like a vulture we cant see, waiting for the time to strike, and, in my own mind, I’d graced myself with the notion I’d have the opportunity to revisit the highlights of my life and say I love you’s before the lights clicked out. What I came to understand that day, is that death wears many faces, strikes at will, and has no courtesies. We are only guaranteed ceremony once it’s too late.
When I rose to my knees and touched my face, feeling for blood and gashing crevices, my fingers found a foreign material, and it took me a second to realize it was my Buff.
A Buff is a stretchy band of synthetic material in the shape of a tube. Handy things. Worn as a sweat band, neck warmer, dust mask, and balaclava. Used as a rag, a shield against sizzling pots, or, unfortunately, sacrificed if rations of toilet paper are depleted. In this case, I’d been wearing it as a sweat band.
Soon, I understood that the collision had shifted my Buff over my eyes, and my loss of sight was quickly remedied and, when I pulled it off my head, the light flooded back to me. I’ve honestly never been so happy to see boulders in all my life. But my happiness was short lived as blood began to drip down my nose and over my eyebrows, warning of damage that wasn’t as easily resolved.
Two of my friends, who were below me on the boulder field and didn’t see my fall, soon caught up, helped me to the hut, cleaned, and dressed my cuts. Looking back, the damage was negligible. I’d skinned the bridge of my nose to the bone, scraped and cut my forehead, one of these cuts in the shape of a lightning bolt, as well as minor abrasions above my eyebrow. The damage, however, was deeper internally than it was on the surface.
The fall made me question the reason I come to places like Alaska and why this particular section of mountains call to me, even as I write this to you. Because leisure and enjoyment aren’t strong enough justifications in the face of injury or possible death. Though we do many dangerous things that bring a thrill, rush becomes addiction, and drives us further to find that sensation which dives deeper into the cracks of our humanity the more we chase it. But what seduced me to begin with?
As adrenaline wore off, I felt a well rising in my chest, something I couldn’t control, though I tried. Tears slipped down my cheeks as I walked from snowbird hut and found a boulder at the edge of a cliff, facing north toward Bartholf creek valley.
Evening settled in and bruise colored clouds hung flat overtop. The valley, three thousand feet below the peaks which bordered it, was dressed in violent shades of blue, and extended for several miles ahead. The single stripe of the creek rushed through its center, far beyond the reach of my ears.
At the sight of the empty space, careless of my presence, my chest convulsed, and my eyes turned into faucets. Though I’d escaped the most dramatic personal accident of my career as an outdoorsman, with wounds that would heal, I’d shattered my innocence, crossing a barrier in myself, and understood the weight of my decision to venture across environments as unforgiving as those found in Alaska. I was no longer an amateur. With that understanding came a responsibility for self and for the rest of my crew, that I’d yet to grasp.
It also presented a decision. To allow danger to hinder my steps, force me back to safety, or to use this incident as an opportunity to learn. I chose the latter. Not in response to ego but for the irrevocable truth that not once in my life have I felt as close to the essence of existence, as I do when I’m in the heart of the mountains. Though lurking danger can immediately snuff life’s flame, in environs such as this, I never forget the thump, beating madly at times, within my chest. I realized that these trips were not about fun but rather, to beat back the current of life which sweeps us away, unaware of time passing, before we are catapulted into the great void beyond its wake.