A Californian’s take on an Alaska adventure

By Daniel Valladao

Special to the Northern Light

I was born and raised in San Jose, Calif. For the geographically challenged, that is just south of San Francisco in the heart of Silicon Valley. The mean temperature is somewhere around 80 and to my knowledge it has never snowed there. Thus, when it came time to get away for college I chose to get far, far away, and come to Alaska.

I have visited cold climates before, but only rarely and for short periods. I never really learned to ski or snowboard, I have never had a snowball fight, I have never had to scrape ice off my windshield and I have never been near a glacier. So being as foolhardily adventurous as I am, when I heard that the UAA Outdoor Club planned to go ice climbing on Matanuska Glacier, I signed up.

Not sure what was needed, I just followed the list the club gave out. Having packed provisions, my sleeping bag, the rented equipment and whatever else I thought I needed, I set out to meet the rest of the club at noon Oct. 16, to begin one of those Alaska adventures I had heard so much about. It was 2 p.m. or so before we left, but much more surprising than this was what we left in.

Picture, if you will, a standard yellow school bus 40 years past its prime, gutted, broken, patched and then handed over to a group of college students. It was this monstrosity that took us on our two and a half-hour drive, and though I have rarely in my life been less sure of my safety, it was undoubtedly the coolest school bus I had ever seen.

By the time we made it to the glacier, the sun was about to set, dinner was prepared and a bonfire started. It is up to your own imagination as to what 20 college students did to pass the time around the fire, but as a California boy, that night was likely the coldest I have ever been through. The cold was only accentuated by my sleeping bag, which is made for California weather. The next morning I tried to thaw myself out, which consisted of a great deal of shivering and very little sleep, while the rest prepared for a full day of ice climbing.

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After we had made it out to the glacier we strapped on our crampons and headed out over the ice. Having never been on a glacier before, or worn crampons, I was torn between captivation at the beauty of the ice formations and falling every time we strayed off a level path. Just as I had begun to get the hang of walking on ice, we arrived at our first climb.

Little more than the ice equivalent of a bunny hill, our first climb was enough to whet the appetite of any novice. The ability to take your own life in your hands, to know that it is only you who can allow yourself to fall, or succeed, could invigorate anyone. While on the ice nothing matters but the climb to the top, the fight for survival rids one of concern for all else in one’s life. After each of the first-time climbers had taken his turn on our first wall, we broke down the ropes and set out to find greater challenges.

Two other climbs were set up throughout the day, one of mediocre difficulty for the new climbers, and a harder climb for those more experienced. I only participated in the easier of the two, but it was enough. By the end of that second climb I had fallen from the ice, saved only by the safety line, and was worn out from more than just a sleepless night.

A long hike back to the bus and the drive back was all that stood before the conclusion of our journey, and despite a strange trip filled with nearly freezing to death, hard climbing and the oddest bus trip I have ever taken, I can truly say that my first Alaska adventure was as cold and as astounding any outsider could have hoped.