I’ve been holding back, and I’m shortchanging myself, my friends, my family, and if I’m honest with myself, the world as a whole. Not sharing major breakthroughs is selfish, and I’ve been very selfish about a big one.
One year ago, I had a life changing experience while visiting Alaska and it affected my outlook in a major way. I was visiting my cousin during the Thanksgiving holiday and part of our emerging tradition was going on epic hikes in the Alaska wilderness. I’ve had some of the best hikes of my life while visiting him over the past two Thanksgiving holidays.
Just imagine looking at a huge map of the stunning Chugach mountains sprawled out on a dining table with a couple of guidebooks providing trail descriptions. Now imagine it’s the night before a big hike day and it’s time to decide where to go the next morning. That was us.
I’m someone that likes to cover new ground whenever possible. Sure, I like to revisit awesome places again and again, but when I’m traveling to a place as vast as Alaska, I want to see some new things! Falls Creek In Chugach State Park was the hike that captured our attention as we debated the options before us. Something about the difficulty level and the option of adding a summit at the end of the trail sealed the deal.
When you’re exploring from Anchorage, several of the trailheads are accessed by the stunning Seward Highway that runs along Turnagain Arm, a truly spectacular body of water buttressed by the most beautiful snow covered mountains you can imagine. The Falls Creek trailhead is along that highway, and when we arrived to start out, we were the only ones there.
The hike started out straightforward enough – moderately steep ascent on a snowy, narrow trail through lightly wooded slopes. We eventually made it through the trees and into the creek valley on the ascent up toward a glistening peak ahead.
It was one of those days that was more beautiful than either of us could even put into words. But in our attempt, we commented that ‘this could be the most amazing hike of all time!’ That is saying a lot, given we are both very active hikers that have done some pretty amazing hikes in our lives. Such was the beauty that day. The sun was hitting the peak ahead of us, and behind us the v-shaped valley between the two mountains framed Turnagain Arm perfectly. We had a view of the water the entire day – all we had to do was turn around. Stunning mountain ahead, stunning water behind. What’s not to like?
As we continued up the valley, it was clear we intended to summit the peak ahead. After all, the book mentioned how this was the cherry on top of an already amazing hike. The further up we got, the deeper the snow became. At one point, I was waist deep in snow and we turned around to find another route up. Despite the physical challenges of the hike, we were in a blissful state and were beckoned by the picturesque peak ahead.
Eventually as we rose along the side of the mountain, a couple of things happened. First, we realized the mountain we were climbing was not the one we thought we were on. Second, the snow gave way to ice as we continued higher and higher. We both had micro spikes for traction, which was fine on the snowy portions of the hike, but it was insufficient for the icy conditions we faced. Additionally, we had trekking poles that were certainly not designed for the mountaineering with which we were currently engaged. Still, we kept going.
We were burning daylight, which is in short supply in Alaska in late November. At one point, as we were in striking distance of the summit, we had a little ‘meeting’ to discuss whether we were going to continue the climb, turn back and brave the icy descent, or call a helicopter to come get us from the situation. Straight up, true story: a helicopter was mentioned. We made a deal: if we could summit in the next 30 minutes, cool. If not, we were turning back.
I’ll be honest here: by the time we had that conversation, it was already too late – we were in a dangerous situation. We went out for a hike and ended up mountaineering on a steep, icy slope without proper gear. Yet, we pressed on.
I had been leading most of the climb, so it was on me to keep us ascending. We climbed for another 10 minutes or so with the pitch getting steeper and steeper. The ice offered nothing in the way of firm footing and the only thing between us and falling off the mountain were a pair of trekking poles and an uncanny desire to complete the experience. We paused yet again to discuss our situation and this time, despite only being a couple of hundred feet from the peak, we decided we were turning back.
It’s much, much more difficult to descend in these conditions. Gravity wants to pull you down, and without firm footing, there is simply very little one can do to remain stable. I had made the turn to face downward with Warner now leading the descent. We both knew it was going to be difficult and extremely dangerous going down, so we took our time getting situated. And then my world changed forever.
Just as we were getting our footing to start down, I started losing my balance. At first, I thought I could stabilize myself, but I soon realized I was in deep trouble. As I began to wobble, I knew instantly that I was going down on the ice and there was nothing to stop me from sliding off the icy ledge we were above. I did in fact go down, and as I began sliding, I reached for the last thing that I could grab – Warner’s boot, but it was too late. I can still feel the laces slipping through my fingers as I slid down the mountain.
Warner called out my name loudly, watching me pick up speed as I slid toward the ledge. It was this moment that the strangest thing happened. I had the realization that I was in a quite likely fatal situation. Neither of us could see over the ledge, but we both knew it was very steep, icy, and rocky all around us. I knew that it was possible my life was about to end, but oddly enough I never thought I was actually going to die.
Sliding ever faster, I reached the ledge and went airborne, careening out of sight. I landed in a snow field some distance below the ledge, and the momentum I had gained on the fall sustained itself even after my legs began digging into the deep snow. I was still falling and heading straight toward a second ledge, with the odds increasing that it was going to end very badly. Yet, with my body continuing to slide forward, I realized I was going to be able to stop before I went over. There was a tree barely sticking out of the snow directly in my path and I reasoned that I could grab the tree branches to stop myself if it came to that.
I called back to Warner and told him I was ok, and we began the process of figuring out our next moves. I was badly shaken, but amazingly not hurt. I can still feel the sensation of being nearly waist deep in snow, terrified of making another wrong move, or any move at all. I was in a precarious situation to say the least.
One of my trekking poles flew off on the ice sheet on the way down, so I was left with half of my stabilization, which was already insufficient, as evidenced by my fall. I was separated from Warner with no way to get back up to where he was. Luckily, he had an ice axe lashed to his pack, and after about 10 minutes of planning via yelling back and forth (we couldn’t see each other), we decided that I would attempt to cross the steep, snowy mountainside and meet up with him after he descended to intercept me. He would give me one of his trekking poles and use his ice axe to make the rest of the descent.
The plan worked. It was terrifying to execute, however. I was a bundle of nerves and felt that I had just cheated death, so moving at all was tough. But, there wasn’t really another viable option. I had to get down.
With only a single pole, I began the agonizing task of connecting up with Warner. Every step was carefully considered and I made absolutely certain I had stable footing before making a single move. Eventually we met up and descended together to a point where our lives weren’t in jeopardy with each step. It was then that I made 2 important declarations:
1. All of life is a bonus from here on out. Literally, everything that happens in my life. I knew in that moment that things would be different afterward. More on that in a minute.
2. I’d do it again. Maybe not exactly that way, but I wasn’t going to stop pursuing these kinds of adventures. I would make different choices when faced with these situations, but I wouldn’t shy away from opportunities to feel so alive.
I share this now for a couple of reasons. First, I think it’s worth celebrating a life-altering experience when it has such profound implications on one’s perspective. Second, I hope it will provide others some inspiration to get out and explore the world more, with proper gear of course. Life happens when we are outside our comfort zones, and mine has been truly enriched by this experience.
I’ve followed through on my declaration that day in year since. I met someone special in Anchorage a few days later and we have been together ever since. He’s traveled to visit me in Atlanta twice and I’ve been to see him 4 times in Anchorage. I went back to Alaska at the end of July to spend a couple of months up there and continue to explore the place that had such a profound impact on my life.
Some tangible changes I’ve made in my life in the year since my mountaintop experience include:
- Got rid of my car and bought a new bike as my primary transportation. I’ve never been happier or healthier!
- Used SkyMiles, Chase and AmEx points to travel more and spend time doing what I love doing, instead of hoarding them for some magical trip ‘someday,’ which is what I’d been doing for many years.
- Revisited my career path and work choices (still ongoing) and looked for ways to streamline this aspect of my life to make more room for what lights me up in life.
- Took a big step forward in my relationship with my mom and began the healing of some old wounds that were holding me back.
- Orchestrated my summer so I could spend 2 months in Alaska while taking some time away from work to continue evaluating how I want this aspect of my life to grow in the years ahead.
- Completed the Fjällräven Classic, a 110km thru hike in Sweden with a wonderful group of people from Atlanta and the Bay area.
- Transitioned my office lease over to a partner agency so that I could be truly ‘location independent.’ This promises to open up a whole world of possibilities!
Most of these things would have been unthinkable a year ago. Certainly, I could never have imagined I’d be visiting Alaska on a regular basis, much less maintaining a long distance relationship there!
There’s a quote that’s been in my email inbox for 3 years that really speaks to me. It’s from Gretchen Rubin’s daily ‘Moment of Happiness’ emails:
Do not look back. And do not dream about the future, either. It will neither give you back the past, nor satisfy your other daydreams. Your duty, your reward—your destiny—are here and now.” – Dag Hammarskjold, Markings
It was sent on July 27, 2015. 3 years to the day before my 2-month trip to Alaska began this summer. I can’t think of a more appropriate quote to encapsulate how this experience has impacted my life, and the timing of the message is uncanny. It’s all about now. Saying Yes to the present moment. Letting life unfold without putting artificial restrictions on it.
This is where I am today. I hope that in some small way, this story will impact someone else positively. Maybe it will be the catalyst for someone taking a big chance in life, or maybe it will just make someone smile. Whatever the outcome, I know that I’ve done my part in sharing the experience.
Feel free to share what’s coming up for you in this story. Or just let it marinate and see if anything shifts in the coming days. Either way, I hope you enjoyed the read.