An adventure dream achieved during a global crisis

We left Anchorage on March 14 chasing a dream of many years: setting out on skis from McCarthy, Alaska, to traverse hundreds of miles of wilderness in the Wrangell Mountains. We’d spent months preparing for the trip and years building the skills we needed to complete it successfully. When we left, coronavirus had not yet been accepted by Americans as a crisis.

At our send-off dinner with friends, I announced that Italy was on lockdown, as I’d only just learned through social media. I joked about how I’d bought my house two weeks too soon to take advantage of dropping interest rates. We speculated about investments. I’m embarrassed to say that the problem seemed small. It seemed foreign. We were thinking only of ourselves.

In McCarthy, we joined ten other participants for the Alaska Mountain Wilderness Ski Classic, an underground event which starts in McCarthy (year-round population 28) and finishes in Tok, Alaska, almost due north. An Alaska tradition since the 1980s, it’s as rugged as wilderness events come: participants travel unsupported across the Wrangell and Mentasta Mountains in winter with no set course. There is only a start line and a finish line, and routes vary from 130 to 200 miles in length.

Depending on route, participants may climb a 70-degree snow slope, pick their way across the longest valley glacier in North America, or boot across bergschrunds. Or they might go the long way, avoiding high elevation but skiing more than 200 miles in the process. Taylor, my backcountry partner of five years, and I chose a route that was technical but within our abilities. It involved many heavily crevassed glaciers, difficult moraine fields, an 8200-foot pass, and complex wilderness navigation. As the only all-female team and the only team of two embarking on a glacier route, we were aware of a certain pressure to perform beyond the obvious need to mitigate objective hazards.

Navigating crevasses and blue ice on the Nabesna Glacier. (Emily Sullivan)

The stress we endured over that week in the Wrangells was palpable.

For six days, we skied 17 to 30 miles a day. We navigated crevasse fields, built wind walls for our tent in a blowing storm at 7,200 feet, assessed avalanche conditions, and spent below-zero nights on snow in sleeping bags rated for 15-degrees. We crossed glacial rivers barefoot and pantless as the sun sank low in the sky, collapsing in tears into the snow when our numb and bruised feet had finally carried us to the far bank. We became programmed to survey hazards, filing each threat automatically into a bank of information, our heads on a constant swivel as we moved as efficiently as possible through mountains that command respect.

Between the river crossings, bushwhacking, tedious trail breaking, and cramponing across narrow ice ridges, we experienced incredible moments of solitude, peace, and serenity. Encouragement came in the form of messages in the snow, written by friends ahead of us on other routes. The beauty of a sunrise or the vast wildness of the terrain we traveled through often left us speechless.

After one morning of white-out glacier navigation, the clouds parted and we unroped to ski swiftly down a mellow glacier in the sun, through floating, sparkling flecks of snow and some of the most striking mountains we’d ever seen. We received heartening messages to my inReach each night, and reveled in the virtual energy sent by our friends. Some messages made vague references to the world falling apart in our absence. We didn’t think too much about it.

Left: Participants prepare at the start line in McCarthy, Alaska.
Right: Skiing across the Nizina River towards the Wrangell Mountains.
(Emily Sullivan)

After a few days, we found ourselves often easily moved to tears, and became hyper aware of our bodies’ reactions to the emotional, mental, and physical roller coaster we were riding. On day 5, I turned on my inReach and read a message from the outside:

“Do not go up Noyes. Avalanche danger super high. Full burial today, everyone okay. Take Nabesna road out. <3”.

It hit like a brick. One of our friends, about a day ahead of us on route, had been fully buried by a remotely triggered avalanche. Three feet below the surface, he spent five minutes frozen in time. He could feel his friends’ footsteps on top of the snow that might suffocate him as they dug madly, implementing his rescue. “Not my legs, my head!” he screamed internally as he felt shovels finally clearing snow from his body. He came out unscathed, and the leaders were able to miraculously finish the route — fighting brush and waist deep snow for days — via a new route to Tok.

It seemed to us at that time that nothing could be heavier than the debris of a hard slab avalanche. If only we’d known what we would come home to find.

When we reached our new end point of Nabesna, news from the outside world began to trickle in slowly. The Denali climbing season was canceled. My friend had to lay off 95 percent of her staff from the restaurant group she manages, as they moved to take-out only.

“What in the world is going on out there?” We still didn’t know the half of it, and we spent one last night on the snow in semi-ignorant bliss, celebrating the completion of our route.

Approaching the toe of the Nizina Glacier. (Emily Sullivan)

I’m so grateful for that last day. We skied for thirteen hours, mostly in the sun. We cruised at a constant speed, eating miles for lunch. I blasted upbeat tunes in my earbuds as I broke trail for hours straight. Already eight hours into the day, I was hyper-aware that this was the strongest I’d ever felt in my life. My insides did a little dance, and I knew that I’d been seduced by the drug of the Wilderness Classic.

I rode that high nearly all the way to Nabesna, my heart filled with love for Taylor and pride for what we had accomplished together. It was just days later, on my 32nd birthday, that the world crumbled beneath my feet.

“Hope the Classic went well. Dang are you in for a shock when you get back.”

The text came through as soon as I returned to cell service. Similar messages poured in over the days to come, but ‘shock’ hardly qualifies the experience of returning to the new reality of the coronavirus crisis in the U.S. When we left civilization just seven days prior, elbow-bumps were encouraged instead of hugs, and large conferences were being canceled one by one. Universities had extended spring break, but otherwise, business carried on.

We returned to a world where my younger sister had fled her apartment in New York City because her roommate wasn’t practicing quarantine. When she told me that she hadn’t touched a person in seven days, I finally began to understand the magnitude of the situation. All at once, I learned that I would no longer be able to hug my friends, or even enter their houses.

All non-essential businesses were closed, and a “hunker down” order had been issued for Anchorage. My family taught me over FaceTime how to protect myself at the grocery store, on the trails surrounding my house, and even how to receive my mail safely. My sister had written down the number of cases in New York every day, starting on March 16th. In six days, cases had jumped from 850 to 16,900. The crisis was real, and it was here.

So what happens to a dream achieved, but overshadowed by a global crisis?

The accomplishment hasn’t disappeared, but I’m left wondering how much it matters. We embarked on a journey that meant the world to us. We rode the highs and lows and basked in the mountain glow with friends at the finish. And as is the case with most mountain endeavors, the trip was a selfish one.

Our focus was narrow: get across the Wrangells, quickly and safely. In the mountains, things seemed complex — crevasse to the left, avalanche path to the right. Is the weather clear enough to leave camp? Is that blue ice or a rotten snow bridge under that new inch of snow? Taylor’s leg just punched through — where do we go from here?

Nearing the journey’s end in Nabesna, Alaska. (Emily Sullivan)

Now that I’ve been home for a while, navigating complex mountain terrain seems quite simple: survey your surroundings to stay alive. In a world where I’m told to wash my clothes the moment I step in from the grocery store and to not touch my face after touching my mail, I find myself longing to return to the comparative simplicity of avoiding crevasse falls. And that’s probably natural: as mountain people, we’ve learned to focus on ourselves. We excel by prioritizing our hobbies, spending time outside, and honing our skills, speed, and knowledge of the mountains. But the current crisis is a reminder of how little these things matter in the bigger picture.

Outdoors people have many opportunities to step outside of themselves and engage in the global community — take climate advocacy as a prime example. Our actions have ramifications, and our privilege demands a certain level of responsibility. The current crisis is immediate, unavoidable, and scary. Right now millions of lives are at stake around the world. Our goals and objectives have never mattered less. As Taylor put it, “this is not about any one of us, but all of us.”

So, as much as I want to return to the mountains and their simplicity, I’ll instead fill my cup by keeping the mountain memories alive and at the forefront, allowing the dream to live on and feed me hope for the future. Alone in my home in the coming weeks, I’ll remember to be grateful for the intense experiences of the Wilderness Classic, as well as the many privileges and comforts that I’m lucky to have during this uncertain time.

And when I feel lonely, I’ll savor the memory of human touch — especially the prolonged hug I shared with my friend Eric when he crossed the finish line in Tok. He’d been alone for four days and arrived hungry, tired and beatdown but overjoyed. It was a powerful squeeze that released vulnerability, fear, elation, stress, accomplishment, pain, strength and love all in one moment. The future is uncertain, but I think a mix of these emotions will be coursing through our collective veins for some time to come.

This piece originally appeared in Adventure Journal.