Sometimes I wonder why I’m not more drawn to tropical climates. I spend my winters in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan as an ice-climbing guide, and fill my free time with climbing and skiing. I spend 6 days a week almost all winter long in frigid sub-zero conditions while most humans should be in bed drinking hot chocolate. My love for the ice and snow drew me to Alaska as the ultimate frozen playground. For many years I had dreamt of planning a climbing trip into the Alaska Range, one of the more wildest and unforgiving alpine environments in the world. So when that dream was finally coming to fruition I couldn’t help but wonder if spending just a couple weeks in Alaska would be enough? Can I get a sense of the culture, landscape, and recreation in such a small window. As much as I love the “Yoop”, it just made sense to spend the entire summer in the land of the midnight sun. So after brushing up the resume and sending a few emails I ended up choosing a glacier guiding and whitewater rafting company called NOVA Alaska Guides. The relaxed nature of the phone interview and the lack of official hiring processes assured me that it was going to be a great fit. It was settled.
Belaying a client up the “icefall” area
I was going to chase the ice and snow and continue guiding ice-climbing for the entire year. So after my personal climbing trip into the Alaska Range (see last blog post) I found myself gearing up to head to my new place of employement, which couldn’t have worked out better because my bank account informed me that I owned “-17.00” dollars. Our company operates out of Hick’s Creek, a chunk of land situated on the Matanuska River in Glacier View, Alaska. Glacier view is a “census designated” area along the Glen Allen Highway just a few hours east of Anchorage boasting a mere 200 permanent residents along the 30 mile stretch of highway. NOVA has been in business since 1975 running class IV rafting trips on the Matanuska River. The glacier guiding came later in the company’s life but now claims half of the business.
Roaming the Matanuska Glacier
We offer three types of glacier outings. A hike, which is 3 hours long and relatively mellow. A trek, which is 5 hours long and is half ice-climbing and half adventurous glacier scrambling. And a climb, which as the name implies, we spend the entire 5 hours swinging tools. I only guide the treks and climbs, both of which involve technical rope work. Day-to-day my clientele is incredibly varied, ranging from young experienced ice climbers to elderly newbies who have never seen a climbing harness. Along with the varied client base, the glacier is wildly dynamic. Man-eating crevasses appear overnight, areas of the glacier become flooded and uncrossable in a matter of days, and chunks from the icefall continuously break off. This makes the guided terrain ever-changing and very fun to work with. Day by day I alter my path through the glacier based on ability level and landscape changes. No two days are alike and that is what keeps me excited. As far as the more technical side of things, we use three v-threads for our standard tope-rope anchors here on the Matanuska glacier. We do this because on hotter days the ice screws heat up and melt out of the ice in as little as 20 minutes! Doing a bit of basic math: three v-threads, times two per trip, times two trips per day, times forty days straight without a day off. Needless to say I can drill three perfect v-threads in less time than it used to take me to build a three screw anchor. We also frequently do hand lines to get up steeper terrain and munter lowers to get down areas where the fall consequenses are higher. I also regularly negotiate top-site managed climbs in which I lower eager clients into moulins (holes created by water) and have them climb back out.
A client reaching easier ground after climbing out of a moulin.
We work with a few different kids groups as well, so sometimes we get to switch it up and work with teenagers for a couple days. It’s awesome to teach younger kids ice climbing technique and watch them crush it on the overhanging ice walls. Camp life isn’t so bad either. Our 23 employees are split between the glacier, the river, and the office; but we all live on the property together in tents. We do all of the normal fun camp activites like campfires, lawn games, and beer drinking. Because we all work so hard we try to play equally as hard. We host our own music festival, launch a fourth of july fireworks show, and organize a weekly kickball match against the other seasonal employees in the valley. In the evenings when I need to escape the ice for just a little bit there is even a pretty sweet rock crag with many sport and trad routes just 10 minutes from camp. Often times after a day of work though I find myself itching to head back to the glacier to do some personal ice climbing as well. Sure is fun to swing tools in July!
Can’t forget about the 20 hours of daylight either, which was strange at first but it’s amazing how quickly your body can adapt. Overall I can confidently say that the land of the midnight sun has now claimed a piece of my heart. I feel incredibly lucky to have stumbled upon a such a fun place to work and live, and the people I am surrounded with just enrich the experience. And as the summer winds to and end I can’t help but become excited for my winter back in the Upper Peninsula to continue doing what I love. Can I be both a Yooper and an Alaskan, for now I will go with YES.