An Icy Odyssey

icy oddessey.jpg

Step, crunch, breathe, sink, dig, gasp. Sob, dig, sink, step, breathe. My hiking poles afforded me reduced gravity atop the 18 inches of freshly fallen snow. The price was sharply aching shoulders, burning lungs and exhausted hands. There's a saying that Alaska is always trying to kill you. I can confirm its omnipresent murderous intentions but in equal measure its breathtaking beauty, intoxicatingly crisp air and inimitable sense of the 'wild'. Ahead of me lay a trail peppered with mucky water trenches carved into knee deep craters by the monstrous 4x4's of burley moose hunters. Each step brought wetter, colder feet and the niggling question "Why am I here?" The doubts raged. "My legs are numb", "I’m neither butch nor burley", "Wolves sense fear and bears do shit in the woods". In spite of my inner drama and soft, city boy demeanor I knew what had lead me to this new icy reality. A belief that clear and present danger (other than life in Brixton) could force me to connect with my ambition; a growing need for adventure and a poignant film about a guy who died in the wild had inspired me Northward. I had landed in Anchorage four days earlier with an unneccesarily heavy bag and connected with a group of strangers from an internet forum dedicated to hikers wishing to retrace the steps of one Christopher McCandless.

The story of Christopher (AKA Alexander Supertramp), as chronicled in the book ‘Into the Wild’ and a later movie of the same name, has inspired adventure seekers from around the world to visit the vast Alaskan interior. Having donated his college fund to charity, he hiked, hitched and kayaked around America, burning his remaining cash and abandoning his car along the way. In April 1992, with the intention of living solely from the land’s bounty, he began a solo quest along the Stampede Trail on the edges of Denali National Park, Alaska. His backpack contained a book about native plants and berries, a camera, rice, cooking utensils, a journal, fishing twine and hook, a rifle with ammunition and Pasternak's ‘Dr Zhivago'. Roughly twenty miles into the trail he happened upon an abandoned 1946 International Harvester bus left as shelter for trappers, dog mushers and other back country visitors. Making it his home he lived aboard his ‘magic bus' for four months experiencing his ultimate freedom and sustaining himself on what he gathered and hunted. Journal entries portray a man for the most part content with his own company and the fruits of his solitude. From what I’ve read and seen, at an indeterminable point Chris’s desire to remain alone gave way to his need for others. A sub note "Happiness only real when shared" scribbled in his copy of ‘Dr Zhivago’ points to a shift in his desire for detachment and continued hermitry. Raging river levels lead to an unsuccessful attempt to return to civilization. Becoming effectively trapped in his paradise, his food source diminished leading him, perhaps in desperation, to consume misidentified toxic seeds. Poisoned and incapable of gathering food he weakened and starved. His body was found wrapped in his sleeping bag aboard bus 142 by hunters three weeks later.

I recognize the irony of ‘pilgrims’, such as myself, wishing to escape to the wilderness on a path that is now well travelled. The essence of Chris's journey was facing the unknown. Being ignorant of the difference between an elk and a moose or indeed a mongoose for that matter - I felt it wise to have the security of company and perhaps a map, Kindle and abundant toilet paper. Upon our arrival we found locals almost universally berating our adventure as foolhardy. More than one bearded resident lectured us on our seemingly unjustifiable honoring of an under prepared drifter who lacked respect for the power of nature. At best we were met with weary but kind advice not to die and reminders that rescue services regularly pluck hapless, helpless, hopeless hikers to safety and the shame of public defeat. Whilst these people clearly see Chris's actions as arrogant and foolish, I see his tenacious perseverance as noble and brave. Rejecting materialism and embracing the unpredictability of such an unforgiving place is to me, inspiring. Suggesting he was foolish is to suggest dreams should only be followed when success is guaranteed.

I believe Chris’s success was hampered more by bad luck than his incapability or youthful zeal. The seeds he consumed have only since his death been proven as toxic - most relevantly to those on a limited diet such as his. Had his botany book carried this warning he would have undoubtedly hiked out from the trail to congratulatory back slapping by the very ones who now scoff his efforts. I see a young man who happily survived prolonged hardship beyond what most could endure in order to be immersed in the landscape he loved; a man of determined conviction and principle; a man who needed to isolate himself in order to discover the joy of people; a man who so meaningfully found happiness was 'only real when shared’ when it was tragically too late. To learn this precious lesson with a life still left to live it by is, to me, a gift more valuable than anything. My hike gave me unprecedented joy, adventure and four new friends with whom I laughed, struggled and grew. We relied on each other for warmth and company. We supported, accepted and helped each other. Our efforts fell short of reaching Alexander Supertramp’s magic bus. Relentless snow halted our advancement after 9 miles. Crossing the river that trapped Chris held clear and present danger given the sub zero temperatures and persistent snow fall. Wishing not to suffer the embarrassment of rescue or indeed to be the main characters in a second rate sequel, we turned back heavy hearted. The hike back was the most physically grueling experience of my life. I never want to see a protein bar again but drinking fresh glacial water straight from the stream was a sensation I’ll cherish over most. Despite the disappointment I can't see our journey as any failure. I experienced nature's purity, abundance and unpredictability in a way that was humbling but not belittling. Merely to exist in it was empowering. I was warmed by the sound of distant, icy, howling winds from inside a snug, snow covered tent. I marvelled agog at a moose gliding his mammoth frame through the valley below and breathed air so clean as to make my lungs new. Wedging my feet into boots frozen solid and using body heat to defrost socks that stood vertical from the previous day’s wetting was a challenge that brought out my precious side - (apologies to Katrin, John Paul, Joey and Hugo). I've waded through knee high snow atop ankle deep mud and sloshed through ice cold streams for mile on end imagining hungry bears and wolves around every corner. I have felt I was the first to ever step in the spot I was standing, pushed myself to exhaustion and learnt it can awaken ancient determination. I also mercifully avoided any abrasive alternatives to loo roll and learned the difference between a moose, an elk and a mongoose. The bus remains there to coax me back to Alaska - rusting silently in the endless freezing landscape Alexander Supertramp enjoyed as his own. I believe I’ll get there to leave my trinket of respect - as many have before me but really - the magic bus has already given me more than I hoped it could and for now, my photos can be my tribute to a real adventurer.