What Doesn't Kill You Makes You Stronger

Deirdre Collins

Georgetown University

Our first major traverse—the 10 mile hike to Camp 17, which sits on the edge of the Juneau Icefield and marks the beginning of our expedition—persistently sat in the back of my mind during my first week of JIRP. Having learned the stories and backgrounds of my peers upon my arrival in Juneau, I was initially intimidated by their physical strength, adventurous spirits and wilderness backgrounds. I was filled with nervous excitement as I listened to the staff tell stories of the swamps, elevation gains and challenging terrain we would encounter on our hike. Despite their descriptions of the trials we would face on our upcoming endeavor, the staff reminded me, as I reminded myself, that we were all capable of completing the hike to Camp 17, to begin our journey on the Juneau Icefield. Seeing that my fellow JIRPers exuded confidence in their attitudes towards the hike and were supportive of those who didn’t helped me feel secure as I anticipated the big day ahead.

On the morning of June 30th, I quickly shoved the remainder of my belongings into my pack, and questioned how on earth I would ever manage to lift all of its 40 pounds onto my back. I joined my trail party outside our University of Alaska Southeast dorm to drive to the trailhead. When we arrived, I jumped, twisted and jumped again several times to strap my pack to my body. Our Juneau-based staff said their goodbyes, snapped a “before” photo of us before we wouldn’t take a real shower for around 50 days, and we set out on the trail. The path underlay monstrous trees that I only imagined existed in movies like Lord of the Rings, and inclined gradually from the very start. Remembering that this was considered the “flat” part of the hike, a trace of panic emerged within me as I imagined what was referred to as the “vertical swamp” ahead. When Ibai, our Safety Manager and the head of my trail party, announced that we had reached the vertical swamp, I cranked my neck backwards to process the steep incline above me, which appeared impossible to maneuver. Holding onto any bit of hope I had that I would make it, I began to lift myself up the hillside, clambering under fallen trees, shoving my hands and feet into holds made by tree roots and leaning forward to ensure my pack didn’t take me down with it. Despite my best efforts, any slight movement of my pack caused me to tumble sideways, backwards, or even face first on many occasions. In that moment, I understood why we had practiced some of our climbing skills when we visited the Rock Dump, the local climbing wall, in Juneau.

JIRP students stand above the Ptarmigan Valley at Camp 17. Climbing up the Ptarmigan Valley represented the last leg of the traverse to Camp 17. Photo by Paul Neiman

JIRP students stand above the Ptarmigan Valley at Camp 17. Climbing up the Ptarmigan Valley represented the last leg of the traverse to Camp 17. Photo by Paul Neiman

We hiked through the wet understory of the Tongass National Forest, and the humidity quickly overcame me. With not much hiking experience throughout my life, I hadn’t properly nourished myself for the hike and I soon grew incredibly exhausted. I drank five liters of water, which I seemed to sweat out immediately, and as we climbed higher and higher in elevation, I had trouble regulating my breath. I was sure that this was the hardest thing I had ever done and was genuinely unsure as to whether I would make it to Camp 17 that night. Physical exertion soon turned to emotional panic and as I trailed behind my group, there were moments I wondered if I was in over my head choosing to do JIRP. I had always considered myself strong, but in these moments of difficulty, I lost confidence in my strength and in my ability to recover. As I trailed behind my group, I had a realization; I was with a staff member who had done this before, who had surely seen students struggle, and with friends who would help me if I vocalized how I was feeling. Once I told my trail party that I needed a break, that I didn’t feel well, everything changed. We stopped at a beautiful lake and took a 30 minute break. I made myself eat, drink Gatorade, change into a dry shirt and let Ibai take some of the weight from my pack. I suddenly felt better and was amazed at how quickly I was able to bounce back after having reached such a low point only a half an hour before. I replenished my electrolytes and started to retain more water. Thirty minutes, self-care and support from my group was all I needed to move forward and succeed. I walked up the last part of the hike— up the Ptarmigan valley to Camp 17—for hours feeling strong and revitalized. I was amazed how much my body could endure and that I already had so much to learn from an experience that had seemed so hopeless and negative just hours before. I will always have my trail party, those strong and understanding JIRPers, to thank for supporting me. I realized that I was no longer intimidated, but grateful for their wilderness backgrounds, strength and collective knowledge since they had so many lessons to teach me, even in my weakest moments.

After a week of safety training at Camp 17, full of lessons on glacier travel, ski practice and mini traverses, we have now completed the two-day, 23 mile traverse across the Juneau Icefield to Camp 10. Despite my difficult experience hiking to Camp 17, the weeks leading up to this traverse and the lessons I learned from my first hike, including to take care of myself, to seek help and to persevere, prepared me for this longer and arguably more difficult traverse. Having spent a week with other JIRPers at Camp 17 for safety training, I realized that I wasn’t the only person who struggled at times. As I grew closer to my new friends, we were able to look at the difficulties we encountered and laugh; Laugh at our many face plants on the Lemon Creek Glacier as we learned how to cross country ski, at our memories of the vertical swamp on the hike to Camp 17 and at the challenges that JIRP throws at us every day. We viewed these as learning experiences that would make us stronger for future traverses and became support systems for one another. With these lessons in mind, I crossed the first leg of the Juneau Icefield just a week ago to Camp 10 with a smile on my face despite many skiing falls and exhausting, steep elevation gains. I went from struggling as I walked up the vertical swamp to enjoying myself as I ascended a steep hill on skis just two weeks later. I arrived after two days to our new camp still smiling and had regained confidence in my physical and mental strength. My experience on the first traverse was so difficult, I was unsure if I could learn from it. In the end, that same experience proved to help me immensely on our second major traverse. I now know that I was right all along; I am strong and I can carry on in the face of challenge. Even more than that, it only takes me a few hops to get my backpack on now.