Backcountry Feelings

Evan Koncewicz, Junior Staff

The purpose of the pre-season blog entries is to give readers an idea of what goes on behind the scenes to make the field season happen, as well as what the incoming students can expect in the upcoming months. The JIRP staff are critical components of both pieces- they spend significant time getting everything up and running before the students arrive; once the students arrive, they work day in and day out as guides for every aspect of the traverse. We at JIRP hope the program continues to affect the lives of our participants after everyone goes home in August. This entry, and some of those that will follow, are meant to illustrate that hope with examples from the 2017 staff. I solicited blog entries about trips and projects staffers have undertaken over the winter. These “staff spotlights” show just a few ways JIRP has inspired people to seek out new skills and adventures, and how these experiences then inform their work when they return to the Icefield.


There is a feeling I get when I am outside. It goes beyond the subjectivity of my mental state. Yes, I feel healthy, athletic, exhilarated, peaceful, and confident when I am outside. Beyond that, however, I am more focused on different sensations than I am on what I perceive in my mind. What I really feel are the things around me. The temperature, wind, humidity, smell, sunshine, precipitation. I get a feeling of the world around me.


Overlooking Punta Union, 4750m (15584 ft.). Clouds clear to give us some brief warmth from the sun. Moments later sharp winds carry cold rain from the resurging clouds. Photo credit: Evan Koncewicz  


Last fall, I did something I’ve never done before; I traveled outside the United States. I did this without the comfort of my family, my culture, or my language. I left to backpack with a couple JIRP friends for three weeks in Peru. I had a lot of backpacking experience, especially recently coming off a six-week period on an icefield in a temperate rain forest. I have spent a good amount of time in the mountains and even took Spanish throughout high school. I did my research and, with some logistical and vaccine help from mom, was soon boarding a plane to Lima.       


Even within the relative familiarity of camping, Peru presents some new experiences. Photo credit: Tanner Pelletier


Peru is very different from the lands I am used to - the Northeastern U.S., Wyoming, and Southeast Alaska. Parts of Peruvian culture and geography are completely foreign to me. The coast is super dry. Weather almost never comes from the Pacific like it does on the west coast of the US. Lima is pretty hazy and polluted, causing us to breathe heavily. Streets are scattered with colectivos, oversized minivans that transport locals who are packed shoulder to shoulder and sitting on top of each other in order to cheaply get across the city. However, when you get away from the cultural epicenters created by man and out into the backcountry, Peru feels familiar.


The drier climate of the Peruvian Andes reminds me of Wyoming in the summer. Hiking trails zig-zag up mountain sides that lead to summits. As clouds roll in, so do humidity and thunder, which sounds the same as it always does at home. Rain pitter patters against the rain fly of my tent as I fall asleep. Glaciers are scattered across the higher peaks, leaving cold glacially-fed lakes below them. The water is a familiar shock to the body when you jump in, and the sun’s radiation is a relieving warmth. Traveling on glaciers is the same: ice crunches under our crampons as we manage the rope to get around crevasses. Sunsets are breathtaking and unforgettable, as are the summit views on the top of peaks.


Former JIRP staffers Tristan Amaral and Kirsten Arnell (2014-2016) and current staffer Evan celebrate on the summit of Vallunaraju in the Cordillera Blanca. Photo: Evan Koncewicz


I tell friends and family that the most memorable experience of the trip was not the cool backcountry exploring I did, but trying to negotiate the streets in Peru. It was the things that I was unfamiliar with that made the trip, the experiences I had never an opportunity to feel before. The ability to see and live in a culture so different from my own was eye opening, humbling, and special. The backcountry I have felt before. Those proper practices and techniques are transferable and I can adjust them to any environment. Those skills allow me to explore, play, learn, and most importantly to be safe.


The rugged terrain and intense isolation make it surprising to find small town likes this one. Many JIRPers feel the same way when they finish the hike to our icefield first camp! A friend admires the colectivo that brought us over the mountain pass in Vaqueria, Peru. Photo: Evan Koncewicz


As a field staffer at JIRP, my job is to facilitate exposure to experiences unfamiliar to many of our students: icefield life and glacier travel. We always hope JIRP students enjoy the process of stepping outside their comfort zones. I hope I can use my memories of traveling through Peru to make the newness of the icefield as exciting and enjoyable as possible.


The hardships of heavy packs and persistent rain do have their benefits. Camping below Punta Union on the Santa Cruz Trek as the sun sets behind the clouds. Photo: Evan Koncewicz