Trip Recap: Mount Bear 2023

Last Updated: June 14, 2024

While my business is all about sports nutrition for mountain and other outdoor athletes, I’ve been thinking for a while that it might be interesting to my readers to provide some accounts of my outdoor adventures, and what I’ve learned along the way (including nutrition takeaways). This post is my first attempt at providing a trip recap – the trip I describe here was a ski mountaineering trip I did with my husband in May 2023 in Alaska.

Skiing up Mount Bear, a 14er in the Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in Alaska.

My eyes flicked open, taking in my surroundings. Orange nylon walls, quivering slightly in the breeze. Bluebird-colored sleeping bag, wedged up against the tent wall, covered in tiny snowflakes that had started as condensed water on the tent ceiling at night and eventually froze, snowing down onto us as we slept. Beside me, Brian lay asleep, his mouth slightly agape and breathing softly. All was deathly quiet outside; not a single bird call, fluttering lead, or plane overhead. Anxiety sank in as I realized where I was; another day in this tent, trapped on a glacier in the remote Wrangell-St. Elias wilderness in Alaska. Would we get out today? Who knows.

The situation I found myself in was honestly my own doing. After all, I was the one who suggested to Brian that we sign up for a mountaineering trip in Alaska. However, I was unprepared for exactly how remote and wild this trip would be. I hadn’t anticipated the 8-hour drive from Anchorage to McCarthy, AK, where we met up with our guides for the journey at their home base, a (slightly) refurbished structure originating from the golden days of McCarthy when it was a mining town. I had also not anticipated the 45-minute bush plane flight that took us from McCarthy to a vast glacier deep in the wilderness, at the foot of the mountain we intended to climb and ski, Mount Bear. The scenery from the plane was equally breathtaking and terrifying. This plane was our ticket into the wilderness and also our only ticket out unless we intended to trek through the wilderness for weeks to get from the mountain back to McCarthy.

In addition to the remoteness and vastness of the wilderness, we found ourselves in, I was already feeling utterly burned out from my work as a clinical nutritionist working with clients with chronic illnesses; I found it hard to forget about despite being so far from home. I was already contemplating shifting my nutrition business to focus on sports nutrition. I hoped this niche would be more enjoyable, rewarding, and less stressful than my current niche. My mind raced with everything I needed to do to change my work when I came home, the thoughts about work swirling into the anxious stream-of-consciousness dialogue about how nervous I was about this trip.

We had been laying in this tent for four days, trapped by a combination of a snowstorm and socked-in weather that prevented the bush plane from flying into the park to pick us up and return us to McCarthy. Four days earlier, we had summited Mount Bear on our skis on a day with clear blue skies that allowed us to see for miles from the top of the nearly 15,000 ft peak.

Skiing down from the summit of Mount Bear

After spending about ten minutes on the summit, taking the requisite photos, and eating a quick snack, we popped into ski mode and began our ski descent of the mountain. The snow was thick and heavy, with a substantial skin that easily trapped our skis, causing our bodies to tumble forward while our skis remained stuck in place more than a few times. I skied in 20-second spurts; my quads couldn’t handle anything longer as they burned in rebellion as I navigated the intense terrain. We skied for a couple of hours; at one point, we began to ski down a bowl with sweeping views of the glacier below, a cirque of peaks surrounding us. Time slowed as I slid through the snow, my skis gliding effortlessly, unlike on the crusty, heavy snow above. Eventually, I slid into camp near the “LZ,” short for “landing zone,” where the bush plane would pick us up for our return flight to McCarthy. I had thoroughly enjoyed the summit and descent, but frankly, I was ready to catch the bush plane and get back to McCarthy; the remoteness of the mountain was freaking me out. Unfortunately, it would be several days before I could set foot on the bush plane and return to McCarthy. Before that, I would experience the full effects of “mountain fever,” trapped in a tiny mountaineering tent and at the mercy of Mother Nature.

One of the guides building our camp (including the latrine – a pit in the snow) at the landing zone basecamp.

Once we arrived back in camp, our guides got on the radio with the bush plane pilot. He could not fly out to pick us up today because of suboptimal weather conditions. He would try again tomorrow. I was crestfallen, having allowed my hopes that he would be able to pick us up today to rise too high.

The following day, I woke up and lay still in my sleeping bag, eager for a radio call bearing news of the pilot’s imminent arrival. When the call finally came, he could still not pick us up; this time, he was also busy shuttling skiers into the backcountry, so he would be occupied with that for a while. Unfortunately, this also meant that if a good weather window opened, he might be unable to pick us up if he was still busy shuttling skiers around.

The next three days were more of the same; our guides called the pilot, and the pilot was consistently unavailable when the weather was good or unable to reach us because the weather was bad. The back-and-forth communication and the corresponding rise and fall of my hopes began to drive me mad. Poor weather – high winds, snow, and low visibility – kept us trapped in the tent for four days. Brian and I shared a small mountaineering tent with barely enough room to sit up. We lay in the tent for hours; I drifted back and forth between listening to books on my phone and sleeping. As I rummaged through my food bag and noted the rapidly dwindling supply, I began to ration, eating just a tiny snack and one meal a day. By day 3, I also spent time crying in the tent, feeling alone, overwhelmed, and more isolated than I ever had before in my life.

Here’s where I’ll provide a nutrition takeaway: Looking back, I think dehydration contributed significantly to my heightened emotional state (including what I’ve described below) while we were trapped at the landing zone basecamp. It was so cold and stormy outside that I had little desire to leave the tent to urinate; looking back, I see that this inadvertently led me to consume far less water than I should have. Dehydration can alter one’s mental state. For subsequent trips, I have made sure to stay properly hydrated, no matter the conditions outside!

Finally, after four days of laying in the tent, unable to leave the mountain due to the bushplane’s inability to get us, I broke down. I sobbed, wanting nothing more than to get out of that tent and off the glacier. Since the primary pilot was still MIA, one of the guides called in a backup pilot. He could come to the glacier, but the catch was that his plane only had room for one passenger and could only make one trip. We decided that I would be that one passenger. I was told to quickly grab a few things to stuff in my jacket, as I couldn’t bring any luggage onto the plane. About 30 minutes later, I could hear the distant thrum of an engine. Out of the clouds, a tiny plane came into view. It gently landed on the glacier, the engine never stopping. I was rapidly ushered into the plane, and it took off in the blink of an eye, leaving Brian, our two guides, and our camp below tiny specks on the massive, forbidding glacier.

The plane felt like a flying soup can (no offense to the intrepid pilot). Where I sat wasn’t so much a seat as it was a box secured to the plane floor. I held on to handrails to my right and left for dear life as the plane ascended from the glacier into the sky, skimming past (frighteningly close) snow-capped peaks. Slowly, the green forest came into sight as we left the snowy mountains behind us and circled above McCarthy. Ultimately, the plane landed in McCarthy; I stayed the night in the guide company’s guest house and headed home the following morning. Brian remained stuck on the glacier with the two guides for four more days. He ultimately returned home, too.

Altogether, this trip dished out more adventure than we’d bargained for. It was an opportunity to test my mettle, challenge myself, and withstand hardship, ultimately making myself more resilient.

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Lindsay Christensen Dietitian Nutritionist Colorado

Hi, I'm Lindsay

I help mountain athletes improve their performance through a holistic and inclusive approach to nutrition.

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