Neacola Expedition: The Moments In Between

Drew Thayer arives at the headwaters of the Tlikakila River.

Drew Thayer arives at the headwaters of the Tlikakila River.

I sat at the bank of the headwaters of the Tlikakila River, my thoughts bleeding into the white noise of water pounding past. This water had surged under the Pitchfork Glacier for miles. This glacier was big enough to be measured in cubic miles of ice. This was the vast and remote wilderness of Alaska. My pack raft was packed, my drysuit and PFD were on and my helmet strap was adjusted to extra snug. I had pack rafted exactly twice beforehand.

“Is this reckless?” my inner dialogue begins.

“Probably.”

“Is this stupid?” the next logical question.

“Maybe” not so reassuring.

“Do I have any other options in this moment?”

“No, this is what I signed up for. There is no halfway.”

“So what do I know?”

“Follow Craig’s line through the rapids. Look for eddies. Hit the waves head on. If I flip, pull the skirt, grab the fucking paddle and swim to shore. Feet pointed up and down river.”

“Holy shit I haven’t been this scared since my first multipitch climb. Will I know what to do?”

“Yes dammit. Stick to the plan. Here we go.”

From a moment earlier on the trip: I just placed a bomber nut and cam at my waist. I’m balancing on my toes while peering over a roof to see if the route will go. I feel calm and excited like a boy opening up Christmas presents. This is what I know. I may as well be that boy again at home hoping for remote controlled racecar. I see holds above, but no protection for the next 30 feet. I remind myself I could always down climb if it gets hard. I trust myself and move.

Craig Muderlak heading into the unknown. (Red Dihedral 5.11- Grade IV FA)

Craig Muderlak heading into the unknown. (Red Dihedral 5.11- Grade IV FA)

Another moment: I am sharing a belay ledge with Craig while Drew pushes on above. There is silence. We have been watching the sunset for the last two hours. Because of the long days in Alaska, the sun sets in slow motion. It feels like this is the reason we came.

Later on: we are stuck inside a ping-pong ball. I feel the humidity on my face and squint in the bright white light and can barely make out our camp. I feel lost and found, trapped and safe all at the same time. And above all else exhausted.

The media usually favors the extreme moments. People want to hear about that cutting-edge, fast and light, ultra radical thing you did. But there’s so much more. There’s the suspense that builds for weeks before an adventure. There’s the suspense in the minutes and seconds leading up to the unknown. Or how that suspense can alternate between child-like excitement and soul-rattling fear. Or the relief and empowerment that follows finishing something that felt impossible. I am drawn to the mountains for their beauty and for the chance to see myself more clearly. And each time I return to the world somehow changed, certainly inspired and usually exhausted.

David Fay following a splitter pitch high on the Dogtooth Spire. (Birthday Jorts 5.10+ Grade IV FA)

David Fay following a splitter pitch high on the Dogtooth Spire. (Birthday Jorts 5.10+ Grade IV FA)

Birthday Jorts 5.10+ Grade IV FA

The Red Dihedral 5.11- Grade IV FA

Shred Mode 2,000’ 70° Snow M4 FA of the mountain which we named Spearhead

Packrafting Tlikakila River to The Big River to the Ocean. First Complete Descent.