Thinking About You
Last spring, Marissa Krawczak, Amanda Hankison, and Kaytlyn Gerbin spent eighteen days on Denali in Alaska learning, splitboarding, and raising awareness for STAY: Somebody's Thinking About You. STAY is a non-profit founded two years ago by women in the snowboard community who were dissatisfied with the mental health resources and treatment options
available to action sports athletes.
In honor of National Suicide Prevention Month and in support of the STAY Denali project, Spark R&D will match donations to STAY up to $2,000. Please consider a donation to this worthy organization.
Words: Marissa Krawczak
Powdery snow flies up on the sides of our airplane as we touch down on a fresh patch of airstrip on the Kahiltna Glacier. We had been waiting in Talkeetna for four days in the rain - weighing our gear, packing, repacking, and commandeering the pilots' lounge while we waited for a weather window. Once out of the small Cessna ski plane the three of us hugged our pilot and rigged our sleds quickly. After roping ourselves to each other we started walking up the glacier in the late afternoon Alaskan sun.
We are here in this surreal landscape, the three of us, to not only attempt a summit of Denali but to also learn new skills, glacier camp, and most importantly raise awareness and funds for the non-profit organization STAY: Somebody’s Thinking About You. STAY aims to break stigmas surrounding mental illness in action sports, provide educational resources, and help people communicate better about mental health topics including anxiety and suicide prevention. The organization is snowboarder-founded, and as a snowboarder, I am proud to be part of a community that is supportive and also not afraid to acknowledge an issue like mental health. I personally find strength in meditation, visualization, and positive self-talk. I would not have the grit and confidence in my snowboarding, or day-to-day life, without these tools and I hope to help normalize these attitudes and practices throughout society.
First glimpse of Denali from the Cessna. Ruth Glacier on the right.
Walking up the Kahiltna Glacier.
Kaytlyn, Marissa, and Amanda on the high point of the expedition before dropping into Rescue Gulley. 17,200 feet!
Our three-woman, self-guided splitboard crew is made up of Amanda Hankison, Kaytlyn Gerbin, and me. Amanda is our leader here on the glacier as this is her third expedition to Denali. She is cheerful and confident, a new side of her I haven’t seen in the years of knowing her. I am ecstatic that she has invited me to spend three weeks in Alaska with her.
Kaytlyn is relatively new to splitboarding. Her main endeavor is ultra-running, but unfortunately, she is missing this season due to hip dysplasia. She has a lot of energy and I think this trip she is learning the ways of patience. Then there is me, I am a snowboarder and I am learning, quite literally, the ropes. Knots and ropework are a bit of a foreign language so I am happy to have the experience of Kaytlyn and Amanda to learn from.
For a week, we travel up the Kahiltna with one hundred and twenty-five pounds of gear each. We move camps, dig caches, retrieve caches, and enjoy fresh snowfall for fun turns when we're not making our way to fourteen camp. We are self-sufficient, spending most of the days melting snow for water, cooking, and digging out camp. We walk long into the nights when moving camp, but carry no headlamps in the land of midnight sun.
Time seems to not exist here, especially when we make our home at 14,000 ft. We acclimate here for almost a week, befriending the many people we are surrounded by, and tour above camp for fresh pow turns in between crevasses and ice fall. These moments up in the mountains fill the mind with limitless inspiration until there is no room for anxious thoughts. I wish I could capture that feeling and share it with everyone I encounter.
Kaytlyn making pesto and hash browns in the kitchen tent on a stormy day. Temps would drop to around -15 degrees Fahrenheit when it was cloudy.
Mt. Foraker in either the early morning or late night sun, as viewed from our ‘patio’ at 14 Camp
When we are ready, we go for the summit, hiking straight up the Rescue Gulley to 17,000’. Here we are stopped by a huge lenticular cloud enveloping the Denali summit. I sit down against a snow wall built by previous campers and convince Kaytlyn that it is a good time to take a nap. Amanda sets up a small shrine to Hileree Nelson with prayer flags, a photo of Hilaree, some lighted incense, and Hilaree’s favorite snack, Nerds. I wondered if Hilaree liked eucalyptus chapstick, so I added it to the shrine. Amanda walks over to the line of mountaineers walking down, defeated by high winds and covered in light icy rime. I join her in offering words of a job well done to them. It’s hard to summit, but sometimes harder not to.
Amanda and I walk to the edge of our world here at 17,000’. We cry. We weren’t sad, although it did suck to come this far to get shut down by the weather. We knew this would be our only window and attempt on this trip. We were just happy to be up here on our own accord and to reflect on our journey so far. This moment, this feeling, was fleeting. We felt accomplished to acclimate to this elevation, to make it here as a solid team, and to have an opportunity like this to really enjoy the moment.
Just a bunch of nerds walking around in a whiteout.
All roped up together on the edge of the abyss. It's important to have knowledgeable and trustworthy partners up here!
Bootpacking up towards Rescue Gulley on a sunny Alaskan morning. 14 camp below as well as the fixed line that serves as the typical mountaineers route.
Marissa enjoying ice axe turns on some of the highest country in North America. 14 camp waaaay below.
After a while, we strapped into our splitboards to head down. Down to our reality: which is a 30-hour exit mission to catch a flight to Talkeetna before the rains ravage the mountain.
Back in Anchorage, we moved the furniture of our Airbnb so we could all lie side by side on the floor, just like we did in our tent for the past three weeks. We sleep and eat to regain the pounds we had lost while reflecting on the highs and lows our life journeys will inevitably present us with. Daunting yes, but comforting knowing that we will all be here for each other no matter what, which I feel was our ultimate goal.
Hyped to make it safely to the airstrip after 30 hours of non-stop travel before the rain came in! Huge thanks to the crew at Talkeetna Air Taxi for the safe travels!
About the Author:
Marissa is a snowboarder, splitboarder, mountain biker, and aspiring writer. She loves all types of snowboarding, from early morning steep line missions to backyard community jam sessions. In her downtime you can find her listening to metal while doing yoga.