The loneliest place.
Ruth Amphitheater ice field, Alaska.

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We are alone. Stranded on a lake of ice 3000 feet deep fenced in by snow caped peaks, towering walls of ice, and the ever-present partition of fog. Somewhere behind the veil of clouds lurks Denali (a.k.a. mount McKinley) hiding in the shadows from the inquisitive eyes of the legions of tourists set out for battle on the plains below. Every year for 3 months hundreds of thousands of tourists crowd a sun scorched road where the National Park Service ferries them around on school busses for their chance to challenge the mountain, that is get a glimpse of it, a task that often proves harder then climbing it. For the biggest thing around, this versatile hunk of rock is remarkably agile when it comes to not being seen. 9 out of 10 times itís snow caped twin peaks bland right in to the eternal crown of mist that adorns them and the mountain is completely invisible.

Right now however, none of that is on my mind. I have been on the ice for three days now. My toes are cold. My face is burnt. My eyes ache from squinting. I have run out of dry cloths and am down to just one dayís supply of fuel left. The only watch I have has cracked from the cold and I have lost track of time and maybe even days. Food I have plenty of but itís weight on my back is getting to my shoulders. A plane was supposed to pick us up hours ago but it had not come yet. I am tired and my work is getting sloppy. Every once in a while the sharp points adorning the front and bottom of my crampons (shoes with needles on the bottom for travel on hard snow and ice) catch my ski pants and rip another hole that lets the wetness in. Here, being sloppy can be deadly. I am leading the way across a crevasse-infested area of the glacier that is blocking our access to the airstrip. (A crevasse is a 150 to 200 feet deep crack in the ice that is frequently covered by a thin layer of snow.) I tried to go around them but the fog settled in creating a white out and if I donít navigate in a straight line I will get lost. Omer is following 60 feet behind me. His job is to use the compass to keep us going in the right direction; every 100 feet or so he stops and corrects my bearings. His job is also to arrest my falls with his ax and the rope connecting us. My job is not to fall. One careless move, one haphazard check of a patch of snow, one tangled rope will send us both tumbling down a frozen abyss in this constant game of belay and guesswork. Not a good time to get sloppy.

This is exquisite wilderness, a respite from reality. Even animals have given up existence here. Every once in a while an unseen avalanche roars down some distend slope and rips apart the silence, but the pristine quiet always returns. The world outside this little valley could end, world war III could wipe out humanity and we would not know the difference. Hay maybe that is what is holding up our plane?!?!

Eventually the unmistakable hum of the propellers echoing back and forth across the canyons signaled our eminent escape from the ice. It was delayed because of bad weather back at the base. A part of me (my toes) is glad to be back in the company of living things. But every once in a while, when the constant clutter of the rest of humanity eludes my wit another part of me misses the ultimate seclusion of the loneliest place of earth.


Zeev in Ruth Amphitheater