Matanuska Glacier converted into UAA classroom

Professional piloting student Trevor Jones reaches the top of the ice wall
during class on Matanuska Glacier.
(Photo by Phil Hall University of Alaska Anchorage)
The class met at 10 a.m., but there were no desks, no whiteboards, not even any walls. Temperature hovered around -10° F as students broke out steaming thermoses and frozen PB&Js for lunch. Everyone was bundled up to his or her eyeballs and only identifiable by the cascading colors of their downy layered jackets.

This was not your normal class at UAA. This was beginning ice climbing.

Only at UAA


Accounting major John Linxwiler hooks into the wall.
Accounting major John Linxwiler hooks into the wall.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
Ice climbing is just one of dozens of diverse courses offered by the Health, Physical Education & Recreation Department (HPER) each semester. The department offers a variety of academic courses—exercise physiology, recreation administration, biomechanics—as well as a range of recreational offerings. A semester of HPER courses could include everything from ice skating to kung fu to volleyball, and will always include several technical courses—the big-ticket all-Alaska options like white water rafting, backcountry skiing, winter camping and even dog mushing (taught by an Iditarod veteran).

The department prepares students for a variety of careers, split between two emphases—health and fitness leadership (popular with future physical therapists) and outdoor leadership and administration (for careers in parks and recreation, youth programming, even the Arctic Winter Games). “It’s really just wide open. There are all sorts of things available,” assistant professor TJ Miller said of his student’s career options.

Recreation courses are open to the entire campus community. Physical education students need technical courses to graduate, but the short, concentrated classes generally attract an equal mix of majors and non-majors. And with course titles like rock climbing and mountain biking, it’s easy to understand why.

The recent ice climbing course netted students from programs like professional piloting and restaurant and hospitality management, which is exactly what Miller hoped to see.

Kelsey Ratcliffe—a restaurant and hospitality management major—belays for classmate Trevor Jones during HPER’s Beginning Ice Climbing class.
Kelsey Ratcliffe—a hospitality and restaurant management
major—belays for classmate Trevor Jones during HPER’s
Beginning Ice Climbing class.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
“I think Alaska—especially for people new to Alaska—can be daunting. It’s scary, and that’s where we can play that role to slowly get your feet wet and walk in the water,” he explained.

“If you wanted to explore Alaska and you never have before, we’ll get you out and do it safely.”

Technical classes combine academic lectures with at least three days off campus and in the field. Prior to ever setting foot on the glacier, ice climbing students met for on-campus lectures covering equipment safety, hypothermia, trip planning, first aid, frostbite and the nuances of winter camping. They practiced knots and belaying indoors at Alaska Rock Gym so they would be prepared on Matanuska Glacier during their weekend trip.

And good thing they did—subzero temperatures aren’t ideal for class lectures. With weeks of class and fieldwork under their belts, students were ready to get climbing.

Adjunct professor Amy Beaudoin leads her ice climbing class around the ice wall on Matanuska Glacier
Adjunct professor Amy Beaudoin leads her ice climbing class around the
ice wall on Matanuska Glacier.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

Saturday school on a glacier


Students gathered in the Matanuska Glacier parking lot on a Saturday morning, strapped crampons to their boots and tightened their hoods against the sweeping wind. Adjunct professor Amy Beaudoin—an experienced ice climber and guide—led students on a short walk to their climbing wall, cutting through icy passages and past spires of ice pushed up by the force of the advancing glacier.

Amy took outdoor programs at UAA when she was a student, and she’s happy to be back with the program. “I was pretty excited about this opportunity for the university,” she said.

HPER provided all the necessary ice climbing extras for students enrolled in the class.
HPER provided all the necessary ice climbing extras for
students enrolled in the class.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)
“Anyone can really go out and enjoy this class. You can just pick and choose what level you want to get into it, and we’ve set it up so you can have experience climbing or you can be brand new to it,” she said.

The course is designed to build knowledgeable, capable and confident climbers—not experts—and students leave with enough background to continue the sport independently.

Throughout the day, Amy shared her years of knowledge with the students, dropping facts and climber lingo in equal measure. She explained how to read the wall—its light blue coloring indicated an ideal level of ice density, very little ‘garbage ice’ to scrape through—and had students anchor bolts into the base while she installed the top rope. After running through a few essentials—ice consistency, safety precautions, gear variations, etc.—the students were hoisting their ice picks and tackling the wall.

Field assistant Rob Durnell soaks in the sunrise Saturday afternoon on
Matanuska Glacier.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage)

“A different college experience”


School on a Saturday isn’t so bad when your classroom is a glacier. Despite the chill, students were energized as they rotated through climbing and belaying for hours on end. Like all physical education classes, ice climbing is capped at a small class size, meaning every student had ample opportunity to try out the sport.

John Linxwiler—an accounting major—was among the first on the wall. His transcript is stacked with upper-level accounting and marketing courses, but he makes sure to include recreation courses as often as he can. “They make it very accessible for people who want to get out and do this, but don’t have the training or the technical skills or the gear. And here we are,” he said, gesturing out at the epic ice field that served as his classroom for the day.

Physical education major
Tara McMurray looks back at her belay
team from midway up the wall.
(Photo by Philip Hall
University of Alaska Anchorage)
Tara McMurray—a physical education major—was no stranger to these small technical classes. Last summer, she joined a 28-day HPER expedition into the Brooks Range for six credits (students spent the spring semester planning and permitting the month-long trip). “I absolutely love that all of our classes are pretty small. The whole concept of a class that’s huge, the teacher doesn’t know your name and it’s lecture style, I don’t even know what that’s like,” she said, “and then you go on these outings and just create this community bond that you would never have with them otherwise.

“It’s a different college experience than I think most people get.”

After several hours climbing, shadows started stretching further across the thick snow as the sun dipped toward the horizon. Students rolled up their ropes, finished the last swigs from their thermoses and filed out across the glacier. The day’s bluebird sky changed to lavender as they hiked across the ice. Back at the parking lot, a full moon was high in the sky as students fired up camp stoves and laid out sleeping bags in their hatchbacks. Most students opted to stay the night on the glacier’s edge so they could enjoy their morning cup of coffee at sunrise and be ready to roll for another full day of ice climbing on Matanuska Glacier.

Oh, and this was all for course credit.

Only at UAA.

The moon rises over a wall of pressure ridges--ice spires pushed up by the
pressure of the advancing glacier--after day one of the ice
climbing field trip concluded.
(Photo by Philip Hall/University of Alaska Anchorage).

Ready for an adventure? Take a look at all of HPER’s recreation classes with the UAA course catalog. View the full day’s photos on Flickr, with captions, on any device.

Written by J. Besl, UAA Office of University Advancement. This article originally appeared in Green & Gold News on Feb. 11, 2015. The story in Green & Gold includes an embedded Flickr slideshow.
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Matanuska Glacier converted into UAA classroom
Matanuska Glacier converted into UAA classroom
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