On a dreary day in mid-November 2011, I arrived at my restaurant job in suburban Colorado in a foul mood. I was nearing the end of a semester of student teaching, the last requirement I needed to complete to become a real live classroom teacher, and waiting tables at night to pay my bills.
“Maybe, instead of applying for teaching jobs, I’ll just move to Alaska when this is all over,” I joked with my coworker as we poured ranch dressing into oversized vats.
He laughed. But then I did.
Unsure of what to do if the career I’d envisioned didn’t pan out, I sat down at my computer in the wee hours that night and Googled a string of words I thought might help me find my way in the world: something like “grad school + outdoor education.” By the end of that week, I’d applied to a graduate program at Alaska Pacific University, and the following summer, I packed my worldly possessions and headed north.
At 22, I expected some kind of overnight transformation when I arrived on the Last Frontier: in a matter of weeks, I was sure, I’d suddenly become tougher, more competent—a real mountaineer. Soon, I’d be swinging ice axes Cliffhanger-style and straddling summit ridges à cheval. It didn’t happen that way.
I wasn’t the first young person to make for Alaska with big dreams and little know-how. I’d read enough Krakauer, by the time arrived on the scene, to know that plenty of people with more experience than me had flubbed it and ended up with stories of crevasse falls or grizzly bear attacks or nights spent in the wilderness without shelter—or worse—and that not everyone had lived to tell about it.
Still, like so many early twentysomethings, I was hard-pressed to believe any of that could happen to me. In experiential education, we use a simple chart to define skill and knowledge levels, with the x- and y-axes describing consciousness and competence, respectively. When I rolled into Alaska, I was squarely in the unconsciously incompetent quadrant: I knew so little, I didn’t even know what I didn’t know. I just showed up, ready to make a go of things, and figured it would all work out.
I experienced plenty of firsts that inaugural semester: I sat in a sea kayak, eventually piloting it into Blackstone Bay. I strapped my feet into cross-country skis and learned that downhill skiing doesn’t really translate. I stepped outside in subzero temperatures and promptly invested in a pair of polar-quality mittens. There were plenty of abstract firsts, too. I’d never lived more than a stone’s throw from where I grew up, and here I was, 4,000 miles from anyone I knew, with only a foggy idea of how to do my taxes or fix a flat tire.
At some point, eager to cut my teeth, I signed up, along with my friend Hannah, for a month-long course in winter camping skills through the university. I can no longer remember whose idea it was to sign up in the first place, though as I was being evacuated from the field three weeks later with frostbite on my toes, I’d have told you it was all hers.
Back in Anchorage, as I sat in the office of the area’s preeminent frostbite specialist, waiting to be told I couldn’t ski or ice climb for the rest of the winter, I reflected on just what the hell it was I was doing in Alaska, anyway. I had reached the phase of conscious incompetence: I was very acutely aware of just how much I didn’t know.
Not to be dissuaded by some purple appendages and the loss of a few perfectly good toenails, I signed up for another field-based course that spring, this time on expedition-style mountaineering, which I’d always considered to be extremely glamorous. I pictured myself in glacier goggles, looking like a modern-day Barbara Washburn as I shouldered a gargantuan backpack and led pitches of steep snow to as-yet-unclimbed summits.
My pack was predictably heavy, topping out at 86 pounds—some 60-odd percent of my body weight—but from there, reality diverged significantly from my fantasy. Expedition mountaineering is not, as it turns out, particularly sexy on the day-to-day; it involves a lot more carrying of heavy loads up steep trails (and, in Alaska, through alders) than Instagram had led me to believe.
Still, I emerged from that trip in a new phase of my outdoor development: I was, at last, consciously competent. I could keep myself warm and dry in my tent despite a maelstrom outside; thanks to a handy invention known as the Freshette, I could pee standing up without removing my climbing harness. I could self-arrest and rig a three-to-one system to pull a fallen partner out of a crevasse, albeit with much effort and occasional reference to a drawing in my Rite in the Rain notebook.
The conventional wisdom goes that it takes 10,000 hours of experience to become an expert at something. Even then, though, knowledge doesn’t necessarily plateau.
After my first winter in Alaska, it became clear to me that if I wanted to stick around, I’d have to learn a few things about avalanches. I talked my way into an internship, and later a job, in the field. I learned a lot, but perhaps most importantly, I learned this: If you ask an avalanche professional for their credentials, they’ll never refer to themselves as an “expert,” even long after they’ve surpassed the requisite 10,000 hours spent in the field. There’s always more on the subject to learn, and calling oneself an expert implies—well, it implies unconscious incompetence.
Tens of thousands of hours have passed since my Year of Firsts in Alaska, and these days, I’m competent at a lot of things. I’m even unconsciously competent at a few things—I’ve pitched a tent and lit a WhisperLite stove and packed my backpack so many times, I could do them in my sleep. Even after all those hours in the wilderness, in Alaska and beyond, I’m not sure I’d call myself an expert at most things.
I still have a lot to learn.
Bio: Emma Walker is a freelance writer and has worked as an avalanche educator, raft guide and backpacking instructor—and still can’t believe people will pay her to play outside. On her days off, you’ll find her passionately debating the merits of various hot sauces, poring over a guidebook to plan her next adventure, or, best of all, on a trail run with her trusty mutt. You can find more of Emma’s writing at MyAlaskanOdyssey.com.