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“The Road Less Traveled”

By Casey Grove  Photo by Steve Nigl for the Anchorage Press, 10/24/07

“What have I gotten myself into?” wondered Troy Henkels.

The Eagle River resident and fellow adventurer Dixie Dansercoer, of Belgium, were standing on the edge of Cape Prince of Wales.

Huge, jagged chunks of ice, borne by strong currents, drifted past in the frigid waters of the Bering Strait. The two men, dressed in full-length survival suits, stared out from beneath the fur ruffs on their hoods at the churning mess of ice. They scanned the horizon, tasted the weather and gazed out toward Russia.

They were trying to decide the best time to jump in.

The Bering Strait is one of the most inhospitable places on the planet, and dreams of crossing it — let alone swimming in it — sound crazy to most people. By this point, Henkels had stood atop Denali, attempted Mount Everest, and spent a year in Antarctica. But the strait is dangerous, more so than any other place he’d been, Henkels said. It was an unknown, extreme environment, something to be avoided. And that’s what had brought them there.

“I don’t know where dreams come from,” Henkels said recently, “but they materialize and snowball and pretty soon you’re standing on the edge of Alaska looking across at Russia.”

How did an Iowa boy end up in a place like this?

“He always liked to do things that not necessarily other kids liked to do,” said Pete Henkels, Troy’s father, from his home near Dubuque, Iowa. “He liked to live on the edge.”

“He liked to see how far he could push the limits,” Pete said. “If there was a storm outside, he liked to be out in the rain. If there was a snowstorm, he’d be out in that.”

Henkels is the youngest of three brothers from his father’s first marriage. His mother died after a battle with breast cancer about four months before he turned three. He doesn’t remember much of her, he said. His father remarried about a year and a half later, and the family became a “Brady Bunch,” with the three girls that his father and stepmother had in the years to follow.

His new wife, Mary, was better with the girls than with the boys, Pete said. “He never really had a mother like a lot of kids did, and of course as a result, he was kind of with me more,” Pete said.

He got out more on his own, too, Pete said.

When Henkels was in the second grade, his dad bought 20 acres of land about five miles outside of Dubuque and started planting apple trees. That was “the boonies” in those days, Henkels said.

His father had grown up on a farm in Guttenberg, about 40 miles away, and while he worked as an engineer for John Deere in Dubuque, he started an apple orchard. Henkels helped with that, Pete said. He also liked to ride his bike on the gravel roads in the area.

“I spent most of my time doing outdoor stuff and my own thing,” Henkels said. “I would just get on my bike and ride and just follow a road to figure out where it went.”

He played Little League, participated in Boy Scouts, and was a counselor at a summer camp, Pete said. He also lived for going on campouts.

After graduating from high school in 1985, he went to the University of Northern Iowa, about two hours from home. He majored in Business Management, which, Henkels admits, was not his passion. “It seemed like the thing to do to get a job,” he said.

Henkels wasn’t a bad student, but he didn’t like college, because it kept him in a classroom taking notes and taking tests. Still, Henkels had one professor who left an impression on him. That was Robert James Waller, author of The Bridges of Madison County.

“I remember him coming into class and saying, ‘I woke up in the middle of the night and had a great idea for a book,’” Henkels said.

Waller was unconventional, Henkels said. “He was always like, ‘Hey, you’re 20, 22 years old. Why should you be trying to figure out what to do with your life?’” Henkels said.

Henkels took a corporate job in Kansas City, Missouri with Hyatt Hotels after receiving his diploma in 1989. He had to wear a suit and tie everyday. The internal politics of the job ate at him, he said.

“I knew that I didn’t want to keep doing that, but I didn’t know the way out,” Henkels said.

Some of Henkels’ friends from college had worked cannery jobs on the Kenai Peninsula, and they told him stories about Alaska. He decided to visit for a week of vacation.

He saw Kenai, Moose Pass and Seward. After his childhood spent roaming the woods and roads of rural Iowa, Henkels appreciated the vastness of the state.

“By day three, I was applying for jobs,” he said.

He started with the companies he found in tourist brochures and sent out resumes and made phone calls. He was offered a job for the season as a night security guard in Denali. It was only $7 per hour, but it was a way out of Kansas City.

“That was a very big decision,” he said, “because I’m quitting my supposedly career job.”

“I was all for it,” said Pete, his father. “You gotta do what you want to do.”

Henkels already had the quintessential Alaska car: an ’83 Subaru wagon. With $5,000 in the bank, he packed up his car for the first of 13 trips it would make on the Alaska Highway and headed north for the summer of 1991. Henkels expected to be returning to the Midwest, penniless, after the summer tourist season, he said.

Denali was like nothing he had seen before. He worked all night, which left his days free to explore the park. “To me, it was paradise,” he said.

Paradise, to Henkels, meant solitude in the wilderness. “It makes me crazy to be out somewhere and run into people,” he said. “That’s what I like about Alaska, is that it’s so much more accessible and it’s so rare to run into people.”

He spent every weekend outside exploring and made his first attempt at climbing a peak, 6,736-foot Fang Mountain. But without good gear or good weather, he was turned back.

At the end of the summer, he’d saved $5,000, and Henkels realized that he could earn enough money to make it to the next place, “whatever that was going to be,” Henkels said. “I saw no reason to go back and get a real job,” he said.

Ever since leaving the corporate world, Henkels has found jobs that allowed him time to keep adventuring. He currently works as a communications technician for Matanuska Telephone Association, taking unpaid leave to go on the occasional long-term expedition.

That first winter, he tested his newly discovered independence, spending the season skiing and working in Durango, Colorado. Henkels returned to Denali the next summer and stepped up his exploring. He went ice climbing for the first time and immediately loved it. And he went on his first successful mountaineering expeditions. Henkels and two friends bagged Scott Peak, an 8,828-footer in the heart of the park, and he also summited 7,800-foot Mount Pendleton with friends that summer.

He enjoyed the physical challenge of climbing and the camaraderie. “I started pushing myself to see how far out into the wilderness I could go in one day,” Henkels said.

With more confidence, the climbs became longer.

Henkels spent the next two years traveling and working seasonal jobs. He also went on more mountaineering trips — in 1995 Henkels climbed solo to the top of 9,545-foot Mount Dickey, and he attempted Mount Brooks, an 11,940-foot peak in Denali National Park, in 1996.

Then Henkels heard about Antarctica. Like Alaska before, he didn’t know anything about the icy continent sitting at the bottom of the globe.

As always, Henkels was drawn to the unknown. He applied to work as part of the staff that supports researchers housed at McMurdo Station, which sits on the coast of Antarctica. After making numerous phone calls, Henkels was hired on as a communications technician. He arrived in October of 1996.

Taking care of the communications — everything from the satellite uplink to the U.S., to the internal phones at the base — kept him outside about 75 percent of the time, Henkels guessed.

When his hitch at the South Pole ended in February, Henkels was eager to get home. However, about three months after getting back, he was asked to return to Antarctica for a full year. This time, Henkels said, “it was more of a test for myself to see if I could endure — physically, mentally — spending a year there.”

“I didn’t care what it paid … if I had an opportunity to go, money was not important,” Henkels said. “It’s not difficult living. It’s like being on a college campus. There’s dorms and food service.”

He returned again as a communications technician but was also accepted on the base’s search and rescue team, an “extra-curricular” and highly sought-after job, Henkels said. Getting on the team allowed him to experience more of Antarctica than what was right around the base. They were never called to perform a rescue, he said, but the training often took them outdoors and into the harsh Antarctic weather.

“In those kind of temperatures, in that kind of environment, you learn a lot about yourself,” Henkels said. Things like where your limits are, he said, and how tough you are mentally and physically.

Antarctica is also where Henkels met Dixie Dansercoer, who was kite skiing, unsupported, across the entire continent with a partner. “It was just beyond me,” Henkels said.

He’d been following Dansercoer’s journey on the internet and when they reached McMurdo, with sleds in tow, Henkels greeted them with a fresh red apple. The color and scent of the fruit was symbolic of everything that Antarctica was not, Henkels said.

After meeting in Antarctica, Henkels and Dansercoer kept in touch while they both continued adventuring on their own. For Henkels, this included a successful climb of North America’s highest peak: 20,320-foot Denali. It was 20 days of extreme temperatures, and physical, mental and emotional exhaustion.

Henkels and his partner, Ford Reeves, first battled sunshine and overheating, then cold and snowstorms, but they eventually shared a tearful view of the Alaska Range and everything beyond from the top of Denali.

On Day 18, after passing back through the treacherous Denali Pass at about 19,000 feet, Henkels was almost at his limit. They took a break just beneath the last hill leading down from the summit ridge. Henkels later recounted the experience in an article for his hometown newspaper, the Dubuque Telegraph Herald.

“As I drifted into sleep I hoped that no one would wake me,” he wrote. “I hoped that I could just stay where I was and die. I was content with that, as long as I didn’t have to climb the next incline. I figured it was a good way to go, much better than dying in a car accident in front of a Kmart in a city somewhere.”

Fortunately, Reeves woke him, and soon the pair were on their way back down the mountain. Two days later they boarded a plane back to Talkeetna and civilization.

At some point, Dansercoer mentioned to Henkels that he wanted to attempt a double crossing of the Bering Strait, from Alaska to Russia and back again, and that he wanted to take Henkels with him. They’d ski, when possible, and pull sleds, which could be configured into a sort of catamaran Dansercoer called a “sledcat.” It would be used to cross any large, open leads between the ice chunks.

“Part of it, I think, stems from, if you’re an adventurer on a big scale, is you have to come up with new ideas and bigger ideas to attract sponsors to fund such adventures,” Henkels said. “Who goes to the Bering Strait?” Part of the appeal, too, he said, was that it was another unknown environment.

While that expedition was still in the early planning stages, Henkels spent much of 2003 competing on the Outdoor Life Network’s Global Extreme reality TV show, which would take him all over the world. Fifty contestants were whittled away after challenges in the U.S., Africa, Costa Rica and Iceland. Out of the 50 contestants that started the competition, Henkels made it to the final five. The finalists’ last challenge was climbing the north side of Mount Everest.

Forty-five days into climbing Everest, Henkels decided he’d had enough and dropped out of the competition at about 25,000 feet, he said. With his experience as a mountaineer, “I was supposed to be a shoe-in,” Henkels said, “but I was the first to stop.”

There was a lot of pressure on him to stay and continue to the summit, because friends and family were watching his progress on the internet, Henkels said. But considering his level of exhaustion, he decided to quit anyway, a decision he said he doesn’t regret. “I’d spent enough time in the mountains to know my capabilities,” he said.

“It’s not worth dying for,” Henkels said. Plus, the Bering Strait expedition was on the horizon.

Donning their orange Gore-Tex survival suits and locking their blue rubberized deep-sea diving gloves into the rings at their wrists, Henkels and Dansercoer set off from the village of Wales. The short journey from the village to the sea was the culmination of years of planning and physical training, including the testing of those suits a year earlier in the Bering Sea, Greenland, and even Cook Inlet.

“I’d go out to Point Woronzof, 10 below on a Sunday morning, and just jump in,” Henkels said. He practiced swimming in the suit and climbing up onto blocks of ice.

They’d been waiting weeks for the weather to break, and now they had their chance.

The two men said their last goodbyes and pushed off from Wales in the sledcat, paddling with their shovels. Each sled was packed with 40 days worth of food, individually wrapped packages of a high-calorie mixture of ground up nuts, cereals, oils and butter that they would mix with hot water. They ate about 6,000 calories a day to keep them moving, which in turn kept them warm.

On the first day, Dansercoer fell through a thin layer of ice and found himself in between two larger masses of moving ice. But the suit kept him warm, and Henkels pulled him out with a rope just before the giant chunks of ice slammed together. It was a tense moment, Henkels said, perhaps the closest they came to disaster. Still, the ruggedness of the land was beautiful, he said.

“One great part is the camaraderie and you can talk about a lot of stuff,” Henkels said. “But another thing is that you don’t have to talk, and you’re out there soaking in this barren land.”

“It’s peaceful, it’s calm, it’s away from everyday life,” Henkels said. “It not only makes you appreciate the wilderness, but what you have when you get back.”

At night, sleeping in a tent on the ice floes, Henkels was kept awake by the cracking of the ice. Checking their GPS coordinates each day, the two men discovered that they were going far off track — the wind was pushing the icepack south.

“You can’t fool Mother Nature,” Henkels said. “There’s no way we could control the currents and the winds and the ice.”

Despite their westward progress along the ice, the southerly wind proved to be too much for them to overcome. Seven days into the trip, the men found themselves about 60 miles due south of Wales, and the ice was getting thinner and thinner, Henkels said.

With a storm approaching, Henkels and Dansercoer called a helicopter in Nome for a pick up, rather than wait until conditions worsened, possibly risking their rescuers lives as well.

“Dixie or I don’t really have any regrets, and we don’t consider it a failure,” Henkels said. “It’s the most dangerous place I’ve been.”

“I think that many people would look at [these expeditions] as life-threatening,” Henkels said. “Yes, some of the things are. It’s a game of coming to the table prepared. If you come prepared on many different levels, you minimize the risk. It’s a calculated risk.”

“People always ask me if I worry about him on these trips,” said Pete Henkel, Troy’s father. “And I say, ‘Heck no I don’t worry about him.’”

“I realize I could get a call saying he’s been hurt or he’s been killed, but I could get that call right now,” Pete said. “Things can happen anytime and anywhere.”

Henkels said they have no plans to return to the Bering Strait. “To take that kind of risk is something you don’t want to be doing too frequently.”

“When I was a kid, the big vacation places were Florida and California, and I had no desire to go there, because that’s where everybody went,” Henkels said. “I’m not real good with population bases. I’m not real good in cities. I grew up in the country.”

Henkels’ orange survival suit — the one he wore in the Bering Sea — sits on the carpeted floor of his living room in Eagle River. He lives in a comfortable apartment next to Lower Fire Lake. Outside the house on a recent Thursday night, the headlights of cars streaked along the Glenn Highway and the lights of hundreds of homes twinkled on the hills across the lake and highway. The leftovers of a pizza sat warming in the oven.

At 8 p.m., Henkels glanced at his watch. “Oh, The Office is on!” Henkels, the adventurer, the guy who loves solitude in the wilderness, jumped up from the couch to record his favorite TV show. It seems about the furthest thing from skiing across ice floes in the Bering Sea, or standing atop Denali, or celebrating New Year’s at the South Pole.

But soon Henkels will thrust himself back out into the elements. In mid-November, he’ll embark on another trip with Dansercoer, this time returning to Antarctica. The crew of the Euronav Belgica, a 47-foot steel sailing yacht, will retrace the route of the original Belgica expedition, which explored the Antarctic 110 years ago and, trapped in the ice, spent 13 months there. The Belgica gathered some of the first scientific data on Antarctica the world had ever seen, including meteorological and geologic data and studies of the ice patterns.

In mid-December, the Euronav Belgica will sail from Ushuaia, the capital of the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego and the world’s southernmost city. They’ll follow the Belgica’s route step-by-step.

Besides the historical value of the trip, they’re trying to raise awareness of the fragility of the Antarctic environment, Henkels said. They’ll also attempt some unclimbed peaks while in Antarctica. Henkels will shoot video to document the voyage.

When he’s not at work — “saving one dial tone at a time,” Henkels said — he’s readying the gear he’ll take, performing such tasks as patching his boots and sealing the edges of his trusty skis.

“Life is pretty short, and if you have dreams, you’ve got to follow them, because a lot of things can happen,” Henkels said. “It doesn’t matter where you’re at, where you’re at in life, but there are always mountains to climb, so to speak.”