An illustration of two men, shown from the back, almost in silhouette, looking at Mt. Denali, which is shown prominently in the distance. The men are flanked by a bear on one side and a bull moose on the other side.


The Denali test

Two Spiders ventured into the Alaskan wilderness to challenge themselves, marvel at the majesty of the natural world, and continue a friendship forged at Richmond.

A realtor and an insurance broker walk into the wild.

If it sounds like the setup for a joke, for Rick Stockel and John Sherman, it was a plan. Two years of preparation and anticipation had brought the two longtime friends and Richmond classmates, both just past their 61st birthdays, to the shoulder of this hard-packed dirt-and-gravel road more than 4,000 miles from home. At their feet, the ground dropped away into scrub. In the distance, the terrain rose again to steep ridges.

“This is where we have to start walking,” Rick says in the video footage he captured in the moment, the camera panning the spare landscape.

It was a Sunday, late August of 2022, and ahead of them lay what they had come here for: five days and nights trekking in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve, a raw and challenging subarctic wilderness larger than the states of Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware put together. The gravel road where Rick and John stood, along with two fellow adventurers Rick had picked to join them, is the only one that serves Denali’s more than 6 million acres. Fifteen percent of the park is covered by glaciers. It is braided by multiple rivers and thousands of miles of streams. More than 200 species of animals live in the park, including grizzlies, black bears, wolves, coyote, lynx, caribou, and moose. If you’re not conversant with a compass, a topographical (aka “topo”) map, and some solid backcountry skills, you might quickly find yourself lost and in a load of trouble.

I need these challenges physically and mentally just to feel alive as a human being.
Rick Stockel, R'83

But whatever the weather, the wildlife, or the landscape might throw at the four men in the days to come, they would have to depend only on those skills, each other, and what they were wearing or carrying in the backpacks to navigate. For true emergencies, they had a satellite-linked GPS transponder. But for anything short of that, no matter how weary or worn or beleaguered they might find themselves, they’d have to get out of the wilderness the same way they were about to get in: on their own two feet.

“I knew it was going to be hard,” says John. “But I didn’t know it would be as hard as it would be.”


Comfortable being uncomfortable

The first day of their adventure, the four men rose at 5 a.m. to catch the park shuttle bus that delivered them to their point of departure into the backcountry. Leaving the road behind, they began a steep descent, bushwhacking into the scrubby brush.

To minimize human impact on the land and preserve the park’s wild character, Denali is divided into 87 separate “units,” each one thousands of acres. Not quite half of those units are assigned limit on the number of trekkers permitted to camp overnight. Rick and John’s group would spend two nights in Unit 7 (quota: six people) and three in Unit 8 (quota: four people). Chances were good that the four might go the entire trip without seeing or hearing another human besides themselves. Bears, on the other hand, were a distinct possibility.

Hundreds of black and brown bears make their home in the park — how many is only a guesstimate. From a safe (read: “very long”) distance, or from the safer confines of a park bus, a bear sighting is one of the thrills of a Denali visit. But even if there has been only a single recorded case of a fatal bear encounter in the park’s more than 100-year history, nevertheless, nobody wants a chance to be the second. On a trip to Alaska in his 20s, Rick had experienced two too-close-for-comfort bear encounters he wouldn’t care to repeat, and as they made their way through the brush now, they saw enough fresh bear scat to know the risk of a surprise encounter was more than theoretical.

Fortunately, bears have excellent hearing, so hikers in Denali are advised to make a racket that (hopefully) encourages any bears in the area to clear off. As they hiked, Rick blew a piercing whistle while the others shouted, “Hey bear!” and, “Hi Yogi!” Still, being “constantly on alert for running into a bear,” Rick recalls, was “mentally taxing.”

And physically, that first day, and indeed any of the days that would follow, was no stroll in the park either. “It’s constantly up and down these small mountains,” Rick says. “We had to descend maybe 600 or 700 feet, and then we followed a small creek bed, and then we were bushwhacking up the next mountain. And then, all of a sudden, we were on frozen tundra, sinking down into loose sand.”

There were also repeated crossings of the swift-flowing glacier-fed rivers and streams, slate-colored with silty runoff, the water so cold it burned. “The river is split into 20 or 30 branches, and you have to cross every single one to get from one side to the other,” says John. “Cold water is not my favorite thing, and so I would go to great lengths to cross rivers and streams at their most narrow point, even walking hundreds of yards up or down river to find the ‘ideal’ place to cross, while others, like Rick, would just bite the bullet and cross whenever he encountered the barrier. I was like a cat, and Rick was like a polar bear.”

Three photos of Rick Stockel and John Sherman, one with the peak of Mt. Denali in the background, the other two with the Alaskan bush behind them.
Rick Stockel (blue hat) and John Sherman (black hat) spent nearly a week trekking in the Alaskan backcountry. "I knew it was going to be hard," John says. "But I didn’t know it would be as hard as it would be."

At every water crossing, they also had to pause to loosen their backpack straps. You cross by facing the oncoming current and taking careful side steps. Lose your footing, and you could easily be swept away by the fast-moving current. Fall over backward with a 40-pound dead weight strapped to your back — “turtling,” they call it — and you would likely drown, says Rick.

“After hiking for five-plus hours up and down hills and through water, I came to the conclusion that meeting up with a bear was the least of my worries,” says Rick.

Their destination that first day was to find a place to camp within sight of the East Fork Glacier, which they hoped to hike to the following day. With only a topo map to follow, though, the four were regularly forced to backtrack, reroute, and, several times, chance it with questionable ascents and descents of steep, crumbling slopes.

“All the hiking I had ever done was on a trail,” says John. “This was the first time I had ever done true backcountry hiking. We ended up going over some terrain that was pretty dicey.”

And then there was the weather. Most days, the temperatures hovered in the 50s and at night sank into the 40s or lower. The wind was constant, sometimes gusting more than 50 mph. Every day it rained; it was impossible to stay dry.

“You are uncomfortable a lot, and you have to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” says John.


Long day’s journey into twilight

Their LinkedIn profiles might not mark Rick Stockel and John Sherman as the likeliest two to trade their beds for Therm-a-Rests, bear spray, and five days and nights of that kind of discomfort. In fact, though, neither of them was a stranger to such challenges; they’d come to Denali in search of them.

“For me the draw was the rawness of the weather and environment with no guardrails to protect ourselves should we fall and slip down a slope, have an animal encounter, fall in a river or stream and get hypothermia, says Rick. “I need these challenges physically and mentally just to feel alive as a human being.”

In his later 20s and early 30s, in the years after he graduated from Richmond, Rick had been a river rafting guide. “I thought I was invincible,” he admits. There were wild whitewater excursions to West Virginia and Maryland, a few scrapes with near-drownings, a taste for pushing hard and doing it all. At some point, he proposed an “epic trip” to a couple of younger Richmond alumni he’d rafted with.

The seven-day paddling excursion on Alaska’s Copper River (“We literally walked in places no human has ever been,” says Rick) was followed by another seven days hiking in Denali. Thirty years later, he was making good on his dream to return.

As for John, when his family moved from the Chicago suburbs to southwest Virginia when he was 12, he found himself drawn to the outdoors and the nearby Blue Ridge. He joined the Boy Scouts, eventually rising to Eagle Scout. He spent “a ton of time” hiking before heading off to Richmond for college. He’s traversed the length of the Appalachian Trail in Virginia. He’s hiked in the Great Smoky Mountains and the Sierra Nevadas, up Mount Whitney, and rim to rim of the Grand Canyon. He’s no stranger to putting one foot in front of the other. “I am very comfortable in the wilderness,” he says, and for years, he and Rick had been tossing around the idea of Alaska; finally, they’d found the time and put it on the calendar.

A map showing Rick and John's daily hiking distance in Denali National Park
A photo of East Fork Glacier under a gray sky with low clouds
East Fork Glacier
The Toklat River under a blue sky with mountains in the background.
Toklat River
Grizzly Bear in the no-go zone

Their Denali companions, Sean and Luke, were a retired capitol police officer and a former Army Ranger who came with their own skills (not to mention relative youth: Sean, 52, and Luke, 42). Rick had specifically invited them “because I knew that they would work well with Johnny and me in any situation.”

Nevertheless, they were all grateful to reach their planned first night’s camp by the glacier-fed East Fork River at the end of that long first day — considerably more damp, dirty, and tired than when they’d set out, but otherwise reasonably unscathed.

Not that rest was the first order on arrival. In Denali, bear-safety guidelines require not only that you take a bear-proof container to carry and store all your food and anything else aromatically enticing (toothpaste, lip balm — bears have a sense of smell keener than a bloodhound’s), but also that you keep a distance of at least 100 yards between your tent and cooking area and another 100 yards between where you prepare meals and where you store your food. By the time they’d set up their tents, fetched water from the river, trekked the distance to, and back and forth between, their cooking and food-storage areas, fired up their backpacking stoves, and finally scarfed down their meals, the four had been on the go for more than 12 hours and covered more than 13 miles. Rick was so hungry that he didn’t bother to wait for his backpacker’s meal — chicken fettuccine — to fully rehydrate in its pouch, wolfing it down still half-crunchy. “Food never tasted so good,” he recalls.

Then it was a quick cleanup and finally crawling into their tents at 11 p.m. under the lingering twilight of arctic summer.

Under the best of circumstances, though, inch-thick backpacking mattresses on hard ground don’t make for the most restful sleep. “Then that first night we had pouring rain and winds gusting 50 or 55 miles an hour,” says Rick. The storm nearly flattened their tent; John had to prop his trekking poles against the fabric, “or the tent would literally have been on my face while I was sleeping.”

Yet even if restless, the hours in their shared tent also gave Rick and John time to laugh over past adventures and misadventures, to joke, to recall songs they’d loved and moments they’d shared in their college years, to reminisce about that wild ride they’d taken when they’d started a business together in their 20s, launching — of all things — a hypoallergenic baby shampoo that had come this close to making the jump to the big time.

“We talked a lot about life and told a lot of stories,” says John.


Wild beauty

And so it went in the days to come: the relentless wind, the intermittent rain, the constantly wet feet, the icy streams, the arduous treks, the bear wariness, the hasty meals, the restless nights, the dicey terrain, the sketchy scrambles.

But also the jokes, the stories, the lighthearted banter, the deepening friendships. “There is no doubt that a sense of humor is essential when you’re undergoing difficult circumstances, and we laughed a lot,” says John. Food, he recalls, was often fodder for good-natured teasing. “I took the opportunity of the trip to clean out every old dehydrated dinner I have accumulated over my time on Earth and ate some food that was upwards of 20 years old. So I regularly got the question, ‘Hey John, how old is dinner tonight?’”

You just stop and stare with no words needed. That’s how beautiful this glacier was. It left me speechless.
Rick Stockel, R'83

Then there was the park itself, an expanse of natural beauty so vast and so wild that it was impossible for the four men not to find themselves in constant awe. Herds of caribou roamed past without apparent fear of humans. Wildflowers found purchase and bloomed in dry riverbeds. The untamed landscape, the dizzying sweep of open vistas, the towering Alaska Range, the miles-long glaciers and broad river plains all dwarfed human perspective. John compares the experience to astronauts viewing the Earth from space; you see that we are part of a vast and intricate puzzle we can barely grasp.

“I think people would have a lot more appreciation for the wilderness if they spent more time there,” says John.

Monday (11 miles), they made the ascent to the East Fork glacier, a steep, barren expanse of stone, scree, and ice, a palette of gray and brown and white wreathed in mist that might put one in mind of Robert Scott’s dismay upon reaching the South Pole: “Great God, this is an awful place.”

The adventurers, though, saw it differently. “Beauty does not have to fit society’s standard of what beauty is,” says Rick. “Beauty is seeing something so majestic in its own unadulterated state that you just stop and stare with no words needed. That’s how beautiful this glacier was. It left me speechless.”

Standing on the glacier “is like being on a massive living thing,” says John. “There is nothing like being on top of this giant piece of ice that is moving and changing, especially when you are in the middle of nowhere, in a place where few people have ever been.”


The 30-percent club

Tuesday (14 miles), they packed up in the still-fierce wind (“I hate you, Rick Stockel,” Sean shouts good naturedly, barely audible above the noise of the wind, in a video from that morning) for a cross-country haul to their second campsite. The day’s journey demanded another death-defying clamber up a precipitous, rock-strewn slope and a careful skirting of the zone decreed “no-go” by the park authorities due to high bear activity. If a third day of dirt and sweat and rain and river didn’t improve anybody’s appearance, still, nobody had turtled, twisted an ankle, or fallen off a cliff, and they’d so far encountered nothing more deadly than a moose — which, surprisingly, are actually responsible every year for more human injuries than bears are in Alaska, but this one had been contentedly munching leaves. So all four men were reasonably none the worse when they finally pitched camp and waited eagerly to see if John’s dinner predated the invention of the iPhone.

Wednesday was a big day, a 21-mile round-trip expedition to the bridge where the Denali Park Road crosses the Toklat River, a destination now imbued with something of an abandoned, end-of-civilization desolation thanks to a landslide that blocked vehicle access miles before the river crossing. Carrying only day packs, however, considerably lightened the load of their trek, and John lightened it further by unraveling the tale of the time he was robbed, then successfully recovered his possessions, in Dallas — a multi-chapter saga peopled with a Dickensian cast and the plot twists and comic foibles to match.

“Out there, you have nothing but time,” says John. “And when you have nothing but time, you tell those kinds of stories, and nothing deepens relationships more than spending that carefree timelessness together.”

It was on that hike, too, that the group was unexpectedly rewarded with a rare gift: a lingering clear view of Denali.

At 20,310 feet, the mountain — North America’s highest — is an enormous chunk of mostly granite amidst the tall peaks of the Alaska Range, hulking evidence of the tectonic forces at work that make the area North America’s most geologically active region. Denali is so massive that in effect it makes its own notoriously volatile weather. Thus, despite its bulk, it frequently remains so thoroughly shrouded in cloud cover that it is virtually invisible 70 percent of the time; visitors fortunate enough to catch sight of it join the enviable “30-percent club.”

That morning, Rick had entertained a brief fantasy of how easy it would be for them just to call it an adventure and pack up, get out, and return to the world of hot showers, fresh meals, dry clothes, a real bed to sleep in. But any such thoughts evaporated when the weather suddenly cleared, and for nearly 90 minutes as they hiked, the group enjoyed breathtaking, unimpeded views of the mountain, a spectacle that made every one of the day’s 21 miles worth the effort.

We are part of a vast and intricate puzzle we can barely grasp.
John Sherman, R'83

“It renews my spirit to go into the wilderness,” says Rick. “It gives me perspective again that we are here on Earth for such a short time and that there is such beauty and adventure waiting for those of us who choose to explore.”

Thursday, the group confined themselves to more local hiking. Friday, their final morning, they rose before dawn. “We had to get up early to hike the last five miles to get to the end of the road where the bus picks up everyone who was in the wilderness past the point where the road ends,” says John. As they left the wilderness behind, Rick captured a final video of the four of them collapsed inside a stationary bus the park service leaves as a shelter for the returning hikers. The mood is fatigue. “We made it out alive,” says Rick. Then someone cracks a remark about the aroma wafting from John’s now-bare feet, and the laughter breaks out again.


The stories get better with time

Months later, considerably cleaner and notably less perfumed in wilderness expedition, the four adventurers, along with their wives, gathered again for the first time since their Denali trip for a long weekend at Rick’s house at the beach. “We had a blast, and somehow the stories grew larger than life with our wives in the room,” Rick says.

Those memories, the stories, the profound bond of a shared challenging experience, are why a couple of 60-year-old guys and their middle-aged companions decided to put themselves through all of it and come out the other side glad that they did. Not despite the discomfort, the physical exertion, the mental demands, the uncertainty and exhaustion and risks to be navigated and difficulties overcome — but because of them. For the misery and the beauty, the fatigue and the wonder, the simple necessity of having to work together, the power of depending on another person for your life.

“It is a story about friendship as much as it is about wilderness,” says John. “Life is short. It’s important to spend time with people you love and do it in amazing places where you can make memories you never forget.”

Caroline Kettlewell is a freelance writer based in Richmond.