Anchorage is the largest city UAA geology major Monika Fleming has ever lived in. She grew up in Chewelah, Washington where only 2,607 people reside in three square miles. Monika has climbed mountains rising, in feet, more than six times her hometown’s population. Additionally, she traveled out of the country on her own and worked in numerous national parks. Her journey through life hasn’t always been clear, but her love of the outdoors and for adventure has driven her to new and unexpected places.
Fleming grew up hiking and skiing with her family; yet it wasn’t until college that she fell in love with the outdoors. After suspension from BYU Idaho for smoking cigarettes, she started working at Yellowstone National Park in a fast food joint in Mammoth Hot Springs. There she developed a love of geology and began spending her days in the mountains around the park and, by the end of summer, was doing twenty-mile mountain summits. The free spirited culture of working in a national park took hold of Monika and gave her a “go get em” attitude for adventure.
When summer came to a close, Fleming went back to BYU Idaho for the fall trimester. Then, during winter trimester, she returned home and became a snowboard instructor at her hometown mountain, 49˚ North Resort. Another instructor and fellow BYU student, Drover, suggested Monika take a course called Spring Summit when she returned to school in the spring.
Upon spring enrollment, Monika joined Spring Summit – an 18 credit six-week outdoor management course. It was another chance for Monika to live her life to the fullest. The course included ropes courses, desert survival, backpacking, mountain biking, rafting and canyoneering. One of the most stand out experiences for Monika during the course was rafting a 46-mile portion of the Colorado River known as Cataract Canyon.
“Cataract Canyon, that’s the canyon, that has a series of 29 rapids that scarred me for life, but now I’m trying to be a raft guide because I want to not be scared. Water just freaks me out. It’s always freaked me out because it’s so powerful.”
Monika’s raft was flipped by a hole and everyone on the boat had to cling to the raft as they went through class 3 and 4 rapids before flipping it back over. Monika decided to spend the rest of the trip on the pontoon boat to avoid flipping. However, danger was not behind her.
Monika sat next to a 4 to 5-month pregnant classmate at the front of the pontoon raft. The girl wasn’t hanging on tight enough as they came over a huge rapid and was bucked off in an area called Devil’s Gut – where getting sucked in means death. Monika alone was attempting to retrieve her, screaming for help, when a guide cut the motor, pulled her in, started the motor again, and avoided imminent danger in about two seconds.
Despite the danger she and the rest of her classmates had faced Monika wasn’t willing to back down from conquering the outdoors. Following the class Monika traveled back to Yellowstone for the summer before returning to BYU Idaho for the fall semester. Her love of the outdoors shortly overcame her desire to finish school though.
“I decided that I basically had my associates degree minus four credits, but I just didn’t really want to be at BYU anymore. I had some friends from Yellowstone who were going to go work in Colorado for the winter so I just finished my semester and went down to Colorado and became a ski instructor.”
At the end of the ski season Monika decided to make her way to Glacier National Park. She worked as an employee dining room chef in Swift Current cooking meals for all her co-workers with almost no experience in a kitchen. The decision to go to Glacier was Monika’s first big leap of faith for the outdoors.
“This was the first thing I’d really done totally on my own. The school thing I did on my own, but that was with a school program. I just drove up to Montana and I was totally by myself. I’ve had friends and connections and stuff like that, but this was totally just kind of on my own.”
During her summer in Glacier National Park Monika did a lot of hikes and solo summits. She also met a guy named Samurai, who every year visits Nepal. Samurai invited Monika and two others (Shannon and Hayden) to Nepal to work in an orphanage with him at the end of the summer.
“I saved up money, I bought a plane ticket, saved up more money to live off of and then I flew to Nepal… We stayed in an orphanage for a month just on the border of India… That was like a really eye opening experience that was the pinnacle of this kind of wild crazy traveling kind of like freedom thing going on. That kind of grounded me. It put a lot of things in perspective, I’ll tell you that much. Nepal – they have nothing. They have tourism, they don’t manufacture anything, they make rice and millet and it’s sandwiched right between India and China and that’s how most of the world lives.”
Seeing poverty first hand Monika gained a greater appreciation for what she had and fueled her desire to experience more of the world. During Hayden, Shannon and Monika’s stay in Nepal they planned a trek in the Himalayas. Just one day into the trip Shannon and Hayden turned around, but Monika continued with their Nepali guide.
“We went to this place called Machapuchare base camp and it’s in the Annapurna region. That’s where most people go trekking if they go to Nepal because they have Everest base camp and Langtang National Park which is right north of Katmandu.”
Machapuchare Mountain, standing at 22,793 feet with two peaks has never once been summited. Since summiting is illegal, many climbers don’t want to climb any portions of Machapuchare. Monika is one of the few who has hiked parts of the mountain.
“There’s all this mysticism around it. No one’s summited it because there’s a god that lives up there, no one’s summited it because the mountain itself is a god, all this different stuff.”
While Monika didn’t summit the mountain she took a Feldspar heart shaped rock home with her as well as important life lessons.
“I actually broke on that trip because I was just out in the middle of the Himalayas with this guide. We were not near any tourists anymore. We were just in the Himalayas. There was people on the side of the mountain, like families, chopping wood and it was just really freaking real. The water wasn’t clean where I was at. They were boiling it, but it had chunks in it. It was really hard. It made me realize what a prissy – I mean how lucky we are.”
Spending time in Nepal brought things into perspective for Monika. Going first hand into the outdoors brought Monika back to her beginnings. In a journey with many detours she decided that pursuing geology was the path she needed to take.
“Maybe you could call it an existential crisis, but it was something, it was good. That’s what brought me here. I ended up here after that. I wanted to go back to college and I knew what I wanted to study. I wanted to go to Western Washington University, but my credits wouldn’t transfer there and I’ve always wanted to live in Alaska… I just kind of took a gamble coming here.”
Monika since Nepal, moved to Alaska in 2014 and has been attending UAA ever since as a geology major. This summer Monika plans to do some sort of guiding job, most likely rafting despite her previous experiences in Cataract Canyon. Until then Monika has been shredding the slopes of Alyeska and sneaking in outdoor recreation classes at UAA including a sea kayaking class this April.