Exploring Alaska -
Denali (Mount McKinley)

Denali National Park

The van carrying me and two other passengers southbound approached the Alaska Range along the George Parks Highway. Though mostly clear, the weather was still too cloudy and hazy to see Denali. For a while the road ran parallel to the Nenana River, which is exceedingly muddy and silty because of the glaciers above it. As a glacier creeps downhill, it grinds and abrades the underlying rock and soil into a very fine silt, called glacial flour, which clouds the streams running from the terminus of the glacier. In the Alaska Range this happens to such a great extent that the water is literally as opaque as coffee. If you stick your finger into it, you cannot see an eighth of an inch below the surface. The water is far muddier than that running from the glaciers in the Cascade Range of the northwest. As we approached the vicinity of Denali National Park, the many hotels and buses made it easy to believe that the park is Alaska's busiest tourist destination at some 800,000 people per year, most of which come between May and September. By contrast, Gates of the Arctic, where I had been two days earlier, gets a mere 4000 visits per year.

The van driver dropped me off at Morino campground, which is restricted to campers not travelling with a private vehicle. After setting up camp here, I proceeded to the visitor center where I verified my shuttle pass for the next day, checked out the gift shop, and spent a while in the "backcountry simulator", which is a small room in which interactive video about backcountry travel is shown. Here I learned many tips and tricks about stream crossings, a topic about which I could have used more knowledge in my Gates of the Arctic hike. The information I gleaned here proved useful later in the trip.

The rest of the day was taken up by a hike on the Mount Healy Overlook Trail, which climbs 1700 feet up the southeast slope of Mount Healy, or so said all of the sources of information I had on the trail. When I completed the short but steep hike to the overlook point, I found that the trail continued beyond this point toward the summit itself. So I continued to see how far it would go. The trail continued along the very crest of a grassy ridge and then threaded its way up some sharp rock pinnacles. By this time my altimeter showed that I had gained some 2500 feet in elevation. Ahead loomed the summit, which would be a scree and boulder scramble, mostly on a ridge, to climb the remaining 1500 feet. Then I thought I saw a trail on the ridge high above, and when I whipped out my binoculars to get a better look, I confirmed that yes, it was a trail, probably this one, leading to the summit. I now had a tough decision: not knowing in advance that the trail went all the way, I had not planned to climb Mount Healy, yet I sorely wanted to do so. What was originally planned as a 1700 foot climb could become a 4000+ foot climb. Some clouds were building overhead, and although I heard no thunder nor saw any lightning, there was a sprinkle of rain and it looked ominous enough to become a thunderstorm. After scrambling a little farther on the ridge, I saw that the trail gave out when the ridge dropped down to a saddle before joining another ridge. There was no sign of any trail other than the distant one much higher up. I finally "took the hint" and decided not to continue. Though I'm confident that a climb all the way to the summit of Mount Healy would have been well within my capability (something I did not suspect after looking at a topographical map when planning the trip), a pinnacled ridge is no place to be in an electrical storm, and the goal of the trip was not necessarily to climb mountains.

Early the next morning I rose in time to meet my 6:30 A.M. shuttle bus to Eielson Visitor Center, which is 66 miles down the park road. A light rain was falling intermittently, which didn't bode well for my chances of seeing the mountain. The first few miles of the ride are forested. Then the road climbs into open taiga, which is the ecoregion just below the tundra in latitude and altitude. Taiga is a Russian word meaning "little sticks", and in that way taiga is well named since it is open meadow with scattered conifers which grow straight (unlike the trees just below the tree line in some other areas) but are of miniature size; many would make good Christmas trees.

Wildlife, though not plentiful, was present. The inventory I caught sight of included two caribou, two herds of Dall sheep (both high on hillsides far away), and two sleeping bears. Amongst intermittent tundra and taiga the park road climbs and descends through several passes and valleys and includes many views of glacier-clad peaks along the backbone of the Alaska Range. Mount McKinley was never visible because of the heavy cloud cover. Some of the valleys are wall-to-wall gravel bars crossed by dozens of channels which typify the rivers of the area. The major ones are the Teklanika, the Toklat, and finally the Thorofare, of which there is a sweeping view from which for me was the endpoint of the bus ride: Eielson Visitor Center.

On a clear day, Eielson sports a sweeping view of North America's highest peak; although the rain had stopped and blue sky was visible through breaks in the clouds, that was not to be the case now. Behind the visitor center was a 500 foot downhill slope to the broad gravel bar over which ran the channels of the Thoroughfare River.
Muldrow Glacier Terminus
Muldrow Glacier terminus
Armed for river crossings with an extra pair of shoes and knowledge from yesterday's backcountry interactive video, I decended the slope and proceeded across the bar. Soon I encountered a dozen or so channel crossings, which I handled without difficulty. For two more miles I headed across the vast expanse of gravel, which was interrupted only by an occasional patch of fireweed and one solitary moose. After that, there were more river crossings, then another shorter stretch of gravel, and finally my objective: a vegetated array of furrowed ridges. Though one would never know just by looking, this feature was actually the terminus of the Muldrow Glacier. The glacier has so much dirt and rocks in its bed that the ice eventually melts to below the level of the embedded earth, hence the fact that vegetation is able to grow. Contrary to usual glacier travel, it is completely safe to travel unroped on a vegetated glacier. The only way this surface differs from any other brush- and tundra- covered surface is the topography, which is more convoluted, being a series of small hills and furrows on a scale of just a few tens of meters.

Thorofare River
Thorofare River
The return hike was a shortcut to the road followed by a shuttle ride. But it involved just as many channel crossings follwed by a steep uphill bushwhack to a ridge, then across a marsh. Some sounds I made during the bushwhack because of the possibility of bears. During the hike I kept an eye out for and breaks in the clouds that might reveal the upper slopes of Denali, but I saw little more than a glacier or two wiggling its way up a distant massif before vanishing into the clouds.

The next day, after a final visit to the main visitor center, I boarded the Alaska Railroad for the 4-hour ride to Talkeetna. The Alaska Railroad is neither fast nor inexpensive, but has become a classical way to travel in Alaska. It is famous for its glass-domed cars with views in all directions and is used mainly by tourists who want to take a while to enjoy Alaska scenery. An important part of Alaskana, I would rate it the second most authentic way to travel in Alaska after the bush plane. During the ride I got my first glimpse of the very summit of Denali, which briefly poked up above a scattered layer of cumulus clouds.


The first thing I did upon arrival to Talkeetna was head for K2 aviation, where I was to go flightseeing around Denali. This quarter-mile walk turned out to be quite strenuous; I took frequent rests because I had to carry the combined weight of my backpack, daypack, and duffel bag- about 80 pounds total. Because the weather was partly cloudy, it wasn't possible to do the "grand tour" (which goes up the Kahiltna Glacier, around the far side of the mountain by the Wickersham Wall, and back down the Ruth Glacier), which was the flight I originally wanted to do. However, there were two other people waiting to fly to see the Ruth Glacier and land on it. After some negotiating, K2 put us all together on the same flight which gave us more than any one of us had bargained for: a visit to the Kahiltna and Ruth Glaciers with a landing on the latter.

Denali (Mount McKinley) and the Kahiltna Glacier
Scattered clouds with bases around 9000 feet were the rule during the flight. When we climbed through the 5000 foot level, the summits of Mount McKinley and Mount Foraker, a neighboring peak, came into full view. They grew gradually in apparent size as we approached them over the Tokositna Glacier, "Little Switzerland" (an array of sharp rock ridges and jagged peaks), and finally the Kahiltna. Beacause of its great proximity to the Kahiltna, Mount Foraker loomed huge in the windows of the airplane, towering some 10,000 feet above, visible through a large hole in the clouds. Mount McKinley was visible from its 15,000 foot level and above during much of this time, but I never saw it very well between 10,000 feet and 15,000 feet. The pilot overflew the southeast fork, which is where three out of four climbers of Denali are dropped off to begin the climb on the popular West Buttress Route. Shortly beyond this point, the Kahiltna Glacier disappeared into the clouds, which concealed the view of most of the climbing route.

An exciting and slightly harrowing flight close to some jagged peaks and through some passes brought us to the next main feature of the flight: the Great Gorge and the Ruth Amphitheater.
The Great Gorge
The Ruth Glacier and the Great Gorge
The latter is a deep bowl surrounded on all sides by soaring rock faces; three glaciers converge here to become the Ruth Glacier, which flows south between the mile-high vertical walls of the well-named Great Gorge. As if a mile weren't deep enough for this awesome landmark, the Glacier is some 2700 feet deep; if it were to melt away suddenly, the Gorge would measure 8000 feet from top to bottom. The glacier landing took place at the southwest corner of the amphitheater. We couldn't walk very far from the plane because of possible nearby crevasses. I had brought my ice axe which turned out to be useful for probing, and I was able to go a little farther than would have otherwise been safe, but my travels were still limited because I enountered soft spots with possible voids underneath.

Back in Talkeetna, I endured yet another gruelling trudge with all of my gear to the town's public campground near the river. I spent most of the next day strolling around Talkeetna. Despite its small size (seasonal variation from 300 to 600 residents), it has quite a few points of interest. The historical museum has a 12 foot square scale model of Mount McKinley, showing the location of the major subpeaks, ridges, glaciers, and climbing routes. Because most climbers on the mountain fly to their starting points from Talkeetna, not the park itself, the climbing ranger station is here. The Talkeetna Cemetery has two points of interest: the grave of Don Sheldon, probably the most famous Alaska bush pilot of all time, and the climber's memorial, a simple board with a list of the names and ages of all climbers who have died on the Denali Massif. The families and friends of a few of these unfortunate climbers have erected individual memorials on their behalf on a few neighboring sites.

Exactly 24 hours after arriving in Talkeetna, I boarded the Alaska Railroad once again for the leg south to Anchorage. (The railroad runs the exact same schedule every day during the summer). The first half of the 3½-hour ride didn't have much to offer in terms of scenery, but as the train approached Anchorage, there were some good views of the Chugach Range, particularly Pioneer Peak and Goat Mountain. The ride ended in Anchorage shortly after 8 P.M. and was followed by a taxi ride to the airport to pick up my rental car. Although the outlying areas of Anchorage contain many visitor points of interest, the city itself is typical American urbania, so I settled for a spaghetti dinner at Pizza Hut, after which I drove several miles out of town to find a place to camp for the night. I ended up doing so at the end of a sparsely developed residential street near Eagle River, a suburb of Anchorage. As the rental car was a small station wagon, I folded down the back seat and found enough room to sleep in the back of the vehicle with my legs only slightly bent. It was the only night of the entire trip that I did not spend in my tent.

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