To Meet a Mountain

Aug 23, 2015 | 0 comments

Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that I’ve only got a couple weeks left in Denali, but lately I’ve been feeling much more spontaneous than usual. Yesterday this newly rediscovered spontaneity took me thousands of feet into the air to finally meet up with the mountain I have been working under for the last several months. 

I called the air taxi company in the morning, intent on asking about flights for the next day, but instead they said they had a spot open on the noon flight and to be there in an hour. I threw together a quick lunch and snacks, grabbed all the camera gear I could stuff in my backpack, and made it down to the bus stop just in time. 

An hour and a half later, I found myself crammed in the back of a Cessna 206 with a nice family from Rome. But it felt good to be back in a bush plane again — happy flashbacks of my first summer in Nome came to mind as we put on our headsets and began to taxi to the airstrip.

The Nenana River
And then we were off. The trees shrunk into a shag carpet of green below us, and the roaring Nenana River became a delicate blue ribbon snaking through canyons and hills. 

Polychrome Pass from the air

The first half of the flight followed the park road at a distance. I actually became very glad I had waited so long to take a flight over the park, because now I could recognize all the different mountains and landmarks. We passed over Cathedral and Igloo Mountains, the Teklanika River, and the Toklat. The steep drop-off cliffs of Polychrome Pass looked minute from the air.

Somewhere behind Cathedral Mountain
Then slowly, the browns and greens of the mountains along the road corridor began to fade into sharp grays and whites as we turned southwest, headed toward Denali. It became one of those scenes from a Ken Burns documentary or a Discovery Channel nature show, soaring over hundreds of snow-covered peaks that stuck up thousands of feet into the air connected by knife-edge ridge lines. Glaciers flowed off of the mountains like octopus arms.

Mt. McKinley from 20 miles away
Our first view of Denali as we came out of the clouds was about 20 miles away. It looked big for sure, but it was still hard to totally judge its size.  We wove our way closer and closer, and then all of a sudden, it seemed lit it was right there in front of us. The pilot said we were still 3 miles away, but even from that distance, it was still impossible to capture the entirety of the mountain’s north face with my 18mm lens.

One of the ridges coming off Denali

Incredible hues of ice blue
From here, I could really see how it truly is one of the (if not THE) most extreme mountains in the world. Although not as tall as Mt. Everest, Denali is at a much higher latitude, making the climbing conditions far more difficult with the extreme cold, wind, and thin oxygen. Only about 50% of climbers attempting to summit ever make it to the top.

North face of Denali
There are so many mind-blowing things about this mountain.
  • It takes climbers an average of 3 weeks to make it to the top and 2 days to make it back down to base camp. 
  • Last year, this guy set a speed record for climbing the mountain, making it to the summit from base camp and back again in 11 hours and 48 minutes. 
  • The first attempt to climb it was in 1903, but it wasn’t until 1910 that anyone made it to the north summit, and 1913 when the south summit (the tallest point) was reached. 
  • In the 1910 expedition, the climbers carried up with them some donuts, hot cocoa, and a 14-foot spruce pole with an American flag (Oh, the good ol’ days!).
  • Oh yeah, did I mention it’s 20,320 feet tall? But this summer it’s been re-measured, so they’re releasing the new height at the end of August (it’s actually predicted to be a little shorter than previously thought, due to inaccuracies in measurement technology). 
  • Its vertical relief is 18,000′, higher than Mt. Everest’s at 12,000′.
  • Even though Denali isn’t high enough to require climbers to carry oxygen, its northern latitude gives it a lower barometric pressure than mountains of equivalent size at the equator (basically making the oxygen just as thin at the top). 

Leaving the mountain 🙁
That’s probably enough random facts to blow your mind for now, but I could list off a bunch more if you’re ever curious. The point is, seeing it up close brought new meaning to all those facts, realizing just how massive and cold and remote this rock really is. I also have renewed respect for anyone who has ever climbed it, or even attempted. 

Flying over glaciers

Glacial pool in the mountains
Well, eventually we had to turn north again and head for Kantishna, the small settlement at the end of the park road. Kantishna is where all the old mining claims used to be during the gold rush, but today it is mostly made up of a few ritzy lodges scattered about in the hills. 

The landing strip
Besides wanting to see the mountain, I also wanted to see what Kantishna was like without having to take the usual 12 hour roundtrip bus ride to get to it. It was actually very beautiful, and now I can describe it to visitors better, to help with their trip planning.

When we landed, we were shuttled to the lodge where I bought my bus ticket for the ride home, and enjoyed my lunch on the balcony overlooking the Kantishna hills.

Kantishna hills
The bus ride itself was long, about 6 hours back to C-Camp, but we saw several bears, caribou, and moose. Just as we passed Wonder Lake, the weather turned awful and we were caught in a hailstorm for some time before it turned into a heavy, dark, pouring rain for the remainder of the trip. At least I didn’t feel like I was missing out on good hiking! 

Even with the long ride home, it was such a cool experience to finally meet the mountain up close. THIS is why I do what I do, and love what I do. There are so many stunning places in our country and our world. I feel so fortunate to have a mind able to appreciate them, and a body able to experience them, and a spirit able to be fulfilled by them. How grateful I am to get to see all this in my lifetime, I can never fully express. 


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