Monday, August 15, 2016

Denali - Alaska High Point

Denali, once known as Mt.McKinley, is the tallest point in Alaska, in the United States and in North America, at 20,310 feet. In my quest to reach the high point of each state, this is the biggest obstacle. At one point I seriously considered the possibility of climbing Denali. When I climbed Mt. Ranier in 1995 I was roped up to the lead guide on Denali for Rainier Mountaineering. I had an opportunity to talk to him and he told me that the climbing of Denali was no more technically difficult than Ranier, but that it was the weather that made Denali a real challenge. Sometimes people were trapped in their tents for two weeks while they waited out bad weather. 

21 years later, out of shape, with altitude issues, it would take an extreme makeover for me to even consider Denali and I frankly am not motivated to do it anymore. But when we decided to visit Alaska I found that Talkeetna Air Taxi takes passengers around Denali in an airplane as well as landing passengers on Ruth Glacier, that bumps up against Denali, for a brief visit. I thought that might be a nice substitute. In fact, Talkeetna Air Taxi takes many of those who do climb Denali, as well as their gear, up to their initial base camp. 

We were scheduled for a two hour flight. We would circumnavigate Denali, land on Ruth Glacier, then fly down the Ruth Glacier gorge which has mile high granite walls and is filled with a 4,000 foot thickness of ice. 

The two days before our flight the weather was rainy and cold and the visibility was non-existent. But as we got up the morning of our flight to drive to Talkeetna, the sun was out and the visibility was greatly improved. We stopped at a Denali lookout on our way and saw much of the surrounding mountains in the Alaska Range, something that had been gray space previously, even though Denali was still shrouded by clouds. Our hopes soared. 
Denali is somewhere off to the right, hidden in the clouds. 
Ten of us got on a DeHaviland Otter, in addition to our pilot. Everything about this plane seemed industrial and strong, including the skis attached to the wheels and the heavy metal construction. As we lifted off from Talkeetna and headed for the mountains a layering of mountains was apparent.
Judy buckled up and ready to go.
Looking forward into the cockpit.
I'm not an airplane nut, but I gather that the Otter has almost a religious following. This plane has been around since 1954, no wonder it felt sturdy.
The tail, advertising Talkeetna Air Taxi, during our glacier stop.
Layers of mountains ahead of us, green, blotched green and brown, dark green, gray, and snow covered
We saw long tentacle-like glaciers fanning out from the Denali vicinity, even though we could not see Denali, like legs on an octopus. Beautiful jagged mountains with varying levels of snow covered the lower peaks and some peaks, particularly Denali, extended into the cloud ceiling and disappeared without a trace.
These glaciers are mostly covered with snow.
These mountains are covered with a heavy layer of snow.
Layers of tall, steep mountains.
Two separate glaciers separated by a small ridge of mountains.
This glacier looks like ice rings around the planet Jupiter.
The view from the airplane was ever changing and magnificent.
At some point during our flight our pilot exclaimed excitedly that he'd spotted a break in the cloud cover and we were headed up. A surge of power shook the plane and we accelerated steeply upward. Our window views turned gray and misty, then suddenly we broke through the clouds into bright sunshine and the summit of Denali loomed through the front windshield. A feeling of electricity surged through me. We twisted in our seats and craned our necks, as the airplane circled and went up and down, trying to get good camera angles through through the wing supports and other bodies in the plane all trying to do the same thing. We all felt heaviness in the chest and more difficulty breathing as we reached 12,500 feet without oxygen. In order to relieve the symptoms of altitude, the pilot went up and down several times to minimize our feelings of discomfort. What a thrill to see the top of that beast!
Denali through the front window of the airplane.
Denali above the clouds.

All-too-quickly, the pilot headed down and angled for the Ruth Glacier landing We flew over the glacier floor and saw the upheaval of blue ice in various areas. Then our pilot turned and headed for an uphill segment of the glacier and we touched down for a soft landing. As we slowed the pilot turned the plane around so that we would have a down-hill slope for the take-off. We got out of the plane and walked around for awhile. A plane that was there ahead of us took off and then three other planes landed while we walked around. The sun was shining and radiated off of the snow. We were at 7,000 or 8,000 feet standing on snow and ice, yet it was so warm that coats were not necessary, although we did keep them on.
Blue ice in a chopped up glacier.
A close-up of the ice.
Angling down.
Our airplane facing downhill on the glacier.
The beautiful glaciers and mountains ahead of us. As we got home and I looked at a National Geographic Traveler magazine, this same shot, but taken from a mountain above us, was the subject of a two-page spread. I recognized the location immediately.
A plane taking off ahead of us is just a speck against the massive mountain behind it.
Soon another plane joined us on the glacier. 
Judy by the Otter.
The two of us enjoying the beautiful view.
A closer view of a glacier ahead of us.
As we took off then angled to our right and followed the Ruth Glacier for a ways, my favorite sights of the trip (other than the top of Denali) rolled before our eyes, the blue river of Ruth glacial ice and the mountains that contained it, along with side glaciers that flowed in and connected with it.
Judy and I switched seats in the airplane for the flight back to Talkeetna.
View through the front window as we take off from the glacier.
The spectacular blue Ruth Glacier. That river of blue ice is one of the most thrilling things I've ever seen.
It would be amazing to trudge along that surface.
A side glacier spills downhill into the Ruth Glacier. A very slow-motion waterfall.
Another side glacier.
As we got further from Denali the side glaciers subsided and we saw valleys once created by glaciers.
This glacial valley is now covered in a spectacular carpet of varying greens.
So I did not summit Denali, but I had a wonderful substitute. One of the most fun adventures we've ever taken.


  1. What a great way to summit Denali! You've got some amazing pictures.

  2. This was a real highlight for me. About 20 years ago I read Charles Kuralt's story about landing on Ruth Glacier, and it has always stuck with me. It was surreal to be there myself.