Denali loomed leviathan as we slowed to a stop at the flagger on Broad Pass somewhere near milepost 200 and the Middle Fork Chultina railroad crossing on the George Parks Highway in Alaska.
“You boys looking for gold up here?!” asked the exceptionally Alaskan beard holding a stop sign.
“Something like that,” John replied.
“I thought so, you looked like you were looking for gold,” he explained.
John Brueck and I were driving from the Denali National Park entrance, where we both have been summer residents for the past five years, down to Talkeetna to catch a flight to the Kahiltna Glacier.
I have wanted to climb Denali since I was four years old. My dad climbed the mountain that year and came back with stories of adventure my tiny brain could hardly contemplate.
I left Colorado for Denali a week ago, and we were finally on our way to the mountain.
Flying north never ceases to amaze me. The Rockies, Cascades, Coast Range, Waddington, Fairweather Range, Wrangle-St.Elias Mountains, and Eastern Alaskas all pass below. The grandeur progresses as my destination nears.
This year snow clung to the north side of the seaside ridges below the plane, but the kingdom of winter to the east shines securely white for the time being.
The eye level view of Mount St. Elias and Mount Logan, with the ocean still shining in the distance, imposed an ancient emotion rarely felt on jet planes. The imprint of modern society fades up the coastline and the intrinsic primordial nature of mountains takes over. Though approaching from the east means I didn’t get a preview of Denali from the air, it also means I avoided the inevitable pit in my stomach that would accompany the leviathan view cruising altitude would lend the top of the continent.
Though most people fly to Anchorage, my future in-laws, a pile of climbing gear I stashed in FB last year, and trip partner in the area made a northern approach make more sense.
Meeting up with John, we spent a few days at the Park entrance before heading to Talkeetna.
Denali National Park is nothing short of awesome. Most of my experience in the park has been thus far via foot travel from the Park’s only road leaves. This mostly gravel buses-only corridor leaves the George Parks Highway at milepost 337.4, jogging west for 90 miles into the heart of the Alaska Range. From this road, an incredible wilderness can be accessed. The mountains on the northern spine of Alaska Range are incredible, and this is the backyard that keeps pulling me back each summer. However, from all over the Park, and especially on the ridges and peaks in this northern area, the Mountain, Denali, sits in a world above the world.
A couple days hanging out around the Park entrance, skiing up north, and repacking loads of gear has got me itching to get up to the glacier.
For the past few years I have been exploring the outer reaches of the Alaska Range, having ample opportunity to stare up at Denali and scheme. The potential energy held in central Alaska is endless. My adventures here have slowly gotten bigger and more involved, weeks spent climbing and exploring the Eastern Alaska Range, mountaineering along the northern spine of the Central Alaskas, wondering through the maze of rock and ice that is the Muldrow Glacier.
I wanted to ski the mountain from the north, following the first ascent route up the Muldrow and Harper Glaciers.
The north side trip never (not yet) got off the ground for lack of partners. I never found more than one other person at a time who thought it was a good idea, and I felt like it was a group-of-three-at-least type idea.
John, a backcountry ranger on the north side of the Park, steadfastly agreed that third-person or not the time had come to head to the high one.
We settled on the logistically easier West Buttress. Our plan is to hop in line and head on up. If the snow conditions are good, we hope to test out some of the upper mountain ski lines, if not, we’ll stick to the boot pack.
Often over looked as ‘just’ the West Butt, or the ‘standard route,’ this tour de Denali provides a long, aesthetic, historic, and remarkable experience. The route follows the Kahiltna Glacier up the colossus of Denali’s South flanks before gaining the western ridge of the upper mountain. The route usually begins with a flight to 7,200 ft on the Kahiltna and winds up through high ice and snow to the 20,320 ft high summit some dozen or so miles and 13,000 vertical feet later.
The West Butt was first climbed by a cohort in 1951 led by North American mountaineering pioneer Brad Washburn, and provides a relatively straightforward path to the upper mountain. Over the past few years I have gotten in the habit of finding old Washburn routes in the Alaska Range and heading out after them. One of my first mountaineering excursions into the Alaska Range was to find my way up Washburn’s Pendleton, a small peak with a superior view. Last year I found remnants of a 1948 Washburn camp and then got weathered off of the north ridge of Mount Hayes in proper form, the trip being a success without a summit (though also at times truly frightening). I generally enjoy following the advice of Brad, and I couldn’t be anything but excited to head out after this Washburn classic.
Usually around 1000 climbers head to the West Butt every year, making it the most shared backcountry experience in the Park.
Arriving in TKA (Talkeetna Alaska), we checked in with K2 Aviation and headed to the hanger to weigh in our gear.
“Oh no.” John and I were way over weight. For fear of starving to death next month we had ended up with close to 40 days of food. This is excessive by any stretch. I had also been lazy about organizing my climbing gear and we had brought a few extra things across the board without thinking to hard about it. Well, now faced with the reality of hauling 150 lbs of junk to 20,320 ft, the buck had to stop here. Good grief, we repacked and shed 70lbs off out load (don’t worry, not the bacon or the cheese).
Back in Talkeetna we had the rest of the evening to enjoy the character only found in the northern fringe of society. Trying to buy a stamp at Nagley’s general store, John ended up buying one out of the guy at the register’s pocket. The bar-be-cue chicken pizza at Mountain High was great, and the K2 bunkhouse was somewhat empty, but very nice spot to end up for the night.
This morning we awoke to clouds. So, now we wait.
(WildSnow.com Guest Blogger, Alex Lee, lives in Leadville, Colorado in the winter and Denali, Alaska in the summer. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in the ethics of conservation at the University of Colorado. He works part-time as a naturalist in Alaska and as a ski guide and photographer in the Colorado Rockies. Like his pictures? Check out more at his website, MountainDinosaur.com.)
Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.