July 2019: Leaving the Road behind - Alaska

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We set off for the next part of our Alaskan adventure – this time a camping trip into the Denali National Park. At just over 21,000 feet, Denali is the highest mountain on the American continent and one of the 7 summits coveted by climbers all over the world. Formerly known as Mt. McKinley, Denali is the mountain's original Alaskan native Athabascan name, which translates quite appropriately to “the Great One”. Whilst we may not have been ready for the 3 weeks it takes to summit Denali we also did not want to spend 10 hours restricted to the bus that takes most tourists into the north of the Park. The good news was I found an alternative that would get us into the heart of the park. The bad news - it would involve 3 nights sleeping on the ground and peeing into a bucket. 

Day 1: A Tent and a Bear

An hour and a half drive north of Anchorage our adventure begins as we pull into the hanger of K2 airlines. What appears to be a movie set, numerous bright red 6-seater de Havilland Beaver planes from the 1950’s are floating on the lake.  Little did I know that these are the work horse of Alaska taking everything from hikers to supplies to remote mountains and towns that are inaccessible by any other means. There is so much remoteness to be reached that one in every 92 Alaskans has a pilot license.

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We load what we thought was our small amount of camping gear on to the plane and climb aboard, me in the co-pilot seat.  A hint of apprehension occurs as the pilot calmly begins to show me how to operate the satellite phone to make emergency calls as well as what the numerous dials on the ancient plane dash should be showing.  As we skim along the lake we go from part boat to part plane quickly lifting into the air. It is not long before we bob and jolt our way into the heart of Denali National Park. Following the large Ruth Glacier, a white streak of ancient ice only a few hundred feet below us, we descend, aiming for a small lake to somehow stop before crashing into the ice wall at the end.

Packing all of our supplies for the three days we hike several kilometres along a narrow trail and through car size boulders to base camp.  All of a sudden I am regretting bringing in that extra pair of underpants as the weight of the pack continues to force my body to topple into the ravine below. Arriving at base camp just before I decide to jettison anything over 100g from my bag, we are greeted with a strange knee-high white fence.  We are informed that this is a bear fence that is meant to prevent us being ravaged by black bears while we are sleeping. Failing to see why a bear would not just step over the fence we are quickly told not to touch this as it has 1500 volts passing through it – no, not enough to kill a bear but enough for them to decide that squirrels are better food than humans. As we unpack, joking about the need for such protection, a call comes – “BLACK BEAR just outside!” Luckily a bear with its cub were happily wandering along the valley a safe distance from us.  

As the night begins to fall – well not really as it does not get dark at this time of year – we roll out the luxurious 1cm sleeping mat, use our scrunched up clothes as a feather soft pillow and cover our faces with something to try to block out the light without suffocating to death.


Day 2: Tarns and Testicles

Opening the zipper of the tent I am greeted with two features of this amazing wilderness.  The first is a vista of snow-covered mountains completely surrounding us with Mount Church rising 8233 feet from the glacier below. The second is an army of 10 million mosquitoes who have obviously realised that human blood must be sweeter than the other wildlife that roam the mountains. After using a month supply of DET we sit and enjoy scrambled eggs and reindeer salami wraps for breakfast (not bad for being made from fully rehydrated packages) while playing sport on how many mosquitoes we can swat. It is not long before breakfast is broken with the second sighting of a bear, a juvenile male, this time much closer just outside camp.

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Not being deterred, we leave the safety of the bear fence camp for our first all day hike. Following beside the Ruth Glacier we search for a way through the moraine which is the rock and sediment deposited by the glacier as it carves out the valley. At first sight this appears to be the deposits of a mine with its huge scar ripped through the earth. It is only when we reach an outlook over the frozen glacier wall that you appreciate the power of mother nature. 

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The boulders and rock debris soon give way to a carpet of white, yellow and purple flowers as we climb higher into the mountains.  With no paths in this wilderness we follow our nose towards a peak in the distance. While this hike would normally be undertaken either in the rain, or threat of rain, we were experiencing a rare heat wave in Alaska.  Luckily, we pass two tarns, or small lakes formed by glacial erosion and look forward to a well-deserved swim. It was not until the body plunged in the water that I quickly realised that there is something colder than ice.  As the body went into protection mode sending all the blood to the vital organs, I only had enough capacity to swear profanities (in a very high pitch!) and claw my way out of the water before certain death was to occur. Now that was invigorating! 

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Reaching the final peak with more un-describable views in every direction I sat and reflect on not only how lucky I was to have survived swimming in the tarn but also to be experiencing this remote part of the world.

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Day 3: Our own Mount Denali

There are a few things I must mention about this amazing trip.  The first are the guides who really make this experience memorable.  I will change their names for their own protection. Let’s just call them Ian, Sarah and Tom. Ian is our lead guide, a wirey young man who has more knowledge of the mountains than his age suggests.  Part master chef, part intrepid adventurer, Ian manages to juggle food preparation and the complexities of keeping us safe, all with a constant smile. Sarah is a super hero that would fit any action cartoon.  This is someone who spends their winter blowing up mountains in the snowfields to cause avalanches before the skiers head up each day, and in summer heads to Alaska to lead climbers up to the summit of Denali. Obviously looking for a rest, Sarah is our other guide for the trip. And finally Tom, who is a mix of Tom Selleck and Bear Grylls.  With a dry sense of humour and a somewhat questionable ability to play and sing ‘House of the rising Sun’, he is the camp ‘Mayor’ responsible for the setting up and running of base camp. While I thought carrying that extra pair of underpants was too much, he has the unenviable responsibility of carrying everything into and back out of camp.  The story goes something like

 “Tom – we need you to carry that 44 gallon steel drum into camp as a bear proof container“–

TOM -  “no problem I will just throw that on top of my 90 pound backpack and sing Greenday along the way”.  

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The second is a bit more about camp life.  The company we travelled with, Alaskan Alpine Adventures, are serious about the theory of leave “no trace”. From spitting our toothpaste into a waste bucket, to carting out a poo bucket (sorry there is not more sanitised way to say it) we ensure that not even a dropped peanut is left on the ground. To ensure that bears and other animals are not attracted in to camp we have a huge barrel where all food, toiletries and anything else that does not smell like dirt is stored (yes the one Tom kindly brought in on his back!).

Leaving the squirrels, mosquitoes and bears behind to work out how to best raid camp we head out on our second all day hike. With another warm day we search out another peak to conquer.  As we climb over snow drifts, and through thigh deep water crossings (it is now I wish we had rubber boots again) we are quickly questioning when and if we will be needing our puffer jackets.  The great thing about being so far from civilisation is the ability to drink the water directly from the melting glaciers. People pay big dollars for this stuff bottled.

As we begin to gain elevation we also quickly begin to get steeper. Part climbing, part terrifying scramble up a near vertical face, we eventually get to the top of our own peak at 3900 ft.  While nowhere near as tall a Mount Denali, we have another amazing post card 360-degree view, including a quick glimpse of Mount Denali peak itself through the clouds.

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While going up was a challenge, we soon realise that getting down is going to be even harder.  What at first appears to be a sheer drop, is overcome by sitting on your backside and letting gravity do it work, sliding precariously through the knee-deep vegetation. Finally reaching the bottom and dragging ourselves back to base camp, we have another ‘brisk’ wash in the stream and fall in to bed exhausted but euphoric about our last couple of days.

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Day 4: Planes, trains and parades

The final day we repack everything into our bags for the hike out (along with the ‘poo bucket’).  The hike up and over the rock boulders is as difficult as I remember coming in but less exciting knowing we are at the end of the trip.  The sound of a propeller echoing through the valley is the sign that the plane is not far away. Climbing aboard we quickly shoot in to the sky, six small dots of our tents at base camp disappearing into the distance.  As we climb higher a large white peaked mountain thrusts from the valley into the blue ocean sky above. What is usually obscured by cloud for two thirds of the time, Mount Denali is clearly visible. Even the pilot decides to do one more turn to get a look at this majestic mountain.

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Landing back in Talkeetna, we are thrust in to the middle of an American celebration – the 4th of July Parade.  At the best of times Talkeetna is a quirky town with a mix of locals, hippies and climbers passing the time at the Denali Brewery and Hotel.  To give you an example of what this place is like, previously, residents of Talkeetna officially elected a cat as its mayor. 

But today was a special day with the weird and wonderful residents leaving their cabins hidden in the bush to join the parade of old cars, horses and decorated quad bikes down the main street. Travellers gather on outdoor restaurant patios watching the parade go by while they gorge on caribou burgers and fireweed icecreams.

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With the afternoon festivities about to get in to full swing we reluctantly leave, boarding the Alaskan Railroad for our trip back to Anchorage.  What was originally built to support the gold rush in the early 1900’s, now takes passengers on the scenic trip north and south though Alaska. Sitting in the open glass topped coach we are finally rewarded with one last prize – a quick glimpse of our first Alaskan moose which we have been searching for since we arrived.  A fitting end to our trip in to the wild.

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