October 5, 2013, Category: Alaska, Blogs, Travel

The top of the world! We go to the top of the world!

Day 11: Anchorage to Denali

Check out the novel: Trudge On, Soul

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The icy wilderness of Alaska is the perfect place to lose yourself. But Warren doesn’t want to lose himself. He wants to lose someone else.
The book, Trudge On, Soul, is the result of three long years of late nights, critique groups, and editing. If you haven't read the blog, I'd suggest you stop reading and at least click here to read the preview chapters of the book. The blog and pictures have spoilers and the book is a much better read. Think of the website as a documentary, and the book as an engaging movie. Triumph Motorcycles did an article on my Adventure here. A Photo Album of the trip is available here. Click here if you want to jump to the start of the blog with an index of each day.

The Adventure Continues...


Yesterday was one of the top two days of the trip, in terms of sheer Alaskan grandeur. Today was the other. From my journal:

It’s late; I’m in my tent and hiding from the cold deep inside my sleeping bag. There is an arctic chill out there and it’s only going to get worse. At least I’m finally getting warm, I was thinking it would never happen. This morning seems like eons ago, somehow we fit another weeks worth of activities into a single day. And now here I am, camping in a place I’ve dreamed about for years, the Denali National Park! Surrounded by rugged landscape and wildlife!

But I’m getting ahead of myself, first we have to ride 300 miles. Rewind 16 hours.

DSCN0475-001We slept in until almost 8, which was nice. Mike and I hadn’t arrived early enough to get the keycode to the shower and he was standing there with his towel and soap trying to figure it out. Another guy had just crawled out of his tent and Mike said, “excuse me, do you happen to know the code to the shower?”

The dude looked at him, said “Yup,” and then grabbed some stuff from his tent and walked past Mike, punched the code, and vanished inside. What a dick. When he came out he at least had the decency to leave the door open so we could use it, so I guess he’s just a half dick.

DSCN0474But that was the only negative on a spectacular day. Not a cloud in sight, it was already warm enough for Tshirts, and we were heading north to Denali! Granola bars and trail-mix kicked us off and Mike took advantage of the free coffee inside the House of Harley-Davidson (and I would like to point out, neither one of us even noticed the massive cleavage behind the cash register).

While riding north, my eyes constantly scanned the horizon for a glimpse of McKinley. Several times my excitement got the best of me as my mind warped the clouds on the distant horizon into a massive peak. I had no clue when we’d see it. But I knew we would, the day was gorgeous!

We stopped for gas in Wasilla and looked everywhere for a view of Russia but didn’t see that either. I guess you can’t believe everything on SNL. But then a short time later I did see it; my first view of Mt. McKinley. In that moment, all the anxious excitement I’d been holding in vanished, replaced by an instant flood of awe and wonder. I mean, it’s not too much to ask to see a mountain, right? In terms of requests I had really expected that was a given. It doesn’t move. It doesn’t migrate. I’m going there and I expected to see it. So when people told me not to get my hopes up because it’s always in the clouds this time of year, I acted like everything was okay. I told myself that it would be fine if we couldn’t see it. But the truth was, I needed to see McKinley. I don’t know why. I don’t know when in my life this need arose. But I knew if I left Alaska without it, my trip would not have been complete.

So when it appeared, a peace washed over me. For a moment, there was nothing else. Just this bold, brilliant, and brutal force of nature up against a bright blue sky. I was not disappointed. But it gets even better.

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We rode into Talkeetna where they fly climbers up to base camp. We had reservations for a tour and had been riding fast and hard because our deadline was approaching. There was a slight sense of panic because we couldn’t remember the name of the place where we reserved our tickets. But we were riding an airplane. It’s not rocket science, go to the airport. How hard could it be to find an airport? Turns out it wasn’t hard at all and the first place we tried was the right one, Talkeetna Air Taxi.

WP_20130826_008-001We secured our bikes, prepped our camera gear, and after a short wait, boarded the plane with eight others (including the pilot, who has one of the coolest jobs in the world). Mike had been given a tip not to volunteer to sit in the front because your view is obstructed. Turns out, that was bad advice. I advise you to have your hand ready to shoot up the instant the pilot (in our case, Trent) asks for a volunteer to sit in front. Don’t hesitate. Shoot up your hand and yell, “ME ME ME!!!” If two of you are traveling together, you can even swap halfway through.

1264435_10151921747391209_834233553_oIf you have seen six year olds waiting in a dark hallway to walk into the family room on Christmas morning, you can imagine Mike and I getting into that plane. From the moment we took off, we soaked it up. The plane climbed and approached the mountain. A couple of times the pilot swung to the right or left to give us a view, but most of the trip up was limited to a view of rivers winding through the flat land below us. Then we reached the dry glacier beds, miles and miles of gravel that used to be buried in ice. And then, we were there. Ice, snow, and monsterlike walls of stone. Jagged granite peaks. Deep blue crevices. My mind tried to soak it in, to imagine and process everything I was seeing. The history and danger. What it would be like to be down there?

IMG_2100Everest is the highest mountain in the world at 29,035 feet. Although McKinley is the highest in North America, at 20,320 it is a ways down the list worldwide. But an interesting fact about McKinley is that from it’s base (the lowlands) to the peak, you will ascend 18,000 feet. Even though Everest is a higher mountain by elevation, base to summit it is 12,000 feet. In fact, from base to summit McKinley is the tallest mountain in the world!

1272985_10151921764056209_1996703195_oWe flew around to the back side and saw the Wickersham wall. We flew past 1200 foot sheer cliffs, weaving in and out of the various peaks. Then we circled around, dropped down into a box canyon, and landed on the Eldridge Glacier at about 7,000 feet. It felt like the top of the world yet we were only a third of the way to the top! You can see the tracks of the plan in the landing sight if you look closely at the picture.

I wasn’t ready for what hit me and I’ll warn you now, I’m going soft here. I’ll toughen back up in the next paragraph but I can’t deny my experience as I stepped outside and looked up at the giant peaks surrounding me. I took several steps away from the plane, turned in a slow circle, and my eyes filled with tears. The mountains shot into the sky, giant cliffs around me. The snow was blinding white. And it was so quiet; no wind or any sound at all. Bright sunshine, warm enough for Tshirts, and standing on ice 2,000 feet thick! And I was in the middle of it. I took several heavy breaths, closed my eyes, and just basked in it. It was a beautiful moment.

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We spent a half an hour or so up there, taking pictures and soaking it up. At one point I took off my sunglasses and almost exploded it was so bright. Not only was I blind, it hurt not matter how much I squinted. We loaded back into the plane, took off, and began our descent. I leaned against the window, tired, and watched as we passed over the peaks. One second snow and dark blue ice crevices were right under the plane and the next, it my gaze would drop off the end of a rocky cliff a thousand feet down. When the mountains were behind us, I realized how exhausted I was. I had thought yesterday was tiring, today I couldn’t even talk. I couldn’t take pictures. I just sat with a blind glaze over my eyes and watched the ground fly past until we landed back in Talkeetna.

I thought on the flight down how spoiled I am. My experience had come easy. I just had to sit in a plane. I didn’t have to hike, I didn’t have to freeze, I didn’t have to camp. I sat in a plane. People have actually hiked up and skied down the Wickersham wall! It amazes me what people can accomplish.

IMG_2293Talkeetna Air Taxi was awesome. Trent was an awesome pilot and guide and threw out great facts and anecdotes. “Down there the ice is 4,000 feet thick.” “Even though we are over forest now, the glacier is still underneath it. The forest constantly shifts and changes as the glacier moves.” “Once I saw the abominable snowman right down there!” (One of those is a fake quote, I won’t tell you which.) He’s also the kind of guy I wouldn’t mind hanging out with which always makes for a nice trip.

Once we landed, we called the Denali Park to make camping reservations. They asked if we wanted to camp in the primitive campsite or go 13 miles up the road to “Savage.” Primitive sounded good, but Savage sounded adventurous. And 13 miles further up into bear country? It was a no brainer, Savage all the way! And camping two nights and not having to break and set up camp in the middle would be a nice change.

DSCN0489When we rolled out of the airport it was so warm that all I needed to wear my outer jacket (and with my vents open). And all day long McKinley was straight ahead of us in full glory and splendor. I thought, wow, I was up there.

I knew we would arrive late, but what I didn’t know was how cold that last hour would be. It was freezing. Not because it was freezing cold outside (although with the sun out of view it was quite chilly), but because I still had light gear on from the 70 degree day and was too lazy (again) to stop to put on some warmer gear. I never learn! At least I had zipped up my vents, or so I thought. It turns out I missed a couple in the back, which didn’t help. I kept thinking, only five more miles, just push through. But five more miles turned into 40 more miles (my gps couldn’t find the park entrance so we were guessing). For the last ten miles, my teeth were chattering. When we finally made it to Denali, I was miserable cold.

DSCN0490We checked in and got more bad news. We had only booked one night and Savage campground was full the next. There was a spot open in another campground, which was fortunate, but it meant my little fantasy of not having to break camp was shot. No matter how we stacked it, we couldn’t get two spots in the same campground, and that was a disappointment. Another letdown was how the Denali shuttle service operated.

I knew you couldn’t drive in to the park, you have to ride a shuttle. My impression was they run throughout the day and you could get on and off at various points to explore. Driving would have been my preference, of course, but I’d done shuttles in Zions National Park and it worked out pretty good. You ride, get off, hike, get on, get off, hike, etc. It wasn’t a big deal. But these shuttles weren’t so flexible. We had to make reservations for a specific time and then she said to plan on riding all the way up and if we wanted to make stops, do it on the way back.

My ignorant idea of camping experience in Denali had looked like this: wake up to a sunshine and make breakfast, walk out to the road with cameras and daypacks, hop on a shuttle to explore the park (getting on and off various shuttles to explore hiking areas). Thrown into the mix was seeing buttloads of bear, moose, and caribou. Finally, we’d ride back and get dropped off in front of the campground just in time make dinner, relax, and hit the sack. Now I didn’t expect it to go exactly like that, but the reality was enough of a variance (and exacerbated by being frickin freezing) that it veered me into the realm of disappointed.

Many of the shuttle’s were full, so our choices were limited. We would be have to get up before sunrise to strike camp, drive back down the mountain 13 miles to catch an early shuttle, ride the bus all day, and return in the evening to set up in another campground. It was a bit of a struggle for me to adjust to the difference of the two scenarios. Although I was still excited to see Denali, I was bummed.

DSCN0495-001Our 13 mile ride through the slow park roads took about a half an hour and I continued to lose body heat. My whole body was shaking when we finally found our campsite and began setting up camp. Moving around to pitch tents and prepare dinner took the bite off (although, I have to give Mike the credit, he did all the work on dinner), but it wasn’t until I’d put on my thermals, wool socks, fleece balaclava, and spent a half hour buried in my sub-zero bag that I felt comfortable.

WP_20130826_078-001I have explained my lifelong passion for McKinley and Denali. I have also demonstrated my ignorance of both (I didn’t even know which way to look to see McKinley as we drove out of Anchorage). You would think (or at least I would) that somebody so intrigued would have researched before embarking on a 6,000 mile trip to see them. My limited knowledge came from media references, stories, movies, word of mouth, urban legends (which I’m sure was part of the fascination), and a quick read on wikipedia. Certainly this is a formula for disappointment and failure, which to some degree I experienced at Denali.

WP_20130826_077-001So the big question, do I regret it? Do I wish I had learned more beforehand? Absolutely not. That might have normalized it. Instead, my naive, fantasy-like view let me feel like a kid again. I got to go to Disneyland as a six year old. I got to fly past the Death Star. The reality of McKinley delivered on every level. Denali required a mental shift, but I adapted (which I will expound upon more tomorrow). My idealized notions were too endeared to completely cave to reality, setback, and discouragement and this made it exciting, fun, and inspiring. And afterwards, my passion to dig into the history and geography behind the tale only enriched the whole experience.

That said, tomorrow I will provide some tips if you are considering a visit to Denali.

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Click here to continue to day 12


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