There’s a place I know that defies description. A place so stunning in mass, texture, color and scope of existence that words cannot begin to capture it.
A few years ago I was in Alaska with my son and we decided to go check out Denali. The official name for the highest peak of that collection of mountains is Mount McKinley, a tag foisted on it as some kind of Washington DC political herky jerk from many years ago. To me it’s Denali, so named by the native indians of that world hundreds of years ago. Denali is the highest peak in North America at over 20,000 feet and when considering the height of the rise from the mean elevation surrounding it at it’s base to the top of the peak, that rise is greater than the rise of Mount Everest.
On our way to Denali we had stopped for lunch in a small town about three hours north of Anchorage called Talkeetna. Talkeetna has a rich, rough and tumble history going back well over a hundred years. The core of the downtown is only about three blocks long with many of the original buildings restored and in use today. Some of those buildings are retail storefronts to serve the many tourists, some are bars that have been bars for many generations, some are hotels and some are cafes and bakeries owned by world re-known chefs that create and present gourmet food that would make any Parisian squeal with envy. It’s interesting that in any of those bars and restaurants, if you listen close, you’ll hear French being spoken at that table, German over at that table, Italian or Asian over there. Talkeetna is a staging area for mountaineers from all over the world.
So Scot and I are eating a gourmet level lunch in a small café downtown when suddenly the front door bursts open and a character looking like he was only a few steps in front of a pursuing grizzly yelled: “its out, its out” and the whole place went nuts. Waitresses, customers, cooks and bottle washers stampeded out the front door and we were left sitting by ourselves. Thinking it might possibly be some kind of fire drill we strolled out the front door and into the street where a crowd was gathering including our café staff and others that were streaming into the street from other businesses nearby. They were all looking in the same direction and when we turned to follow the pointing fingers there it was, in all of it’s magnificent splendor. Denali. The high cloud formation that normally conceals the top of the peak had, for reasons unknown, disappeared, hence the call of “it’s out, it’s out”. The rays of the midday sun were putting on a show as it illuminated every bit of ice and every snow flake into a surreal image of brilliant, sparkling white, natural beauty.
Our waitress from the café walked over to us and suggested we should go immediately out to the local airport and see if someone was taking a flight up to “the glacier”. We didn’t know what she was talking about but found out that whenever The Mountain “came out”, like it had just done, it was sometimes possible to fly through the surrounding mountains and wing back through the gorges and canyons and, if all went well, land on Ruth Glacier.
We made a dash for the airport and arrived in time to climb aboard a bush plane that was headed for the top. Within minutes we were roaring down the runway and had barely lifted off when the driver began a slow turn to the northwest toward the now blazing white mountain radiating against the burning blue of the sky behind it.
I’m in the right seat feeling and absorbing the deafening roar that is the engine melded into the gutteral buzz of the three bladed prop. We had cleared the airport but continued climb power with the distant vision of Denali centered up in the windshield. A mass of white that seemed to dimenish the sunlight. We climbed over the three river junction that is Talkeetna then across rising tundra into the roll of foothills. As we closed with the mountains their peaks vertically shadowed and streaked with glaciers and crevasses in present day and ancient snow. We reduced power to cruise speed then altered coarse between two of the mountains slopes into a granite canyon whose walls on each side of our flight path were rugged and coarse as you would expect but in places appeared to be smooth. The pilot explained that it was thought that the movement of the glaciers over the millions of years had polished out the rock walls in some places.
The air was surprisingly smooth as I sat in amazement of being where I was and seeing things I had not imagined as we maneuvered through canyons and gorges moving deeper into the mountain range surrounding Denali. Then the canyon opened up and about a thousand feet below and to our right was Ruth Glacier. The pilot eased the power back and the bottom fell out and as we dropped. The pilot aligned our approach and judged the degree of the glacial slope that was to be our runway, to a straight in and then we were down. The engine was shut down and in the unusually calm winds I sat there in the quiet of the mountains at the base of one of the most majestic places on earth my first thought was : now how the hell do we get out of here?
We got out and played in the snow a while and considered climbing up to Don Sherman’s shack that was a few hundred yards out and up but decided against it. The weather was calm but up there you never knew what the next hour might bring so we looked and absorbed all that we could then loaded up and reversed track back down the hill.
This event happened almost twenty years ago and during those years this flight out of Talkeetna has become fairly routine with more pilots becoming aquainted with the route and weather clues.. So if you are ever in Alaska I recommend taking the time to go do it.