After Kilimanjaro, Elbrus and Aconcagua, this is almost...almost...starting to get routing. Months of planning, paperwork, buying and field-testing gear (mmm....$700 boots!) and training and more training. May 8th arrived right on schedule (ha) and it was off to Alaska and Denali...number 4 of my Seven Summits goal.
Catching an early Alaska Airlines flight out from Denver on May 8th wasn't too big of a deal, once I got past security and the myriad of cammo-clad guys in front of me checking weapons in their gear (bear and moose season in Alaska, apparently). A quick stopover in Seattle and then it was on to Anchorage. As I waited for my shuttle to Talkeetna, I met the one other client on this trip with me, one John Gillett, hailing from outside Albuquerque, New Mexico. We chatted for a while about our previous experiences an what we were expecting from Denali. Presently our shuttle, Denali Overland, arrived and we bundled in for the 3+ hour ride to Talkeetna. Riding with us was a quartet of Germans, talking loudly amongst themselves in accents so heavy as to be almost cartoonish sounding...all I could think of was the Mike Myers "Dieter" character from Saturday Night Live.
After a quick stop in Wasilla for last-minute supplies it was on to Talkeetna. Talkeetna is to Denali National Park sort of what Estes Park is to Rocky Mountain National Park - a small 'gateway' community that serves as a launching point into DNP, only smaller. Talkeetna has one main road and a small airport with a scattering of shops, restaurants and a small but very nice National Park Service facility.
Our lodging for the night was the Fireweed Station Inn...a very nice restored B&B just outside town. The Fireweed has pretty much an exclusive arrangement with Alpine Ascents during the climbing season, so John and I were the only two guests. We were treated to a huge dinner before turning in after a long day of travel.
May 9th I rose after an unsettling nights' sleep. Unsettling because the realiztion set in somewhere around 1am that this was Alaska...where the sun doesn't exactly set in the spring and summer, and having dawn/dusk at one in the morning was a little wierd. The huge breakfast of eggs, granola and elk sausage snapped me out of it though. About 9am we were met by our guide, Mike Abbey. From the Fireweed we vanned our way over to the Alpine offices for a gear-check and some skills review. The AAI 'offices' are actually in a small private airplane hanger in one of the neighborhoods outside Talkeetna. Common for this part of the state, a lot of rural folks get around by small prop plane, sometimes the only transport available when heavy winter snows pile up. A lot of rural neighborhoods are centered around small dirt airstrips. Definitely a different world...
We reviewed all our gear to make sure we had the necessities, loaded up packs, duffels and sleds, and did some quick crevasse self-rescue and prussik technique. Hanging from a rope off the hanger ceiling wasn't as challenging as hanging down an icy crevasse, but still a good refresher on seldom-used skills.
After all this, it was off into town for a last-minute stop for some gear and supplies, a massive pizza-lunch at a local eatery and a check-in and orientation at the Denali National Park Service Headquarters facility. Each group headed onto Denali gets a briefing and slide show from an NPS ranger. Each group is also issued one or more Clean Mountain Cams. These CMC's are used specifically for...well, human waste. The Park Service is extremely sensitive about impact on the mountain, so each group is expected to use these durable little cans to, well, take care of business within their individual camps. Each main camp on the mountain had a central "dumping crevasse" to ensure that waste deposits aren't spread out all over the place.
Finally, it was off to the Talkeetna airport and TAT -- Talkeetna Air Taxi, our ride up to base camp on the Kahlitna Glacier. This is bread and butter for Talkeetna, being the main portal into Denali National Park. Several outfitter keep this tiny airstrip busy throughout the spring and summer days, flying climbers into Denali's base camp areas as well as flying tourist routes to various glaciers and air tours of the national park. Gear and climbers were loaded onto our 7-person plane and as luck would have it, I was sitting in the copilot seat (they don't generally HAVE copilots) and had a brilliant view of Denali and Mt. Foraker as the 45 minutes of the flight passed very quickly indeed. We quickly passed over the drab spring bush vegetation and crossed the snow threshold. Steep peaks quickly rose beneath us as we flew low...a few breathtaking banks and turns and a small dot on the white expanse of the Kahiltna Glacier resolved itself into base camp. A seaonally-permanent NPS tent, several climbers' groups, even a helicopter. The approach was dramatic and the landing smooth and uneventful. We slid to a stop next to the NPS tents, and I realized as my boots crunched on the glacial snowpack that I wouldn't touch anything besides snow and ice for the next 3 weeks.
...on to Part II - on the lower mountain