Denali: The Mountain
The first time I saw Denali up close, it snuck up on me. In 2009, I had done some fancy four-wheel maneuvering with my cousin Mike and a group of new friends to his gold-panning acreage 17 miles or so beyond the pavement. We were way out on Petersville Road, hilly, willow-covered, difficult country off the Parks Highway by the Trapper Creek turnoff. The town of Talkeetna is due east, but the Susitna River slices a dose of no-access-thataway between the two places, so the turn to Talkeetna off the Parks Highway is well to the south.
When we were done fooling around with the gold pans and Mike’s new dredge, we drove a little further to a rise in the landscape that topped out with an unobstructed view northwest. There, from a very unusual vantage point was a clear and glorious view of the mountain whose name means “the Big One.” (It has actually had a lot of names over the eons, including “Mt. McKinley,” but those in the know call it Denali, and not without a healthy measure of respect and awe in their voices).
My very first view of the great mountain was from Anchorage—a rare event—in November, 1991 when I spoke to the Alaska Annual EMS Symposium. I could see the great mountain from some 200 miles away, out my hotel room—memorable!
Talkeenta is a mountaineer’s Mecca. Those headed for the high white slopes of Denali sign out with the park service there, and, with luck, sign back in two to four weeks later. We visited the famous (and quaint) town in the summer of 2017. From Talkeetna Alaska Lodge, set on a hill outside town with an amazing view of Denali—when you can get it—we and the other patrons were reduced to taking photos of the photos of the great mountain that were hanging throughout the lodge, because the mountain was persistently swathed in clouds (as it often is). From somewhere, we heard that up to fifty percent of tourists don’t actually see the real mountain. It’s stubborn that way. Actually, it’s a force unto itself, creating its own wild weather systems, including howling winds and raging storms that can last relentlessly for days. Although on average, about 50 percent of climbers reach Denali’s summit, that year the count was down to about 32 percent due to harsh conditions.
Denali is the highest peak in North America at 20,310 feet. And (think about it!) its topographic prominence (the vertical distance from the peak to the lowest contour line encircling it without including another higher summit), is 20,156 feet. (Climbers often fly in to a point higher on the mountain, but some have done the entire vertical climb.) And it’s in a tough place, being the northernmost mountain above 6,000 meters (19,685') elevation in the world. The result: mountain-generated storms that can arise quickly and with deadly results.
Denali is an undeniable challenge to mountaineers. The first to verifiably climb it was a party led by Hudson Stuck and Harry Karstens; among their group was an Alaska Native named Walter Harper, who was the first to stand on the summit in June, 1913. The most popular route, the West Buttress, was pioneered by Brad Washburn’s group in 1951, although Washburn and his wife, Barbara (the first woman to climb Denali), had previously summited by other routes. The first winter ascent was in 1967. [Source: wikipedia.org/wiki/Denali on August 29, 2017] Nowadays, Denali is climbed regularly along various routes. In the process, it has claimed more than 100 lives, but mountaineers know their risks, and choose to take them.
That I’m batting 100 percent sightings of Denali on my multiple visits to Alaska leaves me feeling humbly grateful. To see this mountain stops is to be reminded of mighty things, glorious things, dangerous and frightening and exciting things. Although I’m past longing to climb it, Denali remains an inspiring mountain. I can’t help it; I’ve always been a mountain girl.