We saw Denali today -- the mountain, not the Park. Short of living an entirely different life and becoming expedition climbers, we were privileged to be as close to the mountain as we could be.
We chose K2 Aviation in Talkeetna for our "flightseeing" adventure, opting for the longest of their selections, the McKinley Climber/Summit Tour, a two-hour flight up to and around the mountain and surrounding area. The sky which had been blue and cloudless as we left Anchorage was gathering clouds as we reached Talkeetna. After checking in early at the airport, we repaired to The Roadhouse, an amazing local establishment.
Talkeetna is a tiny village, which has great importance because it's the The south ascent starting point for more than 1000 climbers annually. They come from all over the world to spend about two weeks getting from base camp to the 20,400 foot summit, and another week getting back to base camp. They fly in and out of base camp from Talkeetna airport, and many of them stay at the Roadhouse, which is also bakery and restaurant.
The Roadhouse was full of enthusiastic mountaineers and their friends and families, all having breakfast at the long wooden trestle tables covered with dishes of jam, butter, fruit butter, syrup, and all the condiments. We got cups of wonderful coffee and shared an enormous cinnamon roll that would put Cinnabon to shame. The walls were lined with mementos left by past years' expeditions - from Japan, Germany, the U.S., etc. The difficult north face
Our pilot, Elwood Schapanski, is a physics professor from Santa Barbara who has been flying in Alaska every summer for the last 15 years; the copilot and tour guide was Erika Bernhardt, an Alaskan pilot who had lived two years in Barrow when her dad was C.O. of NARL (The Naval Arctic Research Laboratory.) Both of our hosts did everything to make this a wonderful experience.
The McKinley sightseeing flights all go by VFR (Visual Flight Rules), so our success depended upon finding good holes in the cloud layer at 10,000 feet. Our good luck held, and we saw all the glaciers and lesser mountains near McKinley / Denali, as well as the camps at 7,000, 10,000, 12,000, 14,000, and 16,000 feet, and several strings of ant-sized climbers making their way up the Upper Ruth Glacier mountain. Erika explained that they shuttle their cache of supplies up to the lower camps, leaving the right amount at each camp so they are well supplied up and down the mountain. Because of going up and back with supplies, they "climb the mountain twice."
It was a lot easier for us in the plane. We donned the oxygen masks at 11,000 feet, and followed the paths of the climbers. The clouds around the mountains were fluffy and wispy, just enough to add texture and more color to this amazing panorama of snow, rocky crags, and glaciers under the blue sky. Denali is an incredible mountain because, even though it is part of the Alaska Range, and even though 17,000-foot Mt Foraker and 14,000-foot Mt. Hunter are nearby, Denali is sort of a gigantic isolated young mountain, still rising with each new earthquake. Climbers who undertake the much more difficult north ascent begin their climb below 5,000 feet. The resulting climb of 16,000 feet Elsa and Erika exceeds the climb provided by Everest, as the base altitudes in the Himalayas are much higher.
The weather was perfect. The air was cold with lots of lift and no turbulence, the mountains were covered with snow and glaciers (tree line is 2700 feet), the winds were relatively calm (no doubt the climbers appreciated that most of all). We spiralled around the mountain, then slowly descended towards the glaciers until we encountered the clouds and made our way back to Talkeetna. All the way Erika pointed out everything to see, which made our trip very enjoyable. As it turned out, we had luckily chosen the summit tour, because those who asked to be flown to land on a glacier in the shadow of McKinley were unable to land due to the clouds.
Those two hours were some of the most thrilling and satisfying we've had on our travelling adventures. We recommend the trip, K2 Aviation, and Elwood and Erika, very highly indeed. If you plan a trip to Alaska, try to work this flight into your schedule.