Denali – The High One

Wed, Jun 28, 2017

If you want to go into Denali National Park, you’ll do it on a bus.  And it actually works pretty well.

I left this morning on the 0645 bus.  The driver explained that his job was to keep the bus on the road and our job was to spot wildlife.  Whenever we saw something, we’d shout it out.  As in “bears at 2 o’clock”!  And the driver would stop and we either shot out the window or we all got out to take our photos.

I was a bit disappointed by the lack of wildlife but it was a sunny day.  And that means that the animals tend to stay in the woods were it’s shady.  So if you want too see the animals, then come on a rainy day.  But then no Denali for you!

Up first is a brown bear and her two cubs.  Nothing like my Katmai trip where the bears were right there.  But still pretty good.

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We also saw a lot of caribou.  Here they are on the hillside in front of Denali.

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And two bucks relaxing in the snow.

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And here are a pair of Willow Ptarmigan, the Alaska state bird. The guy on the left is giving me a close look.  And why not? They’ve just raised chicks that are running around in the grass trying to hide.

Polychrome Overlook is one of the most photographed areas and you’ll usually see a wide angle.  In this one, I’ve shot with my 200 mm lens so definitely a different perspective.

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We had glimpses of Denali on the way in but didn’t get a good view until the Stony Hill Overlook.  Here she is and the clouds were much lighter than I expected when I got up this morning.

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And finally, my turnaround at mile 66 of the Park Road, an eight hour round trip.  It’s the Eielson Vistor Center and has a great viewpoint.  Too bad the clouds make the wimpy hill on the left look greater than Denali (unless you look at the peak just above the clouds).  Oh well, I could crop but it’d just look like the photo above.  Sigh…

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One last photo taken at the Toklat Rest Area.  One thing that struck me about the park was how colorful it was.  This view to the north had tons of red and green.

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Talkeetna Lookout

Mon, Jun 26, 2017

Carol and I are camped in Talkeetna, about 150 miles south of Denali.

When I was here 25 yrs ago, Talkeetna was a blue collar climbers town that had a wonderful feel.  But no more.  The cruise ship industry discovered it and have built a couple of huge lodges.   I think I’ve seen more buses than cars the past few days.  Yuck 😦

Back in the day, the local watering hole was the Fairview Inn.  I liked it so much that I bought the tee shirt.  Still have it.  And the bar hasn’t changed a bit.  Although I didn’t see any climbers in there 🙂

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Just a mile out of town sits the Talkeetna Lookout with a nice view of Denali.  Well at least if the clouds weren’t blocking it.  I’ve been out there half a dozen times, starting at 7:30 this morning, looking for a window and this is the best that I’ve been able to do.

Shot with my trusty Nikon D800 and Nikon 200 f2 lens with a 1.4 teleconverter.

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While I was waiting for the skies to clear, a group of four ladies arrived.  They seemed unimpressed by the mountains and couldn’t figure out which one was Denali.  So they asked me.  Turned out they were looking at the front range, those dark mountains that you can see in the lower left.  I told them to look higher.  Still nothing so I told then to look above the clouds.   Then I heard them in unison ‘Ooooh’!

Still can’t believe that I stood on top of that sucker on a perfectly clear day 🙂

Climbing Denali

Sun, Jun 25, 2017

Back in ’92, I climbed Denali.  Here’s the short version.

On May 30, 1992, I flew to Anchorage to meet my guide and climbing partner, Jeff Lakes.  I was introduced to him through the guides during my climb of El Pico de Orizaba (18,491′), a Mexican volcano that is the third highest peak in North America.

Jeff was a Canadian sheetmetal worker who wanted to guide full time and I was his first client.  Neither of us had been to Denali and my high elevation mountaineering experience was limited to Mt Ranier and El Pico.

For those climbs, it’s four people to a rope so that if one falls, perhaps in a cravasse, the other three can save him.  But we did the climb as a twosome.  The park rangers were not happy when we did the mandatory check-in to get our permit.

We took a shuttle to Talkeetna and learned that the planes had been grounded for the past week due to clouds on the Kahiltna Glacier landing strip.  So the town was full of climbers hanging around just killing time.  Same thing on the next day.  Then we woke to a clear day.  You could feel the excitement in the air as the planes were fired up and everyone was making their way to the airport.

This was the view from the airport.

01 Denali in the Clear

We flew on this plane with Doug Geeting Aviation.  The customer rule is that it’s first in, first out.  Since we’d only been there two nights, we were at the back of the line but we didn’t care.  Just wanted to get up there.  And you can bet that the climbers stuck on the glacier were happy to be flown back off.

02 Geeting Airplanes

Here’s the landing strip on the Kahiltna Glacier on our fly by.  Those campsites have Igloo type walls built around them for wind protection.

03 Landing Zone.2

We had provisions for 21 days and that’s way too much to carry on your back.  So we pulled our food, fuel and equipment on cheapo plastic sleds.  Everyone does this as they work great.  Here’s Jeff loading up.

04 Sleds are Packed

For the first two days, we skied uphill, with skins, and pulled the sleds behind us.  Our backpacks were full of the lightweight stuff such as our -40F sleeping bags.  Here’s Jeff on the way down.  He was an expert skier.  What I remember about going down was the sled banging into my skies and shooting between my legs!  Yes that happened.  And remember, we weren’t on downhill ski boots.  We wore our climbing boots that are no higher than your ankle.

06 On the Move

Our high camp was at 16,200 ft right on a saddle.  That means that we were on a low part of a ridge with a steep drop-off on either side.  We endured one long stormy night with winds that sounded like a freight train.  Occupied tents have blown off the mountain at this location.  It was truly frightening.

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A typical scene of the glaciers flowing from Denali.  This is a shot from the summit.

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Jeff on the summit ridge.  It’s 10,000 ft down if you fall on the left but only 3,000 on the right. We walked on the right side 🙂

That’s Mt Foraker in the background, 6th highest mountain in North America.

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Me on the summit.  Do I look relaxed?

That dark pyramid on the left is Denali’s shadow cast into space (that white streak is a scratch on the negative that transferred to the scan).  This is about midnight and the sun is in my face.  See the reflection in my glasses?

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The summit day climb was 10-1/2 hrs up and 3-1/2 down.  So 14 in total.  Most climbing accidents happen on the way down due to fatigue.  But I felt great and I was ultra focused.

One section that scared me was the Orient Express.  So called because of all of the Asians who’ve fallen there and perished.  Walking down I was super careful to lift my feet each step so that my crampons wouldn’t catch the ice and trigger a fall.  That’s how it happens.

Jeff and I unroped on the way down.  It’s steep and if one of us were to fall, we’d both go down.  So it was solo and I was all in.  I felt great all the way down and was happy to make it back to camp.  One of the best days of my life.

Overall, the climb was 10 days up and 2 days down.  Broken down, it was 2 ski days up, rest day, haul supplies to 14k & retreat, climb to 14k camp, rest day, haul supplies to 16k & retreat, climb to 16k camp, storm (rest) day and then summit day.  We came down in two days.  Denali was kind to us.

But 1992 was not a good year on Denali.  Eleven people died in May just as we were getting ready to go.  Four were killed on May 31st and we watched the helicopter flying back to the airport with body bags hanging from a rope.  Not what you want to see when you’re ready to climb.

And then sadly, the world lost Jeff in 1995.  During our climb, we were going up at roughly the same rate as a group of Scots and their leader had a permit for K2, the second highest mountain in the world.  Jeff offered to guide and got the gig.  K2 is much more challenging than Everest and not easily conquered.

During their trip, bad weather prevailed and most climbers gave up and went home.  But an ambitious British lady named Alison Hargreaves was having none of it.  So those still on the mountain formed a new team and went up.  The team included some great climbers including Sir Edmund Hillary‘s son and Jeff.

Off they went.  The weather soured and Hillary and others turn back.  Jeff continued but then he also turned back.  I don’t know the details but Alison Hargreaves and others were blown off the mountain.  Jeff made a heroic retreat to a lower camp only to find it destroyed by avalanche.  So he continued down and finally made it to one of the lower camps.  Those present got him into a sleeping bag and fed him soup to fight the dehydration.  He should have been ok but was dead in the morning.

I learned of the incident from the Sunday newspaper while vacationing in Hawaii with Carol.  Had the story not mentioned him by name, I wouldn’t have known since we’d slowly lost touch.  This was three years after our climb and limited email and virtually no internet in those days.

Climbing Magazine put this story on the cover a few months later which is how I learned the details.  They included a nice sidebar explaining Jeff’s fate.  I have a hard copy but can’t find an online link to share.

Rest in peace my friend.

Talkeetna – 25 Years Later

Sun, Jun 25, 2017

Anchorage is now in our rear view mirror as we are heading to Denali National Park.  But first a two night stay in Talkeetna, a small town on the Susitna River about halfway to Denali.  I was here back in ’92 and I had goosebumps when we pulled in.  More on that in the next post.

The route to the summit of Denali starts at the Talkeetna Airport.  Several companies are based here that have planes that are equipped with skis that can be lowered once the plane is airborne.  The landing strip is on the Kahiltna Glacier at approximately 7,000 ft.  Then it’s only 13,000 ft to the top 🙂

We’re staying in the Talkeetna Camper Park  near the Talkeetna Airport and we’ve been watching the planes take off as they ferry climbers and/or take tourists on flightseeing trips.

Here’s one operated by K2 Aviation.

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Heading Home

Thur, Jun 22, 2017

Homer, AK is the turnaround point of our trip.  We’ve taken nine weeks to get here and we’ll take another nine weeks to get home.  So there’s still plenty to do and see.  But it feels a little sad that we’re on the back side of our trip.

I’d written about the Homer Spit a few days ago but didn’t have a good shot.  Well yesterday, during my return from Katmai, all I had to do was point my iPhone out the window.  The spit is 4-1/2 miles long and you’re looking at about 3-1/2 miles of it.

That’s the fishing hole in the bottom center.  Lots going on down there.

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Brown Bears of Katmai

Wed, Jun 21, 2017

Alaska just keeps getting better.  Eagles yesterday and brown bears today.

We’re in Homer, AK and it is just a 60 min fight to Katmai National Park and Preserve, famous for their Alaskan Brown Bears.

Carol wouldn’t come but I was all too happy to hop a flight on Smokey Bay Air.  Never mind that it was a 43 year old Cessna (yikes).

We landed on the beach at Hallo Bay and it didn’t take but a few minutes to find the bears.

When Mama bear has cubs, she cares for them for two or three years.  Then when she has new cubs, the juveniles must go.  Siblings typically stay together for a while before going their separate paths and these two are trying to figure it out.

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Next up were a couple of bigs ones.  Most likely a mating pair although the mating season is all but over.  These two were very affectionate.

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A juvenile scratching his back.

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This shot gives an idea of how close we were to the bears.  And at no time did I fee that they were stressed by our presence.  This works because they see us as neither food nor a threat.  To maintain the latter, we moved slowly and kneeled down when sitting in our viewing sites.

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On our approach to landing, I saw a sow with two spring cubs walking in the meadow and I was hoping to find them.  And then, as we were heading back to the plane, bingo! there they were.  In this shot, they were moving to a new spot so that she could resume her grazing.  Her cubs might nibble some but they’re living mainly on mama’s milk.

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Here’s another shot of them.  Mom’s been grazing and one of her cubs became curious when the group of photographers stood up to head back to their plane.

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Our guide is out here daily and has only seen spring cubs (those born this year) once this year.  During the mating season, mama bear keeps her cubs safely in the trees or else a big boy might kill them.  So that he can mate with her.  Now that the mating season is over, she’s brought them out to the pasture.  We were very fortunate to see them 🙂

And one last parting shot of the cubs.  Cute, no?  My guess:  girl on the left, boy on the right.

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On our way out, we spotted this big boy lying in the grass.  Moments later, he turned on his side for a nice nap.  No doubt he was snoring by the time we were airborne.

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The Eagles are Back

Tue, Jun 20, 2017

And this time for a close-up.  After half a days rain.  (S)he doesn’t look happy.

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After a bit, (s)he took off and I thought I caught a nice shot.  But darn, shutter speed too slow 😦

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After circling the bay, (s)he came back and let out a scream.  Again, shutter too slow for a sharp shot 😦

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