|The Alaska Range is breathtaking from a small plane, even when the peaks are clouded over.|
North America’s tallest mountain is just a short plane ride away
We’d been waiting all day for the weather to clear and, by 4 p.m., when our plane finally took off, my son was tired and cranky. It wasn’t surprising that the drone of the engine and the swaying of the small plane quickly lulled him to sleep, but it was disappointing. It was May 20, his sixth birthday, and his present was a flightseeing tour of Denali. He was about to sleep through the whole experience.
To clarify, we were not going to actually see Denali. We were going up to see what we could see.
Before we left Anchorage for the hour-and-a-half drive north to Talkeetna, I called the Talkeetna Air Taxi office to check on the weather and ask what our chances were of flying that day. I was optimistic as I dialed because, although The Mountain (as Alaskans call Denali and others call Mount McKinley) was not visible from the city, as it is on a clear day, the sun was shining and the sky was blue. But, as the woman at Talkeetna Air Taxi reminded me, Denali has its own weather. It may be clear and warm in Talkeetna, or along the Parks Highway at the entrance to Denali National Park and Preserve, but just a few miles away—and a few more miles up—a blizzard could be raging.
That day was no exception. She warned us that reports from the mountain were poor but suggested we drive up anyway and see if conditions improved.
A radio call at noon from the climbing base camp at 7,200 feet to the Talkeetna Air Taxi office at the airport reported white-out conditions, and pilots who had been up said there was a 5,000-foot cloud ceiling. We went to lunch and came back to the same report. We strolled around town and came back to the same report. We went to the playground so my son could let off steam; same report.
The Talkeetna Air Taxi staff members were sympathetic each time they broke the news that our flight tour would be delayed. My husband and I took it philosophically, and my son took it about as well as an excited 6-year-old can. After all, poor weather wasn’t their fault, and we were better off than the climbers wandering dejectedly around town waiting for a chance to reach base camp; we were just hoping for some sightseeing, their mountain ascent of a lifetime was on hold.
Finally, at 3:30, we talked to the others waiting in the office and all agreed: we would rather go up and see what we could than reschedule for another day. So, we signed our releases, slid waterproof glacier booties over our shoes (hoping to land in the Don Sheldon Amphitheater at the top of Ruth Glacier) and gathered for the pilot’s safety briefing. A few minutes later, we took off and my son promptly nodded off.
We flew over the Susitna and Chulitna rivers and the Parks Highway toward the Alaska Range. Below us, the tundra was crisscrossed with snowmachine and four-wheeler trails and dotted with lakes and the occasional lonely-looking cabin. The mountains loomed ahead of us, their peaks hidden in heavy clouds, and their steep, grooved sides seeming close enough to touch although they were miles away. My husband later said it felt as if we were going to fly right into them.
Glaciers traveled twisted paths between the jagged peaks of the lower range, streaked with gray and brown where moraines were being created, slits of deep aquamarine visible where the snowy surface was split as crevasses formed. As we climbed higher, the world below us began to look like a strange white, blue and gray moonscape.
The pilot kept up a running commentary about what we were seeing, naming the glaciers and mountains for us as we passed and telling us interesting things about the area. I was amazed to learn that biologists had recorded black bears living as high as 3,000 feet on the sparsely wooded sides of these peaks. By this time my son was awake and excitedly scanning to see if he could spot any bears.
We climbed a bit higher and flew closer to the edge of the range as the pilot pumped a crank to lower the plane’s skis in preparation for the glacier landing we still held out hope for. We passed what the pilot told us was the Moose’s Tooth, a well-known climbing destination at the edge of the Ruth Gorge and the place our favorite pizzeria and brew pub in Anchorage was named for, but we had to take his word for it because all we could see was a grayish smudge through thick fog.
“Yeah, we’re not going to be able to land in the amphitheater,” the pilot said over the intercom. “Look over to your right, you can see it’s socked right in.”
A low cloud hung heavy in the basin to our right and snow was visible in the air beneath it. I was disappointed but not surprised. After several years of flying around Alaska in small planes, I had come to expect delays and changes in itineraries because of unfavorable weather. At least we were not trying to get to the Don Sheldon Mountain House on the glacier. Whoever rented that remote cabin for the weekend might just be out of luck.
As we circled to the south again and dropped to a lower elevation, the clouds cleared and we could see for miles. Yet, again, Denali was enjoying its own private weather in complete contrast to the clear, blue skies around it.
As we landed at the Talkeetna airport, I asked my son if he had enjoyed the ride and the smile on his face was all the answer I needed. I was glad we got off the ground and saw some amazing sights, and that I was able to share the thrill of flying in a small plane for the first time with my son. Maybe this year we’ll go back and see if we can see even more.
Rebecca Luczycki is senior editor of Alaska magazine.