Denali: The Mountain Great and Tall

Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) is one of six guide services licensed to work on Denali. They offer a variety of trips, from an overnight “glacier experience,” camping on one of several glaciers accessible a short flight from Talkeetna—all with majestic surroundings—and the security of professional guides to keep visitors safe, to a 22-day expedition to the West Buttress and, if conditions permit, to Denali’s summit.

Though a guided trip on Denali may be the experience of a lifetime, it’s not a cheap one. AMS’s guided ascent of Denali costs $7,500, and having a higher guide-to-client ratio costs more. The price tag for gear, including super-insulated boots, super-insulated sleeping bags and lightweight but furnacewarm coats and pants, adds up. Alaska Mountaineering and Hiking, a gear store in Anchorage known for outfitting Denali hopefuls, says that guided clients often shell out $3,500 to $6,000 to gear up for the ascent.

With so many people intent on experiencing the mountain, a seasonal industry has sprung up to support them. Though the entrance to Denali National Park, where most visitors go to see the park’s famous wildlife and scenery, is near the town of Healy on the northern side of the range, the default entrance to the actual mountain is from the town of Talkeetna, 100 miles to the south. At first blush, Talkeetna might not seem like your stereotypical “mountain town,” much less the gateway to Denali and Alaska’s largest mountain range—in no small part because it’s totally flat.

Looking up Denali’s Muldrow Glacier at 4 a.m. during a mid-June ascent of Denali’s first climbing route. (photo by Mark Westman)

“I did what all climbers do when they move to Talkeetna,” one of Denali’s mountaineering rangers once told me. “I took up boating.”

Situated on the banks of the mighty Susitna River (the “Big Su,” as it is known locally), Talkeetna is renowned for salmon fishing, drawing locals and tourists alike to catch this delicacy. Even with all the fisherman, boaters and tourists, Talkeetna’s mountaineering culture is still ever-present. A short stroll down Main Street ends at the river with an unobstructed view to the north, and you can’t mistake what you see in the distance. Mountains. Big ones. Waiting to be climbed.

Before there could be a climbing industry in Talkeetna, however, there had to be a flying industry. Of the 1,204 people who attempted Denali in 2014, only six hiked in from Wonder Lake. The rest flew to Kahiltna Basecamp from Talkeetna. And it’s not just climbers; a flightseeing industry thrives. With unique access to terrain that few would otherwise get to see, it’s little wonder that flightseeing has surpassed climbing in terms of passenger numbers, with Talkeetna Air Taxi reporting about 2,000 flightseeing clients compared with 900 climbers annually. Weather in the Alaska Range is fickle, but on a clear day the aerial views are extraordinary, and the scale of the mountains is hard to forget. Planes maneuver across the tops of granite peaks and flowing glaciers, with climbers in the snow and ice below often still too far away to see.

In a small town without a lot of other employment opportunities, working on Denali becomes a family affair. Take Paul Roderick, owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi, and family. His sister, Lisa Roderick, has managed Kahiltna Basecamp for 16 years as a joint employee of the Talkeetna air services. She’s become a fixture on the glacier in the summer. Nineteen years ago, she met the man who would be her husband, Mark Westman. In the mid-1990s he was an inexperienced but highly motivated climber making his first forays to the Alaska Range. He’s now known as one of the central Alaska Range’s most devoted suitors. In fact, he’s likely to be the only person who has done three different routes on Denali’s southern side, home of the mountain’s most difficult climbs. Westman has now turned his expertise into a profession, using his climbing skills and knowledge of the complex mountains as a ranger for the National Park Service.

In Alaska, the term “local” can encompass a huge geographic area. As a girl growing up in Fairbanks, 200 miles north of Talkeetna, Leighan Falley was used to seeing Denali on the horizon. She distinctly remembers the day when, at 10 years old, she announced to her mom that she was going to climb Denali. In 2001, when she was 20, she did just that, as part of a National Outdoor Leadership School course. The team suffered through a hellacious storm high on the mountain that destroyed three of their four tents, forcing the entire 16-person party to squeeze into one four-person tent for several nights. But she was hooked.

Falley guided on Denali with AMS for 10 years. During this time she married Tucker Chenoweth, a mountaineering ranger on Denali, now headed into his 11th season. She moved on from guiding after the birth of her daughter, Skye (who is now three), but not away from the mountain. What was once a combination of a hobby and a family tradition—flying airplanes—is now her profession. And, of course, she flies on Denali, having just completed her first season at the controls of one of Talkeetna Air Taxi’s workhorse airplanes, the de Havilland Beaver.

She shares the job with her dad, Tom. Before their careers converged on flying beavers for the air taxi, Falley flew supercubs (tiny, two-seater bush planes) for Above Alaska Aviation, while Tom recently retired from flying commercial cargo 747s.

Mountaineering rangers rigging for a short-haul mission in Denali National Park. (photo by Mark Westman)

“It gives me great pleasure to be pre-flighting my aircraft alongside my father, sharing everything from the fuel pump to current glacier conditions,” Falley says.

With so many people of varied skill levels on Denali, accidents are inevitable. Though other routes pose more risk, the West Buttress sees most of them. This is due either to the low average experience level, the high number of people or a combination of the two. It’s where the mountaineering rangers stay the busiest.

Most of the medical services rendered aren’t for injuries, but for illness due to complications from Denali’s high altitude. Cold injuries, such as frostbite, are also common. All of Denali’s mountaineering staff are Emergency Medical Technicians, but extraction is often essential for saving a gravely injured or ill climber’s life. Thus, helicopters are a critical tool for the Denali rangers’ rescue operations.

Helicopter operations are reserved for situations threatening the loss of life, limb or eyesight, but given the hostile environs above the 14,000-foot camp, almost any malady that prevents a climber from self-evacuating meets these criteria. The rangers rely on a contracted Eurocopter AS350, more commonly known as an A-Star, that stays in Talkeetna throughout the summer climbing season. The thin air on the upper reaches of Denali poses exceptional challenges for aviation, and the A-Star is one of the few helicopters that can land and, most important, take off again from the highest elevations. In 2012, the mountaineering rangers rescued a climber with a broken leg from an area known as the Football Field at 19,500 feet, just below Denali’s summit. It was the highest rescue ever conducted in North America.

[LEFT] Climbers returning to the camp at 14,000 feet on Denali’s West Buttress route. [CENTER] Colin Haley at 17,500 feet on Denali’s upper Cassin Ridge. Mount Hunter is the large peak visible in the distance. [RIGHT] Joe Puryear celebrates on the summit of Denali. (photos by Mark Westman)

“Technically the pilot [Andy Hermansky] is not our staff, but functionally he is,” Gentzel says. “He is on the contract and an integral part of our team and also a good friend. As you might imagine we are a tight-knit group.”

It is easy to imagine. Short-hauling is one of the dramatic techniques employed by Denali rangers to access terrain where a helicopter cannot land. A ranger is clipped to a fixed line dangling below the helicopter, and slung like cargo into position. Trust in the pilot is total. The rangers can pick up the patient and sling the injured climber off with them, or be dropped off to begin treatment and evacuation on foot. Denali rangers do five or six of these missions in a typical year, plus many more in training. For those who dedicate their time to Denali, it is not just a mountain, but a livelihood, a source of inspiration and a home. Denali remains more than just a mountain. It’s an iconic part of Alaska’s landscape and Alaska’s cultural heritage.


Guide Services

Hiring a guiding service takes the guess-work out of a Denali climb so you can focus on your goal of reaching the top of the highest peak in North America.

Alaska Mountaineering School climbalaska.org

Alpine Ascents Internationalalpineascents.com

American Alpine Institutealpineinstitute.com

Mountain Trip International, LLCmountaintrip.com

N.O.L.S. nols.edu Rainier Mountaineering, Inc.rmiguides.com


Flightseeing

Soaring over the Alaska Range and around Denali on a clear day is a trip of a lifetime. Several companies offer flightseeing excursions from Talkeetna, Denali Park or Healy. For more details, visit nps.gov/dena/ planyourvisit/flightseeing.htm.

Fly Denaliflydenali.com

Sheldon Air Servicesheldonairservice.com

K2 Aviationflyk2.com

Talkeetna Air Taxitalkeetnaair.com

Kantishna Air Taxikatair.com

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