“I lived in Talkeetna for three months, never saw The Mountain once.”
Locals call Denali – or McKinley, you decide – The Mountain. When you’re lucky enough to see it you understand why. Though it’s flanked by several other great peaks, Denali towers above them all at 20,320 feet. My friend — a former resident of the mountain town where most expeditions to Denali start — envied my success in seeing the summit. Though that success had little do with me and everything to do with weather and an available seat on Talkeetna Air Taxi’s flight-seeing and glacier landing tour.
The weather is the biggest challenge when it comes to flying in this highly changeable climate. If things look iffy, you’ll stay on the ground. And if things look iffy once you’re in the air, that glacier landing you booked? It’s off and you’ll get a refund for that part of the trip. It’s a safety concern; the pilots will turn away your money before they put you at risk. I saw the summit, but the glacier landing was cancelled. “I’d rather not spend the night down there,” said pilot Tyler Westhoff, explaining why we skipped that part of the flight.
Our plane was a 10 seat DeHavilland Otter, with a single propeller on the nose. It was bright red with bubble windows for better visibility. On the airstrip, we had a short briefing on how to use the oxygen masks that would be required once we’d climbed past 12,000 feet, how to use the headsets, and were reassured that the plane was stocked with several days worth of meals and warm gear should the plane get stuck on the glacier. “But most of the problems that occur on this trip happen when you don’t mind the bulkhead,” said our pilot. “Watch your head when you climb on board and welcome!”
To see the landscape of a great mountain like Denali from the air is to understand the scope and power of nature. First, there’s the brown braid of the river, fed by glacier waters, twisting out across the permafrost. Every now and then we see the roof of an off-the-grid cabin, accessible by snow machine only in winter when the landscape is frozen.
The landscape lifts upward as we reach the Ruth Glacier. It’s sharp and rocky, but that’s just the surface; below that there’s an elevation of ice. The physics of the glacier are such that silt and rocks are forced to the front and the surface. Below us, where two different glaciers met, the junction is marked by a stripe of black stone, a reverse highway, white with a black stripe down the middle.
Further up still, the ice is cleaner, whiter, and every now and then punctuated with a bright splash of sapphire where melt water has pooled into little ponds. This distinctive glacier blue caused by the way light is scattered when it hits the surface; only the gemstone blue is reflected back, everything else is absorbed. The landscaped tilts up more, and there’s an ice fall, this is where the glacier is pouring away from the mountain top in geologic time; big chunks of ice in a frozen, slow-motion waterfall.
But we are sandwiched in clouds. The air is still and the plane is stable as though it’s on the ground, but the views are hit and miss. Wisps of cloud block the mountain faces clawed by falling rock, by the pressure of scraping ice. The color is gone, it’s all black and white and gray. The wing of the plane, out my window, is bright red against all this monochrome. The mountain sides look close, but below, there are clouds, above there are more clouds. I listen to the chatter between our pilots and the others out exploring the mountain as we continue to climb. I clear my ears, over and over, and then, when we reach 12,000 feet, we all put on our oxygen masks.
This action feels like something scary – frequent fliers know from every flight’s safety briefing that if the masks drop, there’s a problem with the plane. But in this case, it’s normal. We’re up high, the air is thin, and the little plane does not have a pressurized cabin. It’s colder, too, so I pull on my jacket to stay warm. I look around the cabin of the plane; everyone is masked and funny looking and calm. It’s uncomfortable, the mask, my headset, the baseball hat I’m wearing underneath it all, and it makes it hard to clear my ears, but after a few minutes, I get everything adjusted and relax. There’s nothing wrong, this is just what happens when you fly this high in a little plane.
We climb some more and then, we punch through into blue sky. There’s light everywhere, I squint into the glare. There are the twin summits of Denali, below us. The south summit stands at 20,320 feet, the north at 19,470. We are looking down on North America’s highest peak. “This is the first time I’ve seen the mountain all day,” says our pilot. I shake my head; I am speechless with wonder.
We circle the mountain in lazy figure eights for 15, maybe 20 minutes so everyone can take their share of pictures. We cross the saddle between the two summits and when the plane skips in the updrafts, we return to the south east side where the air is more stable and then, we gradually descend back into Talkeetna, reading the landscape in reverse. The landing is so gentle I barely realize we have touched the ground.
The crew, the folks working the office, everyone involved with the flight apologize for the cancelled landing, but I don’t care. I have seen The Mountain.
Photos courtesy of Pam Mandel.
– Pam Mandel