Wednesday, July 20, 2011

The Flight Over Denali

I'm too old to use the word, "awesome" casually. So when I say our flight over Denali was "AWESOME" I mean it was the best thing we have done on this trip -- and we have done some pretty amazing things.

When we got up this morning, the sky was a clear, cloudless blue. From our viewpoint in Talkeetna, Denali, still 60 miles away, was a sparkling, shimmering jewel. Weather here is quickly changeable, but we knew we had a beautiful day for our 10:30 flight to see "The Great One" up close.

As instructed, we got to the airport before 10 and spent some time chatting with the other fliers and watching the planes and helicopters. By the time we took off at 10:30, high cirrus clouds had set in and the summit of Denali was obscured, but everything else was still in the open.

Our plane was a 6-seater Piper. Our pilot, Dale, briefed the four of us (John and me and another couple) on safety features of the plane -- how to open the plane's door from inside, where the emergency food and water was stashed, and how to buckle a safety belt. Really, is there anyone on the continent who doesn't understand how to buckle a safety belt? We got in, donned our headphones, and took off.

Northbound, we followed a braided stream whose source is a glacier on the mountain:

Once we got near Denali and its next-highest neighbor, Foraker, we saw several huge glaciers, rivers of white ice and brown accumulated dirt, winding their way through mountain valleys.
One of these glaciers, Ruth Glacier, is almost 4000 feet deep and can move 3.3 feet per day!

The summit was still mostly fogged in, but we did catch brief glimpses of it as our pilot circled through the snow-covered peaks. The only brief feeling of "uh-oh" came when he told us he was going through a pass, and asked us not shift our weight during the maneuver. When a pilot says that, it is very easy to sit perfectly still! A bit of turbulence and we were through it. My Dramamine did not let me down.

The climbing season on Denali is now over -- Dale showed us where base camp is, but all that remained today was a few ski marks from the planes that had dropped off climbers.

Here is a map of our route that Dale drew after we landed. He said the lines look like a moose -- he must be a fan of Picasso:
To be so close to such "magnificent desolation," (a Buzz Aldrin quote about the Moon but I feel it is also appropriate for Denali), is to feel the surreal. The snow sat in unimaginable depths on the peaks. On the glaciers we could see rock falls on top of blown dirt, all on top of the packed ice which was laced with huge blue crevasses, created by the glacier's slide inexorably downward. We saw the glacier's face change from new-snow white, to dingy grey ice, to a covering of brown blown dirt, and finally to green from the trees that astonishingly grow in the dirt on the ice. We saw the inhospitable places where fellow humans ventured, and tried to imagine what it was like to stand there at base camp in howling winds and freezing temperatures, to follow the trail over ice flows and around house-sized rocks, and to climb that thin ridge of snow and ice to make the summit.
Words are such a poor representation of the experience. It was awesome. Just awesome.


Sharon Del Rosario said...

I'm sure this is at least one of the best, if not THE best experience of your trip to Alaska. Your photography is beautiful, as is your description. Thanks for sharing it with us. It makes me want to come back!

Nancy said...

Zo, as you may know, we are in the midst of a heat wave. Reading your posting keeps me cool! It sounds like you are seeing sensational sights.