Mount McKinley is the grandest mountain on the North American continent and the hallmark landform of Alaska's Denali National Park. If the weather is clear (an uncommon condition) park visitors see it in the distance, capture it in memory and photos, and count themselves fortunate.
The magnetic appeal of this mountain draws some of its admirers up close. Real close. Climbers from all over the world flock to Denali (the widely preferred name for the mountain) to struggle for the summit. Dogsledders traverse Denali's lower reaches. Flightseeing planes from near (Talkeetna ) and far (Anchorage) carry tourists up the glacier-choked valleys to view parts of Denali hidden from distant eyes.
I've had one of those up-close experiences with Denali. Twenty-two years ago last spring, Sandy and I scored a pair of Delta bump tickets on the way back from Phoenix. We were new to the bump ticket game back then, so we inquired of the Delta agent "What's the furthest we can travel on these free tickets?" The answer was Alaska, and so it was that July 1988 found us in Anchorage enjoying the hospitality of an old friend (the best kind to have).
Chuck, a college chum and fellow displaced Michigander, had moved to Alaska in the 1960s and taken to a lifestyle that had its workaday side, but leaned to the pursuit of hunting, fishing, river running, and other outdoor adventures in beautiful, remote, sometimes very dangerous places. He eventually ended up making a comfortable living shepherding well-heeled clients on adventures like this. Chuck 's safety record and the very fact that he is still alive speak volumes for his competence and judgment.
When we stopped by to see Chuck during that long-ago trip, we found him in a flying mood. He had accumulated several hundred flying hours, owned a Cessna 180, and was itching to add a Denali flightseeing trip to his resume. The regional weather happened to be great at the time -- "severe clear" in the pilot's parlance. "Let's go," said Chuck. "Why not?" said Sandy and Bob. Chuck fueled the plane, piled us into it, and took off.
I've always admired the basic Cessna 180. This little single-engine four-seater, which was produced from 1952 to 1981, long ago earned a place of honor in the Last Frontier's pantheon of dependable transport technology. You just naturally feel better flying in a utility aircraft renowned for getting you there and back.
Crossing Cook Inlet, we climbed to cruising altitude and headed out over the vast expanse of boreal forest and muskeg mantling the 135 or so miles of roadless wilderness between Anchorage and Denali. While scanning for moose (of which we did see a few) I reflected on the fact that this would be a very bad place for a plane crash.
A little less than an hour later, apprehension gave way to wonder as we approached the base of the Alaska Range giant and came to fully understand how it earned the name Denali (Athabascan for "high one" or "great one"). Denali's uninterrupted 18,000-foot rise from base to peak makes it the world’s steepest-rising mountain, and its mass is greater than Mt. Everest's. By any objective measure, Denali is one hell of a mountain.
When you are in a Cessna 180, you don't just fly over a peak that tops out at 20,320 feet above sea level. The little plane's service ceiling is only around 20,000 feet in the best of circumstances, and in the mountains the risks for a loaded plane begin to grow exponentially before half that altitude is gained. We would do the tried-and-true thing, which is to fly up and up and up this giant mountain in the wide U-shaped trough occupied by the 36 mile-long Kahiltna Glacier on Denali's southern flank. We would go no higher than we could comfortably manage.
Our goal was to do a flyover of the climbers base camp situated at the 7,200-foot level on the Kahiltna near the mouth of the glacier's southeast fork. This staging area, which is used by Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter climbers as well as Denali climbers, bustles with activity during the May-June climbing season when ski-equipped aircraft based in Talkeetna shuttle planeload after planeload of climbers and gear to and from the mountain.
I had always wanted to see this amazing place for myself, and now I would get the chance. En route I would see and photograph jaw-dropping scenery, including some glacial landforms I had seen only in textbooks.
We did it all, and very thoroughly. Chuck stood the plane on its port wing so I could get a better picture of a classic arête, and on its starboard wing so I could photograph the first medial moraine I had ever seen at first hand. He doubled back so we could more thoroughly examine the remains of the seasonal base camp (numerous holes in the snow) and its airstrip (upslope ski tracks produced by landings and downslope ones produced by takeoffs).
We even made an extra pass over a tiny cabin perched on an unbelievably high and lonely ridge. Chuck told us that a lone priest was using it for a spiritual retreat. I wondered if this holy man was watching us. I wondered if he was praying for us.
We had a look at the Matanuska Valley and some other neat places on the way back to Anchorage and an uneventful landing. The afterglow was wonderful. Wow! What a trip! Nearly a quarter-century later, we still recall little details and count it an Excellent Adventure.
But I wouldn't do it again.
After all the good things you might say about Denali, it remains a very treacherous mountain. It has the worst weather of any near-coastal mountain in the world, and conditions can go from very good to downright awful with breathtaking speed. Rotten weather, crevasses, avalanches, icy-slick couloirs, breakaway snow cornices, the oxygen-thin air of high altitude, and other objective hazards have claimed the lives of more than 100 climbers, including some of the world's best.
And Denali, like the wilderness that surrounds it, eats airplanes now and then.
Pilots unfamiliar with Denali's numerous hazards, some of them quirky and non-obvious, go there at their peril. While it's true that rapidly deteriorating weather is the main culprit, it remains that erratic winds, abrupt downdrafts, clear air turbulence, wind shear, and other hazards can turn a routine fair-weather flight into a nightmare at any time.
Even the best of Alaska's famously competent pilots can have a hard time of it when turbulence soars and visibility plummets. A tale is told of a veteran Denali pilot who was groping his way through a zero-visibility situation when his ski-equipped plane glided to a gentle halt, having landed on the snow quite accidentally. Although probably apocryphal (I've never checked it out), the story serves well as a cautionary tale for anyone tempted to take Denali flying too lightly. It might very well have been at Denali that the most famous of all pilot sayings was born: "There are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots."
Yes, indeedy; Denali flying, like brain surgery and Grand Prix racing, is safely done only by experienced people with a sober appreciation of its unforgiving nature and manifold do's and dont's. One might therefore reasonably ask why my one and only flightseeing visit to the great mountain was aboard a little plane flown by a pilot who had never been there before. Well, as they say, it seemed like a good idea at the time.
I'm lots older now, and lots more careful about flying. Though I've ridden aboard helicopters of various sorts, both military and civilian, I've been leery of them ever since I took a sightseeing flight that yielded a dead-engine autorotation into a pasture. As for airplanes, well, you won't catch me riding in anything like that little Cessna 180 again. These days my minimal requirements are two engines, two pilots, and a well stocked bar.
Postscript: For nearly two decades, the 35 mm color slides I took on this trip were used to help illustrate Denali-related lectures in my national parks course at the University of South Carolina. Although packed carefully for the move to our current residence three years ago, they have failed to surface. I suspect that they are in that stack of as-yet untouched boxes that are marked "no hurry." I've been fixin' to look in those boxes and maybe unpack them. For people unfamiliar with the vernacular southern lingo, I should explain that "fixin' to" means "getting ready to get ready to."