The Wild Side
An article Adrian Nelhams wrote for Climb Magazine (July/August Issue 139)
I lean forward and look out the window, the plane wing slightly obscures the view, but I see Mt Fairweather and the whole of Glacial Bay National Park bordering BC and Alaska. A little later, I see the huge snowy summit of Mt Logan (19545 ft) the second highest peak in North America. This huge massif sits like a gigantic landlocked iceberg barely 50 miles from the Pacific Ocean and rises from the largest icefield outside any polar region, 45,000 square miles of wilderness marking the border between Alaska and the Yukon Territory.
Then, out of the cloud, I make out the St Ellias Mountains and now the familiar summits in the Chugach State Reserve just east of Anchorage. It’s like the wild Alaskan salmon retracing their familiar journeys back to where new life begins. Their journey like mine now, continues north of Anchorage, past Rosilla then Willow and onto to the small Alaskan trading post that is Talkeetna on the edge of the Denali National Park.
We turn right off the main highway that continues north to Fairbanks, on to a dirt road following the Alaska Pacific Railroad into Talkeetna, a main trading post built up around the railroad and the Yukon Gold Rush.
back in the late 1800’s an estimated 100,000 miners and prospectors flooded both the Yukon and Klondike valleys in search of their fortunes. Hysteria broke out as many arrived by train and boat. Those who missed the last whistle that blew forced their way on horseback and on foot, others even tried to cycle up frozen rivers as winter locked everyone in – the gold rush was in full swing.
In the early 1900’s, Nagley’s general store was supplying the miners and trappers. The Fairview and Roadhouse put a roof over their heads and fed and watered them. Today the store, with a pair of huge Elk horns pinned above the door as you enter, is an eclectic mix of dried-out fox furs, historic artefacts, gold panning kits, basic camping kit, fishing equipment, tins of beans and other basic food stuffs, coffee and takeaway liquor. I liked the sign outside the store saying ‘established before most of you were born!’ The Roadhouse and Fairview Hotel still make up the dusty centre of this cultural and artistic melting pot of a small town in the ‘Last Frontier’ - Talkeetna.
Over the years’ salmon fishing and hunting has replaced almost all the mining and the village is the main springboard for mountaineering activities in the Denarii National Park with the Talkeetna airstrip only a 5 minute walk from Nagley’s.
The Sestina River borders the village’s western edge and dense silver birch forests fill in all the gaps between the river, the few shops, guesthouses and private dwellings that link up the narrow dirt pot-holed tracks.
The historic buildings; old airstrips; dilapidated float planes; rusting 1950’s trucks; the old bicycles with flat, perished tyres, hung up in tree branches; the original Alaskan Railroad carriages (now used as seasonal homes for workers and stray dogs); are all interconnected by strips of dirt through the dense native woodland - and act as a conduit to the history as you walk through town.
The daylight is fading fast, but I walk out to the western edge of town and stand on the bank of the Sustina River to glimpse my first views of Denali and Mt Foraker - the largest peaks that dominate the range.
It’s great to be here again and breathe in the cold, fresh spring air whilst listening to a woodpecker drumming on a tree - possibly looking for dinner. I walk back into town and get a call from Paul at Talkeetna Air Taxi “be ready first thing in the morning the weather looks great”. I head back to the bunkhouse and do my last minute packing making sure nothing is missed.
Our lift arrives just before dawn and we load our assortment of gear into a beaten up old white dodge van and head off to the airstrip. We weigh and tag everything, change into our mountaineering clothing and wait. Paul arrives, checks over the ‘De Havilland Beaver’ and fills it with fuel. We open the doors and load in all our kit. Then I hear the familiar drone overhead as an early fight comes in from the Kahiltna Glacier having dropped of a team heading for Mt McKinley. Last to go in is the food, gas and the cooler bag of fresh meat that we collect from the fridge - which I mustn’t forget this time!
Two years ago as we were dropped off on a parallel glacier in the Kichatna’s and as the drone of the Beaver faded to a silence, we both looked at each other with the same sickening thought ‘we’ve forgotten to bring the meat!’ The winter had hung around ‘til early spring, Talkeetna woke late and people were still clearing snow. The airstrip was clear but the mounds of snow were reluctant to melt in the early spring sun and were just melting in the day and refreezing at night. We dug our meat into the snow to keep it fresh while we waited in the middle of a warm day! As we stood in silence on the glacier 100 miles from Talkeetna, nobody else just the two of us, enjoying the wild remoteness of the situation, the warmth of sun on our faces, seeing in our minds the still frozen meat in the pile of snow where we’d left it. Our morning bacon filled bagels and mince and pasta meals that we had carefully planned turned to a dream over the proceeding 3 weeks! On day 2 of that trip, I received a text on the satellite phone – “enjoying the meat, great BBQ, shame you couldn’t join us!”
Not this time I’d been more careful loading our kit especially when it came to the food!
With all our kit loaded and a net secured over everything to keep it from moving around I struggled into one of the four tiny seats on board, buckled in and put on the in-flight headphones. Paul closed the doors started up the engine, received clearance from the small control tower and the wheels started moving….we’re off.
With the engines at almost full tilt, we collected momentum and quickly took off leaving Talkeetna behind. The birch pines below reduced in size and the river shrank to a stream, the mountains ahead rose more clearly and we settled into the familiar drone as we headed SW towards the Kichatna mountains.
We fly over the flatlands, the Kahiltna river and then on over the smaller outlying summits. Paul speaks freely about Alaskan life in general, his time in Talkeetna and the surrounding area. We ask general tourist questions viewing Denali and Foraker further north and all the other peaks and glaciers that make up this six million acres of wild landscape and high mountains.
Then I catch a glimpse of what we’ve come here for….the tops of huge cathedral like granite spires looming ahead. As we get nearer, the sheer scale of these peaks and spires is apparent. The single engine Beaver with all of us and our equipment in starts to get bounced around on the winds and thermals being created by these huge granite towers.
I see a small black bird flying across one of the huge faces, it looks so small and insignificant in comparison to us and its surroundings. I then realise that it’s our own shadow coming in and out of focus as we navigate our way through the high col’s and into the heart of these impressive surroundings. We lose height quickly and circle a couple of times getting a feel for the glacier below us and any rogue winds.. The next loop sees us diving down and hit the snow-covered glacier and everything goes white. The snow settles and we’ve got a clear view ahead as Paul kills the engine and we come to a stop.
I look out of the window and even with a crooked neck looking up, I can’t see the tops of these granite peaks. Headphones off and doors open we jump out and into the snow covering the Col-de-sac glacier. All the planning, time spent pondering over guidebooks and pictures from previous trip and other expeditions and we’re here.
We pull out all our equipment and sling it to one side, slam the doors shut, shake hands with Paul as he wishes up good luck. We move a little further away as he starts up the engine and gives us a thumbs-up and the plane slowly gathers speed and lifts into the air. Very quickly the plane and drone of the engine fades and we’re on our own.
We take in our surroundings in silence and then look at each other. It’s only now that we fully appreciate both the beauty of these huge granite spires and the total remoteness of the place we’d just been left in.
Looking down the glacier, the waves in the otherwise smooth flat white snow, indicate the direction of the wind pointing to the way the wind blew. These waves of pointed ripples rise above the surface as the wind fills in the gaps and transports the snow around. We probe the snowy glacier for crevasses and then pitch our tents in a safe place facing backwards to the prevailing winds and hopefully the worst of any weather that is driven through here.
I look up at the large white cornices rolling over the tops of these massive spires, which seem to protect the Col-de-Sac. They look like waves and foam crashing over the top of the bow of a huge ship crashing its way through one of the worst Pacific storms all frozen in time.
We put on our snow shoes and head out for a recci and as we walk my emotions are caught up like walking through a few strands of fine cobweb that cling to your face reminding me of my last trip, last encounter and sense of belonging here in this beautiful granite cathedral like area, huge, immense, wild and no less inspiring than the first time I’d visited here.
It’s getting dark and we settle into the tents, which becomes a familiar routine over the next couple of weeks. I then hear the first flakes of snow as each dry flake falls onto the tent’s fly sheet and slides down the nylon and stops in silences as another then another increasing in volume does exactly the same. I look outside and it’s now snowing heavily.
Time passes slowly as I lay there – warm and cocooned in my sleeping bag, drifting in and out of sleep, reading, writing and melting water for brews. The constant cycle interspersed with an occasional venture outside passes the day. I dream of the weeks ahead or of times past, from life at home, the Alps, adventures and plans forming ahead. I have enough time to strip it all back and decide if the path taken is the right one.
I turn on the satellite device - 67% charged. I get an updated forecast. It predicts the same weather for tomorrow - 100% cloud cover, snow and strong winds. I can hear the wind howling through the gaps in the huge granite towers. No sun for another 30 hours at least so I need to be stringent with the satellite device. I turn it off for today and hope for some sun, both to charge some life into the device and me also, so that when the weather does clear I’m able to be motivated to do something.
This slumber is both debilitating but also good for recharging after a busy 6 months. As soon as you stop your body shuts down. I’m keen to get moving again. Another gale hammers the tent threatening to rip it from its footings, I summon the energy to get outside and check that everything is OK. The snow continues and time at BC passes.
I fill the pan with fresh, white, soft snow, it’s like candy floss, so light and fluffy, I can see each snow flake from where it’s fallen from the sky and as it melts I watch each flake shrivel up and disappear into the water. I do this with four mountains of scooped snow before I’ve made enough water for tea. I sit back, zip up the inner, get back inside my sleeping bag and relax to the sound of the gas stove roaring and outside the sound of silence.
The water’s boiling, I turn off the gas and pour the water into some maple and sugar porridge mix and make a brew. The tea tastes good as I start to while away the hours. Four day-old mountain socks hang inside out from a small makeshift airer, a pair of spare laces strung across the roof inside the tent. My damp mountain trousers share the same space filling the centre of the tent, suspended a foot off my sleeping mat. Lighter sunglasses, toilet roll and other belongings all share a space in the net pocket at one end of the tent. My headlamp, book and note pad at the other. In the front corner of the groundsheet, a pile of used tea bags, tissues and Cliff bar wrappers are starting to build in size. Under my Thermarest a foam mat gives me both more insulation from the frozen glacier below and also keeps the damp at bay.
Damp patches are showing through the dog-eared ground sheet that once used to repel even the worst conditions. Expedition climbing is hard on kit and many trips spent camping on moraine in the Tien Shan’s Pamir mountains over the years has taken its toll on what was once a great tent. I bang the side to release yet more snow and make another brew. It’s amazing how much snow you need to make a brew! I’m brought back to consciousness from the excessive heat I now feel inside the tent. I open my eyes and squint at the light being thrown around reflecting off the inside orange and yellow nylon tent sides.
I lay still and I can’t hear anything, no wind flapping the loose nylon and threatening to rip it from its moorings and no sprinkling of light snow sound hitting the tent, slowly building on the flysheet and then sliding as a huge lump to the ground when weight and gravity meet and the smooth nylon fly gives in. Then I hear a distant raven squawking as if to say wake up it’s over, the storm has finished and come and enjoy the better weather.
I quickly sit up in the entrance, still in the warmth and comfort of my sleeping bag, and unzip the inner door of the tent, then lean through to the outer door and unzip this to expose the new day.
Bright sunshine floods in and I see blue sky. I look north and the peaks are free of cloud and in a backdrop of deep blue sky. The peaks themselves are pristine white and covered in the last week’s new snow. Everything is clean, bright and beautiful. All the ridge lines, rock faces, glaciers and hanging icefalls stand out in the new picture that’s recently been painted.
I look south and see some cloud caught up amongst the great cathedrals but I feel it’s our day. I put last night’s melted snow in the pan to boil and start getting myself organised. Ice axes, crampons, harness, rope, waterproofs, warm duvet, spare gloves and hat, some food and drink. The water’s boiling and I make a flask of hot tea. I knock back some instant porridge – today I go for bananas and cream plus the maple and brown sugar! I start lacing my double boots. The inners still warm from being inside my sleeping bag last night and the outers stiff from being in the tent porch standing on snow overnight. I step outside, zip up the tent behind me and climb out of the snowdrift I’d been buried in and stand on top of the glacier.
We pull ourselves together and sort the rope and put on our snowshoes in silence. The excitement is building up inside knowing that after 7 days of lock down today’s our day. The snow’s frozen hard and the sun is now basking the granite tops in bright sunlight. The steep gullies of gleaming white snow seem to be gluing the granite pillars together. We set off up the glacier and head towards one of these welded snow and ice lines perfectly parallel to the sides of two huge granite cathedrals. The bottom, a white fan of fresh deep snow makes it slow progress as we wade to where the angle steepens. Snow shoes off and crampons on, as we start to kick into ever steepening ground and snow gives away to neve. Like a metronome I kick in step after step and the squeak under my crampons, the sunlight, white snow and surroundings make me smile. I feel my body stretching out after days of inactivity cocooned in sleeping bag and tent, but now they are just memories.
I get out a second ice axe as the snow steepens again and I can feel ice under the picks. I start actually pulling on my tools and picking foot placements with my front point as I move high into the gulley. I place an ice screw and continue on. We’re moving together now high up in this beautiful cathedral-like place doing what we love doing, feeling alive and at one with everything around us. A steep ice pillar slows me to stop and I belay. My partner comes up and I can see his breath in the cold morning air, he looks and smiles. ….. ‘you’ve gotta love the Kichatna’s!’
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