Adventures in Alaska by Adrian Nelhams

“You need to pump the handle at least a 100 times”, crackled Paul through the headphones. I only picked up half of it, as the headphones and sunglasses just weren’t working well together. I was also trying to get a view out through the tiny window which seemed to be designed for someone 5ft tall!

With my view either vertically down or through the lower third of the window even this came and went as the plane pitched from side to side with the wing coming down and blocking any view completely. But it didn’t matter, any of it – how exciting was this!

We were flying past Denali, Foraker….. All the names I’d heard, read and dreamed about and now flying in towards our objectives and the Kitchatna Spires.

“I’m not joking,” Paul said again. “Pump the bloody handle! It drops the skids so we don’t land the plane on the glacier with the wheels down!” Shit, pump that bloody handle I said.

Nothing flash about these babies, 4 small seats, space for all our kit (well just) and that’s about it. One touch down on the Glacier to check the snow conditions and we’d landed in a cloud of cold dry snow completely obscuring our vision until we came to a complete stop.

Stepping out was a welcome relief, not only the legroom but also my first chance to fully absorb the place. Breathless, the place seemed so small flying in but once down on the glacier we felt insignificant, minute. 1000m walls and gullies towered above us. We waved good-bye and watched the planes fade out of sight as they headed north back down the valley – then silence.

I thought back to 2 days ago. I was back in the Lakes pushing Monty around the garden on his bike and now I’m standing here on the Tatina glacier in the middle of the Kitchatna’s in the Denali National Park.

We packed our kit onto the sledges and towed them a kilometre, back down the glacier to where we’d seen a good place for BC. Everywhere unclimbed towers of rock, steep 1000m faces and gullies of snow/ice snaking up endlessly into the distance out of sight – amazing.

We dug into the glacier and with bin liners filled with snow, we buried them into the holes to guy out and pitch our tents. If we didn’t bring it with us then we’ll have to make do without.

That means I can now ditch my Delta airlines headphones and Asda shopping list I found in my pocket and Twid can ditch his map of the Cairngorms which he found in his rucsac. Twid’s super organised self stashed his supply of fresh steak and chicken in a snow drift by the side of the runway before we took off from Talkeetna as it was hot and sunny. Well all I can say is that the ground staff back in Talkeetna had a real feast that night! We buried ours deep in the glacier to freeze it, much to Twids look of envy, then marked the area with a wand.
We spent the following day checking out possible snow, ice and rock routes and some peaks to climb – so many unclimbed routes here it’s amazing. At this time of year it’s light until at least 11pm, with the sun coming up again around 4.30am. Great, we headed off at first light and climbed easy angled snow slopes to gain a steep couloir we’d spotted previously.

After snow shoeing as high as we could, we then waded knee deep in soft unconsolidated snow until we decided that it was becoming too dangerous.
Too much new snow and just too warm, the sun was already releasing snow off the rocks, down all the gully lines/snow slopes and it was only 7am!

This weather’s great for consolidating the snow pack but not great for us right now.
We seemed to be right in the middle of it and needed to wait a few days for it to all settle down and firm up a little.

The following day we opted for a lovely looking summit via a long snowy ridge - Alpine AD. We had a great day out and from the summit we had tremendous views down into the adjacent valleys. We were starting to see and feel the glacier transforming. The sun in the day and a good freeze at night was starting to transform the new snow and firm things up, but then it snowed again. It was pretty unsettled from then on with the odd day of sunshine and searing heat thrown in, giving us great views but not too much in the way of climbing.

This unsettled weather stayed with us for most of the trip, making any snow gullies and faces inaccessible. We moved camp further down the glacier and climbed another peak via a snowy/rocky face, which we’d spotted the day before. It was a great line avoiding all the dangerous avalanche prone slopes and linking up a safe route to the summit. We were greeted by fantastic views down into the valley on the opposite side and views across to Mt Foraker in the distance.

It’s so quiet, the nearest person must be a good few days travel away or at least 45minute flight. We used the sleds again to head back up to the top of the valley to where Paul was going to pick us up. The sun was out and the views and scenery breathtaking.

Early the next day we packed down a basic runway in the soft fresh snow walking up and down with our snowshoes on. We packed down a 300m area of snow a wingspan wide and then waited. People have waited for days to get picked up, but that morning a faint drone of the first plane we’d heard in 2 weeks got louder and louder, until we could see a pin prick in the distance. The plane grew larger as it approached although I have to say, with the spires and faces all around, it never looked that big even when the plane was about to touch the snow.

After a few touch downs it came to a stop and we were loading our bags in. An hour later we were stripping down in the baking sun back in Talkeetna eating eggs, bacon and hash browns. They’d had snow down here, that’s how much it had snowed. It was just unfortunate it was an unsettled period to do the routes we’d wanted to do, but hey that’s the mountains and I’m actually now looking at flights back there again for next year! Bring it on!

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