Max’s memoirs: Alaska and environs

Max takes on the North American mountain tougher to climb than Everest.

Max’s memoirs: Alaska and environs

I have a passion for mountains, and I love stories about their conquests.

I guess my true interest came about when I did a trek to the Annapurna Sanctuary in Nepal some 35 years ago. Magical!

This time, however, I am desperate to see the highest mountain in North America – Denali. I have pre-booked a discounted Groupon one-hour light plane flight with Sheldon Air Service to view this majestic mountain, and as a bonus, to land on a glacier. Yes, yes, yes!

However, the weather is very unpredictable in August (late summer), with many rain days. The locals say that it’s very unlikely Denali will be visible this late in the season. Will their local knowledge spoil my dream?

The 14-hour flight from Melbourne to LAX is long and tedious. We have departed by 10am, which means that by the time we are ready to get some sleep, some 12 hours later, the lights are on and a meal is served – could be breakfast, lunch, or even dinner, who knows or more to the point it doesn’t particularly matter does it?

We transit to Anchorage on a five-hour no-frills flight with Alaskan Air and get off bleary eyed and tired. No matter, our Airbnb is comfortable and even if the sun was still streaming in the window at 11pm, it didn’t affect a very sound sleep.

glacier in alaska

We are in Anchorage for three nights and explore the environs during that time in our hire car, which I reckon is an essential item to have here. After Anchorage, we board the Holland America’s Denali Explorer train for a picturesque journey north to Denali National Park. After three fabulous days exploring the Alaskan wilderness, it’s off to the port of Seward by coach to embark Holland America Line’s MS Zaandam for a seven-night Inside Passage cruise to Vancouver. But that’s another story, which I’ll leave for another time.

Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $US7.2 million, about two cents per acre. Russia needed the money in the 1860s, so they got rid of that ‘worthless’ snow and ice-covered land. Of course, that was before the discovery of gold, in 1896, and later oil.

At the time it was thought to be a bad deal by the USA but, of course, mineral-rich Alaska has turned out to be a bargain, with the discovery of gold the turning point. It was admitted as the 49th State in 1959. Of all the 50 states, it has the largest land area.

alaskan street

Anchorage is the largest city in Alaska, with about 360,000 population (half of Alaska's total) but it is not the capital – Juneau is, and has been since 1906. Juneau, with a population of about 30,000 is about 900km southeast of Anchorage as the crow flies. It lies on the coast of the Inside Passage. It seems odd that there are no connecting roads to Juneau, and the only way in is by boat or light plane.

The grid street system in Anchorage a la New York (numeric and alphabetic combo) is easy to navigate. Anchorage is said to be the most expensive city in the USA, because of its remote location and land limitations. The wallet was certainly much thinner when we left!

It is a nice city with wide roads and plenty of trees. They love their gardens in summer and most homes have lots of flowers displayed. One thing that did stand out was the huge number of parking spaces around town – mostly with meters, although they are free after 6pm. There are nowhere near as many restaurants or liquor outlets that you would find in other cities, although you can find some fine dining establishments with yummy food. Also, supermarkets are few and far between. The one that we went to was expensive and didn't have the choice that we are used to. 

We take a drive in our rental car two hours north to Talkeetna, a one-street town resembling something you would expect to find in the old Wild West. It has many restaurants, cafes and bars to sustain your time there. The town owes its ongoing existence to the mountain climbers and tourists during the summer months. I would imagine that it would virtually shut down over winter.

This is the day I’ve waited for – the flight to view Denali. The weather is looking bleak indeed with rain showers and low cloud cover in the area. Bugger! Seems like the locals know what they are talking about. “Can’t fly in this weather mate. Come back in a couple of hours.”

rangers office in alaska

We explore the town, eat some delicious food and visit the National Park Ranger's office – where all climbers check in for instruction and get permits prior to their attempt to scale the 20,310ft (6190m) Denali (Denali means ‘the high one’). The summit success rate is only about 50 per cent. The vertical rise from base camp for Denali is about 18,000ft, whereas for Mt Everest it's about 12,000ft. Therefore, Denali is tougher to climb, although oxygen is not generally used. Denali creates its own weather – winds have been recorded up to 150mph and temperatures down to -100F. The first successful climb was in 1913.

Later we return to Sheldons (1hr flight $A185 pp) for an update. We get the thumbs up and are set to go. The weather has cleared a little, but there is no way we are going to see the ‘high one’ or do a glacier landing (add $A55 pp). We can still get up there and perhaps spot some wildlife or just experience the thrill of a single engine flight at about 500 metres.

max and jenny standing in front of a cessna in alaska

My disappointment subsides somewhat when we are in the air. The flight is smooth, and we do see some moose, black bears and many birds. The scenery from above is spectacular. The U-shaped mountain profiles are indicative of past glacial activity and the grey silty water flowing in the rivers and streams is evidence that they are glacier fed. Ah well, maybe another visit can be added to our list – but only if it’s June or July.

The next day we drive south out of Anchorage to the picturesque Turnagain Arm, named by Captain Cook. He was trying to find the Northwest Passage, but he never succeeded and had to ‘turn again’ after each attempt. We visit the ski resort of Alyeska and take a tram car to the top, although it's a bit foggy. We also take a one-hour cruise on Portage Lake to view the Portage Glacier. It has receded about 6km over the past 100 years (climate change?) but is still an awesome sight.

purple trees seen from a plane in alaska

The time has come to continue our adventure with HAL’s cruise along the Inside Passage. It is early morning. The air is crisp and the sky overcast as we depart Denali National Park to the port of Seward, a day’s drive south. This is going to be a dreary day. But after an hour or so, miraculously the sun appears from behind the clouds. The coach stops. What’s this, an accident? Holy crap! I am stunned and overwhelmed when I realise that my dream has come to life. There it is in the distance – Denali. The sun is showcasing its majestic splendour. We are probably about 100km away. Even from that distance it is spectacular. I’m so bloody happy this day.

denali as seen from the highway

Have you ever been to Alaska? Would you like to go?

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    COMMENTS

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    Alan
    16th May 2020
    9:10am
    The higher vertical rise of Mt Denali being higher than the vertical rise of Everest does not make it more difficult to climb. Difficulty is related to technical elements such as the actual degree of difficulty of the climb and the factors which make it dangerous to climb. On Denali the starting point is about 2,500 metres and you go to just over 6,000 metres. On Everest you start at over 5,500 metres and go to 8848 metres. Here a lot of other different factors come into play.

    I accept that technically Denali may be harder than Everest to climb but that extra difficulty has very little, if anything, to do with the difference in vertical rise.

    16th May 2020
    9:39am
    Great write up Max thank you.
    Maybe Alan can do a write up as well...as long as the degree of difficulty isn't too much ;)
    Tanker
    17th May 2020
    3:29pm
    We had a most enjoyable tour of Alaska but we flew the quick and cheaper way via Hawaii. Jetstar Melbourne to Hawaii and Alaskan Air to Anchorage. Alaskan Air was better than Jetstar with regard to service and comfort.
    We timed our trip to coincide with the end of their tourist season as the weather can shut everything down once it turns bad. This is a very brief rundown on our trip.
    We covered more territory than Max in our hire car travelling north, after a couple of days in Anchorage, the weekend market is worth a visit, and stayed a night in Talkeetna. We enjoyed great views of Mt Denali in the morning which is unusual but we were lucky.
    Our next night we stayed in a Lodge at the end of the road in Denali National Park which can only be reached in the bus owned by the Lodge.
    Then on to Fairbanks for a couple of nights. a drive East to TOK then South to Wrangell/Mt Elias National Park, the largest National Park in the U.S. where we flew in a light aircraft to McCarty/Kennicott where we stayed in Lodge for three night then flew back out and headed South to Valdez.
    Two night in Valdez then the ferry through Queen Charlotte Sound to Whittier then drive to Seward for three nights.
    The following day we headed north to catch a flight, small aircraft that landed on the beach, over Cook Strait and through the mountains to a lodge on the sea shore whose specialty is bear watching. We sure saw some bears. In Alaska Grizzly bears are in the mountains but on the seas shore they are referred to as Brown Bear and they are bigger than Grizzlies because of the better feeding.
    The next day back across Cook Strait and drove down to Homer for two nights then back toward Anchorage staying at Hotel Alyeska at Girdwood for two night then flight back to Honolulu for three nights.
    Having a stopover in Honolulu both ways worked very well.
    In Alaska about the only animals we didn't see were wolves and we did see about four pods of Orca. Sorry this is such a potted version of our trip but it was truly wonderful.
    Tanker
    17th May 2020
    3:29pm
    We had a most enjoyable tour of Alaska but we flew the quick and cheaper way via Hawaii. Jetstar Melbourne to Hawaii and Alaskan Air to Anchorage. Alaskan Air was better than Jetstar with regard to service and comfort.
    We timed our trip to coincide with the end of their tourist season as the weather can shut everything down once it turns bad. This is a very brief rundown on our trip.
    We covered more territory than Max in our hire car travelling north, after a couple of days in Anchorage, the weekend market is worth a visit, and stayed a night in Talkeetna. We enjoyed great views of Mt Denali in the morning which is unusual but we were lucky.
    Our next night we stayed in a Lodge at the end of the road in Denali National Park which can only be reached in the bus owned by the Lodge.
    Then on to Fairbanks for a couple of nights. a drive East to TOK then South to Wrangell/Mt Elias National Park, the largest National Park in the U.S. where we flew in a light aircraft to McCarty/Kennicott where we stayed in Lodge for three night then flew back out and headed South to Valdez.
    Two night in Valdez then the ferry through Queen Charlotte Sound to Whittier then drive to Seward for three nights.
    The following day we headed north to catch a flight, small aircraft that landed on the beach, over Cook Strait and through the mountains to a lodge on the sea shore whose specialty is bear watching. We sure saw some bears. In Alaska Grizzly bears are in the mountains but on the seas shore they are referred to as Brown Bear and they are bigger than Grizzlies because of the better feeding.
    The next day back across Cook Strait and drove down to Homer for two nights then back toward Anchorage staying at Hotel Alyeska at Girdwood for two night then flight back to Honolulu for three nights.
    Having a stopover in Honolulu both ways worked very well.
    In Alaska about the only animals we didn't see were wolves and we did see about four pods of Orca. Sorry this is such a potted version of our trip but it was truly wonderful.
    Keithb
    19th May 2020
    11:51pm
    Spent 6 weeks in Alaska in 2016 and had a great time. In Anchorage we had dinner in an up-market bar and were most surprised when we went to pay and were told someone had already paid - they wouldn't tell us who! Also got lucky in Talkeetna, our Denali flight was upgraded to over the top and the glacier landing. Both spectacular. Saw Denali many times while staying a week at Denali Lodge at the end of the road - and talking to the father of the current owners he remembered well the Aussie IPT trips led by Tony Groom in the 1980's. My parents were on one of these.

    20th May 2020
    7:26am
    I never realised that Denali was actually called Mt McKinley from 1917 to 2015 after the then US pres. William McKinley.
    The peak was always called Denali (Great one) by the Koyukon people who lived there...but you knew that :)

    Thanks to the posters for the travel stories, great reading from your experiences


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