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.

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.

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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

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Written by Max Williams

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