Base camp is where climbers begin their climb on Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America at 20,320 ft. Base camp is at 7,200 ft on the Kahiltna Glacier. Denali National Park and Preserve Mountaineering Rangers from the Talkeetna Ranger Station are camped here during the climbing season from late April until early July. It is common for tourist glacier landing flights to land at base camp so they can see where climbers begin and end their expeditions.
I wanted to go to base camp to experience the excitement of the climbers and to experience life on the glacier. However, because of the weather and the limited space on flights, it is difficult for park employees to make it up to base camp. So, I was lucky when my supervisor, Bob, arranged a trip for me. Bob wanted me to experience base camp so I would feel more confident in presenting the Ranger Program about climbing Mount McKinley.
I wanted to experience the mountain’s conditions but was also nervous because I didn’t know what it would be like up there. I had heard about the dangers of the mountain- the extreme weather conditions, avalanches, crevasses and high altitude sickness. I had also heard about the beauty of the mountains and the serenity of being isolated in the lifeless wilderness.
Because of the extreme conditions on Mount McKinley, a trip up requires packing warm gear. After Roger handed me his bunny boots to bring, I felt a little scared with anticipation for extreme weather. Bunny Boots are double-layered rubber boots with felt stuffed between the layers to keep your feet warm to negative 35 degrees Fahrenheit. I knew that not only would I need to keep my feet warm up there, but I would need to stay warm over night while sleeping.
While trying to pack enough warm gear, one also wants to keep the weight of their pack as low as possible. The rangers I was flying up to base camp with were packing for their 30-day patrol, so they needed equipment for skiing, climbing, sleeping and cooking. They would have to carry most of this equipment with them up to 14,200 ft at basin camp. Luckily, the helicopter would fly some of their equipment up. We also had to consider the weight of our equipment so we weren’t over weight for the carrying capacity of the bush plane. We weighed, labeled and calculated the total weight of our bags. I tried to pack as light as possible, leaving out a change of clothes.
The ranger suggested I fly co-pilot, so I got to sit up front with a great view and also watch the pilot operate the plane. All passengers wore headsets so we could hear the air traffic and also talk to one another during the flight. The pilot pressed a few buttons, flipped a few switches, and soon the propeller was spinning and we were moving toward the run-way. While on the radio, we could hear other pilots coordinating their landing and taking off.
The three braided rivers of Talkeetna – the Talkeetna, Susitna, and Chulitna- are the only break from trees spanning as far as the mountains began. Alaska is a land of wilderness.
After about ten minutes in flight, the pilot said we had to turn around because the battery was not charging. As we flew back to Talkeetna, I couldn’t see Main Street or any other streets from town; it was all hidden in the trees. After landing, we found out that base camp was closed because of weather, meaning we may not have been able to land even if the battery had charged. Now it was time for us to wait for the weather to clear, a common situation for climbers and tourists in Talkeetna to be in.
Three days later…
The rangers, volunteers and I were on call for three days waiting for the clouds to clear. I had nearly given up hope about making it up to base camp, until I saw a break in the clouds and heard a plane flying overhead. Knowing that my flight could be leaving with short notice, I rushed over to the ranger station to find out if we were scheduled to fly.
Good thing I checked because the ranger had been looking for me because we were scheduled to fly in an hour! My bags were left on the plane for the three days, so most of my food had gone bad. Quickly, I bought some replacements because just like you never know how long you will wait to fly up to base camp, you never know how long you will wait to fly back to Talkeetna!
This time we made it to the foothills without any technical problems. There were lakes with little cabins and I could see tracks in the tundra from 4-wheelers. The land looked soggy and fragile.
The land is mostly flat until you get to the foot hills and mountains. Our plane was flying pretty low at about 8,000 ft. Soon we were flying between the foot hills. The land seemed to wave up and down as we passed through. The pilot had turned on some classical music. While I was hardly able to keep my jaw from dropping at the views, he was trying to keep things interesting – something the average person would do on the way to work.
Soon we turned up the Kahiltna glacier. The glacier looked melted at this point and was gray, dirty, and slushy. The glaciers were streaked, like they had been combed. Soon the scenery turned to complete snow as we left the trees behind.
Alongside the Kahiltna next to the mountains there were gaps where the glacier doesn’t quite touch the mountain. Being able to see where the glacier and mountains rub as the glacier moves down gave me a complete understanding of where the silt and loess found in the Talkeetna rivers and beachfront came from – from the rubbing of the glacier against the mountain and slow passing of the sediment down the rivers.
There was no life in sight, just snow-covered granite with gemlike blue-ice speckled glaciers running between. Speckled with black hole crevasses, some parts of the glacier looked like accordion paper.
The glacier seemed like the perfect flying route up the mountain, it was flat with the mountains protruding on each side, an alley carved out for planes to pass through. The pilot pointed out different glaciers coming off on the sides of the Kahiltna as we passed. Bob told me about hanging glaciers, and how when the glaciers of the past melted out, they left basins in the sides of mountains. As we flew up the Kahiltna Glacier, it was obvious what Bob was referring to. I imagined what this place would look like if the Kahiltna Glacier were to melt one day, wondering how far the mountains would go until they reach flat ground.
Soon we were close to base camp and radioed in our intended landing on the Southeast fork of the Kahiltna glacier to the flight coordinator at base camp. Upon landing, we had an audience of climbers waiting for their flights off the mountain. Not only were we waiting in Talkeetna for the weather to clear, but about 20 climbing teams and a crew of rangers were waiting at base camp for their flight back to Talkeetna after a 30-day patrol.
As I set foot on the glacier, I wondered, “Where is the wind and cold?” It was warm up there! I didn’t have to put on any extra layers, but wore the same thing I did in Talkeetna before taking off. It was so bright that I had to put on 40 SPF and my eyes got sore even while wearing sunglasses. Not only is the sun brighter, but it reflects off the snow so the bottom of my nose got burnt.
Sun tanning on the glacier
The volunteers and I got to relax in lawn chairs on the glacier, watching planes landing and taking off. Every once in a while we would hear an avalanche which sounded just like thunder. A few avalanches in front of us, on Mt. Hunter, left holes in the mountain’s side.
Learning the ropes
Before the ranger and his volunteers could set off for their 30-day patrol at 14,200 ft basin camp, they needed to do some crevasse rescue training as a review. They invited me and a group of social scientists to join the training. I barely knew how to put on a harness while everyone else seemed to know which knots were used for what. It was a great learning experience.
The ranger helped me get my harness strapped on correctly; gave me two carabineers to attach to the front of my harness, and some small ropes to attach to my harness for making prusiks. This was not the only thing hanging on our harnesses, which seemed to serve as a tool belt that carried an ice axe, snow pickets, pulleys, extra ropes, and extra carabineers. The two volunteers and I roped up- with them on the ends as the stronger climbers. We put on our glacier travel gear- snow shoes for me and skis for them. We had helmets and backpacks for food and water. I felt clumsy with all of this equipment hanging off my body from all over, but prepared for safe glacier travel. Example of glacier travel equipment
We learned how to bury a snow picket and attach ropes for an anchor, then set up double and triple anchor systems. These systems seemed complex to me, and I was barely able to follow what each different knot was meant for, but able to grasp the general concepts of keeping ropes to each anchor equal in distance to ensure that the weight pull on each anchor is equal. A mountain climber needs quite a bit of training!
Gourmet glacier food
I expected dinner to be simple, maybe packaged food that you just add water to. But, this base camp manager was known for making gourmet meals on the mountain, and for gaining 10 pounds while up there. He made us curry, coconut soup with veggies and pork ribs. This was way better food than I could have gotten from one of the fancy meals in Talkeetna! Base camp was set up like a normal home. There was a kitchen, office, bedroom, pantry, bathroom, and refrigerator… but it required some imagination. If you looked closely, the refrigerator began to look like a snow bank, which can be exciting because you never know when you may find last year’s butter.
After dinner we enjoyed base camp entertainment like trying to toss a snow ball into the fish-shaped wind flag. As an SCA intern with fun on my mind, I could only see one use for the pile of sleds meant for transporting gear up the mountain: glacier sledding! After a few unsuccessful attempts where I came to a complete stop, the base camp manager showed me up as he zoomed past me down the glacier.
I woke up once in the night because it was light out and there were people talking. I got out of my tent to see all of the climbers, who were camped on the glacier over night, out of their tents and packing up. They were heading up the mountain in the middle of the night because the snow is harder and there are fewer chances of stepping through a snow bridge and falling into a crevasse.
We did some more crevasse training- at an actual crevasse. As the SCA intern, I was the guinea pig for the training. I was excited to see the inside of a crevasse under controlled conditions. It didn’t sound scary until I was hanging in there! The ranger told me to slowly back up into the crevasse, which was about 30 ft wide and so long that we couldn’t see the other end of it. I had to keep telling myself that the volunteers and rangers were experienced and I should trust them. The goal of this exercise was for the volunteers to practice securing a person to an anchor and setting up a pulley system to pull them out.
Once I was inside the crevasse, I tried to keep my feet on the wall in front of me, but they kept slipping on the ice. As I was trying to get my feet secured, I noticed a hole below me that seemed to go forever into the ground. I began questioning the security of my equipment. The fear made me see a harness which seemed like it was too small, carabineers which could break loose, the rope which could snap from rubbing on ice, and the anchors which could have been set up incorrectly.
However, I was safe the whole time, as a ranger with over 15 years of climbing experience was supervising. As I sat in the crevasse, I was able to find serenity in this quiet and isolated place. There were no sounds except the dripping of icicles. There most likely had never been life inside of this crevasse before. It was a lonely place, a place where no human would want to experience their last moments. At that moment, I fully grasped the purpose of this training. Although climbing is unavoidably risky, preparation for preventing and rescuing climbers from these situations highly reduces the chances of injury and death.
I got to ride back to Talkeetna in the helicopter. Like a tiny bug, we flew through some of the largest mountains in the Alaska Range. I felt like I was still flying for a few hours afterward. It was beautiful and pleasant at base camp and like nowhere I had ever been. Isolated from society and distanced from all forms of life, base camp is an intentional human development in the wilderness. It is the starting and ending point of the biggest challenge of many climbers’ lives. It is also a location for scientific research, like the researchers I met while I was there who were recording sound scapes.
Conservation on the Mountain
The mountain was beautiful and the trip was enjoyable because the mountain was kept clean. A big part of the mountaineering operation here at Denali Park is to keep trash and human waste off the mountain and also to keep the wildlife away from base camp. Sometimes it is not convenient for climbers to carry the clean mountain can (for solid human waste) or carry all of their trash off the mountain. However, these are laws enforced by the rangers up there to ensure that the mountain will both remain ecologically sound and stay clean and beautiful for future climbers.
My trip to base camp gave me the knowledge and strength I needed to present the Ranger Program about climbing Mount McKinley. I am able to pass on knowledge about what it takes to climb Mount McKinley, about the preparation for safe glacier and mountain travel, presence of mind in moments of risk and rescue, and motivation to persevere through the extreme conditions of Mount McKinley. I also gained a better understanding of the mountaineering ranger’s job – a rescuer, law enforcer, weather reporter, conservationist, and explorer.