By Dakota Jones
Airplanes are more versatile in Alaska than anywhere else. Given the variability and sheer scale of the landscape, flying has in the last century become the preferred mode of travel in the forty-ninth state. Many planes are equipped to land just as readily on snow or water as on tarmac, and especially in Talkeetna, the small town from which everyone flies into the Alaska Range to climb, the culture revolves around flying. A storied tradition has built of great climbs in the country’s biggest range made possible by the daring exploits of a few maverick pilots. By depositing climbers and their gear on the many glaciers of the Alaska Range, the pilots save climbers an overland trip of sixty or more miles with hundreds of pounds of gear. The airfield in Talkeetna dominates the town, and every shop and restaurant displays crisp aerial photography of the massive snowclad peaks just north of town.
[These planes can land on snow or pavement. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
Flying has become so important to the range that the original ascent route of Denali up the Muldrow Glacier on the mountain’s north side – the route of attack for nearly fifty years from the time white men began trying to climb it until the 1930’s – is hardly considered now except by a few hardy souls each year. Before airplanes, the southern peaks and glaciers were too remote and rugged to reasonably access by foot for a long expedition. However, by the time Bradford Washburn and a few daring pilots had made a practice of flying into the range’s southern aspects in the 1930s and ‘40s, they had opened up a new world of opportunity that continues to be enjoyed today. What had once been a vast, unknown and inaccessible land of mighty rock walls and glaciers became a day trip almost overnight, and since then climbers have steadily worked their way to every major summit by multiple challenging routes. Airplanes provide a lifeline to these skiers and climbers connecting them with the outside world and its many amenities, so much so that in the words of Jon Webb, when in the Alaska Range “you’re pretty much going plane camping, instead of car camping.”
[Unloading the plane. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
I knew all of this as I pulled into Talkeetna with Greg Poettgen, my climbing partner for the next three weeks. We had read books and were quite familiar with the use of the internets, which together had taught us enough to plan a two-man three-week trip into the mountains. In fact, I was quite enamored with the tradition of flying in Alaska (and with Alaska in general), and like a Swiss village high in the Alps the town of Talkeetna delivered up the romanticism of which I had dreamed. Unlike a Swiss village, however, where everything is crisp and clean, manicured to perfection, Talkeetna stands up to its reputation as a rugged backcountry outpost. Hewn logs compose many of the town’s largest buildings, and the shops promote their wares with colorful hand-painted signs. When we arrived in mid-April the one paved road through town was obscured by snow and ice. The one general store – Nagley’s – is part grocery store, part coffee shop, part liquor store and part pet store. When the Nagley’s clerk told Greg and I that her sixteen-year-old tail-less cat Stubbs was the mayor, we weren’t sure if she was being serious or not. If we were looking for rustic backwoods Alaska, Talkeetna seemed to be the right place.
The airfield stands on the edge of town just a few short blocks from Nagley’s, and we were soon in the offices of K2 Aviation, barely masking our unbounded excitement. The walls were papered with photos of small planes flying amongst giant snow-covered mountains. Soon, we knew, we would be in one of those planes, weaving among glaciers and summits of a scale we had never known. We hastened through the regularities of forms and agreements, eager to get into a plane and be off to the mountains. The formalities took quite a while, as is usual with such endeavours, and we even had to take a trip across town (four blocks) to check in with the National Park Service and get our Clean Mountain Can. Still, by noon we had everything we would need for the next three weeks packed tightly into a tiny Cessna airplane. Before I knew it we met our pilot, Tony, climbed into the plane and took off.
[Approaching the mountains in the plane. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
In the spring of 2012 a Brian Stefanovic from Fort Collins invited me to climb the West Rib of Denali with him in May 2013. He was planning a trip with another friend and invited me along for the company and support. The suggestion surprised me. For one, I had no big mountain experience, and not even much ice climbing experience. Denali is a big peak to attempt cold turkey. But beyond that, the thought of climbing in the Alaska Range was not something I had ever considered, for the simple reasoning that, in my mind, Alaska was where good climbers went to climb. I wasn’t a good climber, so how could I even consider that? But then I started thinking with the kind of ambition that has allowed me to travel the world running races, and I realized that a) I did know how to ice climb, b) I had a whole year to get better at ice climbing and mountaineering, c) Alaska surely has some less difficult climbs for the less badass, and d) fuck it. Why not go to Alaska? I’d learn the most by gaining experience in the range. I set to work researching the mountains.
I soon realized that Denali is not only a big peak, it’s also a popular peak. Around 1,200 people attempt its West Buttress route every year, and I found that the base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier turned every May into a veritable city of tents, snow walls, trails, bathrooms and guide’s huts. Furthermore, our intended route – the West Rib – shares that same base camp. I considered the situation extensively, and eventually reached the conclusion that the above described route was not what I was looking to experience in Alaska. I wanted big mountains and solitude, not fixed lines, cut steps and crowded slopes. Above and beyond that, I didn’t feel I had the experience necessary to commit to a full-scale peak like Denali on my first trip. AND….I wanted something more technical than the West Rib, which is technical on its lower slopes but eventually gives way to thousands of feet of snow climbing. In the end, my thoughts gravitated toward the nearby Ruth Glacier, with its many ten- and eleven-thousand foot summits and far fewer people, and I began to plan a trip there instead.
(Just to be clear here, I don’t have a problem with Denali or the Kahiltna Glacier scene. I’m not better or cooler than anyone who chooses to climb the West Buttress. In the future I expect I will climb the West Butt many times. I simply was looking for a different experience for my first Alaska trip than I would find on the Kahiltna. For me, the tallest summit in the range is less appealing than the best climbing in the wildest places. I wanted steep, technical ice climbing with less commitment than Denali’s 20,320 ft. would allow, simply because I want to work my way up to the big mountains without making serious mistakes. The Ruth Glacier provided that. So I went there.)
[The Ruth Gorge on the flight in. We pitched camp in the foreground of this photo for our whole trip. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
So the reason I was in Alaska was simple: I wanted to climb in the real mountains. My life has steadily trended towards wild places and big mountains since I was a kid. My dad was a major influence on my life, and when I was little we would go out every weekend to hike or mountain bike or climb up to the summits of the LaSal mountains outside Moab, UT. No single event made me a mountain climber. Rather, a thousand small influences and minor decisions turned into a clearcut direction, and since the latter part of my high school years I have devoted my entire purpose to the mountains in some form or other. For the last few years my focus has been on mountain running, but the desire to climb big icy peaks has never faded, and to feed that desire I have lately given more attention to the world of technical climbing.
Last year was a big year for me in the running world. I began the year with the two biggest wins of my life, and spent the summer training for and then recovering from the Hardrock 100, one of the world’s most difficult footraces. I spent the autumn in Europe, travelling throughout the Alps and the Pyrenees running mountain races, and capped it all off with a ten-day trip to Japan, where I ran a 45-mile race just eight days after finishing the hardest 50-mile race of my life, in Spain. Returning to Europe for several more weeks, I found that my body needed a rest, and I soon came home to settle into a manageable routine for the winter.
[The Mooses Tooth on the approach flight. PHOTO: Dakota Jones]
By mid-November I realized I had developed Plantar Fasciitis in my right foot, a nagging injury that affects the connective tissue along the arch. It’s the sort of injury that doesn’t really incapacitate its victims; rather, it flares up and subsides unpredictably, painful at best and debilitating at worst, and always threatening long-term injury if overused. To fight the injury I stopped running, realizing that when I ran, it hurt, but when I didn’t run it felt fine. I figured a month of no running would allow it to heal. Little did I realize that a month of no running for someone accustomed to running several hours per day can easily turn into something nearing self-loathing. I felt fat, useless, helpless and just generally worthless. Trying to make good use of my time, I bounced around different plans and ideas and didn’t commit to or accomplish anything for most of the last two months of 2012. Then I went home for Christmas.
Fortunately for me, home is Durango, Colorado, a mountain-lover’s paradise. The ice in the San Juans was just beginning to come into shape for climbing, and I got out for a few good days of climbing while at home for the holidays. This stoked my spirit and got me psyched, and I found that the stiff boots required for ice climbing didn’t aggravate my foot at all. So I turned my focus to the ice for the rest of the season, hoping to develop the skills needed to be safe and successful in Alaska. By that point I had been planning the trip for months, and each successive outing in the San Juans left me feeling stronger and more confident about my climbing and my ability to be safe in the mountains. I became more comfortable with the cold too, which had in the past left me feeling unhappy and homesick. I learned how to keep myself warm and dry in harsh winter conditions, which in turn made the experience of being in those conditions much more enjoyable. I later found that these skills would keep me safe in Alaska.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of this 3 part series!