On the horizon north of Alaska’s largest city, the continent’s tallest peak loomed resplendent Sunday against the evening light in the land of the midnight sun, and if you knew personally the slopes of the mountain long-named McKinley, you knew what that meant.
The climbers who knew no clocks were already on the move toward the 20,146-foot summit of the big peak now called Denali, and the early risers would not be long behind.
This was the moment of one of those gifts from nature that spell the difference between making the summit and not. It came in the second straight year in which May has been unfriendly to Denali mountaineers.
Wind and snow pounded climbers on the mountain in May 2016, and it has been much the same this year. On May 25, with 447 climbers on the mountain and 47 more having already thrown in the towel, the park service reported a summit success of 5 percent.
Conditions improved only slightly as the month wound down. The success rate was going up by May 30, but the 79 percent failure rate had sent more than 100 people home with their dream of reaching the top of North America unfulfilled.
And then came the first Sunday in June.
“There was a lenticular sitting up there yesterday morning through midday that kept most off the top yesterday,” National Park Service spokeswoman Maureen Gualtieri, messaged from the Denali Ranger Station in Talkeetna on Monday. ” It dissipated by afternoon, so there were a handful of teams that went up in the evening…. Today is decent, not as great as last night, but Tucker (Chenoweth) estimates that today about 100 people or so were heading up to the summit, probably the biggest single day push of this season.”
By the time you read this, the number of people who made the top a week ago – 27 – could be four or five times that. Not that it will be easy.
Serious mountaineers might call the popular West Buttress route to the summit a “walk-up,” but it is one damn tough walk up, especially if the weather turns unfriendly. And even when it is friendly, it’s not that friendly.
Decent by the standards of the summit ridge of the glacier-covered mountains means 10 to 20 degrees below zero with light winds in thin air. The bold and the adventurous get in line to go for the summit in conditions like these because the weather waits on no one.
When the conditions are right, you can see this world from Anchorage though its inhabitants remain invisible. And from on the mountain, those immersed in that ancient, long-gone, wild world of extremes and danger and sometimes death can sometimes see, especially in the evening, the footprint of the 49th state’s urban underbelly 130 miles to the south.
In Alaska exists two worlds visually connected but seemingly parts of different planets. They are so close together and yet so far apart that they can be hard to reconcile.
At Beyond Horizons, a European blog dedicated to long-distance viewing, Josep Manchado writes of visiting Anchorage’s Earthquake Park early in the morning in the summer of 2003, spotting a hulking mountain on the horizon, and finding it difficult to believe he was seeing Denali at last.
“I thought it couldn’t be Denali as I spent 2 days in the national park trying to see it without any luck because the clouds, but I was sure it was Denali, also known as Mount McKinley,” he writes. “Finally I asked a runner, and he told me “It is the McKinley” and suddenly my heart began to run; It was crazy in my last day….”
Over time, Alaskans tend to take this sort of thing for granted.
For some of them, the Alaska of tourist dreams exists as little more than a unique backdrop to an urban world strangely similar and yet sometimes oddly different from that of most other metropolitan areas of near a half-million people.
For others, there are regular transitions from the urban world to the wild world and back again as if this were all somehow normal.
One minute they’re caught in traffic in Los Anchorage or grabbing fast food because they’re in a hurry like everyone is in a hurry in modern America, and the next they’re running wild rivers in tiny packrafts or crossing glaciers or facing down bears.
Or maybe sometimes all three and more on one outing.
If you’re one of these people, it becomes so normal you don’t even notice how abnormal until you spend some time hanging around with tourists overwhelmed by the wildness of Alaska without even really being in the wild.
Just the sight of miles and miles of nothing leaves them overwhelmed. A roadtrip almost anywhere other than Spenard or Wasilla is a wilderness adventure. A plane flight leaves them wondering “Where are the farms? Where are the fields? Where are the cattle?”
Yes, Alaskans know there are places in the state where we grow things, but they are specks on a sea of wild in a Western world largely developed and now moving at the near instantaneous speed of the internet.
It has become a world that moves so fast that sometimes maybe humans need to get away from it into the wild just to decompress. There’s something refreshingly elemental about going back to a place still regularly controlled by the elements.
It’s this as much as anything that makes Alaska most unique. The land and the weather still have a big say in how and when and where people move, and in some places they have an immense say.
Nobody goes for the summit of Denali when it is blowing 50 mph or more because they cannot go. The mountain rules as do other Alaska mountains at times and the surrounding oceans and the rivers and some of the animals and all that wild that demands respect because otherwise it can kill you.