by Hank Leukart
August 31, 2007
Crossing a glacier in the Alaskan wilderness is harder than it looks.
Hank slowly makes his way across Muldrow Glacier. (photo by Brian Leukart) (view all Denali, Alaska: Days 7 - 8 photos)
This the last essay in a three-part series about backpacking in Alaska. For the whole story, start with the first essay about our harrowing McKinley River crossing.D
ENALI NATIONAL PARK AND PRESERVE, Alaska — Originally, my brother Brian and I planned to spend only five days in Denali National Park’s stunning, untamed wilderness, hiking from Wonder Lake to the base of Mount McKinley, and then retracing our steps for a grand total of 40 miles. Despite our lack of “extensive river crossing experience,” no one could have accused us of being ill-prepared for our journey. We packed four extra meals in case of an emergency and lugged survival equipment including wind- and water-proof matches and fire-starters, detailed topographical maps with heavy-duty compasses, two bear-proof canisters, an emergency heat blanket, enough plastic bags to waterproof every item we carried, and a first-aid kit and backcountry medical book that explained how to create improvised leg splits and avoid lightning strikes. Oh — and we even brought video iPods to watch episodes of Battlestar Galactica and How I Met Your Mother and four board games to deal with any boredom crises.
Yet, trips like this never go exactly as planned. Even before stepping one foot into the wilderness, we had devised a backup plan to avoid crossing the McKinley River a second time. Our “backup plan” required us to cross two-mile wide Muldrow Glacier and hike an extra 15 miles to avoid the river. Of course, after our harrowing river-crossing experience, our “backup plan” quickly became our primary plan.
On our third day, as we neared the base of Mount McKinley, we lost track of the old mountaineering trail we were following. Though we weren’t lost (my brother became an expert at taking bearings with a compass to triangulate our location on our maps), this did mean that we were forced to spend a full day hiking through dense thickets, at least quadrupling the time we required to hike a mile.
We were averaging fewer than seven miles per day, and it became clear that not only would we miss our return flights out of Anchorage, but even with our backup food supply, we would run out of food well before we escaped the park. In short, we weren’t going to make it.
During our fourth night, after a day enveloped in rain, our morale reached a low-point. Around this time, the constant rain showers prompted us to invent a game we lovingly called, “Wet or Cold?” (The game’s full title, “Just Wet, Just Cold, Both Wet and Cold, or Neither Wet nor Cold?” was too cumbersome.) This simple game required us to grab any piece of our clothing and guess in which of the four aforementioned categories the item fell. Honestly, this game is much harder than it sounds — we were often hard-pressed to decide whether a pair of socks was soaking wet or simply freezing cold.
During rounds of “Wet or Cold” that night, we realized that we had to come up with a plan escape the park alive. We decided to shave about 8 miles off our “backup” itinerary’s total distance by not hiking completely into the pass at the base of Mount McKinley, we planned a couple difficult shortcuts through mountain passes, and we committed to hiking at least 8 miles per day for the remainder of the trip.
We began our fifth day reenergized and began the long march required to avoid crossing the McKinley River a second time. We endured some difficult hiking, but on the morning of the seventh day, we awoke to a totally clear sky and a beautiful sun shining down upon us. Fewer than 8 miles remained in our journey, and the gorgeous weather seemed to be a sign from the heavens that we were close to success. Bathed in sunlight, we bounded across meadows, rocky river beds, and miles of marshes and bogs until we reached a towering ridge.
We ascended the ridge quickly, and in the blinding sunlight, we looked out onto an epic slab of glacial ice over two miles wide and 20 miles long, shaped by hundreds of peaks rising over 300 feet into the air and almost completely coated in perilous, softball-sized rocks. The only interruptions to the glacial terrain were sheer ice walls making a “direct” route across the glacier (over many towering peaks) impossible.
Looking out onto the brutal landscape, my brother muttered meekly, “We have to cross Mordor.” For the uninitiated, Mordor is the final, petrifying stretch of the epic journey to Mount Doom traveled by the characters in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. On a number of levels, the comparison was apt, and I admit now that my personal understanding of classic epic journey stories like The Odyssey, The Princess Bride, and The Lord of the Rings has deepened considerably.
And so, with terrified looks on our faces, we set out to cross Mordor. Trying to cross the glacier was like trying to navigate an enormous maze of sheer ice walls. For hours, we slogged across thousands of rocks and climbed over peaks searching for a viable path across. The ice walls often required us to take circuitous routes to our destination and scale peaks that looked impossible to climb until we were forced to try. Once, we followed a comparatively safe path for almost thirty minutes when suddenly, we were completely surrounded by unscalable walls of sheer ice. We were rats trapped in a maze, and we weren’t sure we would ever escape. Incredibly enough, we began wondering whether crossing the McKinley River again would have been easier than navigating the glacier.
We only had one choice, so we spent a half hour backtracking until we found another path to try. Of course, we could never be sure we were following the right path in the glacial maze — peaks constantly limited our visibility making it almost impossible to plan ahead.
Eventually, after seven hours of some of the hardest hiking I’ve ever done, we completed the two miles across the glacier (though our actual distance traveled was probably three times that due to the route we were forced to take). We knew we weren’t going to make it to the road that night. The instant we stepped off the glacier, we pitched our tent, cooked half of our last dinner (the other half we needed to save for breakfast the following morning), and fell asleep.
In the morning, we finished all of our remaining food (a bowl of soup and some granola bars) and set out to hike the final four miles to the park’s only road. As we began, I joked that the only fitting end to our trip would have been a montage of every obstacle (our “twelve trials”) we had faced during the trip. Sure enough, during those last four miles, we pushed through head-high underbrush, trudged across spongy “mystery mattress,” passed over hundreds of fresh bear tracks, and even crossed another braided river. Finally, we climbed 500 feet to the top of a ridge to reach the dirt road that returned us to civilization.
On the top of the ridge, a group of tourists spent over an hour watching us tackle that final stretch. When we reached them, they greeted us in awe and congratulated us with smiles. They had just finished a picnic, and gave us their leftovers: a feast of apples, Cliff Bars, dried mangos, trail mix, and beef jerky — just in time for lunch.