Thursday, March 22, 2018

Overnight in Denali

Typically I love roadtripping, but I retain a stubborn amnesia about driving in Alaska during the winter — the frost-heaved pavement, rutted ice, endless winding two-lane highways, aggressive trucks barreling up from behind, slush spray and grit coating the windows, snow, blowing snow, more snow. Planning my post-race time in Alaska as a road trip felt like a mistake, especially as I headed north from Talkeetna. Drizzling rain turned into another heavy spring blizzard, with thick flakes accumulating on the road at a noticeable rate. Driving involved many tedious hours of squinting into a whiteout at 30mph and skidding to a precarious stop to let trucks go by. By the time I reached Cantwell, I was frazzled to my limit. I know this holds true for most people, but stress seems to heavily exacerbate my physical issues. My heart was pounding and my legs were burning, even after a couple of days of no hiking. I wished I could just quit. 

But the guy at the Cantwell gas station reminded me of something I'd also forgotten — the Denali National Park entrance was only about 20 miles farther down the road. I crept back onto the Parks Highway, and within three miles the snowstorm began to abate. Ten miles later, the pavement was dry and sunlight was burning through thinning clouds. Alaska is a huge state where one need not travel far to see rapid change.

Since the weather was suddenly nice, I continued out the park road to the day-use area where winter maintenance ends, about 10 miles past the visitors center. The day's driving had taken so much out of me. I was really left with no choice but to unwind by going for a hike.

The Savage Alpine Trail was only broken for 0.75 miles, so I strapped on the snowshoes and continued on the crusted, thin snowpack up a gentle slope. Meadow slogging, with some incredible mountain views.

Denali is a vast place. Photos can't depict the expansiveness of the landscape — the sprawling glacial valleys dotted with scrub spruce and alder, the bald slopes and jagged peaks rippling toward a 20,000-foot giant that 300 days a year is hidden behind fearsome weather, the depth of silence on a windless March afternoon. It was truly windless — something I'd long imagined was impossible in this region. The temperature was in the low 20s. As evening light saturated the valley, I felt comfortable enough to lie down on the snow crust and elevate my legs as I watched golden clouds stream across the sky. Where the clouds flew, it was windy. Down here, it was heaven. 

Driving back down the park road at sunset. It was after 8 p.m. Just a few days before the equinox, daylight was rapidly expanding at a rate of six minutes per day. Broad sun angles also add a good two hours of civil twilight, meaning days are already 14 hours long. Temperatures might hit 25 below or lower in the White Mountains 100 next week, but it's not winter anymore.

I decided to spend the night car-camping at the Riley Creek campground. It was awesome. Skies were mostly cloudy, but there were occasional glimmers of green from the aurora through wispy breaks. The night was so warm that I used my sleeping bag as a blanket, and emitted enough body heat into the car to keep my water jugs and vegetables unfrozen. It was amusing to see how quickly ice formed in one jug when I hauled it outside to have breakfast on the picnic table at 10 degrees. It was still warm enough that I only needed my small puffy.

In the morning, I set out for a favorite hike to the Mount Healy overlook. My post-race emotional funk had largely faded, but there remained a state of feeling much more calm and content when I was on the move — under my own power, at least — rather than sitting still. I thought my leg muscles were finally starting to heal. As it turned out, this was delusion, but this overnight trip to Denali was a single point where everything clicked — joyful, energetic, pain-free, no longer needlessly fretting about Beat, optimistic about my own upcoming adventures, and enjoying beautiful views in a relaxed state thanks to astonishingly perfect weather with hat-free warmth and no wind.

It was incredible while it lasted. It never lasts, but I suppose this is the reality that adds priceless value to the best moments. 


  1. Wow! Thanks for sharing. As some backpacking friends would say, "no bugs!".

  2. I Love Denali in the early "spring". We were there last year around this time, skiing, weather was in the 40's. Absolutely beautiful.


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