From my journal on the Muldrow Glacier, where I took part in a National Park Service volunteer patrol. It's the 100th anniversary of the first ascent of the route and of the mountain.
An 8 hour journey to Wonder Lake from Talkeetna. Kris, the park Public Information officer, drove us from headquarters out the road. Saw caribou, 2 foxes, moose, ptarmigan. Some ponds still frozen amid the the brown tundra. Bus after bus of tourists--cameras and binoculars, park employees returning from whatever field errand, road workers standing at their shovels, conferring. Endless storytelling from David and Mark on their days rangering at Rainier, friendships, dramas, betrayals. A group of high school students met us for the walk to the river; we summoned random sentiments on mountain climbing, wilderness, challenge. They walked us a few miles to the McKinley river and waved goodbye as we crossed the first braid. Our anxiety faded some as the deepest channel proved only thigh-high. Beyond the river a moose antler marked a deep, overgrown trough of a trail through the tundra. Sphagnum, alder thickets, willow, a long slow climb to Turtle hill and an upland of tarns, views, heaven. Caribou here and there. Dozens of lichens woven together into a deep, spongey mat. Camped on bluff overlooking Clearwater Creek.
A wonderful day. Down to the creek and a cold, knee-deep ford. The trail disappeared into alders and petered out completely beside the creek. We walked over dense rafts of ice, through willows, sloshed through mud and slush. Endless streams, and the easiest travel proved to be right up the bed. David called out the big bear (and its smaller companion-a cub?), on a low hillside maybe a half-mile distant. They stood up and looked at us, then the biggest bear I've ever laid eyes on launched into a loping run across the slope, fur shining in big muscular waves of muscle and fat and skin. Power. Little bear followed. They disappeared into the thickets of the creek, and we walked on, calling and howling and grunting for the next few hours. Found the trail again climbing onto the parched tundra piedmont at the beginning of the canyon; white caribou stood out on the slopes above. The striking ley line of alders growing waist-high out of the 100-year-old tread, and the new tread scribing itself cheerfully beside. All day the feeling of moving toward another world, something bright and mineral and without life, and yet inextricably bound to the life of all things.
Rest day, rain, delicious coffee. Yesterday the canyon doglegged briefly before it delivered us to McGonagall Pass. The vast stream of the Muldrow before us, joined just down-valley by the Traleika in a tumult of black moraines and pressure ridges. Mt. Brooks and the Pyramids disappearing up into gray cloud. We rummage through the plywood boxes of our chache, deposited by the dogsled crew before the snows melted. Hundreds of pounds of supplies--Mark did the packing in an unheated shed in Talkeetna back in March. We made a bonfire from the wood and added our tennis shoes--burning bridges.
Shuttled gear to the glacier under clear skies, and picked the screws out of the ashes of the bonfire. Saddled up. Began at 11am. Horrible heartbreaking snow--the worst trailbreaking Mark has seen. Pulled the plug as the rain set in around 4pm, still far from the lower icefall. At least enough healthy rain to confirm our choice, and to remind me of home.
Rain and sleet and the terrible snow surface stalled us. What should be simple travel became a titanic struggle in the lightly crusted, isothermal snow. Much sleep, hot drinks, reading. Dark clouds poured over Gunsight Pass from the north. A slender crevasse ran through the edge of camp--the beginning of a constant concern.
Set out around midnight. Horrendous breakable crust at first--almost worse than before: a 3cm hard curst over soup. Mark broke the first stretch of trail, and Chandra fell into her shoulders once. Then we entered an ugly, dangerous gauntlet, the deep trough on the right side of the glacier. The steep mountain wall above rotted down toward the glacier in an endless series of gullies, each sporting a fan of sun-worn avalanche debris peppered with rock. These met the broken edge of the glacier, gray ice graffitied black with rock dust, cracks thinly hidden everywhere. Big seracs hung up on the wall as well, adding to the mood. A mix of labyrinth and roulette. Hours of brutish side-hill hauling, fighting the sleds through chunder and falling in holes. Finally broke out onto a surprisingly smooth portion of glacier. Camped in a compression a few hundred meters below the great icefall.
Started at 1am, single carried to the puzzle of the icefall. I went with Dave and Mark to check out the solution that Mark recalled from 19 years ago; a perfect slot canyon wound up through the seracs and the brilliant sunrise, delivering us from the Great Icefall. Then a torturous long, slow haul toward the end of the Muldrow below Karstens Ridge. The Harper pours down over a cliff disquietingly close to camp--the tongue of icefall ends in a 200m vertical face of blue-green ice, with a free fall just as long to reach the flats of the Muldrow.
The sun won't quit. Lazy morning, then I broke trail through serac walls to a big flat schrund lip and finally a 20m 55ª face to gain the ridge; dumped gear. Descended, packed up camp, and carried back to the ridge and past our depot, all the way to a stunning camp on the ridge at 12,200.' Built camp, then went back to retrieve the depot. A nice way to break up the day. Never have I had quite such a spectacular campsite:the savage ice torrents of the Traleika Glacier, Mts Silverthrone and Brooks, Mather, Carpe, the Trypyramids and Koven to the east. Silverthrone looks like a great ski peak. Hungry all the time, and thirsty.
After two days of carrying and preparing the ridge and our campsite above, we moved for the Browne Tower camp. Incredibly warm weather--all day we listened to a waterfall on Treleika side and the rattle of rockfall in a 4,000' couloir on Pioneer Ridge. After a rest in the tents, we reemerged to build walls against the winds that funnel down from Denali Pass. The pace has been relentless, but we all know we are racing the summer monsoon; the summer storms can dump feet and feet of snow, and the upper Harper is nowhere to get pinned down.
7 hour plod to 16,500'. Fell into my waist a few times out in front, appalled at the horrible bridges I was crossing. A punishingly slow pace. Found a flat and protected camp at the toe of a granite buttress at the north edge of the glacier, a moat lip that required relatively little improvement.
Solstice. Lenticular clouds stacked on the summit, steady winds. Making my way through The Fountainhead, so far unconvinced.
8 hours over Denali Pass, where we abandoned our sleds to be retrieved another day. After 17 days, people again. Down the Autobahn to relieve Chris and his patrol, a brief exchange of stories, then installed ourselves in the station: a tent you can stand up in, oxygen tanks, a Gamow bag, a village of snow walls and orange pee stains in the snow. Unequivocally we have left the wilderness--we've left the history of Denali to join its present on the West Buttress.