Denali Backpacking Part 1

Upon arriving in Denali National Park on June 14, we quickly arranged a backpacking trip to take place over the following three days, June 15- June 17.  The logistics of planning a trip in Denali were new to Matt and I for the simple reason that Denali is divided into backcountry zones.  There are 87 zones in Denali, and only so many people are allowed to be camping in each zone each night (approx. 6-8, but is depends on the size of the zone, animal density, etc.).  After much deliberation, we decided to hike in zones 32 and 31.  These zones would give us mountains we could climb with our packs, and tundra that was not too heavily wooded.

We started June 15th at 6 AM to break camp and meet the shuttle that would take us to our drop- off point.  Denali is also unique in that you have to take a shuttle to almost all destinations, and the park road is over 80 miles long (which takes the shuttles about 6 miles to transverse).  Our drop-off point was around mile 53, and it took about 3 hours to get there.

We arrived at our “trailhead” (there are few maintained trails in the park, so almost all hiking is self-navigated with a map and compass) at 10 AM and quickly set off down the east bank of the Toklat River.  The Toklat River is very wide with many branches, shallow in most places, but can get deep with snow and glacier runoff.
Matt walking on a snowbank left along the Toklat River.

Matt walking on a snowbank along the Toklat River.

Since the weather was in the high 80’s  and very sunny, we had been warned that the afternoons could get very tricky with river crossings.  We therefore started on the east side of the river with the intention of staying there.  However, we came to a dilemma not long after: cross a branch of the river, or start hiking through a dense forest.  We chose to venture the river since we had come prepared with water shoes.  We found that one crossing led to many more as the branches of the river intertwined.  At first it was nice and shallow – easy crossings.  But as time went on we found the channels getting deeper and quicker. (We actually took a video of one such crossing…coming soon!)
Crossing the river - it got waist high in some places!

Crossing the river – it got waist high in some places!

We realized we weren’t going to be able to keep following the river without risking a wipeout, so we ventured onto the tundra to continue our hike.  Our destination for the night was Cabin Peak, a 4,961 ft. tall mountain.  We quickly realized that hiking across the tundra was nothing like hiking in the lower 48.  First, the tundra is like a sponge, so it’s a bit like walking in soft snow that you sink in, and then have to lift your leg out to take the next step. In other words, it’s hard work.  The tundra also has many small trees and bushes growing across is, as well as many small streams.  Without a trail, it was important to find high points occasionally so that we could pick the best route.  So that was step one when we reached the tundra – find a small hill to climb, figure out what route to take with the least number of obstacles, and then do our best to follow that route as we went (there were always unexpected obstacles that you couldn’t see or plan for).  That worked pretty well.
Slowly but surely working my way up.

Slowly but surely working my way up.

We correctly identified Cabin Peak, found an appropriate ridge to start climbing it, and even saw a moose on the way up.  As we climbed the views of the surrounding areas got better and better.  There were so many beautiful peaks, rivers, and glaciers to look at.  We took lots of pictures. 🙂
Beginning our ascent into the mountains with the Toklat River in the background.

Beginning our ascent into the mountains with the Toklat River in the background.

We did tucker out before reaching the peak, and decided to make camp in a shallow basin mid-climb.
Our campsite on June 15th.

Our campsite on June 15th.

Allison sitting outside the tent, looking out over the scenery.

Allison sitting outside the tent, looking out over the scenery.

That brings us to sleeping in Alaska during the summer.  There really isn’t a complete darkness.  The sun doesn’t move directly above at mid-day.  Instead the sun circles around the sky, dipping below the horizon for just a few hours (which brings a twilight darkness, but never to the point where it is hard to see), and then coming back up again.  So camping really becomes difficult is you are accustomed to sleeping in darkness.  You have to fall asleep when it is light, and never really get a true darkness.  The other unfortunate circumstance was that Alaska was having a heat wave, and it was around 85 degrees out.  Too hot, especially when the breeze only came occasionally. Matt and I are still wondering why we brought warmer clothes, as even at night the temperature dips to the 60’s for just a few hours – nothing the sleeping bag can’t handle.  Anyway, we made it through the first night, Matt sleeping much better in the sunlight than I, and proceeded the next morning to finish the climb to Cabin Peak.
The ridge we are planning to walk.

The ridge we are planning to walk.

Walking the ridge.

Walking the ridge.

Matt on the ridge.

Matt on the ridge.

What a view!

What a view!

Consulting the map for the best route.  Mt. McKinley is the biggest, white peak on the right.

Consulting the map for the best route. Mt. McKinley is the biggest, white peak on the right.

Looking out to the surrounding mountains.

Looking out to the surrounding mountains.

Heading down the ridge from Cabin Peak.

Heading down the ridge from Cabin Peak.

The views were spectacular, and well worth the climb. Matt also celebrated his 24th birthday looking at the views!

Matt on a ridge below Cabin Peak.

Matt on a ridge below Cabin Peak.

(to be continued)
Published in: on June 17, 2013 at 11:40 pm  Comments (2)  

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2 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Excellent photos. Thanks for sharing the climb up Cabin Peak

  2. Nice! Thanks for pointing out Mt. McKinley…I wasn’t sure how close you would get to it on your trip.


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