Welcome to the Big Leagues –
A Solo Backpacker’s Journey into the Denali Wilderness
I just got out of the military and wanted to travel before using my GI Bill for school. Alaska was at the top of the list. In between an itinerary of kayaking in Glacier Bay, rafting in the Arctic, and climbing in the St. Elias range, I had a week all to myself and knew just how I wanted to spend it – Denali National Park. Trail-less and huge (at six million acres of wilderness), an opportunity for an extended backcountry trip in Denali makes one feel as if they’ve been called up to the Big Leagues of life list backpacking.
With a few ideas from my seven-year subscription to Backpacker Magazine that I’d been compiling, I went to the permit office. The helpful rangers and I hashed out a 30-mile traverse from the Toklat River to Eielson Visitor Center thru Units 8, 9, 12 and 13. I’d conservatively given myself six days and a high/low route option just in case the recent deluge of rain and snow made things too sketchy.
I was a little nervous going solo, but not overly so. I fancied myself experienced: an Eagle Scout with a BSA “50 Mile Afoot” award and 15 years of backpacking experience, the most recent of which was in the rugged Pacific Northwest where I aggressively pursued mountain climbing and backpacking in Olympic and North Cascades National Parks, much of it solo. I was mostly worried about bears. The only hiker to be killed by a bear in Denali’s history was also solo. My resume hasn’t included much time in grizzly country, save the few weeks I was already in Alaska. But armed with my can of bear spray and the tips from the mandatory safety video I pushed my concerns to the back of my mind.
On the Camper Bus on the way in I met lots of nice folks. Crystal and Josh from Bend, OR were headed to Wonder Lake. A California couple comprised of an avid hunter and wildlife biologist was skilled at finding moose and caribou in the distance. Three guys got off right before me in Unit 8. I was certain my busmates must have felt that I was a badass when the driver stopped at Unit 9 and I was the only one to get off. My pride quickly faded as the bus drove away and I was left all alone to plunge into a willow thicket and start yelling for bears; Denali’s first lesson in humility. Yelling “Hey Bear!” quickly became unnerving. I employed a series of fun yells and yodels, as if I could ignore the reason I had to make all the noise in the first place.
My first day was fairly benign. The sunny weather helped take the chill off my first fording experience. Drinking water that wasn’t loaded with glacial silt was harder to find than I expected, I made the mental note to tank up whenever I came across a clear stream. The icebergs swirling and crashing about in McBride Inlet in Glacier Bay made for the most interesting campsite of my life, but the spot I found for my first night in Denali was the most epic. A wide gravel bar holding the braided Toklat River. Plush, verdant tundra pockmarked with bomb-like craters where grizzlies went digging for ground squirrels. The multiple hues of orange, red-brown, tan, and black rock and scree of the low alpine. And the spiny, snow and ice encrusted hulks of some lesser Alaskan Range peaks.
Day two included my first mountain passes. I climbed a small steep gully that still held snow in the bottom. I could see day old grizzly tracks in the snow, the gouges from the claws still plainly visible. I was impressed with the grizzly’s climbing ability - he picked a good line thru the 5000 foot pass. But he was headed down and I was headed up.
|Griz tracks in the snow|
At the top I immediately realized the high route was a no-go and I had underestimated the effects of the wet weather. The recent dump of snow at these heights completely covered the north-facing slopes and large, fresh avalanches were readily apparent. I headed a little down valley to try a second, lower pass. I couldn’t totally avoid all north aspects, but I found a path with streaks of scree as “ribbons of safety” that broke up the snow slope. Or so I thought. The scree was saturated with melt, the rocks hiding a boot sucking mud that proved as slippery as snow and twice as hard to traverse. I am still dumbfounded how such mud could adhere to a 35-40 degree slope.
The last bit of snow right before the pass could not be avoided. As I stepped out into it I became quite concerned about its stability and decided to forgo the traverse. I glissaded down the edge of the snowfield, losing hard earned elevation but acknowledging I made the right decision when I had to stop the glissade every ten seconds to let the mini avalanches I was riding continue past me. I safely regained the lower pass, descended into Unit 10, and set up camp.
My third day began with a meeting of a large caribou herd shortly after leaving camp. I sat down and we watched each other just across the river for 15 minutes before they gave up their curiosity and walked on. In leaving, they showed me an optimal spot for crossing – my knees and a caribou’s knees seem to be about the same height.
|Caribou across the river|
There was a good bit of fording back and forth due to cutbanks. Without the caribou to help, I was forced to improvise. Because I couldn’t see the bottom with all the silt in the churning water, I would repeatedly bomb a potential crossing with rocks, listening for a “kachink” that indicated the rock struck bottom or the “kaploosh” that foretold greater depth. Once I found my place, I would strip off my pants– no sense getting them wet, modesty be dammed – and step barefoot into old sneakers pressed into wading duty. In the water I learned that I could handle the current provided it didn’t rise above the second camlock on my trekking pole. More than once I would plant the pole but then step into an unseen deep hole nearby, sinking to my waist as the surging water threated to knock me down. I would emerge from the frigid water with red, stinging, wooden legs and shoes filled with rocks and sand. I’d put on my pants and boots and continue on my new side until the next cutbank would force me to repeat the whole ordeal.
|Ready for fording|
I wanted to camp at the mouth of the drainage with the lowest and most straightforward pass into Unit 12. When I rounded the bend I was greeted by an 80-foot waterfall, part of the trouble of using 63K topo maps with 100-foot contour lines. Utterly blocked, I backtracked to my second choice drainage/pass and found a great campsite on a tundra bench above the stream.
Day four in Denali turned into what was likely the most trying day of my life. The idea was to the ascend the cirque and find the easiest and safest path up the north slope to the ridgeline. The ridge, swept by wind and sun, was practically snow free based on my observations from below. I’d continue west along ridge to my desired pass and then descend into Unit 12. And for the most part that’s how it worked out – I left camp in a drizzle, boulder hopped up the streambed to the cirque, found a strip of scree and stable snow and gained the ridgeline. But the drizzle quickly and suddenly worsened up high as I progressed along the ridge. I found myself in a full on shitstorm - snow and sleet blown by wind gusting to 30mph and visibility dropping fast. I faced a three-way dilemma:
a) Backtrack along the ridge and/or drop down to the right and return from whence I came. I wasn’t at all confident of finding a safe strip of scree to descend the north-facing slope in the whiteout and the avalanche activity on north aspects over the past few days had me genuinely concerned with the rapidly falling new snow.
b) Drop down the ridge to the left on a south-facing slope. Until I reached the pass, the south slopes were steep and the possibility of getting cliffed out existed. Plus, if I didn’t travel far enough along the ridge, all the slopes on the left led into the same drainage that was blocked by the huge waterfall the previous day, so I’d end up stuck in the valley.
c) Continue along the ridge. In the declining visibility I could use the ridge as a handrail, never getting lost, avoiding avalanches, and knowing that once I reached the pass I could descend a safer south slope and enter a drainage that I knew was passable per the rangers.
I choose to press on along the ridge, but it was not without extreme difficulty. The sloppy wet scree again. And in the few places that weren’t snow free there were deep drifts with new slushy stuff on top. I’d place my boot gingerly to pack down a step, allow it a moment to freeze, and then weight it. Most of the time that worked; when it didn’t I found myself wallowing crotch deep in the drift and I had to flop around and dig myself out and up. My boots filled with snow.
The snow patches also presented a visibility problem. I’d get disoriented in the whiteout, ground and sky indistinguishable. I poked my way forward with trekking poles like a blind man. Plant, plant, step, step. Plant, plant, step, step. Plant, plant…AIR! I’m too far right, too close to the crest of the ridge! Adjust course left and continue. Twice I cliffed out on the ridge. Those damn 100-foot contours again. The ridge was the most gradual feature on the topo and I still encountered gendarmes and steep outcrops. It was a loose scramble up and over with the wind threatening my balance.
My GPS died and my cold numb hands fumbled with the battery swap. The light layer I had on underneath my shell seemed fine when I left camp but it was now wet from precipitation and sweat from exertion and the building fear in my gut. “This is how people die out here,” I thought to myself. It was sobering and saddening to think I could actually perish on the ridge in the declining weather if I didn’t make the right decisions. I thought about using my emergency beacon, but it wouldn’t do any good to send a helicopter in the storm. I thought about home, but I forgot to pack my “Dorothy Approved” magic red slippers. I cussed and swore at the storm, but it did no good. The frustration brought me the closest to crying I’ve ever been in recent memory. But whining and wishing wouldn’t get me off that ridge. Only I could do that for myself. I switched to positive thoughts focusing on my fitness and my resolve. “I’m still fresh, I can keep going. Moving keeps me warm. I could find a place to bivy if I had to. I’m not out of the fight ‘till I’m dead."
I eventually made my pass and descended the drainage with zeal. My only worry now was an impassable waterfall. The canyon narrowed. There was no choice but to slop through the water but my boots were soaked anyway. I soon found myself peering over the edge of a 20-foot waterfall! I was able to carefully scramble around on loose rock and scree. After that, I was home free; I descended the drainage until I came to the first suitable campsite. Weary and wet, I set up the tent, stripped my sopping layers, and crawled into my sleeping bag to warm up. Dinner could wait.
In camp that night, sleep was fitful despite my exhaustion. I kept questioning if I made the right decisions. Did I continue out of a stupid sense of duty to my permitted itinerary? I’d like to think not but the thought of turning around is seldom appealing. I ruled out “summit fever” of some type. I could not have cared less about passing up and over Green Dome at 6400 feet, the highest point on the ridge. It was simply an obstacle to be surmounted on the way to my safe passage down. Ultimately I concluded, in a twisted sense of irony, that despite the challenges of the ridge it just felt safer and more certain than the alternatives; the shortest and most straightforward way to safety was up and over, through the teeth of the storm. I reminded myself that I was in my tent, warm and dry in my sleeping bag, safe from the ravages of wind and wet, so I must have done something right.
Denali wasn’t done with me yet. Unbeknownst, the previous day’s precipitation had swollen Sunrise Creek, the larger drainage I would have to descend on my fifth day. It was a raging, frothing torrent of silt-laden whitewater. I could hear rocks bouncing along the bottom of the creek – it sounded like a bowling alley on league night. I knew that conditions like that mean that the water isn’t safe to cross. But what were my options? Even if I wanted to call my trip right then and there and head out, my only options would be to either descend Sunrise Creek and reach the park road in four miles or backtrack up and over the same passes from the day before, now laden with new snow, and reach the road in about ten miles.
Sunrise Creek pinballed back and forth against cliff faces repeatedly over the next mile. I couldn’t pick a side and stay along it for longer than 120 yards or so. I entered what I called “super fording mode,” stripping below the waist and refusing to swap from soggy wading shoes into pants and boots, or even to dump the pebbles from my shoes to save on the transition time. I ended up crossing the dangerous, icy waters 15 times.
|The "mellow" end of Sunrise Creek looking back up the canyon.|
At the end of Sunrise Creek things leveled out into a wide gravel bar. I didn’t know it from pre-trip planning, but I could actually see Eielson Visitor Center and the road off in the distance, high on a ridge overlooking the valley I was in. I stopped to contemplate the scene. Denali National Park had proven quite challenging. I came expecting the wildlife to be the biggest obstacle to my safety; I completely underestimated the terrain itself. I was awed by the raw power of nature – of biting storms and gushing streams. Here I was, a hotshot Lower 48 backpacker, and I felt as if Denali and Alaska were handing me my ass. To continue in the backcountry after the trials I had endured thus far, when “civilization” was visible a few miles away, seemed contrived and foolhardy.
I sat for a long time. I was tired and challenged, but not beaten. I had made acceptable decisions thus far and came about 20 miles through rough country. The sun came out for a moment. I warmed up and dried off. I ate a snack. I had another day’s worth of food and reading material, per the original plan. I stood up, shouldered my back, and continued into the backcountry.
I’m glad I did. The Contact Creek to Wolverine Creek pass was the lowest and easiest yet and the views from the top were the best of the trip. Wolverine Creek was a joy to descend, the clear waters flowing through a wide drainage, no serious cutbanks, and nothing that couldn’t be forded with a little dry rock hopping. I relished the final night of solitude before returning to the masses along the Park Road and looked forward to my final night at Wonder Lake, hoping the clouds would break and I could glimpse The Mountain.
In the morning on Day Six I followed a game trail descending Glacier Creek. The mosquitos swarmed so sudden and so intense that I flew into a mild flailing panic breaking out my headnet and repellant. I squished the few that had been captured inside my headnet into my beard, the coppery scent of my blood mixing with the smell of DEET. I soon spotted the park road and the Visitor Center once more, setting off on a beeline across the well braided, knee-deep Thorofare River and up the steep slopes beyond.
Once I got off the bus and sunk the road behind me, I saw no one for five full days – my longest time alone to date. The first person I saw at the Eielson Visitor Center didn’t see quite the same Matt Kearns that walked south from the Toklat River Bridge. The smears of dried mud, wet boots, and tired shuffle only alluded to the full story: that this trip was the biggest challenge and the pinnacle of adventure in my life so far. I had 30 miles of Denali’s best backcountry to myself for nearly a week. I developed a deeper respect for all wilderness, and the humble confidence knowing that I could make it in the Big Leagues.
|Sunset on Denali from Wonder Lake|