I hadn’t planned to get my younger brother and sister killed. But while stuck crotch-deep in the roiling chocolate milk of Denali’s Thorofare River, it seemed a distinct possibility. We found the shallowest spot for miles and grimaced as 40°F water crept up our thighs, grapefruit-size rocks pelted our ankles, and the current sucked at our overstuffed packs. Then my sister stumbled, our locked elbows skimmed the surface, and one clear thought raced through my mind: If we don’t die, our mom is going to kill me.
As every student of wilderness knows, Denali’s rewards—raw Alaska, awe-inspiring wildlife, soul-quieting solitude—are commensurate with the challenges. The bears are as big and fast as Fiats. The peaks are the continent’s highest and coldest. The glacier-ravaged terrain is treacherous. The trails: nonexistent. All of which can make the park’s hallowed backcountry seem as intimidating as it is alluring. But does that make it experts-only? How much experience do you really need? Obviously, beginners shouldn’t tackle Denali alone, but can average hikers rise to the challenge? I planned to prove they could, and I would do it by leading my little brother and sister deep into the heart of the park. But as we teeter in frigid Sunset Creek, I’m thinking Bonnaroo tickets would have been a much better idea.
Like most Denali visits, our adventure begins on the park’s iconic green and white buses, where we cram into rows of sticky vinyl seats. These land whales trundle along the 92-mile park road, the only significant human mark across a Vermont-size swath of tundra, spruce-dense taiga, and moonscape of rock and ice. The buses transport an odd mix of souvenir-sweatshirt-clad tourists and nervous backpackers about to walk into a private slice of the Last Frontier.
Elissa, Jeff, and I—with varying degrees of anxiety—are among the latter. While I chase empty spots on the map and go weeks without shampoo, years of urban living have dulled my siblings’ wild edges. Jeff, 24 and seven years my junior, is the youngest. He’s a Denver recording engineer and drummer, only truly focused when beating the skins in a flurry of octopus limbs. Middle-child Elissa, 28, has honed her honeyed voice into a career as an opera singer in Boston (diva side effects like hotheadedness, impatience, and lack of pity for fools included). Bound by merciless humor, we’ve always felt able to take on the world together and turn it into a big party. After going our own ways as adults in recent years, I hoped we could rekindle that party in Denali. us backpackers about to walk into a private slice of the Last Frontier.
We’d snagged permits to units 13, 18, 23, and 12, a clutch of adjacent zones four hours from the entrance on the park’s north side. Clustered near Mt. Eielson, these units connect river drainages that offer bountiful terrain to wander in, plus the opportunity to adjust itineraries as weather and conditions dictate (flexibility is a key to traveling safely in Denali). Our plan: We’ll follow Glacier Creek, a 11-mile braided river bordering the Muldrow Glacier, picking our way to the crest of Anderson Pass, the only nontechnical notch to drill into the core of the Alaska Range. At the top, we’ll gape at a black-granite Valhalla draped in Crest-blue ice. En route, we’ll cross trackless tundra benches and see glaciers the size of entire Lower 48 counties. In short, I’ve devised a crown-jewel route—pointedly ignoring my siblings’ inexperience—that promises high adventure (or shared misery). As their big brother, it’s practically my duty. Plus, I have a theory to prove.