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National Parks: Denali

Denali isn’t just for experts. These guinea pigs will prove it. Probably.

Jeff and Elissa battle howling gusts as they hastily pitch the tent. Exhausted and chilled, we climb inside, lie on our backs, and stare up at the skewed fly and bent poles. I search for words of encouragement while heavy rain bullets the nylon.

“Rangers say the average pace in Denali is about seven miles a day. We did 8.1 on our first day!” Elissa wordlessly rolls over, tightening her mummy bag over a face obscured by matted chestnut hair. “Pass the whiskey,” Jeff says. We fall asleep without even making dinner.

Jeff’s still snoring, and Elissa’s bag is empty. I hope she hasn’t decided to turn back or toss herself in the river. Stepping out into mist, I spy Elissa by the water, staring at the Muldrow Glacier. As I approach, she motions for quiet and points to a black-and-tan blur scooting down the moraine.

“A wolverine,” she says almost inaudibly. “Awesome.” Yesterday’s foot-chewing terrain could’ve been a deal breaker, but here’s the diva in Denali, adapting instead of retreating. (Later, I see on the memory card that she’d even been taking vanity self-portraits down by the river.)

While snarfing the salmon fettuccine intended for the previous night, we decide that rather than trade our semi-protected, water-rich camp for a dry, windswept one atop Anderson Pass, we’ll dayhike the 1,600-foot climb up-valley. (Tip: Don’t be intimidated by Denali, but do be respectful.)

Moisture-heavy clouds condense into a thick froth that steadily creeps down nearby crags. As we hike through alternating periods of sweat and mizzle, I keep preaching the virtues of layering. “Whatever, nerdlinger,” Jeff says, hiking ahead at a quick clip. I catch up to them while they’re stripping off dripping midlayers, but refrain from any more big-bro advice.

We slow considerably on the climb toward Anderson Pass. Fresh erratics scrape our shins, and piles of rock stay stable for one footstep and crumple like broken plates under the next, sending us on regular slides for home plate. The pass lies less than a mile away, but it’s only visible for short seconds when the clouds part. I can sense morale dropping with the temperature. After we negotiate a dicey scramble past a dirty crevasse with a class IV river at the bottom, Elissa stops dead in her tracks.

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