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National Parks: Denali

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

After the bears amble on, we tackle a broad valley that dead-ends at 8,828-foot Scott Peak. And for whatever reason—learning from the previous day’s hardships, perhaps, or inspired by today’s blessings—I can see a marked change in the way Elissa and Jeff hike. I hang back to watch them smiling and laughing as they boulder-hop and pick the best path like off-trail veterans.

I enjoy the transformation so much that I’m the one who loses focus and makes a rookie mistake. I misread the map and miss a key turnoff. Instead of backtracking, though, we tackle a near-vertical, 400-foot climb up a spiky, willow-covered slope. The ascent is twice as hard as Anderson Pass, but Jeff summons a hidden inner Viesturs to crush the slope. Elissa sweats, panics, and curses—but makes it.

The reward comes two miles later: We top out on 4,724-foot Contact Pass in time to see the burly, 10,000-foot spurs of Mt. Mather, Mt. Brooks, Wedge Peak, Mt. Tatum, and Ragged Peak turning peach with 9 p.m. alpenglow. A troop of dall sheep pauses against the 30-degree tundra slope before making a beeline straight downhill toward our final camp, gliding in 10 minutes across terrain that takes us two hours to descend.

As we approach the end of our journey the next day, I’m confident that Elissa and Jeff have met Denali’s challenge. That’s when we encounter the Thorofare River. Swollen with fresh glacier-melt, the 10-foot crossing blocks our path out. We huddle together in stinging sleet and prepare for this final obstacle. We unbuckle hipbelts, lock arms in practiced tripod formation, and step into the current. My first step sinks to ankle level, while the second plunges to mid-thigh. The next step dunks my crotch. Yikes. Fourth step: We’re waist-deep, and Elissa slips. With a plunk she drops, and the river tugs her like a tractor.

“Pull!” Jeff shouts, yanking on her armpits. She kicks twice, and then our knees strike rock, tipping us onto the bank. The three of us flop on dolphin-gray silt, sweaty from the waist up and frozen from the waist down. A good minute of heaving passes, and then Elissa and Jeff roll over and smile. Elissa rasps a single word: “badass.”

I’m not sure if she means Denali, our trip, or us. Maybe all three.

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