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National Parks: Denali

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

With no official paths in all of Denali’s Vermont-size wild interior, finding your way is a whole new ball game.

» Don’t trust the map. Denali’s 1:63,000 quadrangles “have 100-foot contours, so it’s easy for the map to lie,” says Dan Oberlatz, owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures. (The 1:24,000 quads common in the Lower 48 have 40-foot intervals, thus revealing more detail.)

“What looks like a passable creek might be an incised canyon. Plus, the data can be extremely dated—most Alaska maps were made in 1950,” Oberlatz says. “I’ve seen glaciers retreat over a mile from their mapped location, leaving a 100-foot bedrock cliff where you used to be able to access the ice.” Always have a backup plan: Trace secondary route options wherever tundra and ice appear to meet. Also, brush levels have moved 200 to 500 feet higher since maps were made, so some areas that look like dry tundra on the topo are actually impassable bushwhacks.

» Stay out of the green. Assessing vegetation is critical, says Oberlatz. “If you’re between 2,500 and 3,000 feet on the map, you’ll be in the green,” mired in a pace-crushing tangle of alder, mixed spruce, dwarf birch, and over 20 species of willow. To stay in open tundra, loop in between river systems and follow ridgelines instead of dropping into creeks. Avoid south-facing slopes: That’s where the bush grows tallest.

» Go small. On open tundra, you may tick off 10 miles, but plan on an average of no more than six per day.

» Find the firn line. Crossing a glacier? Look for the firn line, near the toe of the glacier, where the old snow, melted and refrozen countless times, looks like wet sugar. “If we’re traveling up-slope of the firn line, where fresher snow can conceal crevasses, we have a rope,” Oberlatz says. “Below the firn line it’s safe to travel without one.”

» Hit the road. The park road bisects the entirety of Denali and always lies north of the units in this trip. If you get totally lost and off-route, find the nearest north-flowing river drainage and follow it until you hit pavement.

» Use the sun. If you lose your compass, look to the sky. In June and July, Alaska’s sun is due south at 2 p.m., due west at 8 p.m., and due east at 8 a.m.

» Add wiggle room. “When pressed for time, people make bad decisions,” says Oberlatz, who regularly takes miles-long detours to avoid swollen rivers. “It’s important to build in an extra day or two for Alaska’s inevitable uncertainties.”

1. Find a safe spot. Wide stretches (A) and washboard ripples (B) often indicate slower, shallower water. Beware of rivers above knee-height and signs of swift water, such as narrow channels (C), bends (D), and standing waves (E).

2. Unbuckle your pack’s hipbelt and sternum strap so if you’re swept off your feet, you can wriggle out and use it as a buoy. Wear boots sans socks or sandals.

3. Using poles for balance, sidestep across, facing upstream and crossing at a slightly upstream angle (so the current is less likely to knock you over).

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