On the ride out, the morning sun shines down brilliantly. According to Becky, who lives in nearby Cantwell, it’s been raining all summer—typical for Denali. But the forecast for the next five days is sunny with a chance of sunnier. Out the bus window, the Teklanika River rolls by, followed by the sweeping, red- and yellow-painted Plains of Murie. We disembark as planned, at the East Fork of the Toklat. Gold light spills over the rocks as my friends and I angle toward an arrow of raised tundra. Wolf tracks the size of my palm fan away in all directions.
At the end of the first day, it all seems too good to be true. It is. Over breakfast on day two, Kevyn reveals angry blisters on both of her heels. Though she’s the only one of us who continued her career as a ranger, she does “bear patrols” in Lake Clark National Park. Her patrol area is tiny, which means she doesn’t actually hike much. And she made a classic mistake common to backpackers who are experienced but, um, out of practice. She’s hiking in boots she hasn’t used in years—about 15, to be precise.
But Kevyn pushes on (“I don’t want to be the crybaby in your story,” she says), and we hike up the East Fork to a small drainage that curves toward the unnamed, headwalled entrance to our promised land—Refuge Valley. In the distance, the sun gleams off of snow-covered summits.
A few hours later, we find ourselves boxed into a draw by a 20-foot-high, gushing waterfall. I’ve never seen a cascade like this in Denali, and the sight makes me want to tear off my clothes and take a wilderness shower. But I’m diverted by Kevyn’s blisters, which have progressed from painful nuisance to first-aid crisis. “Well what did you expect?” Becky says half-jokingly. “You knew we were going to be hiking!” Which makes Kevyn’s premonition come true. As Becky charges ahead, Kevyn drops farther and farther behind. I turn around, and see my brown-eyed friend crumpled on the tundra, crying.
It’s a rough moment, but it reminds us of a truth we once knew but had somehow forgotten: No one, not even a ranger, is immune to Denali’s uniquely punishing conditions. I recall a time when I nearly drowned when I was swept away while crossing the melt-swollen McKinley River, the result of inexperience and over-ambition. So instead of guilting Kevyn into hiking through her pain, like some “friends” might do when they think everything is riding on one trip, we stop for the night, fluff our sleeping bags atop the memory-foam tundra, and sleep beneath bright green, buzzing northern lights.