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Crystal Creek Basin (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Descending to the Thorofare River (Photo by Elissa Alvarez)
Cozy camp in a sheltered spot (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
Crossing the Thorofare River (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
View from 4,724-foot Contact Pass (Photo by Ted Alvarez)
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.
From Grassy Pass, two miles past the Eielson Visitor Center, we drop into a steep drainage choked with head-high dwarf birch. At the bottom, dry grasses crunch like ramen and leave thatched imprints in slatelike mud. Our first big ford, across a knee-deep braid of the Thorofare River, chills our toes and ankles but doesn’t slow us. Our feet rewarm as we pad across the tundra beyond. The turf bounces underfoot like a Serta. In the distance, clouds hood the upper third of the most imposing peaks, but that doesn’t tame Denali’s infectious vastness: I can see it pulling my siblings forward like a magnet. So far, so good.
“This is the closest I’ve been to another planet,” Elissa says. Denali really is a world apart. Clawed prints trail hoofed prints. Delicately colored flowers fold in against the cold. Stray jawbones lie strewn here and there.
It’s early September, during the two-week window for fall, when the hillocks break out in a crimson rash. Most of the red bushes hold fistfuls of blueberries, dimpled and sweetened just shy of fermenting. Summer hikers can keep their mosquitoes: Without question, this is the finest time of year to be here.
But the initial honeymoon period—at least for Elissa—ends after just 2.4 miles. A blonde mother grizzly and her coffee-colored cub descend into our intended path, lazily feasting on the same berries. They’re still too far away to inspire real panic, but the sight sends Elissa and Jeff on a bug-eyed charge up a 40-degree slope to avoid them. They “escape” the close encounter, but 100 yards ahead I see Elissa lie down. When I reach her five minutes later, she’s actually asleep with her pack on. Divas need their beauty rest. I just didn’t expect it to happen in a blueberry patch 2.5 miles in.
I give her a few more minutes to recover, and then lead the way down 300 feet of steep talus into Glacier Creek’s quarter-mile-wide alluvial basin, bordered on one side by steep rock and on the other by the overgrown golf-course hills of the Muldrow Glacier. In between: a minefield of silty babyheads riven by veins running fast with 38°F glacial melt.
“How much more of this crap do we have?” Elissa asks. “My feet will never be warm again.” Jeff dumps a cup and a half of gravel from his water shoe and struggles to clean his fogged glasses.
“Camp is just a mile ahead,” I say, lying shamefully. False optimism might fuel them. We avoid an all-out family feud by hiking 50 feet apart, and 1.4 miles and five stream crossings later, Glacier Creek narrows into a single noisy channel. I look behind us to see the flat gray wall of a storm erasing the horizon, and ahead see a clear-running stream on the left. This will do. Just in time to stave off mutiny.
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.
“I know that in your head you’re already writing about this expanse of ‘mind-blowing awesometude,’” she says, employing air quotes. “But we’ve had nothing but rocks for like nine hours. What’s the point?” Now I’m demoralized. To me, Anderson Pass is where we succeed, where we nab an invisible trophy proving that we’re Denali-worthy backpackers. It’s where we stand arm-in-arm under the towering black walls of the Alaska Range and kick the party into high gear, just like we used to. “The point?” I say, turning red. I turn to Jeff, exasperated.
“Let it go,” he says.
My little brother is right, of course. Doggedly pursuing a fixed spot on the topo is what gets people in trouble—especially in Denali. Go as far and high as conditions and spirits allow, and keep in mind that Denali’s deepest rewards begin the second you walk away from the road. Experienced hikers know when to turn around, and I silently thank Elissa for reminding me of it. Our apex comes at 5,000 feet, on the muddy-sock edge of a nameless glacier just shy of Anderson Pass, where the clouds part long enough for us to go slack-jawed at a view of the upper Muldrow S-curving its way up the shoulder of Mt. McKinley. We laugh and snap photos, and no one complains when rain pelts our hoods on the descent.
The gift-shop postcards allege that Denali gets one day of sun for every two of clouds. The ratio proves true for us, and on day three we spend a T-shirt-weather morning gaping at sky-high, glacier-crusted peaks. Our route today: Travel seven miles to Contact Pass posthaste, so we can see those peaks at eye-level before the sun sets. Warm sunlight bathes our happy little valley, making the day’s chilly creek crossings bearable.
Then, another gift: Mt. McKinley wallops us like a physical assault on our eyes. The 20,320-foot peak fills our entire field of vision with its upside-down-ice-cream-cone bulk. On a clear day, North America’s highpoint owns the horizon like no other peak I’ve ever seen.
Only one thing can distract us from the view of McKinley: bears. A large brown rock atop the Muldrow Glacier squirms, stands, and sniffs the air. Two smaller blonde rocks crest the hill, 50 yards away. After spotting us, the griz and her two yearlings roll on the yellowing tundra like puppies, just feet above a tight canyon that is our way out of the Glacier Creek drainage. For 30 minutes we wait, with nothing but air and false confidence between us and North America’s second-largest carnivore. But unlike with our bear sighting on the first day, Elissa and Jeff take this encounter in stride, patiently watching the bruins like old pros, rather than bolting away.
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.
Do it From Grassy Pass (1), bushwhack to a ford of the Thorofare River (depth varies with weather and season) at mile .4 (2). Reach Glacier Creek and head 1.1 miles south to a canyon (3) in the Muldrow Glacier. Climb 150 feet southeast to a tundra bench adjoining Mt. Eielson (4). Weave through blueberry patches for two miles, then drop to cross Intermittent (5) and Crystal Creeks (clear-water streams: tank up), then ford calf-deep Glacier Creek above its confluence with Crystal Creek at mile 4.8 (6). Hug the gravel pathways next to the Muldrow until the streambed widens into a braided gravel bar at mile 6.6 (7); expect multiple crossings over the next 2.6 miles. Scout for a flat campsite near a tumbling creek at mile 8.1 (8). Dayhike on day two 5.7 miles (one-way) to Anderson Pass (9). Next day, follow Glacier Creek north to Crystal Creek at mile 22.4 (10); follow it about a mile until Wolverine Creek veers left of a tundra bench (11). Next up: a 3.3-mile, 1,174-foot climb to 4,724-foot Contact Pass (12). Then drop a steep mile along Contact Creek to campable ground (13). On your final day, follow the Thorofare River drainage 2.1 miles, scouting places to ford, before the river cuts west at mile 29.6 (14). Here, ascend a marshy bench, pass a lake at mile 30.5, then ford Gorge Creek at mile 31.7 (15). Close the trip on a 653-foot climb on a user trail leading to the Eielson Visitor Center (16).
Bus stop Hop the Camper Bus ($32, 800-622-7275 for times) across from the Denali National Park Visitor Center (reserve in advance at reservedenali.com). Ask the driver to drop you at Grassy Pass, two miles past the Eielson Visitor Center, a four-hour ride from the park entrance.
Gear Pack old sneakers for river crossings; trekking poles; bomber raingear; bear spray; deet and headnets. Get free bear canisters at the permit office.
Season September has fewer people, plentiful remnant berries, and typically lower river flows, but it comes with the risk of weathering the first winter storm.
Permits Free; pick up at the backcountry office the day of your trip or one day prior.
Maps $8 each at the backcountry office
Contact (907) 683-2294, nps.gov/dena
ASK A RANGER
Q: How can I score permits for the best units?
A: You can’t game Denali’s system—officials issue permits for the park’s 87 units one day in advance, and you must reserve them in person—but you can give yourself an advantage. Treat it like the DMV: Show up early (office opens at 9 a.m.—get there at 8) in your Gore-Tex best, with two or three itineraries sketched out. Research available zones and quotas if you arrive a day earlier; prior knowledge will help you lobby for preferred units at the counter. “You can target specific units, but it’s better to aim for specific types of routes,” says Ranger Alex Lindeman. “Before you arrive, decide your daily mileage, days in the park, and terrain preferences. Are you eager to climb? Intimidated by river crossings? Do you mind bushwhacking? The more you share, the better we can guide you to an itinerary you’ll most enjoy.” It also pays to look the part: “If someone shows up and doesn’t have the equipment—or looks like he just bought it—we’ll guide him to great dayhikes,” Lindeman admits.
ASK A BEAR
Q: Denali is grizzly central, right? Why so few attacks on humans?
A: In Denali, I’m not such a bad dude: The park has only had 23 bear-caused human injuries in its 94-year existence—none fatal. Meanwhile, my jerk cousins down south have killed seven in or near Yellowstone and nine in Glacier. But why, you ask? First, there are fewer of us here than you think (300), and as few as four humans per backcountry unit. Statistical chances of close encounters are actually slim. Plus, I roam wide tundra benches, where we can usually spot each other at a distance and alter course easily. Not to mention, I’m fairly preoccupied with inhaling berries, roots, and grasses—not hunting. Ditto looking for your stash: With no designated campsites, no spot in the park reliably smells like stroganoff. Plus, most backpackers here are fairly freaked out, so they are more vigilant about keeping clean.
KEY SKILL: NAVIGATING OFF-TRAIL
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.”
CROSS A RIVER
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).