From a certain perspective, Talkeetna, Alaska, holds as much tackiness per square foot as any beach town in the Lower 48. I shuffle past racks of “Kiss a Moose” pillows in front of gift shops and gaze, salivating, at Shirley’s Burger Barn.
Talkeetna serves as the major gateway to Denali National Park. Anywhere else, that wouldn’t make much sense, as Talkeetna is four hours by train from the “official” park entrance, 150 miles to the north. But in Alaska, distance and size take on different dimensions than in most of the country or, indeed, the world.
Denali is what has lured migrants to Talkeetna, a hardy place of hardy souls and a Far North counterculture vibe: At Denali Brewing Co., you can sip a Jimi Hendrix–inspired Purple Haze blueberry wheat beer. But it’s the mountaineers who most shape the town. They gather here every spring to launch their assaults on Denali. The mountain’s climbing season is from May to early July and as a result, in the words of one local, “in the springtime, the Gore-Tex is blooming.”
One mountaineer who has been on—but never to the top of—Denali is Dan Oberlatz, founder and owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures, based in Anchorage. Oberlatz guides wilderness-hiking and river-rafting trips. For fun, he climbs Denali. He has tried three times.
In 1996, he climbed the West Buttress route, also known as the Trade Route, the “easiest” and most popular path for climbers. He and his group made it to 19,400 feet, a little less than 1,000 feet from the top. Bad weather forced him down. His second attempt, he tried a more technical northern route. One of his companions fell and broke a leg and the group retreated. “Epic trip,” Oberlatz says. His third try, in 2000, he went back to the West Buttress. “Really, really bad weather” stopped that attempt.
“It’s not technically difficult,” Oberlatz says, “but physically very difficult.” Denali is one of the coldest climbing mountains in the world—July temperatures have dipped as low as 22 below zero—and one of the most dangerous. More than 100 people have died on it.
That night, after failed attempts at sleep, I venture outside at 1 a.m., to sit in what seems like afternoon sunlight and to think about cold, lonely death. The next day, I hop aboard the Alaska Railroad for another four hours.
Bojana meets me at the entrance to Denali National Park, which is really more of a strip-mallish encampment (the locals in Talkeetna described it dismissively to me as Glitter Gulch). Bojana samples some of the local elk jerky. (Though tiny, she is immensely fond of animal flesh of all kinds, especially bone marrow, tongue, and gristle.) Then we retire to the Denali Princess Wilderness Lodge, where Bojana makes me promise to avoid all discussion of the Ursus Mark VII bear-proof body armor “because that doesn’t sound like it was a good time in your life and I think it’s better if you just let it go.”
I squint and tell her what I’ve learned about granitic pluton but she is not impressed. Then I announce that instead of taking the eight-hour bus ride to our final, most remote, most wild, most Alaskan destination, I have chartered a bush pilot to fly us. Bojana is so happy to hear this that she doesn’t scold me as much as usual when I pull out the cinnamon roll I had stashed earlier for a midnight snack.
Our pilot, who looks about 15, handles the toy-size plane with aplomb and as a bonus flies us right alongside Denali’s central peak, which is magnificent, impressive, and every other adjective that doesn’t do justice to such a mountain. When he points at the landing strip where we will end our journey, I laugh because it’s obviously a joke. He is aiming for a little dark line surrounded by mountains. Land we do, though, and after a 5-mile ride, we arrive at Camp Denali.
The brochure had warned us that Camp Denali is “not for everyone.” And that it lacks “luxurious accommodations, TVs, a bar, or even unlimited electricity.” Our cabin is the smallest of the 18 on the property, about 12 by 15 feet. It has a single twin bed. Roughly 30 yards away is our own outhouse. All around us, though, is beauty so sublime it makes me momentarily forget about death by grizzly.
First and foremost, there is Denali, visible everywhere, broad-shouldered, white, massive. Then there are undulating hills and tundra stretching so far that one suspects the eyes must be playing tricks. There
is also no music, or cell phone reception, or visitor peering deeply into any compact handheld device.
Because of the abundance of nature and the scarcity of other attractions, it’s nature we wallow in. Each day at breakfast, the 40 or so guests at the lodge are offered a choice of a “strenuous” or “moderate” guided hike. Or, the particularly brave can go off into the grizzly-infested wilderness on their own, and the particularly indolent and cowardly can hang out at the camp or go on a drive with a staffer. Bojana lobbies fiercely for the strenuous hike, while I chat up the other Denali guests, hoping one or two might testify that they had chosen such outings previously and had suffered terribly, and Bojana might overhear, so that I can weasel out without taking direct blame. But no. The guests want to talk about the wonders they’ve seen, the marvels they hope to experience.
It is an active group. One of the most hardy is an 81-year-old South African woman who foils my plans for a day of rest by volunteering for the strenuous hike. (Her husband wisely takes the van ride.)
“If she’s going, we’re going,” Bojana informs me. As we gather our gear (hiking poles, mosquito head nets, rain jackets, fleece), I suggest that for the remainder of the trip, we should—per American custom—adopt trail names, and I suggest that hers be Little Griz, or Wolverine, reflecting her ferocious approach to most things in life (she has two master’s degrees, runs marathons, speaks four languages, is a gourmet cook, and reminds me often that if I applied myself, I might amount to something). She tells me I can call her Boo Boo, but only if I will answer to Yogi. She also informs me, when she sees me jotting down Cool Alaska Facts, that she will allow me to write about her “only if you refer to me as 100 pounds of pure spunk.”