2012 Alaska (1/4): Denali

Places Alaska. Denali National Park
Time & length July 2012, 6 days
Partners Keith Earley, Keith Earley Jr., Jonathan Earley
In the beginning of July I guided my Alaskan friend Keith and his two sons on a six-day hike in Denali. Although it was not a commercial trip I was more focused on group cohesiveness and the satisfaction of my partners’ needs than my own wilderness experience, which gave me great insight into the duties of a hiking guide. We all had a very good time together!
I met Keith and his wife Beverly in 2010 when I was hitchhiking to the Wrangells. They gave me and my two partners a ride on the Glenn Highway, since then we have been staying in close contact. The couple welcomed me at their home several times over the last two summers and always treated me very well, which is part of the reason why I like to call them my “Alaskan parents”. I owe a lot to them.

In the morning of July 3 Keith picked me up from the airport in Anchorage. We bought a few things in town and then drove to his house in Palmer where I saw his wife Bev again and I also met their two sons Keith Jr. and John. In the afternoon we bought groceries, discussed a few backcountry basics and pitched the tents in the backyard for testing purposes. Tired of the long journey that lay behind me I went to bed early. The next day we hit the road and drove north.

After organizing our permit in the Denali Park Backcountry Office we pitched the tents at the campground and celebrated the evening at the pizza place nearby. On July 5 we took the bus to Eielson Visitor Center and started hiking southeast along Gorge Creek.

As the group’s guide I was more focused on the dynamics between all of us than on the terrain or the technical part of the hike. I understood that keeping everybody happy and holding the group together was at least as important as good navigation through the mountains – everybody had his own personality, level of fitness and expectations. They had never done a longer hike together and since they are all grown men, living in different states, each busy in their own job they don’t come together as a family too often anymore. So of course we had some difficulties during this week but altogether we had a great time together, I think. I felt very happy to be able to spend time with such interesting and inspiring personalities.

Keith Sr. is 57 years old, a former Air Force pilot, now flying for FedEx. He has always loved the challenge, the adventure; he is ambitious, fit, and motivated. During the months before we started the hike we discussed different route options and gear recommendations several times on the phone and via email – he is a very structured and organized man which facilitated planning a lot! Sometimes when he was speculating about details we currently couldn’t know (Will there be snow on the third pass? How long is it going to take us to get down to the river?) I had to remind him that being in the wilderness as a group does not just require exact planning, but also flexibility and spontaneity. Anyway, during my time in Alaska I spent many hours talking to Keith about everything and I always enjoyed our conversations; he is interested, well-educated, with a good sense of humor. Above all he is a loving father.

Keith Jr. is 29, working as a doctor in the Air Force. In some respects his temperament is similar to his father’s – they don’t just compete in fortitude and mental strength, they also share the same love for adventure and challenge. And he has the same stamina as his father – but in the body of a 29-year-old man who is at the top level of his physical strength. With just him I could have turned our 6-days hike into a weekend trip! He asked questions about hiking and trip planning in general and expected to learn a lot so that he would be prepared for his own wilderness adventures without a guide.

Jon is 27, a web designer, he teaches several classes at school and is involved in different digital art projects and photography. He is very focused, attentive, has a strong mind and a lot of empathy. He loves to travel and is always searching for inspiration and new things to learn, although he is more into cultural travels than the pure wilderness hikes. I spent most of my time on this hike with Jon. He is going to visit me in the winter time this year – we will celebrate Christmas together with my family in Germany and spend New Year’s in the Southern Alps. I’m really looking forward to seeing him again.

The three of them needed to plan long ahead in order to get time off for this hike. Now that they had all got there it was my job to make sure nobody regretted it. And it all turned out well. A funny, cynical and cartooning way to describe the dynamics on this hike is to look at the following picture this way (click on the picture below to enlarge): Keith Sr. is sitting to the right side, asking himself: would it be easier to climb the mountain back there at the horizon (which is actually not visible at all) hiking up this little ridge (which isn’t visible either) or should I follow the drainage (there might not even be a drainage – nobody knows)? Keith Jr. is sitting in the middle, studying the map. He is wondering if he could make this 50- kilometer hike to the pass before the sun sets (2 more hours). Jon is lying on the left, he is just taking a break.

Now here is a brief description of the actual hike. The first night we camped at the headwaters of Gorge Creek, close to Gravel Mountain. Then we climbed over the pass from where we had a great view over the mountainous country and took a longer break for enjoyment and photos.

Hiking down on the other side we reached one of the glaciers that feeds the Toklat River. Camp II. Now we needed to get on the other side of a medium-sized river, so I briefly explained how to cross silty streams like this. I went first, followed by Jon, then Keith Jr., Keith Sr. went last. They all did an excellent job, nobody seemed to have any major problems.

We hiked around a hill and decided to camp early, close to a pass that separates Unit 10 from Unit 9. In the evening both brothers climbed up a steep mountainside which gave me and Keith the opportunity to reflect on our first days. However, our conversation got interrupted by some small heart attacks he had when watching his sons jumping over the rocks.

In a little snowfall we started hiking up to the next pass. It cleared up shortly after we left and when we reached the snow-covered pass at noon it was time for another long break.

Down in the next valley we found a little grassy plateau which made for a great campsite. Again we camped early; in fact we never hiked for more than six hours a day when not counting the breaks. Anyway, this was one of the most spectacular campsites I’ve ever had in about 180 nights sleeping in the Alaskan wilderness.

After a starlit night we followed the river north for a while and then climbed another ridge to the east which brought us into Unit 8. It was a steep climb and I always tried to be a little ahead of the group to scout the best routes to hike on. And to take pictures.

On the pass we saw Dall Sheep and had a good lunch. By the way, over the day we were feeding from homemade granola bars which Bev made for us in advance –“that’s how she is with us on this hike”, her husband commented once. I loved the granola bars and later in the summer made my own ones using Bev’s recipe. And her help, obviously.

Our last camp wasn’t far from Polychrome Pass and the Park Road. It was raining the next day when we were hiking towards the road and back to civilization – ending a trip in bad weather is always a good thing. It increases the desire for a hot shower or a good meal and it decreases the bad feelings because of the trips’ end.

In the evening of July 10 we were sitting at the table in the couple’s house in Palmer, eating good pizza and drinking beer. Everybody seemed to be in a good mood, happy about what we’d done and about being back. I was especially happy, because I had somehow managed to provide this family a decent wilderness experience with all the ups and downs of a good adventure. And on top of that: I personally enjoyed it a lot, too.

Now Keith Sr. is ready to go out on the solo hikes he is planning on doing next summer, maybe I can join him for one or two. Keith Jr. also wants to keep hiking, mostly together with his girlfriend in “the lower forty-eight”. And as already mentioned, Jon is going to visit me in the winter time, let’s see how he likes the Alps.

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