Alaska’s Unique Pioneer Style

Denali's North Face as seen from a bush plane (TiresiasZ, 2006).

The best part about flying across the country is the time you get to shut off from the digitally-connected world to be left alone with your thoughts… Or your book. That is if you can resist paying the $7.95 for the WiFi connection. I didn’t give the airline the pleasure of having more of my money so I read some of Alpinist 37 and day dreamed about Alaska.

On that subject… there are several things that I like about Alaska above all other mountain-adventure destinations. It’s vast wilderness, it’s northern climate, and all the features that come with a remote, low-populated area. Compared to the Himalayas, Alps or Andes, there are few established communities that rely on and live in the mountain environment.

I don’t remember where I read this (though I wish I did at the moment,) but I realize its true, the Himalayas by contrast have several mountain villages scattered throughout the mountains. While those village residents rarely visit or rely on the mountains, they change the nature of climbing and trekking expeditions to the region. The villages provide milestones on a journey (if you’re romantic, they offer rustic culture). Alaska on the other hand, doesn’t have this. The Intuit, Haida and other Native Alaskans didn’t settle in mountain passes and consider such terrain simply white, treeless obstacles, but not the kind that dares you to overcome it.

Getting yourself to Alaskan climbing destinations in the Alaska Range, Wrangel Mountains or Revelations is often done by bush planes landing on glaciers or sand bars, depending on the time of year and conditions of the snowpack and river flow. This isn’t done in the Himalayas; helicopters are more common and the air density at the base of the mountains varies from route to route, and in some cases makes flight to that elevation too dangerous to attempt if not physically impossible. While the first glacier landing by bush plane was relatively early in Alaskan climbing history, in 1932 by Alan Carpe, there are routes that still necessitate starting the climb the old fashioned way… from the nearest road, on foot, oftentimes days away, with big packs. When David Roberts and Don Jenson and attempted Mount Deborah in the 1960s, they actually carried more gear than they could carry on their backs; they shuttled packs by carrying one pack at a time, dropping it off, returning for the other and repeat.

Dropping supplies by bush plane was a common practice through the 1960s for well-organized expeditions. This enabled a team to get part way up their chosen route without having to carry all the food and cooking fuel in their packs. However, it was inefficient and littering. Oftentimes the air dropped packages where smashed on impact, with canned goods opened and spoiling. Other times packages were never found. The practice has since been discontinued officially in some parts, like Denali National Park, and unofficially in others thanks to Leave No Trace ethics (which always makes me think of climbers choosing to leave a pack or extra ice axe up high out of a matter of convenience).
But walking in — what climbing guide author and former Denali Ranger, Jonathan Waterman, calls “Alaskan pioneer style” — is still necessary for access to Denali’s north face, Wickersham Wall, and long approaches from roads are required for other regions too, especially where there are no landing areas suitable for bush planes. And as Waterman points out repeatedly in High Alaska, it’s often the approach — especially the hazards or river crossings — that are more consistently life threatening than the ascents and descents.

Again by comparison, last I checked, the most common hazards en route to K2 or Broad Peak is the altitude and the food and water quality in Askole. Bears, river crossings, tussock fields, and an angry mother moose… They’re is nothing else like North America’s far north.

Thanks for dropping by again. If you enjoyed this post, please consider following the Suburban Mountaineer on Facebook or Twitter. Happy reading and carpe climb ’em!

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