Alaska – it’s the biggest and most sparsely populated U.S. state. Best known for its dramatic mountains, plus a diversity of forests and wide-open spaces with abundant wildlife and many small towns. It’s a destination for outdoor activities including skiing, hiking, mountain biking and kayaking. Denali National Park is home to North America’s highest peak, Denali (formerly known as Mt. McKinley) is an impressive site.
Standing 20,310’ (6190m) above sea level, Denali is the tallest mountain on the North American continent. Its base-to-peak rise is the biggest of any mountain situated entirely above sea level – some 18,000 ft (5,500 m).
The rugged terrain of this massive mountain lured us to Alaska.
So we left Germany, and headed to America’s last frontier. However, we weren’t going to climb Denali, but the many adjacent routes available in the Ruth Gorge.
It’s an enormous area some 10 miles long and a mile wide in Denali National Park, with hundreds of routes both climbed and unclimbed.
Along with fellow alpinists Michi, Tobi and Christoph, I was eager to explore this spectacular land of rock and ice.
We were following in the footsteps of Austrian legend Andi Orgler, a climber known for an amazing series of ascents in the Ruth Gorge, which he completed with various partners from the late ’80s to mid ’90s. Sadly, Orgler died in a climbing accident in 2007.
Orgler knew the enormous potential of this region. The steep, nearly 6000-foot high walls (1800 m) were exactly to his liking. So he always found a way to return here over the years with a very impressive collection of stately first climbs.
Christopher had been dreaming of repeating those routes for many years. He asked me to join him six months ago on a trip to the Ruth Gorge. With the addition of Tobi and Michi a team was quickly assembled.
We flew to Anchorage, then drove to Talkeetna, the launch point for flying onto the glaciers surrounding Denali.
Unfortunately the weather had other plans for us.
New Destination – Same Goal
A Denali National Park ranger in the park, pulled out his camera and showed us images from the Gorge. It was socked in with fog, meaning no visibility for landing our shuttle plane, or climbing.
Undoubtedly one of the many advantages of the region around the highest mountain in North America is its geographical diversity. At the moment of disillusionment the ranger suggested we consider the higher Kahiltna Glacier, fog free, with equivalently great climbs in the mountains surrounding it.
From a base camp on the Kahiltna we could head to Mount Foraker in the East Fork, or the region around Thunder Mountain.
Lo and behold, what we saw there was clear white, icy and therefore even more appealing than the bare, wet, rock faces in the Ruth Gorge. We were convinced and shifted our location, but not our climbing goals. However, with the weather better but still unsettled, we chose to make several short climbs from basecamp.
In the following weeks of our climbing adventure the weather deteriorated and the atmosphere became turbid. We would like to have attempted Mt. Hunter or Foraker but the weather gods said no, not this trip.
This is life in the mountains and though denied these climbs we were still delighted to be here and look forward to coming back. Whether in the Ruth Gorge or on the Kahiltna Glacier it does not matter. When in Alaska, there is always great adventure. We shall return.