Springtime brings Denali National Park to life

Sean Doogan

Merchants, tour operators, park workers, and climbers are gearing up for another summer season in Alaska's most famous national park. Gorgeous spring weather, with warm temperatures and little precipitation, is beginning to open up Denali National Park and Preserve -- 6 million acres of wild land, 238 road miles north of Anchorage, that includes North America's tallest peak, Mount McKinley. The main road into the park is now open to the public as far as mile 30. More than two dozen climbers are trying to summit Mount McKinley, and tourists and vendors are preparing for the annual onslaught of people and equipment that invade the mostly rural area along the Parks Highway.

The weather, in stark contrast to last year's late breakup, is being described as phenomenal.

"If it could last through the summer, we would be all happy campers, including the climbers," Talkeetna Air Taxi manager Annie Duquette said.

The weather is perhaps the most important factor in the success or failure of the hundreds of climbers who try to conquer McKinley's 20,320-foot peak each spring. Last year, after a late start, the weather cooperated and a record 783 of the 1,153 climbers who began the trek made it to the top of the mountain. So far this year, the National Park Service has received 908 climbing permit applications for Mount McKinley and expects that number to grow. Dozens of people are already on the mountain. The Kahiltna Glacier base camp at the 7,200-foot level of the mountain is still being set up by local air taxi services and park rangers.

In the nearby town of Talkeetna -- the jumping-off point for most climbers who want to scale McKinley -- adventurers from around the world are pouring in, checking gear and preparing for the climb. McKinley presents special opportunities and hazards to anyone who would challenge it.

"It's pretty accessible, as far as cost-wise, compared to (the) Himalayas," Duquette said. "It can be even more challenging than Everest at times, due to quick weather changes."

The park itself also draws thousands of visitors each year. A milelong strip of hotels, shops and guide services -- often called "Glitter Gulch" by Alaskans -- comes to life each spring as tourists and the people who serve them flood into the park. And this year, the river of people is arriving earlier than usual. Weather plays a key role in determining the start of the season; water and septic lines are unused during the winter months, and retailers and hotels alike have to wait until the lines thaw before opening for the summer. One local coffee shop owner said she is planning her earliest opening in the last 13 years. Becky Klauss, who runs Black Bear Coffee Denali, said she was told water will be running on the boardwalk by May 12 -- about 10 days earlier than normal.

Klauss said working in the park each year is a rewarding but sometimes surreal experience.

"It is such a summer camp for grown-ups," Klauss said. "It's not quite real life. We go up there and have our seasonal world."

And while the weather is much different than it was last spring, park officials said they hope there is at least one holdover from the 2013 climbing season: There was only one death on the mountain last year, and that was attributed to a medical condition, not the ascent itself.

"We don't want any fatalities this year," said park spokesperson Kris Fister. "We would like to see that continue."


Contact Sean Doogan at sean@alaskadispatch.com.


By Sean Doogan
Alaska Dispatch / Anchorage Daily News