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Fitness and Photography for Fun - A blog on staying fit by hiking and doing photography by David Mendosa

Denali

October 5th, 2013 · No Comments

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One of the places that I most wanted to experience on this trip to Alaska was Denali National Park and Preserve. On my previous two trips to Alaska I had barely visited this national treasure that is larger than the state of Massachusetts and includes the highest peak in North America.

Denali is more than six million acres of wild land, bisected by only one road. I traveled that 92 mile long road by shuttle bus, the only way that tourists are allowed to get there by motorized vehicle. I stayed three nights at Denali Backcountry Lodge at the end of the road.

Actually, I had stepped foot in Denali National Park in September 2009 when the small plane that my friend John and I took landed on a glacier there. ​But that was all.

​The one road in the park is the best way to see Denali’s wildlife. I most wanted to see a grizzly bear, which is a subspecies of the larger coastal brown bear. The grizzly bear gets its name from the grayish, or grizzled, tips of its fur. I lucked out by seeing three grizzly bears at once.

​A Grizzly Bear Sow and Her Two Cubs

A Grizzly Bear Sow and Her Two Cubs

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The Grizzly Bear Sow and One Cub Are Ready to Attack Me​

The Grizzly Bear Sow and One Cub Are Ready to Attack Me

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​A grizzly bear with cubs is the most dangerous animal in North America. But I was unafraid. I knew that I was in no danger because I could run faster than some of the people on the bus.

After seeing grizzly bears in the wild for the first time in my life, I most wanted to see Denali, which the U.S. government (but not the Alaska government) persists in calling Mount McKinley. On my flight with John in 2009 we saw many mountains and glaciers, but Denali itself was covered by clouds. I wasn’t surprised, because ​a clear view of the mountain is possible only about 20 percent of the time during the summer due to clouds and smoke from the fires that often burn in the park due to lightening strikes.

Two fires about 15 miles from the lodge were burning during the time I was in the park. They cast a layer of smoke that obscured the mountain. The lodge is at 1,700 feet so I knew that the only way that I could see the mountain was to go above the smoke. So I climbed up to about 12,500 feet where the air was completely clear and the highest peak in North America was right in front of my eyes.

The South Summit of Denali is the Rounded Peak to the Left of the Jagged Peak at Right

The South Summit of Denali is the Rounded Peak to the Left of the Jagged Peak at Right

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The South Summit of Denali now reaches an elevation of 20,030 feet. Unlike almost all other mountains, it is still rising, so I thought that I better get there when I could (actually it is rising only a few centimeters per year). Denali also has the greatest vertical rise of any mountain on earth that is totally above the sea, about 18,000 feet. Consequently, it is one of the hardest to climb, and a typical expedition takes about 20 days to reach the summit.

I climbed, of course, in a small plane. It took off from the dirt landing strip at Kantishna, just a couple of miles from the lodge. My pilot was Dick Stone, who by coincidence is a neighbor of mine in south Boulder. In his regular job he is a pilot for United Airlines out of Denver. He also told me that he summited Denali in a mere 17 days. Later, he casually mentioned that he had summited Mount Everest in 2000 at the age of 39. “When I was at my peak,” he said.

With Pilot and Mountaineer Dick Stone and the Plane We Flew

With Pilot and Mountaineer Dick Stone and the Plane We Flew

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After seeing the grizzlies on the ride in to the lodge and seeing Denali on my first morning there, all that I really wanted to do was to see the park. The best way was to hike, and I made three hikes. On the morning of my second day I went with a naturalist named Thomas, who has a PhD in biology, on the McKinley Bar Trail. This 5 1/2 mile roundtrip trail goes from Wonder Lake to the sand bars on the McKinley River through the “drunken forest” and areas of tundra. Lying down on the soft, spongy tundra to take closeup photos of flowers was great fun for me. The mosquitoes were something else.

With Thomas and Millions of Mosquitoes at the McKinley Bar

With Thomas and Millions of Mosquitoes at the McKinley Bar

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As the shuttle bus took me out of Denali National Park after three nights there, the sun finally came out from behind the pall of smoke.

The Summit of Mount Brooks Peeks Through the Clouds

The Summit of Mount Brooks Peeks Through the Clouds

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At 11,903 feet, this mountain is only about half as high as Denali. But I wasn’t tempted to make the climb.

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