Talkeeetna is busy place until July 4 since it is the spot where crazy mountain climbers gather and get flown to the first base camp on their way to summit Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Only six climbers died here this summer. After July 4 the glaciers begin to melt and it gets too dangerous to climb to the summit. From my perspective climbing Denali is always too dangerous, but then no one asked me.
When we came to Alaska in 1989 the weather was much, much better than it has been this summer, but even then we never saw Denali. We were told it only appears from behind the cloud cover four times a month on average. We've talked about staying here until we can see it, but the fireweed is almost done blooming and that's supposed to be a sign that snow is eminent. So it was clear that if we were going to see Denali, we would have to go to it.
There are many companies that have flight seeing tours here. The visitor center recommended one that ended up being a great choice. The plane was large and powerful enough that we could fly out of the cloud cover, circle Denali and neighboring mountains, and summit the mountain, flying over the top. We got within half a mile of its imposing snowy face.
Climbers take two weeks to adjust to the high altitude, so we had to wear oxygen masks after about 12,000 feet. The mountain was about sixty miles away and the ascent was gentle. After nice views of the ground, we entered a cloud layer and there it was. The pilot did a good job flying first clock wise, then counter clock wise so that we all could see and photograph. I took pictures as fast as my camera could save them. I could feel it getting hotter in my hand. If the flight had lasted longer, smoke would have started pouring out.
The views were amazing. The pilot pointed out the remains of the climber's base camp and they were so small, it would have been easy to miss them. Without other man made things nearby, the scale of the mountain was impossible to understand or convey. Glaciers were everywhere and some had deep blue melt fissures. I looked at those steep slopes and jagged peaks and wondered where someone could possibly find a route to the top.
On a really blue sky day, we could have seen much more and as we flew back through the cloud deck I wondered what we were missing. But we can say that we summited Denali.