We woke in a dream-scape of a campsite above the headwaters of Glacier Creek.
Today we hoped to reach the ultimate destination of the trip (of the whole summer, in fact) at Anderson Pass.
The first matter of business, of course, was breakfast! Last night I’d placed the bear cans near a large, prominent boulder, so I could easily relocate them in the morning. We made our usual tea and coffee and enjoyed our breakfast.
Leaning with my back up against a rock, I stood up and realized we had some company!
Well hello, Mr. Marmot!
This was by far the biggest and fattest marmot that I had the pleasure of meeting in all of Denali National Park.
He was extremely curious, and periodically advanced quite close to us. We mused that maybe he had a family living among the boulders, so they sent out the biggest one of the family to check on us. The boulders seemed to be a stately abode, so we dubbed him as King Marmot of the Idyllic Valley.
It’s always fun to see marmots. As a backpacker, one can’t help but feel a sort of kinship with them, because they’re only found in the highest and most dramatic alpine areas. Those of us that believe in reincarnation may like to think that some backpackers return to the world as marmots… or maybe it’s vice-versa?
We’d gain some significant elevation today to Anderson Pass, and would be returning to this site today. So do you know what that means?
We left our heaviest items (like the bear cans and the tent) behind, and took our first steps toward the pass.
The way up to the pass would follow along an unnamed glacier. The guidebook mentioned that a “sizeable river” flowed out of this glacier. The river would go on to join the underground currents of the big-daddy Muldrow Glacier.
There was a wicked wind coming off of the mountains (as usual). We knew that the weather would make or break our day’s hike.
The conditions seemed to hold on by just a thread.
We rounded a corner and looked up in the direction of the pass. It was a land of rocky, crumpled, glacial devastation.
Some low clouds were over our destination, but they were thin – it looked as though the strong winds were pushing them through it.
As if navigating the messy terrain wasn’t enough of a challenge, the wind was ferocious. It constantly fought against our forward progress.
The prospect of a rapid deterioration in the weather was always on our minds.
We considered turning back several times. The landscape was just so inhospitable that it constantly made me question the wisdom in proceeding.
Strong gusts of wind often stopped us dead in our tracks, but we just kept moving forward.
The glacial river periodically vanished underground, only to reappear and repeat the process.
Anderson Pass is the low point seen on the horizon in the image above – it’s farther away than it appears.
There was obviously no trail – not even a faint track or a clear route to follow.
We meandered right and left, and up and down to avoid the steepest and most unstable piles of rock, which were everywhere… not to mention the flowing water and patches of snow and ice to contend with.
The distant views were surreal as we looked directly up the throat of Muldrow Glacier, among the greatest peaks of the Alaska Range.
Denali (Mount McKinley) is here, away to left. It looked so different from such a near point of view.
Finally, finally… after a false summit and a seemingly receding landscape with a wily illusion of scale, we were finally approaching the top of Anderson Pass.
But then there was this!
This snow field presented an unexpected and formidable barrier. There were two faint tracks of footprints across it. They were weathered and there was no way that they’d qualify as “steps.” It was mostly hard-packed, sloping ice… a daunting sight.
The slope wasn’t too steep… just nerve-racking and theoretically not too dangerous. I don’t think a fall would have resulted in an uncontrollable slide, but I do think it would have been challenging to regain footing.
So I methodically set out across the snow, tediously kicking out one step at a time with the heel of my shoe. It was slow work and I made steady progress, but at one time near the center of the field it felt as though it was going to take an eternity.
Fortunately the grade of the snow began to level out, and we found ourselves on the other side! From there it was just a short climb to the crest of the Alaska Range!
We reached the top slightly above the pass itself, looking down on it from our position. The place where we stood is the easiest place to access it, despite the higher elevation.
The gigantic West Fork Glacier is seen in the image above, on the south side of the Alaska Range. It’s a sprawling behemoth that goes on for miles and miles – a characteristic of this much less-traveled side of Denali.
There was a big gray cloud to the south, so we lingered for only about ten minutes before turning back down the mountain.
It was so amazing to stand on top of the Alaska Range!
The return trip was significantly easier and more enjoyable than the way up had been.
We retraced our steps with relative ease, and the wind on our backs was wonderful.
The stately caribou were still in residence, and it was incredibly tempting to spend another night at our magical campsite. It looked idyllic as ever with our tent already set in place, but we were due to be back at the park road tomorrow.
From the place where we planned to reach the road, we were looking at a 6-hour bus journey back to our home in Healy, and then we had to be back at work the following morning.
So we cooked dinner next to the enchanted stream, and solemnly departed the green valley to put in as many miles as we could for the remainder of the afternoon.
The wind was still gloriously at our backs so we made great progress, calling it a day at the border of our designated backcountry unit.
We set up among the green, rolling hills of tundra that divide Glacier Creek from the Muldrow Glacier.
See more photos from Day Three:
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