It’s 11am on a sunny, clear April Saturday in the Alaska Range. There is no cell service, but the 7 of us know we’re getting picked up sometime today by a de Havilland Otter bush plane, serviced by Talkeetna Air Taxi. From an external viewpoint, we are ready, sprawled out on a half-ton of gear, skis, and sleds, just waiting to return to the real world. Inside, we are not yet mentally prepared to leave. We are individually reflecting, processing, and already reminiscing about the past 8 days spent on the remote “Glacier 1” in Denali National Park.
When traveling to an off-grid location within The Last Frontier, one can expect the unexpected. There was a chance we would be stormed in and tent bound for the entire duration of the expedition. Instead, we experienced an anomaly in Alaska – an entire period of unparalleled high pressure which brought consistent warm temperatures, endless sunshine, nonexistent wind, great snow, and several nights of a clear Aurora Borealis. Jackpot. As our Colorado Mountain School guide Mike Soucy put it, “Sometimes you get lucky. However, you must be present to win!”
We spent our days exploring the boundless glaciated terrain surrounding us, reveling in the mystery; there’s no guidebook for this area.The lines do not have names. The peaks are not all labeled on the map, and some are mislabeled. It doesn’t matter. We made up our own names for the lines, cols, passes and peaks that we painted with our ski and splitboard tracks. No one else will ever ski these lines by the same name.
The tallest peak near basecamp wasn’t labeled on the map. Another much less prominent peak, however, was named and labeled: Fake Peak. It had no meaning to us at the time. After returning to civilization, the internet revealed that it is history to the “first” ascent of Denali in 1906 by a con explorer named Frederick Cook. Fake Peak is an insignificant piece of rock compared to Denali, which was first ascended in 1913. After Cook’s visit in 1906, the next recorded visit to Glacier 1 took place in 1977. Technical ascents in the Glacier started being recorded in the early 2000s, which is when I was in high school, to put the recent timeline of Glacier 1 exploration in perspective. We effortlessly crossed the saddle of Fake Peak several times without a clue of the story it had to tell.
In the shadow of Fake Peak, was basecamp, our home away from home. There were 4 sleep tents, 1 cook tent and a 12-person party dome, all in complementing hues of red, orange and yellow. Basecamp was surrounded by awe inspiring peaks and couloirs, and stocked with an inadequate amount of Double Stuf Oreos. The sunsets were my favorite. Every night, the sky and snow capped peaks became saturated with pastel colors and a feeling of calmness and belonging. You could stare off into the distance without realizing how much time had passed. With 18 hours of daylight, time never mattered.
I am not done processing the magic experienced on the glacier. My mind wanders and I ask myself how much more I want to know about the location and the history, and how much I do not care to know. There is beauty in the ignorance. There is comfort in the memories.
Weeks prior to the departure, there was a mass shooting at my local Boulder grocery store. Two days later, the company I worked for announced it was closing our site and my job was being eliminated. My real world had been derailed. I was, and still am, struggling with how to respond to these events. I didn’t know it at the time, but Alaska was the answer. Life on the glacier unexpectedly felt normal compared to what was going on in Boulder. Out in the wild, I was back on track.
Outdoor educator, splitboarder, and aspiring trail runner Kahle Toothill lives in Boulder, CO. From couloirs on a remote Alaskan glacier to the dusty trails of Africa’s highest peak, Kahle finds freedom in mountain pursuits. She volunteers at a Colorado non-profit to help people realize their potential in new, intimidating environments. When not on a skin track or trail, she is a pharmaceutical engineer. Photos courtesy of Trey Laurence (@tburgers3).