Sunday, September 4, 2016

Postcard from Alaska: Talkeetna

Friday morning we boarded the train and headed north.  The train wound through thick groves of birch and spruce trees.  We also passed by stumpy black spruce trees -- looking like a Christmas tree farm gone bad -- and learned that the trees, although short and sparse, were very old.  Their stunted growth was the result of growing in the shallow layer of crushed stone that covers the permafrost.

After three hours we arrived in Talkeetna, a small town of a couple hundred people.  It was established during the Alaskan gold rush but now serves tourists and mountaineers.  Small planes fly mountain climbers to the base camp, for the climb up Denali.

We have been traveling with our friends, George and Nancy.  They lost their son, Brian, in an avalanche up on the mountain almost ten years ago.  They wanted to take a ride in one of those small planes, and see the spot where searchers found his last foot prints.  And they wanted us to join them on the flight.

Brian was a geologist, a licensed pilot, and a mountaineer.  He trained people to mountain climb and was a careful, cautious climber.  When he and a friend came to Denali, they delayed their climb up Barrell mountain by a few days because they were concerned about an avalanche. Sure enough, one did occur, as they expected, and then, after it was over, they started their ascent.  Unfortunately, there was an unstable area that they couldn't see; it broke loose; and carried them both about 3,000 down the side of the rock, to their death.  Our friends have pictures from Brian's camera, which was recovered with his body, but they wanted to see the mountain for themselves.  Barrell is one of the many peaks jutting up around Denali.

We were fortunate to have an absolutely clear day, no clouds, and no wind.  Denali is only visible 30% of the time; it is usually shrouded in clouds.  George settled into the co-pilot seat, Nancy climbed in the back, and Brett and I settled in the middle.  Our pilot pulled a sweatshirt over his head, started the prop engine, and took us up the mountain.  He followed the path of the glaciers that flow from the snow covered crags, then turned up the steep granite canyons, their rugged sides topped with snow.

It felt like I could reach out and touch the side of the mountain as we banked and climbed.  After circling Denali, we dropped down to Barrell.  There we circled the peak twice, and the pilot tipped the wing so George could get an unobstructed picture of the mountain.  Denali and its surrounding peaks were an awe inspiring mix of rock, whipped cream snow frosting above, blue glacial ice and tumbled piles of snow below.  I could feel the power and pull of the mountain, and understood why it draws so many mountain climbers.  I also felt awe, looking down into the deep fissures, and was thankful to be in a plane and not climbing below.  Nancy was quiet behind me, while George peppered our pilot with questions.

George needed to know and understand; Nancy needed to quietly bear witness.  And I sat between them, with tears in my eyes, thankful for God granting us a brilliant day and praying that it brought them some measure of peace and comfort.


  1. What an amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience. Thanks for taking us along. I too would have been very emotional.

  2. My heart goes out to your friends. They were brave to visit the mountain and you were so kind to go with them.

  3. What a beautiful moment that you shared with your friends. I hope that they find healing in this journey.

    1. I think that it did help. So difficult to lose a child; I can't even imagine.

  4. Trips like yours never leave you. What an honor to be there for this still-grieving couple.

  5. It's a beautiful area. It must have been so hard for them to go there. I hope it brings them some peace. You and Brett are good friends and I'm sure they'll always appreciate how you supported them.


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