Flight-Seeing Mt. McKinley with Talkeetna Air Taxi
Finally, my constant posts on the Alaska trip our almost over. Just this and one more posts and then I’ll do a summary and a post on how we converted Judy’s van for two people. In this and the next post I’ll have pictures of my flight around Mt McKinley. Before I get started let me clear up one thing, the name of the tallest mountain in North America is Mt McKinley and not Denali. You won’t find the name Denali as the name of the mountain on any map. The native peoples of Alaska called it Denali so that is commonly used. The main confusion came because the National Park service changed the name of the National Park in 1980. Until then the National Park was named Mt McKinley National Park, but that year it was changed to Denali NP. But that was the Park only, not the mountain.
Having grown up in Anchorage I have literally seen Mt McKinley thousands of times. Even though the mountain is 250 miles away it is so much higher than anything between it and Anchorage that on a clear day you can easily see it from several high points in town. I can’t even begin to guess how many times I’ve taken visiting friends and family up to Denali NP and taken the bus back in. The Parks Highway is the main route to Fairbanks and there are about 8 spots along the way with great views of Mt McKinley and I’ve driven that road hundreds of times. So what I’m saying is, Mt McKinley was boring to me when I lived there. Because of that I didn’t even consider driving up to it on this trip.
It gets that way for everyone who has lived in Alaska for very long. For example, I asked my son if he wanted to take the flight-seeing trip with me around the mountain and he said, “Why would I; I can see it any time I want.” And I have to admit that has always been my attitude as well. But I’ve discovered the old adage is true that absence makes the heart grow fonder and since I moved away from Alaska in 2006 I have come to greatly regret not doing the two things I always wanted to do: 1) fly-in bear viewing and 2) take a flight around Mt McKinley. So I was absolutely determined to do them on this trip. I easily did the bear viewing but flying around Mt. McKinley has been difficult!
The weather was just not good on this whole trip. We had many days of rain interspersed with a few days of good weather, then right back into the rain. The irony is that my son said that until I got there it had been a typical June and they’d had almost no rain. We brought the rain with us! The weather around Denali NP had been even worse with almost no clear days. So at the end of the trip I decided to just hang around the area and wait until I got a clear day no matter how long it took. Anchorage is only about a 3 hour drive away from Talkeetna (where I would fly from) so I just made a reservation with Talkeetna Air Taxi and called in every day to find out how the weather looked and if it wasn’t good I canceled. They are very good about that and there is no charge if you cancel because the weather isn’t satisfactory to you (their website is http://www.talkeetnaair.com/). July 4th was supposed to be clear so we drove up on the 1st and camped out, going into town every day to check the weather on the Mountain.
Finally, on July 3rd the weather looked good! There were still some clouds but Mt McKinley itself was standing tall and entirely visible. The clouds would just add some character to the photos! They offer a number of different trips (see them all here: http://www.talkeetnaair.com/flightseeing/ ). But I wanted to take the Summit Tour which was the longest tour at 2 hours and literally flew over the top of Mt McKinley looking down on at it (see info about it here: http://www.talkeetnaair.com/flightseeing/summit). It is also the last flight of the day at 6:00 pm which would give me the best light for photography. Nearly all the flights I’ve been on had at least one empty seat so as a single I’ve had no problems getting on at the last minute. As a couple or family that wouldn’t be possible.
To fly at over 20,000 feet they needed a special oxygen-equipped airplane and we flew in a Turbine powered DeHavilland Turbine Otter. The cabin itself isn’t pressurized, instead we wore oxygen masks. Most of the flights have an option of landing on a glacier so I chose to do that. Because we were going to be walking around in snow they give us Gore-Tex overboots to wear over our shoes while we are I the glacier. On all my flight-seeing trips I ask if I can be in the co-pilots seat and I’ve never been turned down. On all these flights they weigh every passenger so they can work out the weight and balance of the aircraft. It’s possible that some day that wouldn’t allow me to fly in the co-pilots seat but it’s unlikely.
The flight was everything I had hoped it could be! This is a very high performance aircraft and we were just a few minutes flying to the Mountain. First the pilot gave us the standard safety instructions for all trips but then he gave us specific instructions for the headphones and oxygen mask. Like most small planes it’s very loud inside and you need the headphones to deaden the roar but also the pilot gave a running tour of everything we were seeing as we flew along. I found it very, very interesting! For example, geologists have measured one of the glaciers coming off Mt. McKinley as 3800 feet thick of ice. The whole canyon is deeper than the Grand Canyon but it’s full of ice so it seems small! Imagine the Grand Canyon full of ice and that’s what I was flying over!
The unique instruction was on how to use the oxygen mask. As we climbed the face of Mt. McKinley and reached 12,000 we would need oxygen because we were going up to 21,000 feet. So he would tell us over the headphones that it was time to put them on. Before we took off he showed us how to put them on and how we would know they were working. Then he would turn and look at every passenger and we were supposed to give him the thumbs up that we had oxygen. It sounds complicated but it was easy and not an issue at all.
Once we were at the mountain, we flew all around and over it. There are two other large mountains very near Mt. McKinley, Mt Foraker at 17,000 feet and Mt Hunter at 14,000 feet. These three mountains are taller than any mountains in the Lower 48, byt chances are you’ve never heard of the smaller ones. We flew around and buzzed them as well. Because there were people on both sides of the airplane we did everything twice, once so the people on the right could see it and then back so the people on the left could see it. Doing that meant that we flew around a lot and because I was in the co-pilot’s seat I saw much more than anyone else.
It’s very hard for me to put into words exactly how much I enjoyed the trip. I’ve been looking at Mt. McKinley all my life but always from a great distance, but on this flight I would be within 600 feet of the peak. The one thing you always hear from mountain climbers is how astonishing the view is from the top of these huge peaks. I didn’t earn it like they did so it can’t mean as much to me as it did to them, but I can say it is stunning to just look around from the top of the world. Again, I just can’t put it into words; it takes your breath away!
I’ve got more to show and tell you but I’ll save it for my next post. I hope you enjoy the photos!