Hanging out in the Sheldon Amphitheater...

Ted Ritter, who I met in Vietnam, called with an invitation to join him for a week or two in the Alaska Range mountains in Denali National Park. Ted had rented the only existing mountain hut in the park, which was built in 1966 in an area called the Ruth Amphitheater. The hut itself is at 5700 feet and surrounded by impressive 10,000 foot peaks, with an excellent view of Mt. McKinley (20,000 ft.) towering just behind. The only way in is by airplane, which lands on the glacier with skis attached to the wheels. This sounded like my kind of vacation so I a gratefully accepted the invitation.









Since the hut is unmanned and inaccessible by ground, we had to bring everything in ourselves. This included firewood for the wood stove, which was key for keeping warm and for melting snow (our only source of water). We departed from Telkeetna, which is two hours north of Anchorage. We were completely crammed in. With all our gear and firewood, it didn't seem like we'd be able to get the plane off the ground.

Paul, our pilot, was very experienced, and has been flying in the mountains for six years. He also had a good sense of humor, which is probably a job requirement. He splits his time between flying in climbers and doing sightseeing flight tours. He also flew the NBC camera crew around during the running of the Iditarod. Admin and flight scheduling are handled by his sister Lisa.

Following a scenic 25 minute flight, we landed on the glacier below the hut, and after unloading, Paul was gone within minutes. It was very cold, about 15 degrees. To see a map of the area, click here. Map is ~70K in size.

The hut is 10 foot square, octagon in shape, with benches and windows all around the outside, and a wood stove in the middle. In comparison with camping conditions when climbing Mt. McKinley, it was pretty posh. The next day our guide showed up with his girlfriend (a New Zealander) and we went over some of the basics of crevasse rescue, the main danger in the Ruth. Occasionally while traveling on the glaciers, a snow bridge will give way, so we were always roped up whenever we traveled anywhere. Luckily we experienced no problems.

Mornings and evenings were cold, with temps between 0 and 5 Fahrenheit.

The first few days were picture perfect, and we got in one long tour day where we went far up glacier. But the last three days the weather soured and one day it stormed hard. The whole day we had heavy snow and powerful winds. So we were stuck in the hut. The snow was drifting a great deal, and on one trip to the outhouse (15 meters away), I hit snow that was waist deep. Visibility got so bad that we had to "wand" the trail to the out- house (small reed sticks with flagging attached). In 24 hours we received about 18 inches of snow. We could regularly hear the avalanches and slides around us.

Paul never arrived for my pickup because the weather was too bad, and the next day looked just as bad. Nonetheless, we spent two hours Saturday morning packing the runway - an important duty that prevents the plane from sinking into the deep snow and getting stuck.

Just when I had given up and realized that I was not going to make my flight back to Atlanta nor make it into the office on Monday morning, Paul's plane came drilling in through near blinding snow. We were stunned to see him arrive.

As it turns out, weather had not been so bad elsewhere (Denali has it's own weather systems), and it wasn't until Paul turned a corner into the amphitheater that visibility got real bad. Paul said that he had only expected 6 inches of snow, and probably wouldn't have landed had he known how much fresh snow we had. Once he landed, we spent another hour packing the runway, which is actually hard work. You must traverse through the snow in a zig zag pattern (on skis), and then side step the whole area to pack it down good. The strip was about 1/4 mile long, and when we took off, we needed every inch of it.

The Alaskan mountains are quite spectacular, and Anchorage itself is surrounded by about four or five different ranges. Lots of glaciers and a ton of unclimbed mountains. Surprisingly I never saw moose, which are as common as sparrows there. Fortunately we were too high for the grizzly bears, which were just coming out of hibernation.

I'd love to go back during the summer months, but my scant vacation time will probably not allow for that any time soon. But I was glad I managed to squeeze this week long trip in - it certainly made Spring feel like Summer in Atlanta!

by Jay Rolls. Click here to send email. | Back to Adventure Travel Home Page