Alaska: Up on the roof of a continent

A century after North America's highest peak was conquered, Nick Boulos finds that Mt McKinley is still awe-inspiring, even if you don't fancy the climb

Across the road from Nagley's convenience store at the eastern end of Main Street, the locals of Talkeetna gathered in the historic Fairview Inn. Most were propped at the bar, sipping pints of Alaskan Amber beer from large jam jars and discussing insurance claims and livestock. Huddled in the corner, meanwhile, was a group of forlorn out-of-towners harbouring big dreams.

This week marks 100 years since four brave men first reached the summit of North America's tallest mountain, a peak with glacial crevasses deeper than the Grand Canyon and some of the tallest vertical walls on earth. They were led by a British-born priest, Hudson Stuck. The team endured seven weeks of severe Arctic conditions at debilitating altitude in order to stand on the icy crown of the continent. The mountain had been named in 1896 after presidential hopeful William McKinley of Ohio. That is still its official name (partly through political pressure from Midwest politicians), but the Alaskans prefer to call it Denali – an indigenous Athabascan word meaning "High One".

The mountain, 200 miles south of the Arctic Circle, reaches 20,320ft. However, these days, the hundreds of climbers who set off each year in the footsteps of Stuck, Harry Karstens, Robert Tatum and Walter Harper get a 7,000ft head-start.

Talkeetna, population 876 and some 100 miles north of Anchorage, is the gateway to Mt McKinley. Climbers must register at the town's ranger station before flying to a glacier near base-camp. From there, it's a long and potentially fatal journey to the summit of around 17 days. Only half will achieve glory. Many return defeated by the mountain and a few, tragically, don't make it back at all.

Up the road from the Fairview Inn, across the railway tracks in a clearing of leafless birch trees, was Talkeetna's deserted cemetery. To one side stood a large memorial board etched with names from all corners of the earth. Marking the lives lost on the perilous slopes of McKinley, the bottom right-hand corner was noticeably empty – space set aside for the casualties of 2013.

For many, however, it's a risk worth taking. "Reaching the top is an emotional and life-defining moment," says Chris Erickson, national park ranger and seasoned summiter.

But the climbers sitting in the Fairview Inn were going nowhere fast. It was mid-May, the start of the four-month climbing season, but spring was nowhere to be seen. Instead, Alaska shivered in a prolonged winter. Unseasonal blizzards had swept in, low cloud had descended and all flights – including my own aerial spin around the summit – were grounded.

Stuck, for now, I decided to journey north from Talkeetna aboard the Alaska Railroad. In a flash of blue and yellow, the historic carriages sped past valleys and frozen lakes towards Denali National Park, a protected wilderness almost the size of Wales that encompasses Mt McKinley.

It was landscapes such as this that first enamoured Hudson Stuck. After a stint as a cowboy in Texas he turned to religion and moved to Alaska in 1904, settling in Fairbanks. When he wasn't preaching, Stuck explored Alaska by dog sled. Speaking of the magnetic draw of McKinley, he said: "That mountain calls me so loud that I cannot stand to look at it without emotion."

His quest was six years in the making. He persuaded Karstens to accompany him. The two rounded up a full team and set off from Fairbanks on a cold March morning, hauling a ton of equipment with 14 Alaskan huskies.

With a send-off of just two, there was little fanfare. They weren't, after all, the first to try and conquer McKinley. Dr Frederick Cook's claim of reaching the summit in 1906 was quickly disproven (he reached only 5,000ft). In 1910, local men set foot on the northern summit only to discover it stood 859ft lower than the mountain's southern peak.

Three years later, Stuck and company not only battled the elements but also each other. Accounts of flaring tempers and arguments later surfaced, but they grouped together in the face of the many challenges and hardships: the extreme cold and gales of 100mph, the sickness and exhaustion, even losing essential supplies in a disastrous camp fire. They huddled under camelhair blankets, reading Shakespeare and memorising US presidents in a bid to pass the time while acclimatising to the high altitudes and waiting for the weather to clear.

As I held out for the clouds to lift and clearance to be given for take-off, I could, in some small way, relate to them. There was much to occupy me while I waited. I set off to hike the park's trails and rode the shuttle buses along the 92-mile park road, deep into tapestry of tundra, Arctic willow and foxtail grass, spotting grazing moose, shy snowshoe hares and the odd grizzly bear.

As dawn broke on my final day in Denali – and my last chance for a glimpse of Mt McKinley – the sky was cloudless, infinite and of the deepest blue. It was the perfect day for flying. The eight-seater Piper Navajo plane soared high over glacial valleys, snaking rivers and dunes of snow as we left the nearby Healy River airstrip. Up ahead, where meringue-like mountains loomed large, there was no mistaking Mt McKinley.

Dwarfing the others, clouds swirled at its pointed peak. As we neared, I thought of the final chapter of the 1913 expedition. The men had a sleepless night before embarking for the summit. They left camp at 4am for the final nine-hour part of the ascent. Harper was the first to reach the top with Karstens and Tatum close behind. Stuck, almost unconscious, had to be dragged up.

"Never was such a nobler sight displayed to man," he wrote in his journal. "It was like looking out the windows of heaven," observed Tatum of the 90 minutes they spent taking measurements, photographs, praying and hoisting up a homemade American flag.

As the plane gained further altitude, pilot Mitch instructed me to reach for the oxygen mask. Far below on the icy slopes of McKinley, black specks appeared like tiny insects. They moved slowly, inching carefully up the gruelling incline, step by step. The climbers still had a long way to go. From the skies above I wished them well on their hazardous but life-changing journey to the roof of North America.

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The writer travelled with Icelandair (0844 811 1190; icelandair.co.uk) which flies twice a week from Reykjavik to Anchorage, with connections from Heathrow, Gatwick, Glasgow and Manchester; from £675 return for travel in September. The Alaska Railroad (001 907 265 2494; alaskarailroad.com) travels daily between Anchorage and Fairbanks via Talkeenta and Denali. Fares from US$72 (£48) one-way.

Staying there

Copper Whale Inn, Anchorage (001 866 258 7999; copperwhale.com). Doubles from $229 (£153), B&B. Susitna River Lodge, Talkeetna (001 866 733 1505; susitnariverlodge.com). Doubles from $149 (£99), room only. McKinley Chalet Resort, Denali (001 907 683 8200; denaliparkresorts.com). Doubles from $229 (£153), room only. Pike's Waterfront Lodge, Fairbanks (001 877 774 2400; pikeslodge.com). Doubles from $185 (£123), room only.

Visiting there

McKinley Flight Tours (001 888 733 2899; mckinleyflighttours.com) depart from Talkeetna and Denali National Park, from $349 (£233). Denali National Park and Preserve: 001 907 683 9532; nps.gov/dena

More information

Alaskan Tourism: travelalaska.com

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