“No!” I groan, a wince breaking across my face. I’m in the middle of a swiftly flowing river, but my raft sits immobile as water rushes past me on both sides. The laws of physics might claim that everything is floating at all times, but here on the Tokositna River, I am surely an exception. I have run aground yet again. I poke the side of my raft, where creases have replaced the taut, inflated body. A host of obscenities seep from under my breath, bubbling up like air hissing out of a small hole. I’m sure I have a leak.
Today marks my first day of packrafting. Ever. It’s a dangerous thing—planning a trip from the comfort of home. Most adventures seem like a good idea when you’re safe, warm, and well-fed—including flying into the Alaska Range, rock climbing for a week, and then traversing out by land and river. Especially bold, I might add, considering that my partner and I had never been to Alaska and had very little rafting experience. Back home, the trip sounded adventurous; now, it feels like we might be in too deep—or too shallow, given my current situation.
Just a few hours ago, Alden and I had arrived at the beach and thrown off our laden packs in a burst of celebration. Relief was tangible. We had just completed a major leg of our journey—the land portion—and the journey from here to Talkeetna would be on the river. The gaping crevasses, steep and loose snow, soggy tundra, thick alder forest, and all-too-common grizzly tracks now behind us, I was sure we were through with the suffering and discomfort too. Now, I’d kick off my wet boots, soak in the views, and let the river’s flow guide me. In short, I (foolishly) pictured a pleasure cruise.
Definitions of “pleasure cruise” may vary, but at this point I’m sure I’ve boarded the wrong boat. In our first few miles of river, I’ve navigated my Alpacka packraft into several logjams, been startled by a too-close-for-comfort moose, and am now regretting my choice to pack my warm gloves in the belly of the boat. I’ve run aground approximately a dozen times, and if I had to guess, the entire bottom of my raft is now covered in tiny holes. The best case scenario: my boat deflates and I grow hypothermic. The worst case: I am grated downriver on my way to becoming moose dinner.
The trip began as many do: with a drink in hand at the local bar. “You know what I’ve always wanted to do?” I prompt my partner, Alden. “I’ve always wanted to fly into the Alaska Range, rock climb for a week, and then hike and packraft back to town.” It was a pipe dream that I didn’t think would have much traction. The next morning, I found Alden mapping our route on CalTopo. A quick three days later, our flights were reserved.
We flew from Bend to Anchorage, where we spent a day walking around town and gathering supplies for our trip. At the grocery store, we loaded our 50-liter packs with two weeks of supplies: pancakes, fresh veggies, canned food for the glacier; Snickers bars, dehydrated potatoes, and ramen for the journey out. We rented four-piece paddles at a local boating store and picked up a PFD my friend had left for me at the local climbing gym. We were checking items off our list—getting closer and closer to watching our dream become reality. And yet uncertainty was almost tangible in the air around us. What would the weather be like? Did we have the right gear? Were we really ready to tackle big Alaskan mountain terrain?
The next morning, a three-hour bus ride brought us to Talkeetna, the jumping-off point for the lion’s share of climbers headed into the Alaska Range—most of which had their sights on Denali. But no trails depart from town. Unlike the mountains of the lower 48—whether it be because of Alaska’s longstanding tradition of bush planes, too-big terrain, or a combination of the two—the Alaska Range is rarely accessed by foot. Unbelievably, there are only 35.5 miles of official trails in a park the size of New Hampshire.
We checked in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (one of the three flight services that operate out of the town's small runway), weighed our bags, and headed to the ranger station for a permit. Climbers dotted the sides of the main street—some still fresh and hopeful; others bedraggled, sunburned, and gaunt. The season’s weather had not been kind to Denali. In fact, more than 80 climbers had been flown out from basecamp the previous day—the first time in a week that flights were able to access the mountain. When we would be able to fly into the range was yet another unknown, but we were prepared to wait.
“That’s our pass,” Alden said, motioning to a small finger of vertical-looking snow that rose straight up from the glacier. To its left was a wide, generous plateau, separated from the pass by a sharp peak formed with stacked blocks of granite. To its right, a gentle col split the distance between two rock summits. Both seemed to offer far easier passage, and yet—compass in one hand and GPS-equipped phone in the other—Alden adamantly pointed at the steep chute in front of us.
Seven days had passed quickly on the glacier. In the end, we didn’t waste any time in Talkeetna, flying out just a few hours after arriving in town. Sometimes you just get lucky, and we did. In fact, we had experienced one of the Alaska Range’s best weather windows in decades. And while we giggled up dry granite in our sun hoodies, Denali was having one of its most successful seasons ever, with a 64-percent success rate and a new West Buttress speed record, set by Swiss-Ecuadorian climber Karl Egloff.
Life is plush when you fly 300 pounds of gear into basecamp. We enjoyed a roomy tent and cushy sleeping setups, a cooking shelter, two stoves, fresh food—even movies and podcasts preloaded onto our phones. And with just a short period of dusk each night, daylight was a bewildering constant. We lost track of time, eating breakfast for dinner and starting committing rock climbs in the afternoon. Our energy raced to keep up with the never-ending days, yet our pace became slow and unhurried, with no threat of benightment. We climbed until exhaustion and forced ourselves to take rest days in the sun.
And yet, despite good fortune from the weather gods, our summits were laced with a different sort of anxiety. From high, we’d stare down at the valleys below, drawing lines that would bring us from glacier to river, hoping they connected. The true adventure still loomed ahead. I had a nagging feeling that Alaska wouldn’t let us go gently—that something would have to go wrong.
Now, as Alden pointed at the death chute in front of us, I felt the full grip of the range. Our first attempt at exiting the glacier—a direct route—had yielded too-soft and too-thin snow over unstable rock, with too many objective hazards looming above. After initiating a loose slide just a hundred feet down the chute, we reversed our course, put our snowshoes on and our heads down, and embarked on plan B—the roundabout way to the moraine below. On the topo map, it looked mellow and friendly, but in the end, plan B proved to be far more than a scenic route. We picked our way through fields of gaping crevasses and belayed each other down steps of steep snow. I crossed a wide snowfield to join a line of tracks, only to discover the footprints of a large cat. Alaska had finally taken off its soft down coat, revealing its true colors beneath. Everything about this place was big.
And so, we headed up the inappropriately named death chute—a lesson in the inaccuracies of looking at terrain head-on—and down the wide, gradual glacier on the other side. Next, a restless night spent where snow met rock, a socked-in, wet-cold morning, tricky navigation on a very-alive moraine, vertical bushwacking, and the heightened awareness of being in grizzly territory. I banged my tin cup and spoon incessantly, stopping only to balance myself on the unstable terrain. Carrying our snowshoes, paddles, packrafts, ropes, ice tools, and overnight gear on our backs meant slow and arduous travel. Wet feet were a constant.
“We’re going so slowly, but I know I need to enjoy the calm while it’s here. Once we join with the Chulitna, it’ll be ‘go go go’ until we hit Talkeetna,” I tell Alden as we float a lazy section of river. Tributaries from adjacent valleys had joined our once-shallow waterway, making it more robust with every turn. It is the morning of our last day, and we are somewhere in the middle of our roughly 60-mile stretch of river travel. The previous night was one for the memory books: a sandbar campsite spotted with moose tracks, an evening lightshow over the Tokosha mountains, a driftwood fire—the first of our trip—and the onset of a poignant and growing feeling of relief. I didn’t realize how much I’d been holding my breath, and it startled me to think that we might actually finish this journey unscathed.
As we float, I ponder the ideas of suffering and reward, the nostalgia that drives my love of type 2 fun. In the moment, these kinds of trips are rarely enjoyable. I often find myself cursing my choices. Crossing the loose moraine with house-sized blocks teetering above, I swore off big mountains for good. Bushwacking through never-ending thick alders, I wondered why I don’t choose more pedestrian vacations: a hut-to-hut hike in Switzerland or fast-packing in the mountains back home. On the fast, braided river just a few miles ahead, I’ll distract myself with a fantasy: a summer party in a faraway land, a flowy dress and fruit-embellished drink. At the moment, there’s nothing I crave more than the cheeseburger and beer that will signal our finish, ushering in comfort, safety, and rest. And yet I know that before we even finish our pints, Alden and I will be scheming up our next adventure. It always goes that way—the reward is just too great, the feeling of relief and accomplishment too euphoric.
Once the Tokositna joins with the Chulitna, we find it challenging to stay together. A former college rower, Alden covers twice as much ground as I do with every stroke. My tiny, inflated boat feels like no match for our new waterway, which begins to look more like a lake than a river. Logjams and sandbars keep us on our toes, and we struggle to find the best passage. In the distance, a bridge appears—our first sign of civilization in 10 days—and tears well up in my eyes. This journey—its length, its breadth, its complexities—has pushed me farther than any other. I feel heartbroken to leave behind such a pure, all-consuming experience. And yet, at the moment, you couldn’t pay me to turn around and do it again.
The river becomes even more complex and the buzzing of aircraft tells us that Talkeetna is near. We fight to stay left—town-side—amidst the increasing logjams and braids, and Alden strains to stay in my sight. Without warning, my body begins to heave with sobs, and my eyes grow cloudy with tears. All the discomfort—the wet feet, the loose moraine, the no-fall-zone snow chutes and grizzly tracks and intimidating waters—hits me at once. Every question, every bit of uncertainty, is floating the Tokositna behind us, hand and hand with its answer.
With one last burst of energy, we eddy out beside a wide riverside path laden with tourists. Before I can pull my raft onto land, someone asks me if I kayak a lot, saying the river looks fast and scary. Another couple questions where we came from. In an instant, I’m plucked from the biggest, most complex adventure of my life and dropped straight back onto solid ground. I struggle to find words. Alden and I embrace, wrapping ourselves in bewilderment, relief and accomplishment, and awe. Our eyes meet and we laugh. It’s all a bit too much right now. At a loss for words, we haphazardly pack up our wet gear, shoulder our loads for the last time, and walk into town. Cheeseburgers await, along with showers and cold beer. Then, as we always do, we’ll start scheming for the next time.
Climbing in the Alaska Range
The tallest peak in North America (and one of the Seven Summits), Denali is the undisputed giant of the Alaska Range and the main attraction for most climbers visiting the area. In 2019, 1,229 climbers from across the world attempted to scale the 20,310-foot mountain—90-percent via the West Buttress route. And although experienced climbers can scale Denali without the help of a guide, a number of guide services operate trips during the main summer season, including American Alpine Institute, Mountain Trip, and Alpine Ascents International (you can see a full list here).
But while the West Buttress of Denali might be home to up to 500 climbers at once, the park surrounding it—roughly the size of New Hampshire—sees remarkably little visitation. For a full week, we were the only climbers in our valley, just one of dozens of similar glacier-laden valleys that speckle the range. The Ruth and Pika glaciers are two popular destinations, but creative pilots will be willing to fly into any number of locations. And for the most part, the terrain is relatively low-elevation—only a dozen mountains in the range, including Denali, tower over 10,000 feet—meaning that weather is generally friendly during the summer season.
There are endless options when it comes to climbing in the Alaska Range. You might go with one large objective, like Denali, Mt. Foraker, or Mt. Hunter. You might choose to basecamp on a glacier and climb the surrounding peaks (similar to the first half of our trip). Some will fly in with lightweight mountaineering kits—even skis—and traverse over glaciers and high passes to a pickup location. Human-powered traverses, involving climbing, glacier travel, hiking, and packrafting—much like the one we did—are also common. Thankfully, the climbing rangers at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station are generous with information and happy to share their “beta” for various climbing trips in the range.
Climbing in the Alaska Range is a serious endeavor that shouldn’t be taken lightly. The glaciers are large and complex, the moraines are alive, and the scale of the terrain is much larger than anything in the lower 48. Unless you plan to hire a guide, only experienced climbers and mountaineers should consider a trip. Climbing in glaciated areas such as the North Cascades, British Columbia, Peru, or Patagonia is great preparation. And for those who want a taste of the mountains without the commitment, flightseeing and glacier-landing tours are available from three different services in Talkeetna—Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT), Sheldon Air, and K2 Aviation.
Packrafting is gaining traction among adventure enthusiasts, and it’s no secret as to why. The ability to travel across or along large bodies of water—in conjunction with hiking, biking, climbing, or skiing—opens up endless swaths of previously unchartered terrain. Human-powered adventure has never been more possible.
Packrafts differ most significantly from other vessels in their weight and bulk: our Alpacka Raft Expedition boats clocked in at just over 8 pounds each and packed down so small that they fit into 50-liter packs along with our mountaineering equipment, overnight gear, and PFDs. They inflated in a matter of minutes with a simple manual airbag and proved to be incredibly durable and reliable—even on Alaska’s wild rivers. Keep in mind too that packrafts come in a range of sizes and abilities: some are designed for flatwater, some prioritize packability and weight-savings, and some are even capable of handling class IV-V rapids (in the hands of a skilled paddler, of course).
Packrafts are very popular in vast and wild places like Alaska, where travel follows topography more often than trails. For some inspiration, check out Alpacka Raft’s Pro Team athlete Luc Mehl’s human-powered ascent and descent of Denali (the article is appropriately titled: When the Blue Lines Become Trails). But you don’t have to travel far to enjoy the fruits of packrafting: even for closer-to-home missions, a packraft can serve as a shuttle for a hike or bike ride or simply a great way to explore an alpine lake.
The summer season in Alaska—especially on Denali—comes early, spanning roughly from late April to mid-July. After July, travel becomes difficult due to melting snow bridges and isothermal (wet and unstable) snow. Lower-elevation areas will remain accessible into September, when temperatures start to drop and days become noticeably shorter. Expect snow navigation—including bergschrunds at the base of rock routes—to become increasingly difficult as the season progresses.
When speaking with the climbing rangers before our trip, they mentioned that we were a bit on the early side for attempting to traverse out of the range (our trip was in mid-June). Thankfully, during our week on the glacier, temperatures were warm and the sun was rarely under clouds, allowing for much of the snow in the lowlands to melt. It will be challenging to match up the best conditions on the glacier, river, and areas in between, but for those with enough tools in their tool kit, mid-June through August boasts the best traveling conditions.
Permits and Registration
Everyone entering Denali National Park will need to pay an entrance fee of $15 per person (or display an annual National Parks Pass). Buses driving into the park will include this fee in their fare, but climbers will likely pay at the Walter Harper Talkeetna Ranger Station (the fee can also be pre-paid online). Climbers headed to Denali and Mt. Foraker will need to register at least 60 days in advance and pay a mountaineering special use fee of $375. Climbers headed to other glaciated or wilderness areas in the Alaska Range—think the Ruth Glacier, Little Switzerland, and Mt. Hunter—can complete a free voluntary backcountry registration when they pay their entrance fee.
Getting to the Alaska Range is relatively easy, as many companies offer transportation by both land and air. Your first task is to get to Anchorage, where a variety of shuttle bus companies offer service to Talkeetna (we went with Alaska Tour & Travel, paid no extra baggage fees, and experienced great, on-time service). For those headed into Denali National Park by road, these buses continue roughly 150 miles north to the park entrance. The Alaska Railroad also offers very scenic service from Anchorage to the park and makes a stop in Talkeetna.
The vast majority of climbers fly into the Alaska Range from Talkeetna, although several flightseeing operations are based near the park’s entrance 150 miles north. For flying into the range from Talkeetna, you can choose among the town’s three reputable air services: Talkeetna Air Taxi, K2 Aviation, and Sheldon Air (we found TAT to be extremely hospitable and reliable). Or, sticking with the theme of human-powered adventure, you can do it all yourself: we met a pair who had biked from Utah and were planning on walking and skiing to Denali, climbing the mountain, and packrafting out. Anything goes—it’s Alaska!
Where to Stay
Visitors can find a decent variety of lodging options both in Talkeetna and in Denali National Park. If you book a climbing flight with Talkeetna Air Taxi, access to a rustic bunkhouse is included in your fee (often used in the event of weather layovers). Additionally, there are several hotels, bed and breakfasts, cabins, and even campgrounds in Talkeetna, and we had no issue with booking a room the day of. If you’re continuing on to the Denali National Park entrance, it is recommended you secure your reservations in advance. A variety of options can be found on Alaska.org.
What We Brought
Packing for a trip in the Alaska Range is no small feat. Because our trip had two very distinct stages, I’ll break our kit down into separate categories: basecamping and trekking/packrafting.
For the basecamping portion of our trip, we packed everything into Patagonia Black Hole duffel bags, which kept our gear dry despite sitting on melting snow throughout the week. I should note that these bags aren’t completely waterproof—we buried our gear when we left the glacier (for TAT to pick up) and the contents of the bags were soaked when we picked them up in town.
We slept in the REI Co-op Passage 2, a simple 3-season tent. In the summertime, you can get by with a 3-season tent for such low-elevation camping (the glacier we visited was around 4,100 feet)—but had we had the budget, a sturdier 4-season shelter (in a roomier, three- or four-person size) would have been ideal. Our sleep setups consisted of Therm-A-Rest BaseCamp pads coupled with additional foam pads (Alden had a Z Lite Sol and I brought a RidgeRest). Foam pads are an essential piece of gear for snow camping—not just for sleeping, but also for sitting and standing around camp. We also both used Therm-A-Rest sleeping bags: Alden had the 32-degree Ohm and I used the 20-degree Hyperion. We could have treated ourselves with warmer, loftier bags, but found this setup to be more than sufficient in the warm June weather.
Expecting rain, we brought along the Black Diamond Mega Light as our dining room/cook shelter (see our in-depth review here). Even with the stellar weather we experienced, we loved having the floorless Mega Light for sun protection—we dug out the snow beneath to create a seating and standing area, which was very roomy for two people. In terms of stoves, we used a Jetboil Flash to melt snow and boil water and an MSR Whisperlite to cook our one-pot meals.
For snow floatation, we used the aptly named (but now discontinued) MSR Denali snowshoes and were happy with this choice over skis (the transition from ski boots to mountaineering boots would have been too onerous). In terms of climbing gear, we brought lightweight tools (the Petzl Sum’Tec and CAMP Corsa Nanotech), Petzl Irvis crampons, a single rope (the Beal Joker 60m), an Esprit Escape Line (for rappelling), a double rack, nuts, 14 runners, and some leaver nuts and cordelette. We also both wore the Outdoor Research Splitter Gloves, which are great to have when you’re climbing grainy alpine cracks.
Trekking & Packrafting
For the trekking and packrafting porting of our trip, we whittled down our kit into 50-liter packs. I wore the Osprey Mutant 52 and Alden wore a 60-liter CiloGear backpack—both lightweight, climbing-oriented packs with a variety of attachment points for pickets, ice tools, and more. The minimalist Black Diamond Firstlight was our tent of choice. We brought the same lightweight sleeping bags we used on the glacier, but this time paired them with Therm-a-Rest NeoAir UberLite pads. We both used rented four-piece paddles and Alpacka Raft Expedition boats, which we soon came to view as feats of engineering: at only 8 pounds, they’re extremely well-built, easy to use, and incredibly reliable.
What We Wore
Because you never know what kind of weather Alaska will deliver, we brought a variety of layers to be prepared in all scenarios. Footwear was an especially big point of contention in the planning stages of the trip, but in the end, we felt that we chose wisely. In addition to general clothing, we also list some of our climbing and rafting clothing below.
Hardshells: Patagonia Galvanized Jacket (see our in-depth review)
Wind jackets: Outdoor Research Whirlwind Hoody
Active insulation: Outdoor Research Refuge Hybrid Hooded Jacket
Down jackets: Patagonia Fitz Roy (for basecamp), Outdoor Research Illuminate Down Hoody, and Patagonia Nano Puff Pullover
Baselayers: Patagonia Capilene Air tops and bottoms, Patagonia R1 Fleece Pullover
Pants: Outdoor Research Cirque and Voodoo pants, Patagonia Simul Alpine and RPS pants
Mountaineering boots: La Sportiva Trango Tech GTX. A note on these: we needed a boot that could adeptly transition from glacier travel and rock to the tundra and bushwacking below—and these were a superb choice. Not many other boots balance technical prowess, comfort, and weight-savings like the Trango Tech does (for more, see our in-depth review).
Climbing shoes: La Sportiva TC Pro
Helmets: Petzl Sirocco and Black Diamond Vapor
Harnesses: Arc’teryx AR-385a and Black Diamond Chaos (now discontinued)
Personal Flotation Devices (PFD): Astral YTV
Other Activities in Denali National Park
You don’t have to go on a climbing or packrafting expedition to experience Denali National Park. From ATV excursions, river-rafting trips, and flightseeing tours to guided or non-guided wildlife viewing and hiking, there’s truly something for everyone. While Talkeetna is the hub for climbers flying into the range, most activities are based out of the park’s main entrance, located about 150 miles north. Similar to Talkeetna, the Denali National Park visitor area is easily accessed by tour bus or train—there is no need to rent a car.
Once in the park, you can book day or overnight tours with any number of agencies or explore on your own. The park has one, 92-mile road—the Denali Park Road—which permits private vehicles on the first 15 miles (during the summer season). Many shuttle buses drive the length of this road, allowing you to hop on or off when you wish. The park service website is a great place to start your planning. For information on lodging in Denali National Park, see our “Where to Stay” section above.