When I heard the road in Denali National Park was plowed to Mile 12.5, I had an idea for a shot of me standing on a ridge with Denali dominating the background at sunrise. Because Denali is about 70 miles away from this area of the park, I’d need my 300mm lens to zoom in on the mountain, but that also meant the camera would need to be at least a couple thousand feet away from the ridge in the direction opposite from Denali to make the perspective work out. I started scanning the ridges along the north side of the park road in Google Earth looking for possibilities, and there was only one within easy reach that looked promising: a false summit on a ridge pointing toward Denali connected to a not-to-steep slope about a half-mile away where I could easily find the perfect spot for my camera.
With a forecast of clear skies and good aurora, I drove to the park on a Tuesday during this unusually cold March, arriving just before sunset at the Mountain Vista Trailhead at Mile 12, which was completely empty. Snow covered the restrooms and picnic tables, and a couple dog sled trails led off through the spruce trees. Technically, you’re supposed to have a backcountry permit to camp overnight in the park, but the permitting office had closed hours earlier and I had a strong suspicion the backcountry unit I’d be camping in wouldn’t be meeting the maximum quota of people allowed that night. I changed into my cold weather gear, crossed over the park road, then set out for my climb, skinning on my splitboard up a thoroughly packed snowshoe trail leading roughly toward the false summit east of the Savage Alpine Trail. The snow beside the trail was deep and unconsolidated, so I was thankful I didn’t have to break trail through it. When I emerged above tree line, the aurora was already dancing to the east, though there was still a fair amount of twilight to the west over Denali.
When the slope steepened, the snowshoe tracks stopped, and I started breaking trail through thin snow cover, avoiding open sections of tundra and rocks. The snow eventually became too spotty to continue skiing, so I stashed my splitboard and started hiking up the mountain. The slope became much steeper, but the frozen alpine tundra provided good footing. I stopped to pull out my headlamp as twilight faded, noticing that the aurora had vanished. The final stretch to the false summit was rather narrow and I trod carefully to avoid a nasty tumble down either side. Once on top, I realized it would be a perfect shooting location for the aurora and there was just enough room to set up my tent. Feeling completely warm from climbing, I started unpacking my gear, but by the time I finished putting the tent together my fingers were numb and my body felt cold, which I knew from experience meant the air temperature was below zero Fahrenheit. I donned my parka and slipped into my sleeping bag to warm back up, waiting for the aurora to reemerge.
Wrapped in my sleeping bag late at night after a tiring drive and climb, I found it difficult to open my eyes to check on the aurora, but as soon as I saw green lights dancing across the sky, I was suddenly wide awake and operating my camera before I even realized I was outside the tent. Though the moon wasn’t out, the aurora cast enough of a glow on the landscape that I could clearly see the route I’d be taking in the morning to capture my sunrise shot. The ridge looked a little sketchy below where I was camped, but I would worry about that in the morning. Meanwhile, I battled the cold to snap photos of the aurora dancing over the mountains surrounding me. It had to be near 20 below, and my tent, backpack, and camera gear (minus the front of the lens) were covered in frost. A mild but bitingly cold breeze would pick up occasionally, but luckily it never developed into a steady wind. Every 15 minutes or so I’d do a set of 20 pushups to warm up, and when the aurora died down around 3:30 a.m., I was thrilled to finally crawl back in my sleeping bag. I felt warm as long as I didn’t move and kept the bag pulled over my head, though I had to turn over occasionally because the ground was so cold. I glanced out the tent a couple of times, but the aurora remained just barely perceptible.
I’m not sure if I ever fell asleep, but it didn’t seem like much time had passed when my phone alarm went off at 6 a.m. I glanced outside the tent and saw it was still dark, so I hit ‘snooze’ a few times. Around 6:45 a.m. it was light enough outside for me to start hiking. Descending the ridge didn’t look as sketchy as it did in the dark, but there was a short crux right beneath the false summit where I had to scramble carefully. I continued along the ridge easily from there, spotting some shadowy sheep scattering out of view above me. I found the right spot to set my tripod, then set my camera’s built-in timer to take a series of shots over the next 45 minutes and began hiking back to my campsite. When I made it there about ten minutes later, the north and south peaks of Denali were just starting to turn pink. I pushed my tent out of view and posed on top of the highest rock for several minutes to be sure the camera captured me. I sat down to eat a Snickers for breakfast and was happy to find the water bottles I kept in my outer pockets overnight still unfrozen. The waning crescent moon hung over the mountains to the southwest, and an eerie fog covered the valley near the front of the park. I looked down on the open tundra below and felt like I had the entire park to myself, a sharp contrast from summer when the park feels like it’s flooded with tourists. As the sun began to illuminate the ridge, I packed up the tent, then posed for another shot, not sure if the camera was still capturing any images.
On the hike to retrieve my camera, I spotted the sheep I had seen earlier sitting on top of a hill maybe 100 vertical feet above where my camera was placed. After picking up my gear, I hiked up the hill, slowing down as the sheep came into view above me. It was a ewe with two lambs, and they didn't seem to mind my presence as long as I stayed about 20 feet away. I photographed them as they grazed and expertly traversed the steep rock. Gusts of wind blew snow around the hilltop and whipped the fur of the sheep, and I admired how these animals could tolerate such a harsh climate.
With the sun finally starting to warm things up, I hiked back to the false summit and grabbed my camping gear, then began descending the rocky slope to my splitboard. I clipped the board together and was just about to start snowboarding down when I saw a group of Dall sheep rams feeding near some bushes a short distance away. There were six rams total, and three or four had full-curl horns. I made a half-hearted attempt to get a shot of the sheep with Denali in the background but couldn't quite get the composition I was looking for, and was too tired to try harder.
Snowboarding down the hillside was less fun than I had hoped due to the abundant brush and bumpy terrain, but I still found a few seconds' worth of open powder that made it worthwhile. Once the slope flattened out, I skied the rest of the way to the park road, passing a moose camouflaged in the brush and a pair of tourists snowshoeing through the trees near the trailhead. I reached my car just as a bus load of Japanese tourists arrived in the parking lot, watching as they excitedly paraded by in their puffy coats down one of the dog sled trails. When I started my car, the engine sputtered for 10 seconds, then promptly shut down, which tends to happen when the viscosity of the oil increases drastically after cold-soaking at temperatures below about -10 F. The air temperature had warmed to above +10 F and the afternoon sun was shining intensely on my vehicle, so it must have been pretty cold overnight for my car to still have trouble starting. (At nearby Healy, the temperature dropped to -23 F.) I tried starting it again and this time the engine stayed running. While the car warmed up, I reluctantly changed in one of the freezing restrooms, feeling my toes go numb in the couple minutes it took to remove my boots and winter gear to put on dry clothes and tennis shoes.
My shot of Denali at sunrise turned out almost exactly as I planned. If the weather is favorable, I might attempt the same shot again in May but this time with the moon setting above the mountain. Later this summer, I plan to trek through the park to Peters Glacier less than 10 miles from the imposing north face of Denali, where I hope to take some unique shots of the mountain. For the amount Denali has been photographed, there are surprisingly few shots of the mountain taken at close range that weren't taken from the air or from mountaineers at high altitude on the mountain itself.