Did you think taking a cruise was a cool way to see Alaska? On a glacier trek 10 miles from Mount Denali, you’ll conquer a part of Alaska few humans have seen.
A tanned, bearded snow guide named Nikolai is 50 feet ahead of me hauling a blue plastic sled laden with food. As the intrepid leader of our pack—and the man responsible for lunch—he’s definitely someone worth paying attention to, although something else is stealing my focus.
Directly ahead, a bare 800-foot-tall stump of rock known as the Gargoyle rises up like an arrowhead through the snow. Plunging granite cliffs form a wide circle around us. Although how close they are is hard to judge. Up in the lofty reaches of Denali National Park, distances are deceiving. Somehow, no matter how far we walk, nothing seems to get any closer.
Hiking on a Glacier
The Alaskan glacier we’re standing on is named Ruth. Ruth is a vast, blindingly white boulevard of compacted snow and ice, 40 miles long and over 5,000 feet thick. If you were to dig straight down, you’d eventually reach a canyon older than the glacier itself.
When you’re hiking a glacier, they tell you not to ‘be a jerk’. This advice is more practical than a personality trait. Strapped into a harness, with ropes linking you to the person in front and behind, each movement affects everyone else. If I walk too fast, I’ll jerk the person behind me. If I slow down, I’ll jerk the person in front. So, in single file, like a sluggish army of ants, our group falls into an easy rhythm—each step synchronized, one foot in front of the other, as we crunch down the snow.
Because of the collaborative nature of the hike, everyone is respectful and attentive. When one person moves, everyone moves. When someone stops, we all stop. The two most important words when you’re on a glacier are: Zero (‘stop’) and Clear (‘go’). That’s what you utter when you need to stop to take a picture, or your rope gets tangled, or you need to blow your nose. Whatever happens, you’re all in it together.
My eyes, when they’re not on the Gargoyle, follow the rope as it slithers through the snow, attaching me to a train of four hikers, including Nikolai. World-class climbers have passed through this glacier, on their way to Denali, the jewel of southeast Alaska, and North America’s tallest peak at 20,320 feet high.
Few have braved these harsh snow fields for a picnic.
Excursion from the Sheldon Chalet
Earlier in the day, we’d left our cozy digs at the Sheldon Chalet, a striking five-room mini-hotel that hovers on a cliff over Ruth Glacier. This tiny structure, hexagon-shaped, built of steel, and wrapped in windows, is the state’s newest and most remote lodge. It opened in March, 2018, a true labor of love by members of the Sheldon family. (Don Sheldon, a famous Alaskan aviation pioneer, was one of the first known humans on this glacier in the 1950s, several years before Alaska was declared a state. He ended up buying a five-acre parcel, and ever since his successors have enjoyed exclusive rights to the land.)
For those lucky enough to visit the glacier, the Sheldons’ intimate knowledge of these mountains is a treat. From high-altitude hot springs to flyover helicopter tours of the surrounding park, they’ve turned this otherwise inhospitable landscape into a private playground for guests.
The Silence of Glacier Hiking
Glacier hiking might be the best activity you can do in late summer, when conditions are just right so the sun stays out all day without being too strong to melt the snow.
Being confined to such stark surroundings has its benefits. As I walk, I’m grateful for the chance to turn off my devices (and my brain) and tune into something much grander. With the exception of a few whirring prop planes every now and then, the silence here is all-encompassing. But it’s more than just the absence of noise—it’s a humbling force, an invitation to prayer. Trudging up here in this permafrost, with the jagged tip of the Gargoyle fast approaching, my utter respect for these wild, untouchable mountains has only grown.
Lunch on the Glacier
Lunch is soon, and I can hardly wait. This hike, which has led us past a set of wolverine tracks, alongside shadowy crevasses, and over rolling dunes of crystal white powder, offers just a taste of what the original explorers, like Don Sheldon, must have seen, as they fought their way over these ice-crusted fields. I can only imagine how hungry they would’ve been.
Of course, Sheldon couldn’t have possibly imagined a group of travelers—first-time hikers, no less—would one day be leisurely picnicking at the foot of the Gargoyle, seated at a table carved out of the snow. On this frozen table, our guides Nikolai and Terryl have arranged wine glasses and bottles of Alaskan birch water. A bouquet of flowers is stuck into the ice for decoration. Suddenly, a portable burner appears, and into the skillet go fresh Alaskan King crab cakes, all fragrant with lemony breadcrumbs and oil spattering lightly into the snow.
As we eat, Nikolai describes his recent attempt scaling the top of the Gargoyle with a friend, where he said they witnessed a group of gigantic bumblebees, pollinating flowers growing in cracks along the rock. Icy Denali, often glimpsed from afar in rickety tour buses, appears impenetrable, closed off. But really, this is nature in its most original state: slow-moving, humblingly vast, and ripe with adventure. This is one of the great misconceptions about Alaska. The average tourist here is aged 60 and up, but really, this is a young person’s state. If hiking on a glacier, or mountaineering, or heli-skiing, or the thrill of roaming on a merciless 20,000-foot mountain (many believe Denali is harder to climb than Everest) sound appealing, then go. For the sake of uninhibited adventure, you won’t regret it.
The Sheldon Chalet in Alaska
For more information about the Sheldon Chalet, visit: sheldonchalet.com.