Denali's Whale Tail

I'd never guided backpacking. And I've never been on a real backpacking trip in Alaska. Last week I learned it can be serious fun. It was partly due to the crazy beauty of our location - a Whale's Tail-shaped landform between the Ruth and Tokositna Glaciers. But probably more so from my great partners: Nik Koblov from Dmitry Maskoff from New York. 

Climber Bruce of Rust's Flying Service flew us from Lake Hood in Anchorage to Denali National Park. Lake Hood is the largest float plane airport in the world. We landed at Backside Lake, next to the Ruth Glacier, in the retreating path of the Backside Glacier.  

On our first day we hiked down along the Ruth Glacier, following the lateral moraine and camping on a perched lake. Then under blistering sunshine, we day hiked on the spine of the Whale's Tail. Here Nik and Dmitry look down the Ruth Glacier to the Tokosha Mountains. The Whale's Tail is pristine country: no trails, cairns or any sign of humans. 

The presence of Denali will do this to you. Nik (left) is a longtime friend of Dan Oberlatz, owner of Alaska Alpine Adventures. I've been on two previous trips with Nik and Dan: skiing in the Neacola Mountains in 2008 and skiing in Valdez last year. Dmitry is Nik's buddy from New York. These two are the definition of sooooooper nice guys: always fun, enthusiastic and perhaps since they're Russian, they never complain. 

Nik breaking into the Tokosha Mountains on day four with the Whale's Tail behind. We spent a full day in the western Tokoshas, hiking ridgelines and bagging peaks. This trip was hardcore backpacking. We had many days of 10 miles and 5,000 vertical feet over scree, talus, boulder fields and streams. My kind of backpacking!

Dmitry cutting loose after containing himself in the city. 

We spent our seventh and eighth day following a GPS along the ridgeline in fog, rain and snow - a pleasant change from the perfect weather. We'd stashed a canister of food on a 5,000-foot summit to pick up later in the trip. Bear canisters are required in these lowlands of Denali National Park. These cans are heavy and awkward to pack, but I guess it would be more awkward if a bear chows your food.   

Nik doling out the brown juice: cowboy coffee. I've been hearing discrepancies about real Turkish coffee, which is probably the origins of cowboy coffee. Boil it once or three times? Bring it to a boil or let it really boil? Only one solution: "Cathy! We have to go to Turkey so I can research coffee and do a better job guiding."

Our third day hike: up the Backside Glacier behind Mount Church, Johnson and Bradley. 

Whoa guys! Awesome trip. Thank you so much! And Dan, thanks for scoping the terrain and setting me up with these suave dudes. For me it was quite the incredible introduction to backpacking in Alaska. Nik and Dmitry, you're borderline converting me. But be prepared, I'll be trying to convert you. Next time we're stepping it up with some mountaineering. Or maybe the Whale's Tail on skis...