“Most people who travel look only at what they are directed to look at. Great is the power of the guidebook maker, however ignorant.”
John Muir
First Sight of the Great Mountain
I spent a cold and character-building spring in Denali National Park and Preserve in 2022. One fine day I went for a drive to patrol the Denali Park Road as far as I could. I was headed for Mountain Vista, a rest stop at mile 12 of the 100-mile-long park road, end of the road for now as deep snow had claimed the accessibility of the remaining road. I was hoping to give an interpretive program on mountaineering, so I brought my ice axe. I set off up the road, and I was hopeful I would see the highest peak on the North American continent, Denali, in all its stunning glory. The skies were clear at headquarters and looking clearer as I drove west. It was also Saint Patrick’s Day, so I was feeling particularly lucky, and my beard seemed to show a tad redder than the day before. 
I drove up and crested the same hill that gives way to the sight of the alpine tundra that makes Denali so unique. A third driving, third scanning the horizon for a glimpse of the mountain, and a third scanning the tundra for wildlife, caribou specifically. I did ten under the speed limit to be sure I didn't miss anything. The mid-morning sun still laid itself out across the snowy peaks to my south like a golden silk sheet on a newly made bed. I continued, and turned a corner that would give way to my next sight.
Peeking out from behind its guardian mountains, and slowly taking its misty veil off its summit, was Denali. I was overcome with excitement as I realized I was finally seeing the great mountain. It had just a small cloud covering the tip of the south peak, which is the true summit at 20,310 feet tall, being the north peak is a couple hundred feet shorter. As I stood there gaping at the sight, I tried to identify the features I had read so much about in my studies of Denali mountaineering history. Denali Pass, the Archdeacon’s Tower, Karstens’ Ridge, all these features with grand stories behind their names. I recalled the first successful summit of the mountain, and the story of 4 men that spent 93 days on the mountain to finish their challenge. Walter Harper, an Athabascan Indian man who was first to set foot on the top, a fitting first visitor. Harry Karstens, who would go on to become the park’s first superintendent and sole protector for many years. Archdeacon Hudson Stuck, the expedition leader and the oldest, who walked half-conscious to the top with the help of his team. And Robert Tatum, a pack horse of a man and strong team member. They would be the first team to set foot on the summit over a hundred years ago. I remembered all of those who had lost their lives at the hand of Mother Nature, such as nine young men from the Joe Wilcox expedition of 1967, who perished on Denali Pass after a successful summit. Dying from an arctic superblast with gusts of up to 300 mile an hour winds. Mother Nature plays no favorites and is unforgiving. She keeps man humble. She reteaches us our place in this world. 

I made a sketch and took a few pictures before my camera battery died. I was ecstatic to have seen the one thing that every visitor to Denali is praying they get a glimpse of. As happy as I was, I would have been content without it as well. I urge visitors every day to shift their lofty expectations of seeing the mountain to simply appreciating the Alaskan scenery. Even as impressive as Denali is, there are countless mountains in the Alaska Range that are beyond worthy of beholding. As I looked at Denali, I turned behind me, only to see another beautiful scene of golden light shimmering off the crusted snow-covered peaks to my east. The icy comforter placed so delicately on the high ridges of mighty mountains, just deep enough to coat the entire rock faces in pure white. Snow ever so gracefully hugging the peaks and draws of the mountains just enough to form the shape of the landscape without letting the observer see the landscape itself, like a white dress hugging the curves of a woman. I appreciated this sight just as much as I did Denali. To be surrounded by enormous forms of the Alaska Range on each side, feeling totally encapsulated in mountainous grandeur was a feeling like none other.
As I drove on to the end of the road, I was startled by some white fluttering from the side of the road. 8 healthy pure white ptarmigans meandered around the willow bushes next to the road. I stopped to look at them, as these were the first ptarmigans I had ever seen. They were adorable little fellows. Slowly pecking at the ground and at the willow branches. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them for that time. I pulled into the parking lot at Mountain Vista and found a large group of around 20 people or so. I was hoping they would want to hear a program on mountaineering, so I grabbed my ice axe and walked over and asked.
 The leader, an older lady, said they would love that. They were mostly my age and having a great time throwing each other in the snow. They turned out to be a group of college kids on a school trip from California and were a great group. I told them a tale about the history of mountaineering in the park, how special and rare it was to see the mountain, and how they are mountaineers in their own lives, beating challenges every day for themselves. We talked about Harper, Karstens, the Archdeacon, and Tatum, we talked about the dog sled teams that hauled their gear from Fairbanks, and we talked about Joe Wilcox and the expedition that fell victim to Mother Nature in July of 1967. As I was telling that story the husband of the nice lady, an older man in his 70s, piped up. He told me “I knew one of the survivors from that party.” I was shocked. He had some trouble at first, but he remembered the fellow’s name. “Howard Snyder was his name, I lived in the same small town with him in Alberta.” I was amazed at the small world I found myself in. Experiences like these are what make me love my career as a park ranger. We discussed Snyder for a bit, then I finished up my program, and led the group over to an overlook to point out some features of the mighty mountain itself. 
Maybe it was the luck of the Irish that graced me with the experiences I had that Saint Patty’s Day, or maybe it was just as it was meant to be. Everything seemed to line up just right to make for a splendid day in Denali. That group, as well as myself, had been very fortunate to see Denali that day, but even if we hadn't seen it, I think we would have been just as happy. Those folks were already having a snowball fight and throwing each other into piles of snow before I got there. They had been gazing out into the vistas even as clouds pulled themselves back over the mountain, and they still loved it. A gray jay visited us as I was speaking, and the crowd quietly erupted in splendor. Was a snowball fight or bird watching on the written agenda for either of us?, no, but did it help the group and myself form a bond with this National Park? Absolutely. We all wanted to see the High One, but even if we didn’t, the connections with our fellow people, as well as the connections with the land were inevitable. It is up to the explorer to let the carefree child within them free. The child that has been suppressed and forced to look where they are told and do as others demand. That child can run wild in the outdoors and let the spirit be lofty and free for a while in one of Nature’s great gardens, such as a National Park like Denali. 

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