I’ve been swanning about the MatSu Valley as a guest of the local tourism bureau. Nearly all of my expenses, down to coffee from the drive through, were paid for, including this flight-seeing trip with Talkeetna Air Taxi.
I asked to sit up front and Tyler, the pilot, said I could if he didn’t need a translator. “How’s your German?” he asked.
“It’s actually pretty good,” I said. He looked surprised and I said, “No, I mean it, it’s not bad.”
“I might have you work for this,” he responded. “I’ll ask if they need a guide.”
But when we boarded the ten seater DeHavilland, he’d forgotten. “Watch your head,” he said, “most of the injuries we get on these flights are from people whacking their heads.” The Germans boarded, front to back, in an orderly German manner and when I got on, second to last, the copilot’s seat was empty. “All yours,” said Tyler.
Back in the office, I’d listened to an unhappy Spaniard. He didn’t like his flight because they didn’t get to do the landing. The company refunds part of the fee if you don’t land. It’s a safety concern — Denali makes weather and this year, a group of tourists got stuck on the glacier for a few days because they couldn’t take off. They spent three nights on the Ruth in perfect safety and took off when the weather improved.
Once our plane was in the sky I could see the challenge. The air was still but there were clouds everywhere, layers floating between the uplifted knives of snow-capped stone. Tyler apologized, as though he’d failed to deliver the goods, but I was perfectly content, the mountain was all drama and white cloud feathers and black stone and ancient snow with shocking circles of turquoise blue where the snow had melted enough to create little dish lakes.
“I don’t mind the clouds,” I said, “it makes it feel like we’re really IN the sky. I like the imperfection of it. Plus, weather. It’s not like we can control it. I’m good.” I meant it.
Higher up, we were sandwiched between two layers of cloud and flanked by steep faces of rock with deep striations on them, the work of ice claws as the weight of the snow and rock slipped to lower altitudes. At 12,000 feet we put on oxygen masks and then, we punched through a gray blanket and saw the twin summits of Denali, the south one at 20,320, the north at 19,470.
When we crossed the saddle between the summits, the plane hiccuped in an updraft and my stomach jumped into my rib cage. I’d expected it, but that elevator drop feeling in my gut made me nervous. We were so high, so small, wrapped in the riveted metal of the little plane, now like a wind up toy in comparison to the vast snowfields and ice falls below. Between the mask and the headphones and my baseball cap, I was uncomfortable, claustrophobic, but when we returned to the East side of the summit and the plane sat still in the air again, I relaxed.
I keep saying I don’t like to fly, and air travel is a terrible hassle, there’s no denying that. But I also keep stepping on to these little planes with these understated pilots who fly into the bush or at the face of a mountain with the same confidence I would have driving to the supermarket on a sunny afternoon. It is no accomplishment on my part to board a plane and look out the window, but to see the top of this grand mountain from above… I was surprised by the magic of that.
Tyler flew the plane in gentle figure eights around the twin summits so everyone could see. Up front, I had a 180 degree view, more, even, as I looked past the controls in to the propeller, under the wing out my window to the right, and across to the left.
“This is the first time we’ve seen the summit all day,” said Tyler.
Note to gear heads: Yes, I did shoot that photo of the wing and the summit with my iPhone 4s. Sorry.