Ruth Glacier is a magical place

Wednesday, April 11, 2012 - 09:30

This week I’d like to take you on an excursion to a glacier theatre...a theatre of eternal ice...a theatre surrounded by dizzying, snow-encrusted peaks, sheer granite walls, a restless theatre of echos, rumbling avalanches; a pensive, brooding theater of silence...a theatre where time suspends itself into an endless beginning.

This is the Ruth Glacier Ampitheatre, on the southern flanks of Mt. McKinley (Denali), and there is no place like it in the world.

From Eagle River it’s only about two and a half hours away — two hours by road to Talkeetna and only 30 minutes by bush plane to the Ruth Glacier, at 5,800 feet. Talkeetna air taxi services charge about $250 per person, round trip.

If you’ve planned far enough ahead, a year for example, you can reserve the Don Sheldon Mountain House — a comfortable, five-sided hut perched on an outcropping about 100 feet above a snowfield that serves as a landing strip. It rents for about $135 per night for a group of 4 or less. For reservations and other information, Google Don Sheldon Mountain House rentals. The Alaska Mountaineering School (AMS) web page will direct you to the reservation site.

The 200-square foot Mountain House was designed and built by legendary bush pilot Don Sheldon in 1966 on a five-acre he acquired before the Ampitheatre became part of Denali National Park and Preserve.

The Mountain House isn’t the Waldorf, but it comforably sleeps six, (provided one persons sleeps on the floor) is centered with a wood stove, and has large windows for a panoramic, 360-degree view which includes Denali, Mt. Dan Beard, Mt. Silverthrone, the ragged Rooster Comb, Mt. Barille, Mt. Dickey and other breaktaking peaks. Not too far away is a precariously perched outhouse with the best view in Alaska. Bring extra food and wood, because rapidly deteriorating weather can sometimes delay scheduled departures.

Another option, provided you have a sturdy tent and good equipment, is camping in the snow. Essential gear includes snow stakes for anchoring the tent and a snow saw or shovel for cutting blocks of snow to build windbreaks, and a warm sleeping bag.

If you arrive on a crystal clear day, which is highly probable from mid-April to mid-June — the best time period to visit — you won’t do much for awhile except stand around and gape at the scenery. It’s too much to take in at first... the glacier stretches out forever toward the east, forking off to the west and south, with Mt. Dan Beard looming thousands of feet above the glacier floor. It’s alright, though. People spend a lot of time just staring. It’s one of the things you do at the Ruth.

Take head protection, sunglasses, lots of sunblock, and shorts — it gets 70 degrees and hotter in the ampitheatre’s sunlit, radiating oven.

There are safe areas to ski, snowshoe and sled around and behind

the airstrip and near the Mountain House, but any travel out onto the glacier should be undertaken only with proper equipment and training. Roping up for glacier travel is a must.

Take a book, walkman, some of your favorite drinks, and just relax. It’s one of the greatest places on earth to hang out and work on the sun tan.

From May on, particularly on weekends, you won’t be alone.

Bush planes will land periodically with sightseers, and there will be

a few tent camps dug into the snow in the surrounding area. You’ll probably have some interesting conversations with climbers from across the world.

I’ve been there three times with friends, and the best word to describe the experience is “magical.”


Frank E. Baker is a freelance writer who lives in Eagle River.

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