2001 was a long time ago. I spent 30 days that spring on the Ruth Glacier and Denali. At 14 camp on Denali’s West Buttress we camped next to Dave Johnston, his wife, Cari Sayre, and their son Galen. Dave and Cari planned on taking their son, age 11, to the summit which would make him the youngest climber to the summit of Denali.
Dave was larger than life. He towers well over 6 feet and with his giant pack was a presence that everyone felt. Everyone at 14 camp knew who he was and they knew his stories: First to summit Denali in winter. First solo of Mt. Sanford. First to traverse Denali from Wonder Lake to Trapper Creek with a first ascent of South Hunter peak in 1963. On that traverse Johnston fell 15 feet into a crevasse filled with water. Legend has it the team ran out of food and once off the glacier feasted on porcupine.
My climbing partner and I camped next to Dave and his family at 14,000′ camp and they regaled us with stories. They went for the summit while we acclimatized and we saw them again as they were coming down from 17,000′. “Oh we had a wonderful time,” Cari told us. “It was Fathers Day and so warm that Galen took a nap on the Football Field.”
After Denali I hung out in Anchorage for a while. Somewhere in town I missed my future wife, Yvonne, and her father. We had not met yet and would not meet for another two years and would meet on the other side of the country in Virginia. But she was in town and like everyone else loading up on gear and food before her trip as I did the same before heading out on my next trip. I like to think maybe I saw her, but who knows.
Yvonne and her father went on to hike Kesugi Ridge. They were out for 3 or 4 days and on the last day as they descended to Beyers Lake they passed by a giant man with his wife and their young son. The boy was barefoot and squishing his toes through the mud – a strange sight for two travelers from New England who wore big hiking boots and were stiff and tired from their 30 mile trek. The trio stopped my wife and her father and began peppering them with questions: Where are you from, why you’d come here, how long have you been on this hike, why Alaska, did you enjoy it? My father-in-law is a gregarious man who can practically hold a conversation with the dead so the conversation took off.
The trio, as you’ve guessed by now, were Dave Johnston, Cari Sayre and Galen Johnston. They began talking and regaled Yvonne and her father with stories. Cari talked about Denali and preparing all the food and summiting on Father’s Day. Dave told them all about his job as a park ranger at Denali State Park and his vision to build a sustainable trail that would draw backpackers to a ridge with glorious views of the Alaska Range and he told how he built the trail that they were all walking on. Galen walked around his toes squishing in the mud.
Yvonne and her father were tourists from New England. They had no idea what it meant to haul loads to 14 or build walls at 17 on Denali. They had no idea who Dave Johnston was and what he had done. But standing there and talking to them my wife began to see that Johnston was different from anyone she had ever met and that he had lived a life of adventure far greater than she had ever imagined possible. Yet despite all of this Johnston and his family spent the better part of an hour talking to them about Alaska and the life they lived; a life that is only possible in a few areas left on this planet.
After some time they went their separate ways. Yvonne remembers walking out and seeing Galen’s bare footprints in the mud next to her boot prints. She and her dad finished the hike and then explored the Kenai and then went back east.
Yvonne was conditioned for the east coast. Rigorous schooling and internships on Capitol Hill and Manhattan. Despite this, the encounter with Johnston’s family lingered. Even after years the encounter was still fresh, and one day she found herself applying for jobs in Alaska. We met shortly after that and a couple years later she moved to Anchorage to be with me. 10 years after her first trip to Alaska she was hauling loads on Denali looking east towards the hills that first drew her here.
13 years after Yvonne’s first visit we shoulder our packs and start up the trail to Kesugi ridge. Except this time our packs are heavier because we’re carrying our daughter who just turned one. She sits in the backpack on her mother’s shoulders and looks across the valley at Denali. We set her down for lunch and her toes squish in the mud and she follows her parents’ eyes as the mountains draw our gaze and hold us in place.
I wonder what she’s thinking. Can she comprehend the mountains in the distance? Can she feel the pull of the land that brought us together? Will the life we give her be a life she chooses to come back to?
Photo Notes: These photos are from a July 4th trip to Kesugi Ridge with Yvonne, Isabelle, Bryn, Louis and Aven. We camped for two nights and endured temperatures in the 80s. Because of the intense sun and high temps we had to be off the trail and inside a tent by 3pm for both the sake of the babies and for Bryn who, having grown up in Southeast Alaska, never got used to sun. Being new parents we fretted constantly about the babies being too hot or too cold or too exposed to bugs. The dogs were ecstatic the entire time. Isabelle, as long as she got to hold a trekking pole in one hand (and paisley bunny in the other) was happy. Aven was happy as long as she could eat every two hours. We wanted to trek the whole 37 miles – an easy task with no children, but in the end settled for bailing at the 20-mile halfway point.
A wonderful hike – and a trail we hope to walk again and again.
Yvonne & Isabelle
Bryn, Louis & Aven.
Lunch high above the Chulitna.
Another round of ‘puffy coat smackdown’.
Aven exhausted after a long weekend.
Marching into parenthood with fond memories of the Alaska Range behind us.