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Glacier Wedding

Tuesday, September 01, 2015

Glacier wedding adventure in Denali National Park

Written by Courtney Martin.  Photos by Alasdair Turner 



While solo backpacking around New Zealand earlier this year, I got a call from a girlfriend in Arkansas.  The reason?  An invitation to attend her wedding atop a glacier in Denali National Park.  There was no set date, but rather a week-long window, as the flight to the wedding location would be dependent on the weather.  So in early June, I found myself flying from Iceland to Alaska for what turned out to be the most epic wedding I've ever witnessed.

My second morning in Alaska looked a little cloudy toward the mountains, but a possibility of snow storms was forecast for the next few days, so this was our window!  The wedding party met at K2 Aviation and loaded into a shiny red bush plane for our half-hour flight from the warm, green forests of Talkeetna deep into the snowy wonderland of Denali.  As we cruised up the massive Ruth Glacier and between the towering rock walls of the Great Gorge, our pilot made a wide turn near the Silverthrone Icefall and brought us in for a smooth landing on the glacier.  Climbing out of the plane, I sunk into snow up to my knees, but our destination was still a short hike away.  So we donned snowshoes and began our trek up to the Mountain House, a tiny one-room cabin perched on a low ridge in the Sheldon Amphitheater.  This circular wood structure is a private inholding within Denali National Park, encompassed when the park boundaries expanded in 1980.

Looking ready for an expedition but carrying backpacks stuffed with wedding attire rather than survival gear and food rations, our party of eight set off: K2 pilot, Patrick, and his lovely bride, Lisa; their two six-year-old boys, Vaughn and Miles, very soon to be brothers;  K2 pilot/wedding officiate, Stan, and his wife, Ruth;  Photographer Alasdair Turner, briefly in Alaska before heading to Antarctica for a project; and myself, the sole bridesmaid in this most unusual of weddings.  Trudging through the snow was a little too much for one of the boys, so he received a piggyback ride after Patrick transferred his own pack to me.  With one on my back and now one on my front, I became a bit too top-heavy and toppled over into the snow, much to the delight of the little ones.  Atop the ridge, the wedding preparations began.  Lisa donned her lacy gown, Patrick and the boys changed into suits, and I slipped into an ice-blue bridesmaid dress I wore eleven years earlier in another friend's wedding, seemingly a world away in steamy Texas.  Thankfully, the exertion from hiking up the ridge would keep my now-bare arms warm through this ceremony in the snow.

The wedding was something out of a fairy tale.  Fluffy white clouds floated in a blue sky pierced by jagged peaks of granite.  The boys clutched ice axes while the bride held a bouquet of colorful metal flowers to match their metal boutonnières.  An avalanche tumbled down a nearby mountain in a snowfall that mimicked Lisa's waterfall veil cascading over the rocks behind her.  Vows were exchanged, and Patrick dipped his bride backward for their first kiss as husband and wife, surrounded by the grandeur that is Denali.

With a tight window to get back to Talkeetna, we made good time down the ridge to our waiting plane, a striking red beacon against a sea of white.  By now, two other K2 flightseeing planes had landed on the glacier below, and tourists were surprised to see our party arrive in suits and gowns and snowshoes.  This may have been my fourth wedding as a bridesmaid but was certainly the first where I've worn thermals and boots and gaiters beneath my dress.  What a sight we must have been!  As we flew out of the mountains and back across the wide Mat-Su Valley toward Talkeetna, the newlyweds held hands while the little ones, now brothers, fell asleep after the excitement of the day.