Otway Sound, Chile


I remember how it was the first time when I met with these funny animals that look neither fish nor birds : the Magellanes penguins in South-Africa…
I was intrigued how they could swim and come ashore, I was amused how they walked, and they gave me a feeling that wildlife still existed on this planet, that there was still some birds that were wild enough to come again and again to the same spot and just do what they do… being penguins.So I was thrilled to meet again.  The location : Otway sound, Chile.  The weather : windy, rainy, cold – ideal conditions for our little friends.

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is a small city, overlooking the Straits of Magellan.  The Straits of Magellan were for a long time the favored way for ships to go from the Atlantic to the Pacific, for traders and explorers alike.  When Magellan first traveled this part of the world, and discovered this passage, he saw a lot of fires to the west – he called this part of the world “tierra del fuego” (land of fires).  The fires were made by the indigenious people.
On the plaza in Punta Arenas, a statue remembers the explorers and the ‘wild’ people they conquered.

A popular excursion out of town is a two hour ride to the Otway sound, where the penguins live.

Otway Sound Penguin colony

It was rainy, very windy and cold, the sea was wild.  This is the usual weather over here, this is Patagonia, this is penguin area!

The national park is not that big but offers good opportunities to enjoy the way of life of the penguins.  There are great photo opportunities everywhere.

The penguins come to this part of land to breed – everywhere are signs “not to disturb the breeding process”…

As soon as they come out of the ice cold water, they clean their feathers with their beaks. It is amazing how smooth they can make the transition from swimming to sliding on the water and eventually walking.

And then they begin their funny walk to their nest – they always use the same nest and the same pathways to go there.When you study them closely – and there are many opportunities to do so here – you begin to realise how interesting they are, how sofisticated their social behaviour is, and how tough they are – as you get colder and colder standing there, they just go on, wait to look back, and eventually will find their nest and mate.

Way to go, the penguin way !

We will meet again.

Pinguins coming ashore
Pinguins walking
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Torres del Paine , Chile


This is one of the main reasons why I came to Patagonia in the first place : to see the famous mountain peaks of the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile.  How many times I hadn’t seen these in pictures, and yet now that I was standing here it was feeling greater than reality.  I often felt like being in a dream, in a perfect natural environment, where everything is beautiful and peaceful, but also so different that it became a little strange – only the pain in the feet after a days walking brought me back to reality but at night when sleeping in my tent, the dreams came back and the sounds of the horses galloping next to the tent in the morning didn’t break the dreams but only amplified them.  

Sounds a little ‘unreal’ ? Well this place has often a surreal aspect, I will try to explain…

We arrived with the catamaran, after a fantastic boat trip with views of ‘Los Cuernos’ and ‘Paine Grande’ and many more beautiful mountain scenery.  The weather was great – sun and blue sky – not the Patagonia we expected, and we quite couldn’t believe it was going to stay like this.  The campsite next to the lake and with great views all around, this was the start of the dreams and surreal experiences.

The Grey Glacier

The Grey Glacier

Day 1 – After a 2 hours walk along the Grey river, a glacier river with many floating icebergs and which really looks grey (but all glacier rivers do), we reached the lookout point for the Grey glacier.  The last part was quite rocky and windy, the experience of sitting on top of a rock and admiring the great glacier, was truly surreal experience number 1.
Along the way while we walked, we could drink from the stream of mountain water, pure and ice cold and tasty.  The firebush were blooming, the green was fresh – spring at its best.
We enjoyed camplife and a good sleep in our tent – it felt just all great to be there..

The French Valley

The French Valley

Day 2 – some 20 kilometers or more of walking along the French valley today.  After a couple of hours, and many pictures later, we reached the first lookout point – great views of the cuernos and Paine Grande, the highest mountain of the park and always covered with snow and glaciers.  I sat for a couple of hours there and saw maybe 10 snow avalanches – even filmed one that lasted maybe 5 minutes on my mpeg photo camera – surreal experience number 2 !
The way back was long and tiring, after every bend I hoped to see our tents, but this idea just made it longer… Finally when we arrived, we took the catamaran to our next camping site.

This camping site was on private ground, more remote, and our driver even spotted a puma at night – I only heard the horses galloping next to the tents in the morning.

The Torres !

Torres del Paine

Day 3 – Another full day of hiking, this time to the refugeo Chileno and to the base of the Torres !  The highlight of the trip for many, and the first view of the torres, it is surreal experience number 3.  We hiked the first hour all the way up, then on a plateau which leads to the mountain hut ‘refugeo Chileno’, a place next to a river and with great view on the ‘condors nest’, the south and the central torre.  To see the north tower too, one has to hike some more hours, the last part climbing over big rocks.  I was out of energy that day and relaxed at refugeo Chileno for about 2 hours, enjoying the views, the sounds, the smells, the good life in the mountains.On the way down we stopped a lot to study the mountain flowers and birds – such a harsh environment and yet such a diverse nature !

The weather stayed great for 3 full days – our guide had never experienced this over here, but we were lucky to be able to enjoy it – another dream that came true.

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Ushuaia , Argentina


I dreamt about this destination for a long time, finally I was there and the place gave me a feeling of peace and inspiration.  The southern most town of the world breathes a special atmosphere, it is everywhere and yet it is hard to define what makes this place so special.  Maybe  it is the ultimate end-of-the-world feeling, the freedom to know that when you look out over the water, that out there is only more water, ice and snow of Antarctica, the last true wilderness of the world.

We arrived with the airplane from Punta Arenas, a 30 minutes flight.  The landing was quite exciting as the plane has to land on a relatively short runway and comes in flying low over the surface of the Beagle Canal.  The airport is only 15 minutes away from Ushuaia centre.  The hostel we were staying was a real charm , the owner told us from the first couple of minutes to check out the dining room on the fourth floor, he was proud of it, and he should be, because the almost 360 degrees view was absolutely stunning – from one side the mountains, the ’5 brothers’ and the Martial glaciar, to the other side the town of Ushuaia and the Beagle Canal with the port and the sailing boats.  At this point I was already convinced of the special atmosphere of this place, and I knew the following three days were going to be great.

Ushuaia City

The city itself is of course a touristic place, with the usual souvenir shops, tourist agencies, restaurants – most of them with great food, especially the seafood and some of them in truly romantic locations – and even casinos.  But walking in town here feels just great, not only because of the very fact that this is the southern most city in the world, but also because as soon as you climb some uphill streets – and they are really uphill here – you can enjoy the silence of mountains, the sea and start dreaming away.  The city has some interesting museums, I visited the one about the indigenious Yamana people, which adds yet more atmosphere to the Ushuaia experience, and the ‘Fin del mundo’ museum, which covers exploration of Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia,  and has besides this a nice stuffed birds collection.
Walking along the docks is also pleasant, some interesting historical buildings, a couple of little churches, but most of all the boats and the view of the Beagle Canal…

Ushuaia downtown The closest to  Antarctica !

The Beagle Canal

This canal is the passway from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, and is dotted with little islands and rocks. Big boats must be very carefull here, but we were going on a small boat today, as we intended to see the wildlife, and even walking on a little island !
On the cliffs of the rocks, the cormorants make their nests, and there are thousands of them, they share the rocks with the sea lions on some places – the little boat went very close to the cliffs, and the experience was great, but maybe the animals didn’t like the intruders that much.

Sea birds nesting On the island in the Beagle Canal

After a while, we went ashore to do some walking on a small island that used to be inhabited by the Yamana – rests of their campment are visible here.  The island was a great experience, you are really in the middle of the Beagle canal, you can feel the wind and the rain and you really feel like an intruder into the daily life of the birds that made this island their home.

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Grand Canyon , USA

grand canyon, september 1995 – This was one of my dreams coming true : to see the biggest canyon in the world I heard and seen so much about already.  I was finally there, so I had to hike it.  




Plateau Point hike

Since time was limited, I took one of the classic hikes, the one to the ‘plateau point’, about 2 or 3 hours hike down, from where you can see the Colorado river beneath.  The hike starts at the visitor centre, where you can buy a ‘I hiked the Grand Canyon’ T-shirt, even if you only walked the rim… I bought some trail mix over there, and refilled my water bottle.  To hike the canyon, you need at least 3 litres of water, but drinking water fountains are available every hour or so, you can refill on the way.

Indian Gardens

View from the rim after the storm

The hard thing about Grand Canyon is that you start hiking down, hurting your knees in my case, and then have to go all the way up again.  This seems obvious, but do not underestimate the canyon : it gets very hot in there, as it already was by the time I started.  The vistas are beautiful as you go deeper and deeper into the canyon, there are flowers and cactusses , and squirels.  I rested at ‘Indian Gardens‘, a place with pick-nick area.  As I arrived there, black clouds were coming in now. It had been clowdy all day but this change was very sudden.  I hesitated if I would go further or not.  Finally, I decided to go back up as it was clear a thunderstorm was coming in.

About half an hour later, hell broke loose.  It started to rain and hail, and soon there was also thunder and lighting.  I luckily had my rain gear with me – as I always do when hiking.  I had to stop for some time because this hail really hurt on my back and mud streams were coming down, crossing the path.  The lighting struck some trees in the distance, there was smoke.  This was totally different from what I expected Grand Canyon to be.  Moments later, I continued the hike.  There was one advantage : it was much less hot.  By the time I reached the rim again, the thunderstorm was gone, but the clouds were still there and the views were somewhat misty now.

Grand Canyon from in the air

Next day, the weather was great  and I took a helicopter flight above Grand Canyon.  Although these flights are really the top of ‘tourist things to do’ ( the campsite I stayed was called by some ‘little Vietnam’…), it was really spectacular and well worth the price.

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Monument Valley , USA

monument valley, september 1995 - If you like ‘Western’ movies, you’ll surely know the landscapes of Monument Valley NP in Arizona.  Most of these movies were filmed over here, and you can even visit some movie set ‘ghost towns’ in the area.  It’s a great experience to camp in this desert of red rocks, buttes and mesas.  This is Navajo land.  The Navajo native Americans still live on this land.  While most of them have a way of live like most of us – that is, they wear western clothes and have a ‘regular’ job – they still try to preserve the culture of their ancesters.

It was early in the morning.

Before sunrise.  We had an appointment with Tony, our native jeep driver, which would guide us for the day into Monument Valley, show us the land he loved so much , and much more… The first destination was a viewpoint, where according to Tony, the sunrise was the most beautiful.  We drove into the dark on the jeep tracks – I wondered all the time how he knew which way to go, because most of the (moonlit) views appeared similar to me.  The place was called the ‘Totempole‘ – as all rocks had a name for him, a lot of names were invented just for the tourists, the Navajo had their own names. Sunrise was soon there, and the view of the rising sun next to the ‘totempole’ was indeed spectacular.  Minutes later it was full daylight, and another hot day had started.

Totempole at dawn


Tony took us to many other places, like ‘artist view’ (the most used view in paintings, photographs, and in movies), the ‘moccasin arch’, and numerous others from which I forgot the names.  He also showed us several plants growing in the desert and pointed out animal tracks.  Next thing to do was to hike to the top of a mesa.  Like real spidermen and -women, we used the rope net – Tony didn’t need this, he attached the net for us.  On top, the sight was like that of a moonlandscape.  It was getting hot already; Tony learned us how to use ‘natural cooling’ by laying down on your back onto the rock.  Later we were back on the road and drove into the arches landscape.  We stopped by a kind of a cave.  Tony now played on a little drum (made of the oil filter of a truck and animal skin) and sung a traditional song.  He learned us how to dance like the natives and we all tried this together.  It was a nice moment of the trip.  To finish the jeep tour, he took us to a traditional hogan, where we could see a woman spinning wool.

The Hogan

Traditional Hogan Camping

Another day in Monument Valley, we all went to go horseback riding.  This was the typical ‘tourist thing’ to do, and the horses were very tame.  I had never been on a horse before, but this was really easy : the horse just followed the path it knew very well.  I guess this was not at all typical for the ‘real wild west’ , as we knew from the movies…   It is true that mass tourism over here spoiled the real experience, but what I remember the most were the evenings on the camping site.  Camping between the buttes and mesas is really spectacular, and at sunset I watched for hours the ever changing colours of the rocks.

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Yosemite , USA

yosemite, august 1995 – Western USA has a lot of beautiful National Parks (NP) and National Monuments (NM).  Yosemite in the state of California is only one of them, but probably the best known and most inspiring to a lot of people worldwide.  This NP has a lot to offer to its visitors that come here to camp, to hike or to do some rock climbing.  I camped here for a couple of days and did a lot of hiking surrounded by amazing landscapes and granite rocks, in the footsteps of the famous people like John Muir.  Native Americans were here about 4000 years ago already, and considered the place as ‘magical’.  The natives have gone now, but the magic remains.

Half Dome

Early in the morning, I started at the visitor centre (alt. about 1200 m) for a hike to ‘Half Dome’ (alt. 2695 m).  A lot of rocks and lakes have special names in the valley, this one got his because it resembles a dome split in half, although scientists think it never really was a ‘full dome’ rock. This hike took me about 10 hours round-trip.  The brochure in the visitor centre states ‘a tiring hike with unsurpassed views…’.  It was around 28 degrees C that day, so better take enough water too.

The first leg of this hike took us along the Merced river and into the giant pine tree forests.  In this rocky landscape, a river means… waterfalls ! Indeed, not long after we started we took the ‘mist trail’, a staircase type of trail up to the Vernal Falls (1538 m – around 100 m drop !).  This trail is always slippery and you can feel the waterfall as you approach it, when the wind blows in the right direction.  Passed this falls, the trail goes on towards yet another one,  ‘Nevada falls‘ (1801 m).  A little bridge crossing the river on top of the waterfall permits you to have some spectacular views.  But we were only halfway.

Yosemite Valley Merced River

From here on, the Half Dome trail took a big detour around the rock giants like ‘Liberty Cap’ (2157 m).  All along the way we could see some high peaks, but of course we were focussed on our end point ‘Half Dome’, which was visible from different directions.   The trail now took us into dense pine tree forests, and was slowly ascending.  When we came out of the forests, a rocky path lay before us, now the ascent was faster, and when we looked behind, fantastic views of the Sierra Nevada were visible.

Sierra Nevada mountains

Steel cables 

Finally we reached the base of ‘Half Dome’.  From here on , the real work began ! To get to the top, you have to do the ‘steel cables’.  The slope is about 60 degrees, clearly to much to be able to walk on.  For this purpose, poles are dug into the rock, and a pair of steel cables connect all of them and allow you to walk onto the rock by holding the steel cables (don’t forget to put gloves on !).  From time to time wooden planks allow you to rest a little. And to be honest, it is tiring ! When you are up the rock, the wind blows into your face and when you look to your left or right, all you can see is granite.  It took me quite some time to get to the top (from my memory I guess about 30 minutes), but the reward for this ‘suffering’ was high : the view on the top is just superb and the ‘on-the-top-feeling’ just heavenly.  There is not a lot of space on the top, but even up here the squirrels get  to steal some of your cookies or sandwiches.  We drank lots of water because we were almost dehydrated from the steel cable climb.

Half Dome - the rock at last  !

But our adventure was not over yet.  As we went down (again the steel cables), we were stopped about halfway.  Someone had fallen and lay unconscious between the cables. Rescue people were already helping him.  Nobody could go up or down as the ‘path’ between the cables was now blocked.  We stopped and sat down on one of the wooden planks but I can assure you that’s not easy and – to me at least – a little frightening experience.  But we had another problem.  We had to be back in time to meet our bus back in the valley.  So we had to find a way to get off this rock.  After some talking to the rescue team, they allowed us to pass by the fallen man, on the outside of the cables, only holding one cable, and going very slowly.  This is the part of this hike I would not like to do again, because it felt quite dangerous.  By the time we got down, a helicopter landed near the base of ‘Half Dome’.  There was now a big crowd over there waiting till the way was clear to go up the rock again.  I never heard again about the unfortunate man, but I hope he survived his adventure.

Now we were a little late to get back, and decided to go a little faster, after all it was all the way down.  The last two hours, we had run out of water (all of the three litres had gone).  Imagine our happiness when we saw a fountain with drinking water after an hour or more of thirsty hiking.  This was probably the best drinking water ever.  We arrived in time at the bus and went for pizza in the visitor centre.  We were hungry and tired, but we made it !  And that was such a good feeling.

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Kenai , Alaska

SEWARD, AUGUST 1997 The kenai penninsula is known for its marine wildlife and glaciers that end up into the ocean.  The best way to experience all of this is by taking a boat trip… But as always with wildlife watching, you have to be lucky to see something… and the weather can block much of sight onto the glaciers. 



That morning, it was misty and rainy.  Not exactely a big day for this kind of trip.  In the beginning, there was not much to see, except for the puffins, several sea birds, and the funny sea otters… When on the deck of the boat the wind and rain were challenging the quality of your raincoat.  Not exactely a great trip.  But this all changed when the sea lions came into sight.  Hundreds of them lying on the rocky coast.  The boat stayed at a ‘safe’ distance, in order not to interfere with these animals.  The sounds of the sea lions were however reaching us loud and clear. Later on, someone spotted some dolphins swimming along with the boat.  Dolphins seem to like to do this.  Sometime later, the ocean had another surprise for us : whales !  Everyone rushed to the side of the boat where they where spotted.  Big exitement on the boat, rain and wind were forgotten now.  The captain of the boat tried to follow the whales, from a distance, but this seemed a rather difficult task : you could never tell where they would surface from the water again.  However we had a couple of minutes till they were gone – some very special minutes in the company of the giants of the ocean.

Whale watching ! Whale watching !

Along the way the boat stopped to eat some Alaska salmon, which is always great food.  After lunch, it was glacier time.  One of the big attractions on such a boat trip is to pass by a glacier (not too close however) at the moment a large chunk of ice falls into the water.  The sound and movement of the water is thrilling ! Since it was misty, only half of the glacier walls were visible, but still, these were impressive masses of ice. Notwithstanding the bad weather, this was still a trip I can higly recommend.

Big glacier

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Root Glacier, Alaska

KENNICOTT, JULY 1997 – On a cloudy morning, I went to the old powerhouse in Mc. Carthy.  This site is now used as the home base of the St.-Elias-Wrangell mountain guides.  There I adapted a pair of crampons to my hiking boots and signed the paper declaring ‘guides are not responsible for eventual accidents’, as is usual in most cases when there is little bit of danger attached.  I surprisingly could pay for the hike (in advance) by credit card.

We took the van that operates between Mc. Carthy an Kennicott village (only a few miles away) and then walked on  together with our guide along a small path leading to the Root glacier.  Once on the glacier – after we had attached the crampons to our boots – the glacier experience could start.  Since this was my first glacier walk ever, I had to practice walking with crampons a little at first, but after a while this was an almost ‘natural’ way of walking.

The Root glacier and morenes

The ‘landscape’ on the glacier is absolutely fabulous.  There are steep descents, crevasses, ‘moulins’ (melting water running into a hole into the glacier),…  It’s really amazing to stand on the edge of some crevasse or to walk on narrow edges.  Having a pick-nick on a glacier is also something special !  After a while you really loose every feeling of orientation, especially when it’s a little misty, but our guide knew this glacier very well. What struck me also are all the shades of blue, white and gray… At some point we came into some natural amphitheatre made of ice,… this is really a trip into some other world.

Standing on the edge of a 'moulin'

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Mc. Carthy, Alaska

MC. CARTHY, JULY 1997 Alaska is the land of the goldrush.  Nowadays, the real goldmines are all but a few little ones closed.  Now black gold is the primary treasure, as is illustrated by the Alaska pipeline you encounter along the road on several occasions.  Deep into the Wrangell mountains, in the beginning of the 20th centrury, a mountain of copper was discovered.  This was the foundation of the little mine town Kennicott and the village of Mc. Carthy.  The only connection with the civilised word was the railroad, used to transport the copper. 

The train left Kennicott for the last time in november 1938.  People that wanted to leave the wilderness could come along. There was no time to pack a lot.  This created the ghost town of Kennicott, which is now pretty much like back in 1938.

Chitina, begining of the Mc. Carthy road

The rails were removed later and the railroad was filled up with gravel.  This is now the only road to go to Mc Carthy.  The road starts in Chitina, the last ‘village’ of the civilised world (only a couple of wooden houses) .  From there on, for about 100 km, look out for iron bars and nails used to hold the rails sticking out of the road, as heavy rains and melting ice bring them constantly back to the surface.  You don’t want to have more than one flat tire over here – next to the road one finds now and then an abandoned car wreck. This trip took us more than 6 hours and we stopped to collect 14 nails (which are about 15 cm long)… But it was the trip of a lifetime, it’s really going into the wilderness.  We crossed magnificient rivers and the sight of the Wrangell mountains was fantastic.  The railroad bridges used to be scary to cross by car (wooden planks missing and no fence) but this is not the case anymore, since the end of the eighties they are ‘modernised’.

End of the road, there’s only a parking lot and a camping area.  To go to Mc. Carthy, the only way is by foot, as you have to cross the river – there are only a few cars in Mc. Carthy, brought there in winter when the river is frozen.  There used to be a cable crossing the river with a ‘tram’ attached to it (and you had to operate it yourself, manually).  This is now history, the cable was still there in 1997, but the ‘tram’ was not operational anymore since a few years.  There now is an (ugly) iron foot bridge.  The real goldmine for Mc. Carthy is now tourism.  And the guys just before the footbridge are the first to sell you tickets for mountain bike tours, glacier tours, plane trips, nature walks,…  On the campsite, there is no running water, no sanitary facilities, no electricity… this is close to the real wilderness experience.

Mc. Carthy village Kennicott mine town

The Mc. Carthy village is pretty much like it used to be, albeit ‘adapted’ to tourism demands.  The lodge and the hotel are both ‘old style’.  The lodge has a sign “showers”, which is more than welcome after a few days, but showers are only possible in the evening and you have to bring your towel.  Entering the lodge, there is also a sign asking visitors ‘to declare their guns at the bar’.  Drinks are expensive, but what did you expect… ? The pizza house next to the hotel sells ‘the best pizza in America’, and I can tell you this is not a very big overstatement.

A trip to the Kennicott mine village, some miles further, is even more like going back into time. Half of the buidings and houses show clear signs of decay, the other half is being repared gradually.  You can enter the houses, but not the old mine – since this is dangerous, it’s only possible with a guided visit. There used to live several hundreds mine workers here.  Now a real ghost town.  The debris of the copper mine activities are still there, large piles of rock.  Not to be confused with the morenes (huge !) of nearby Root glacier. Drinking a cup of coffee in the ‘Kennicott Glacier Lodge’ can help your imagination going back into time.

I’ve also done some mountain biking and glacier walking (see next story) during the couple of days I was in this fantastic area.  It was hard to go back to civilisation after a few days…

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Denali basecamp, Alaska

TALKEETNA, JULY 1997 Seeing Mount Mc. Kinley was one of the things I dreamt about before coming to Alaska.  Native Americans used to call this mountain ‘Denali’ (‘the great one’).  The name is absolutely appropriate – with its 6194 meters this mountain is not only  the highest in North-America, measured from the lowlands that surround it, it has a vertical relief considered being the highest in the world, even higher than that of Mt. Everest. 

“Wow, this must be an awesome sight”, I thought, already in dreams standing on the grassy lowland looking up to the mountain… There’s only one little warning : you have to be lucky to see it.  Chances seeing this giant are one out of three, at other times there’s nothing but clouds.

I was lucky to see a glimpse of the mountain top during a plane flight – later in the Denali N.P. the mountain did not show it’s grandeur anymore to us…  From the town of Talkeetna, there are several companies offering a trip of half an hour to a couple of hours with a small Cesna-like plane.  Such a flight is a true adventure.  Taking off from the ‘landing strip’ (and landing hopefully) is quite ‘bumpy’ and sometimes the ‘runway’ is made of gravel.  The little plane brings you above tundra landscapes with glacier rivers, across huge glaciers and between the peaks of the Denali mountain range.  It’s really spectacular and sometimes you wonder how the pilot manages to fly over some peaks or fails not to touch the rocks when flying through some small passages.

The landing strip

Ruth Glacier

I took a trip with included glacier landing to a place near the basecamp mountaineers use to climb Mt. Mc Kinley.  The landing is not always possible as the plane must be able to take off again (the snow that covers the glacier the plane lands on, must be solid enough).  Our pilot decided he could manage but only when using the ‘skis’. When we had landed, we could wander around a little to go and visit a camp made by mountain climbers, which were practicing mountain survival skills.  They were brought up here by plane, but would have to hike down again as glacier landing would not be possible anymore soon, when mid-summer arrived.

Glacier Landing

Mountaineering camp









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