In the shadow of North America’s tallest mountain, there is a quiet cemetery. Step inside and you’ll not find rows of traditional looking gravestones. Here, the memorials are much more personal in nature; small boulders with simple brass plaques; some take the form of broken airplane propellor props sticking out of the ground; one gravestone is simply a mountain climbers boot, filled with wild flowers, used as a flower pot.
We’re at the small Alaskan frontier town of Talkeetna, a popular jumping off spot for the formidable Denali National Park and Preserve, and the small cemetery is the final resting place for many of those who died trying to conquer it.
Denali, until 2015 named Mt.McKinley in honour of the 25h president of the United States, is ,after Mount Everest and Aconcagua, the third most isolated mountain peak in the world.
Its 20,310 feet high summit was first reached in June, 1913, by Hudson Stuck, Harry Karstens, Walter Harper and Robert Tatum. Since then, Denali has claimed the lives of over a hundred mountaineers, many of whom rest in the small graveyard in Talkeetna alongside other town folk
There are no imposing, gothic iron gates at this cemetery – a simple, rustic fence will do – with a hand painted wooden sign saying simply “Mount McKinley Climbers’ Memorial’. If anything, the graveyard resembles a slightly overgrown, but well loved, small garden.
It’s the inscriptions that move you the most; rather than the traditional dates and family titles, many of the markers having tender messages to those who lost their lives doing what they loved:
HERE LIVES THE MEMORY OF RAY GENET – MOUNTAINEER AND MAN –
LET ALL WHO READ THIS KNOW THAT THIS MAN NEVER SAID I QUIT.
“TO THE SUMMIT”
One grave marker belongs to a Mike Vanderbeek, a volunteer rescue ranger, who was last seen on Sunday, May 24th, 1998, searching for a missing climber. Daniel Raworth’s body was later found in an area of the mountain known as Washburn’s Thumb, but Vanderbeek was never found. “This incident is especially painful because it is one of our own”, explained Park Superintendent Stephen Martin. A simple plaque, bordered with rope and sent into a small rock reads;
“WITH A CHEERY SMILE AND WAVE OF THE HAND,
HE WANDERED INTO AN UNKNOWN LAND
AND LEFT US DREAMING HOW VERY FAIR
IT NEEDS MUST BE SINCE HE LINGERS THERE.”
One corner of the cemetery is given to pilots, their final resting places marked with single prop propellors, half buried in the earth. Some are poignantly twisted, presumably from where their airplane crashed into the mountain. “HE SOARED WITH THE EAGLES” says one.
At the far end of the cemetery is a plain, wooden memorial, listing all those who have died trying to climb Denali. Names, ages, dates and countries of birth are recorded simply. In 1980, Denali took a heavy toll, with eight mountaineers killed. If you read the plaque – Gerold Herrman , 43, Germany; Manfred Loibl, 35, Germany; Margaret Huscke, 38, Germany; Jiri Novotny, 33, Czechoslovakia, David Carroll, 31, Canada; George Hanson, 25, Canada; Sean Lewis, 33, Canada; Alan Chase, 23, USA – it almost resembles and reads like a memorial from World War II. And that wasn’t even the deadliest year at Denali – that was 1992, when 11 mountaineers died.
It is hard not to be awed by the soaring majesty of Denali, the beautiful lakes and forests that surround it, and the charming small town of Talkeetna just below. . The small, leafy cemetery provides a tranquil resting place for the fellow explorers who never quite made the summit.