Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

German photographer Simon Prochaska talks us through shooting the cover of Wanderlust USA

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

Escape travel

The sheer untamed scale of Denali National Park is why outdoor adventurers gravitate to the 'Crown Jewel of the North.' If you combined Yellowstone, Yosemite, and the Grand Canyon together, Denali would still be greater. It is bigger than Slovenia. One of the most remote corners of North America and home to its tallest peak, Denali has a primeval quality that pulls real wilderness navigators to it.

 

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park Early morning campsite views of Mount Denali in the background. (Photo: Simon Prochaska)

With his extraordinary photograph on the front cover of our book Wanderlust USA, Munich-based Simon Prochaska is the adventurer that captured the park's pristine landscape in an antediluvian state. No trails. No huts. No signs. Just raw wilderness. There’s no safety net at Denali, you are fully exposed to nature. You roam free across millions of acres of land, if something goes wrong, you are by yourself to face the consequences.

From overnight camping with the towering Mount Denali at 6,190m (20,310 ft) in the distant vista to how he selects future destinations, we find out more about 26-year-old Simon and his journey across the Alaskan wilderness.


"I set up my camp and made food. Suddenly I heard this sound in the woods close to me. A big male grizzly bear appeared about 15m in front of me"

Simon, can you tell us a little bit about your teenage self and where you grew up?

Hey, first of all, thank you for inviting me on the Journal. I grew up in a little village east of Munich where I went to school and studied as an architectural draftsman afterward. Then I decided to move to Munich where I did my Bachelor’s degree in Earth Sciences.

How did you get into photography and outdoor exploration?

I got my first camera on my 15th birthday. As I was living close to the Alps back then, I spent a lot of time there hiking, climbing, and mountaineering, and I tried to combine it with photography. The older I got the more serious I was about photography and spending time outdoors. I decided to spend my holidays and vacations hiking and trekking in the high north. To be out on my own or with friends, being self-sufficient for a short time like one or two weeks means adventure to me, which I try to catch in my photography.

 

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

Wolves, caribou, moose, Dall sheep, and grizzly bears form Denali's 'Big 5' mammals that all visitors hope yo see. (Photo: Simon Prochaska)
 

What makes a photo interesting to you? What are you looking to document with your photography?

In my opinion, a photo becomes interesting when it tells a story. I always try to capture the feelings I experienced during an adventure. For example, the feeling of being completely on your own on a backcountry tour faraway from civilization in the huge mountain scenery. I try to capture this feeling by letting people or tents appear very small in front of big mountains or wide landscapes. This means I take those pictures with big telephoto lenses.

How do you decide on your new adventure or location to photograph?

I think it’s always important to combine landscapes with people in it for scale. Otherwise only the impressive scenery would be captured, but the beholder would not get the feeling of how big this landscape actually is. For nice colors, it’s important to wake up early, because sunrise colors give the photos its unique touch. When mountaineering, we are always starting in the dark which means we are on cool ridges or glaciers during sunrise. These are the perfect surroundings to capture people in action.

 

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

The alternative to camping at popular sites is known as 'wild' or 'stealth' camping, which is the modus operandi of all backcountry trips in Denali. (Photo: Simon Prochaska)

Why did you want to visit Denali National Park?

There is this book, Into The Wild, which inspired me to do something I’d never forget. In my mind, Denali National Park, with the highest peak in North America, its never-ending distances and beautiful wildlife was the perfect place to escape the monotonous boring world. So I decided to spend some time there. I lived by sunrise to sunset and not by the clock.

Mount Denali, the tallest peak in North America, what was it like camping and overlooking this scenery?

Mount Denali itself is a very special mountain. There is a bunch of beautiful 4000m tall peaks everywhere you look. Every mountain is special with beautiful shapes, but the massive Mount Denali draws all the attention onto itself. Most of the time I was camping at around 1000m above sea level and almost 40km away from Mount Denali's base. This mountain is 6190m tall, there is a 5000m+ vertical wall right in front of the camper. This is incredibly impressive and I don’t think it’s possible to capture the scale on camera. 


"This park is definitely worth a visit, no matter what type of wilderness you want to explore. You can do day-hiking trips or spend a night in the backcountry. But it is completely pathless, so you should be well prepared!"

Have you done anything on this scale before? Did it meet expectations?

Well, I can say from the hiking and camping point of view, I have never done anything like this before. This place and views are really unique. But as I said before, I am also a mountaineering enthusiast. There are a lot of special places and mountains in the Alps, especially in the western Alps (Switzerland, Italy, and France). Mountaineering around Mont Blanc, that’s another kind of adventure story.

 

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

Simon soaking in the seasonal change from summer to autumn. (Photo: Simon Prochaska)

Do you travel alone or in a group?

This depends on the mood, sometimes I like to be alone in the mountains or on hikes but I really enjoy to share those times with good friends. My first time in Alaska for example, I had this compulsion to explore the wilderness on my own. But on the following Denali visits, I shared it with friends. When I am mountaineering in the Alps, I am together with friends. Not just because of safety reasons but also because of the moments we experience together.

 

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

Growing up in southern Germany near the Alps, Simon was an avid outdoors explorer from a young age. During his twenties, he traveled further afield and for longer durations. Today he travels to some of the most remote corners of the world on solo adventures. 

Were there any stories or crazy moments that stood out to you?

There was this special encounter on my first backcountry hike in Denali. As I said, I was on my own and it was day three or four in the park, I was a two-day hike away from civilization and it was the end of a tiring day. I set up my camp and made food. Suddenly I heard this sound in the woods close to me. A big male grizzly bear appeared about 15m in front of me. I was, of course, full of adrenalin and wide awake again, luckily I remembered the park rangers advice on how to behave in such a situation. The bear was not interested in me and followed his route along a little creek nearby. I watched him for the next five minutes digging in the mud which gave me a wonderful opportunity to take pictures.

After that, I packed my stuff and set up my tent two kilometers further up the creek. I always tell this story because it was such a beautiful and peaceful encounter with an animal ten times as big and stronger than me. This was a very special moment. Last time I hiked with a friend for one and a half weeks in the park, we encountered 17 bears, a lot of moose, caribou, wolverines, and even a wolf! But that’s another story. 


"The stay in Denali where those pictures in the book were taken was a one-week backcountry tour, roughly 80miles in total. We hiked along wide valleys in the northeast of the mountain"

Did Denali and the hike meet the expectations before you set off?

Definitely. As I said I have been to Denali several times now and I can’t wait for the next time visiting this wonderful landscape again.

 

Inside Alaska’s Last Wild Frontier Denali National Park

When measured from base to summit, the world's tallest mountain is actually Denali (5,500m), Mount Everest's vertical rise from base to peak comes in at 3,700m. (Photo: Simon Prochaska)
 

Any advice for anyone thinking of hiking the Denali National Park?

This park is definitely worth a visit, no matter what type of wilderness you want to explore. You can do day-hiking trips or spend a night in the backcountry. But it is completely pathless, so you should be well prepared! There are also some campsites along the road if you don’t want to stay in the exposed wilderness. If you’re not into hiking you can explore the wonderful landscape from a bus which departs on a one-day drive along the only park road. It’s very likely you'll see wildlife like bears, moose, and Dall sheep.

Do you have an all-time favorite hike or place you’ve visited?

There are many special places I’ve seen on my hikes, but I can’t pick a ‘best’ or ‘the most beautiful’ place. I think it depends on the story you are connecting with that special place. Camping in front of ‘The Big One’ is definitely unique, but watching a sunrise in the Alps after a cold bivy on the summit is also a special thing.

The stay in Denali where those pictures in the book were taken was a one-week backcountry tour, roughly 80miles in total. We hiked along wide valleys in the northeast of the mountain itself. During those seven days, we encountered a lot of wildlife. One morning while we were having breakfast, of course about 100m away from our tent to avoid any smell or taste on our tent, a lonely wolf appears close to us. He was observing the tent and as soon as we noticed the wolf, he disappeared in a quiet calm way into the woods. This was a very special encounter and I would say more impressive than the bear encounters.

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