Her mom looked over from the driver’s seat. “But, honey, that’s the biggest one.”
“Well, what’s it called?”
“That’s Denali,” her mom said.
The hazy, indefinite figure of that mountain dominated the horizon of her hometown and her childhood imagination. She dreamed of making her way to its foot, its flanks, its summit. And Fairbanks in the 1980s was the right place to let such dreams run free.
Back then it felt more like an outpost than any sort of normal civilization, kind of like “West Virginia meets Siberia,” she says with a laugh. Growing up, her hero was Susan Butcher, a local and four-time winner of the Iditarod.
“You’d actually see her, walking around and getting groceries at the grocery store,” Leighan remembers. “She was about 5’3”, and she was just this little petite brunette. And I looked at her, and it was hard to imagine that she’d been out on a thousand-plus-mile dogsled race and won it.”
Both her parents were mountain lovers — her dad, Tom, first came to Alaska with an NSF grant to study glaciers, and her mom, Nancy, worked as a mountain guide on Mt. Rainier in the early days.
Leighan’s childhood was shaped by the rugged landscape, a flat economy, and her parents’ penchant for remote places and outcomes unknown. “Dad would drag us on all sorts of adventures,” she says. “There were some running-out-of-food ones, and flat tire ones in the middle of nowhere, and climbing peaks in the eastern Alaska Range as 10-year-olds. My dad's favorite thing was the road trip with no food in the eastern Alaska Range in this old Land Cruiser from the 60s.” Her mother often read her mountaineering books, and Leighan mostly remembers the tragedies, like K2: The Savage Mountain.
“I was a horribly uncoordinated kid, and pretty shy, so I got axed out of softball and things like that at an early age and just started running, because that was the easiest sport to do. And Alaska was pretty bust in the 1980s, so we didn’t have a lot of money for really expensive sports. But we could buy running shoes, and so I would just run.”
That turned out to be great conditioning for her dream of meeting up with Denali. And in her last year of high school, as a graduation present, her parents signed her up for a Denali expedition organized by the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS).
Unlike commercial expeditions, which fly in to 7,000 feet on the Kahiltna Glacier to attempt the West Buttress route, the NOLS expedition tackled the seldom-traveled Muldrow Glacier route, where one must walk all the way in from the road. After weeks of effort, the team had established camp on the upper mountain and were preparing for a summit bid when a storm struck.
“There’s this legend of the White Wind,” Leighan says. White Winds is the name of a book by Joe Wilcox about the 1967 expedition in which seven climbers perished attempting to climb the Muldrow.
“There’s this theory that there’s this really vicious storm event that can happen on Denali that is really, really bad… And I didn’t really believe it, but on our expedition we were hit by this really bad storm. It got worse and worse and worse. And on the third or fourth night of the storm, two out of the four tents were airlifted by this mysterious blast of wind. Something – I don’t even know what it was to this day – just airlifted those tents, and I was in one of them.”
Leigh’s team spent the next several days fighting for survival. Numerous pieces of equipment were lost when their tents were destroyed, including one of her boot shells — a potentially devastating loss, as it would be hard to get down off the mountain without it. With eight people crammed into each of the two surviving tents, everyone was at their limit. When one of her teammates stumbled outside to go to the bathroom and found her boot buried in the snow, it felt like she had won the lottery.
“Long story short, we all made it off the mountain, some of us with pretty good frostbite… but no one died.”
Many adventurous spirits feel the pull of Alaska and Denali, but for those born and raised there, the pull to leave can be just as strong. Just about everybody in Leighan’s class wanted out of Fairbanks as soon as possible. “We were all going to California,” she remembers. “That was our golden shore.”
She eventually did what they’d all talked of and left. She went first to school in Colorado, where she literally crashed into her future husband, Tucker, one day at a local ski area. After a huge wipeout, three of her friends skied right past her without stopping, intent on teaching her a lesson, but Tucker stopped. Back than, Leighan was known to equate speed with skill, Tucker says.
Although she honed her technical skills on peaks and big walls from Yosemite to Patagonia, nothing filled the hole created in her each day that she didn’t wake up to that mountain.
“I tried Montana. I tried Colorado. I tried Utah and even California in some senses, and maybe Washington state a little bit. And I remember very distinctly standing on top of a mountain in Utah and looking northwest and just bursting into tears out of homesickness.”
And so between stints of living in the lower 48, Leighan connived any means necessary to spend as much time as possible on the flanks of Denali. She volunteered for the park service and then served as a grunt guide on the West Buttress Route. Another time, she pulled a solo permit and spent 6 weeks just here and the mountain.
“Guiding on Denali is hard work,” says Kirsten Kremer, who was the lead guide on Leighan’s first commercial expedition as an assistant. There are no Sherpas on the mountain, which means that guides and clients alike must carry loads up to 100 pounds of equipment and food — everything required for the three-week ascent. Typically, a guide gets just a few days off before returning to work another three week trip. “I got to be her mentor on Denali,” Kremer says, “and let me tell you this: Leighan’s tough… She’s always so bashful, like, ‘Oh you know, I'm not very good,’ but really, she’s one of the best.”
After a decade of effort, Leighan’s life had begun to settle into a comfortable annual cycle. From February to April, she worked as a heli ski guide in Valdez. May to July was for Denali. Then travel, personal climbing, and teaching avalanche safety classes took up the rest year. She and Tucker married in 2010, they built a small cabin in the town of Talkeetna, and life was pretty much perfect — until the day she found out she was pregnant.
“We always knew we wanted to have kids, but it wasn’t exactly a planned thing,” Leighan says now. “Probably part of me was in denial.”
At first, she didn’t tell anybody she was pregnant. The pregnancy overlapped with the beginning of the heli ski season, and Leighan was determined to guide alongside her co-workers without any fuss or distractions.
“One day, Leighan took off solo and went touring up Meteorite, one of the biggest mountains in Chugach,” Kremer remembers. “I think clouds started moving in, and she decided to turn around a little before the summit… That would have been a bold adventure for anybody, but the fact that she turned around shows she has good judgement. Still, we were all floored when we found out she was five months pregnant.”
Flight had always been part of Leighan’s life — from riding in airplanes and helicopters to access Alaska’s remote mountains, to flying around in 8050 Charlie, her dad’s Super Cub.
“Some of my earliest memories are of flying with my Dad… I remember looking out and seeing Fairbanks below and then Fairbanks turning into wilderness,” she says. In her twenties, Leighan had found time to get her private pilot’s license. In fact, her grandmother and her aunt were both pilots, making Leighan a third-generation female aviator.
Knowing that she’d have to give up mountain guiding to raise her child, Leighan began to wonder if aviation might be the answer.
“I realized if I became a bush pilot, I could still visit Denali every day, but also come home each night,” she says. As her pregnancy progressed, Leighan began cramming to become a commercial pilot: “I was like, alright, time to get part of this whole commercial pilot's license out of the way before the baby comes.” She passed her instrument rating — considered one of the most challenging parts of pilot training — a few days before her due date.
In August, 2012 Leighan gave birth to a healthy baby girl, whom she and Tucker named Skye.
Leighan took up an apprenticeship in mountain flying, working as a flight instructor for two years to build up her hours so she could get a job that included flying mountaineers and tourists onto glaciers.
“Glacier flying is not like normal flying,” says Paul Roderick, owner and director of operations at Talkeetna Air Taxi. “You’re flying in this 3-D environment, and there are a lot of elements to it. You need to understand the aircraft, the terrain, the weather, the snow conditions on the ground… We try to bring new pilots along incrementally, and the beauty of Leighan is that she was a mountaineer, so you could see right away, she knows the mood of the mountains, and the topography, and could make sound judgments that way.”
“It’s the most amazing feeling in the world to be at the controls of an airplane over the wilderness of Alaska,” Leighan says, “But you also feel very vulnerable too. Because if you go down, you could go down somewhere really far away from help.”
After years of saving, Leighan and Tucker recently bought a plane of their own — a homely little Piper Pacer.
“My mom loved the really remote places and so did my dad. And now it's our turn to drag Skye along on adventures, and our plane, it’s the ultimate family car camping vehicle. We still wanted to get out into the wilderness, but with a young kid you basically have to do that from a vehicle, and roads only access 20 percent of Alaska. We’ve flown Skye up onto glaciers, down to the coast where you can land on beaches and explore the ocean… It’s pretty awesome, and an incredible privilege.”
What advice does Leighan offer for new parents?
“You know all the cliches you hear about how having children is some kind of miracle and how really special they are? They’re all true. And it’s also true that parenthood is a huge compromise. But probably the best piece of advice I got was from a Kiwi friend of mine, a new mother, and she just said, ‘Don't let anyone tell you what you can't do.’”
Written by Freddie Wilkinson