National Geographic Extreme Photo of the Week

National Geographic Adventure went live this week with a stunning image captured by Jody MacDonald of the flight past Foraker and Denali on day 27 of the Alaska Traverse Expedition.

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Record-Setting Paragliding Traverse of the Alaska Range

Photograph by Jody MacDonald

“I was incredibly focused on flying well, as we needed to stay in the air and make distance,” says Gavin McClurg, pictured here during the first ever traverse of the Alaska Range by foot and paraglider. “This had been a dream of mine for six years—to fly across the most remote and iconic mountains in North America.”

The attempt didn’t start out well, however. Bad weather kept McClurg and his expedition partner, Dave Turner, pinned down in their tents for more than a week before being able to get airborne. But finally, “some of the clouds cleared and I had a perfect view of Denali, the highest mountain in North America,” he says. “I felt like we were pulling off something completely absurd and really special, and not likely to be repeated for a long time. In short, I was totally blown away.”

Photographer Jody MacDonald, who shot this image of McClurg flying past Mount Foraker and Mount Denali, about 37 miles into his 124-mile route over Denali National Park, was just as excited.

“There was a lot of pressure for them to fly as far as they could through the park,” she says, because they weren’t allowed to land or take off anywhere inside the park. “The clouds were developing more and more by the minute, but they were able to fly around the clouds against an unbelievable background.”

MacDonald says that McClurg’s dream of making the traverse was the result of careful planning and ambition. “There have been only two other documented traverses: one by foot, and one by foot and pack raft. Paragliding in the Alaska Range had never been done, and traversing the entire range, from one extreme end to the other, was pretty audacious.”

About halfway through the expedition, Turner and an accompanying film crew departed, leaving McClurg completely alone and facing miles of bushwhacking through dangerous terrain toward his goal. “The closest call during this section was crossing the Gakona River, which comes out of the Gakona Glacier. I had to forge 10 miles upriver along the banks, following a grizzly trail, because the river was much too deep and fast to cross on foot,” he says. Eventually he crossed via an ice bridge, “but the footing, due to the hard ice and talus, was treacherous. One slip and I would have plummeted several hundred feet into the icy river and had very little chance of survival.”

Thirty-seven days after launching his attempt, McClurg completed the traverse without any serious injuries.

“His vision and determination to make this happen and suffer it out was amazing to witness,” MacDonald says.

McClurg adds: “Even on the really physical or scary days, life was so wonderfully simple. You wake up, you eat and have coffee, and then your whole job for the day is just to stay alive.”

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