Kichatna Mountains and the Cathedral Spires

Cathedral Peaks (triple peak on the left) and Kichatna Spire (on the right)

Cathedral Spires (triple peak is high one on the left) and Kichatna Spire (on the right)

At the southern end of Denali National Park and Preserve is a spectacular collection of granite spires. This fierce group of mountains is rumored to have the densest population of granite towers in North America.

There are a variety of names giving to this cluster of monster peaks: Cathedral Spires, Cathedral Mountains, Kichatna Mountains, Kichanta Spires. On the USGS map they are called the Kichatna Mountains. They were first discovered in 1899 by explorer Joseph Heron who named the three dominate peaks he could see from Rainey Pass as Augustin, Gurney and Lewis. On the Southern end of the Kichatna Mountains is a cluster named the Cathedral Spires, which includes FlatTop Spire and the most sought after mountain in the area, Middle Triple Peak.

Mount Augustin

Mount Augustin, Kichatna Mountains

Dead center of Kichatna Mountains is the mighty Kichatna Spire and to the north are Augustin and the other peaks seen and named by Joseph Heron. Climbers didn’t begin climbing in the area until the 1960’s. One of my favorite climbing stories from that area is Conrad Anker’s account of the second ascent of Middle Triple Peak.


In April I did a fly over of the Kichatna Mountains with my friend Dan Bailey. It took about an hour to get there from Anchorage in his little Cessna. Neither of us had been there before and we were impressed. It was beautiful day, windless and clear. It was a little hazy but the peaks themselves were nicely lit.

Because of their density, the spires are difficult to photograph from the air. Many are hidden from view. I couldn’t get a clear shot of the Triple Peak. It was a little nerve-racking flying amongst them, especially with both Dan and I having our windows open, cameras sticking out. I would have to frequently remind Dan that there were giant mountains in front and to all sides of us.

The Citidel, Kichatna Mountains

The Citadel, Kichatna Mountains

We realized later that it would have been better if we stayed farther away from the peaks. We should have circled all the way around them. I generally prefer to be on the ground or on a adjacent peak when photographing mountains, but it is nice to get a bird eyes view ever once in awhile and there is a perspective that you can only get from the sir.

The Kichatna Spire

The Kichatna Spire


The beautiful summit of Kichatna Spire

All the images were taken with my D800e and the Nikon 70-200mm F4 lens.

Nikon 70-200 F4 Review

Most people think mountain photography is all about wide-angle lenses. But over half of my mountain images are taken with a telephoto. My go to lens is my Nikon 24-70, which is great when you’re in tight with the mountains. However, when I know I am going to be a far distance from the mountains, or think there will be plenty of tight detail shots of glaciers, I prefer to bring a telephoto. My new go-to telephoto is the Nikon 70-200 F4.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali.

Last light on Mount Hunter and Denali. Nikon 70-200 F4 @200mm F8

When I began using digital in 2006, I went with Canon and purchased their 70-200 F4 right off the bat. When I switched to Nikon for this project (after a few years using Sony) I was bummed that Nikon didn’t have a light, high quality zoom. Luckily for me, they came out with one right when I began investing in the their system.

Is it sharp?

Really, that is all I care about. Telephoto zooms aren’t known for their stellar performance for landscapes. The edges tend to get really soft. But before we talk edges, I just want to say that the center sharpness of this lens is wicked sharp, just fantastic with tons of resolving power to match the D800e. Its performance at middle distances is off the chart, and pretty good at infinity, which is what most mountain shots are at.

It may be sunny, but its still cold! Sy's icy beard.

Sy’s  beard. Nikon 70-200 f4, 145mm @ f5, tripod

100% crop, 145mm f5

100% crop, 145mm @ f5, wicked sharp, you don’t want to photograph your teenage daughter with this lens!

The light is at the right angle to reveal the mountain's fractured surface and to reveal the warm color of the rock.

Thunder Mountain, Nikon 70-200 F4, 200mm @ f8, tripod

North Face of Thunder Mountain

100% crop, not as sharp has the one of Sy’s beard, but pretty nice. There is some color noise in the shadows, mainly from the jpeg conversion, noise can’t be seen  in any size prints.

Okay, the edges. It does pretty good job up to about 120 or so, then the edges tend to get pretty soft, not unusable, but noticeable, especially when making big prints. Kind of a bummer, because I shoot a lot at 200mm. Obviously, stopping down to f8-f11 helps a lot, making the images very usable. One of the problems is that the center is so good that the edges just stand out.

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4

Unnamed Peak, Denali National Park. Nikon 70-200 f4, 200mm f4, hand held with VR on.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn't look too bad in a print as long as you don't go huge on it. Fine for a full page book image.

Upper Left corner, 100% crop, still soft even at f8, but doesn’t look too bad in a print as long as you don’t go huge on it. Fine for a double page book image.

Vibration Reduction

Not something I thought I would use much, being a tripod type of guy. But during my latest Alaska Range trip it was so cold that it wasn’t fair to my climbing partners to constantly stop and set up a tripod every time I wanted to take a shot. Then I went on a flight with my friend Dan Bailey and used it for the entire flight. I really didn’t think any of the shots would be sharp, especially ones at 200mm, but I was wrong, the VR worked great!

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and did aa awesome job.

Cathedral Peaks and Kichatna Spire. Taken hand held from a plane going 80 miles an hour, VR on and it did an awesome job.

Other Things

Its bulky, kind of heavy, focuses fast with my D800e…

At this moment, the 70-200 F4 is the best Nikon option for telephoto mountain images. If you shoot portraits or back country sports, you will be blown away by its center sharpness.

If you are interested in buying this lens (or anything from B&H), consider using the link through the banner below.