Skiing Denali: The Fast Way Down
Gripped, edges in on the 60-degree slope, and terrified beyond my wits, it slowly occurred to me that skiing Denali’s Rescue Couloir had not been the best idea in these conditions. Looking down the gullet of Rescue from just below 17,000-ft. camp, the idea of descending through the thin chute, lined with jagged shale incisors like the teeth of some great leviathan, I had no true desire to step up and drop in. Thirty minutes later though, after rappelling through the choke and doing our best to map out a safe decent through the bergschrunds and blue ice on the maw of the lower face, we were skiing off the flanks of Denali.
It would be a stretch to say that the skiing off of Denali was good during any point of our expedition this past June. With some of the best skiers and boarders in the industry—including Jeremy Jones, Kasha Ribgy, Ralph Backstrom, Brody Leven, and Jacqui Edgerly—we were well equipped for the descent. But the mountain offered only snow conditions that varied mostly from thin layers of granulated snow to dangerous breakable crust and even blue ice.
Temperatures ranged from extreme heat on the aggregation of the Kahiltna Glacier under the mid-day sun to cold enough to freeze your breath into hoarfrost on your goggles and facial hair. Such temperature fluctuations and less than 30 inches of snowfall in May and June—months that usually have high precipitation—left snow conditions in a dire state. During our approach to the upper mountain this was apparent in the unusually high volume of rock fall, and the massive dark rock buttresses rising around us that, according to Conrad Anker, my step-dad and the expedition leader, were usually veiled in late season snowfall.
Collectively our group agreed that skiing off of Denali was one of the best choices of our trip and a high point within our experiences wandering the mountains of the world.
For Brody Leven, a backcountry skiing virtuoso from Salt Lake City, choosing to take skis up the peak with him was a decision that may have even saved his life.
Conrad Anker, Jeremy Jones, snowboarder Robin Hill, and Leven set out before 2 a.m. for an early summit push up the Orient Express only two days after we had arrived at Advanced Base Camp. They reached the summit mid-afternoon after an arduous 18-hour climb and after lingering there for about half an hour, started their descent. “Jeremy and I had hiked up the 5,500-foot face of the Orient Express and decided that we would ride down that way while Conrad and Robin went down the West Buttress,” recalls Leven. “When we reached the crown of the headwall it hit me. A gut wrenching pain in my head manifested in a matter of minutes, and I knew I had to descend quickly.”
Leven and Jones descended from the top of the Orient Express at 19,500 feet to ABC at 14,000 feet in about 20 minutes. If Leven had not been able to so rapidly and tactfully descend from the summit via his skis, he may have suffered further complications from what appeared to be high-altitude cerebral edema.
Since Denali’s first accent in June of 1913, the mountain has been approached much the same as it first was—by foot. According to the National Park Service, the first recorded fully-on-skis decent from the summit of Denali was not until June 1972, when the Saudan party—a group of mountaineers from Switzerland—skied from the summit, down the Messner Couloir, and out to Base Camp. To this day the number of people skiing off of the mountain is still less than 10 percent of the annual number of people who climb each year.
Tyler Jones, a climber and skier who has been guiding on Denali for ten years, told me over a beer that every established ski route off the mountain has probably been skied by less than five or six parties ever. “The reason for this being that Denali is really just not a skier’s mountain,” he said. Ski boots are much less insulated than climbing boots and offer less protection from frostbite; the light skis you prefer to carry up the mountain are not sufficient to handle the usually harsh snow conditions; and even the most proficient and experienced skiers struggle to perform up to their abilities at the high altitudes the mountain offers up.
But all this is changing. “The technology that allows us to bring skiing to this environment has gotten far better in recent years,” said Jones. Case in point, in my personal kit, my Dynafit Mercury Boots worked extremely well for walking and climbing, as well as skiing. And my Salomon Quest 105 Skis which were superlight, yet powerful skis that could handle the rough and icy conditions with ease.
“The established routes are the only ones that ever draw skiers, so the potential for new ski descents off the peak is endless right now,” Jones went on to say. With modern advancement and the push to break new ground, skiing off Denali may become the new face of independent and non-guided expeditions to the tallest peak in North America.
Tyler also mentioned that with the age of new and awe-inspiring technology, climbers are able to study unclimbed routes through the maze of the Alaska Range by merely mapping out their course via Google Earth. “In the end though, going after un-skied lines in the Alaska Range is still going to be a good solid ass-kicking. But with the advancement in modern mountaineering technology and knowhow we are able to greatly reduce the amount of ass-kicking—or at least increase our success margins for the same amount of ass-kicking.”
- Nat Geo Expeditions
During our expedition, skiers and snowboarders from our team descended the Orient Express and the Rescue Gully, a small chute that drops almost directly out of 17,000-foot camp and down to ABC. Many of the people we encountered along the way deemed us crazy to be offering ourselves up to this level of increased risk. But among the masses of people at ABC, there were several quiet and able young mountaineers who were also on the mountain to tag some of the famous ski descents from the peak, despite the less than ideal conditions.
I was able to talk about the future of Denali with Andreas Fransson, the Swedish extreme skier who, in 2011, made the first ski decent of the South Face of Denali. “I think that there will of course be more people on the peak as years go on,” saidFransson. “The younger climbers coming up to prove themselves in the world of extreme alpinism will stand upon the shoulders of their elders and look onto whatever is the next craziest feet.”
AndreasFransson, like Tyler Jones, believes that the Alaska Range holds great potential for future development in skiing access and new lines, but not only in the most high and dangerous zones. During our expedition we witnessed this fact in the tantalizing spines and stunning lines off the peaks all around us as we hiked up and onto Denali.
In such a harsh and alien environment, you are completely out of your element and in an adrenalin-induced survival mode just to make it safely from point A to point B. As unusual as skiing might be on Denali and in this dangerous and exacting domain, the trend of skiing off of the highest peak in North America is becoming a fixation for some and no longer unthinkable for many more.
Arriving back in Talkeetna after our three weeks on the glacier, I swore I had done my Denali ski experience and would move on. But the surreal experience of skiing down sheer exposed slopes above an infinite ceiling of golden clouds and the titanic silence of the mountain in all its unearthly grace has had a draw on my mind since. And I hear that when you get a good snow window, the powder skiing at 20,380 feet can be superb.