I woke up surprised. The tent wall isn’t flapping and smacking me on the side of the head like it had been doing for days, and I heard the pattering sound of light snow falling on the nylon. No wind and new snow at the tent city known as 14,000-ft Camp is a recipe for a couple things: pandemonium on the fixed lines above, hidden blue ice, and most importantly for SkiTheBig3, powder skiing while acclimatizing.
Our plan for the day was to go up the headwall on Denali and climb the fixed lines to 16,000 ft, then hang out until we got cold and head back down. Typical program if you’re being careful about the altitude. Second on the agenda was to see how much snow had covered the blue ice around the fixed lines and up near the Rescue Gully. After all, the idea here is to ski, not test our ice tools.
With a leisurely 2 pm start we headed out of camp and up the ski hill. There was about 8 to 10 inches of new snow. We followed a steep skin track eerily similar to the agro straight-uphill routes found around the Tetons and Wasatch.
At the top of the ski hill the skin track heads straight up towards the fixed lines. Jordan and Anton gave chase while Evan and I set a more mellow track, switch backing up towards the lines. About three quarters of the way between the top of the ski hill and the bottom of the fixed lines the slope angle increased and the new snow was no longer deep enough to keep us off the icy firm surface underneath. Skinning became increasingly difficult and exhausting, so we transitioned to crampons and joined the boot pack.
At the bottom of the fixed lines I realized my ascender was somewhere in the back of my Subaru in Aspen. $%^&*!!. I climbed past the first couple of pickets (the anchors for the fixed lines) before giving in and allowing myself to piggy back off Evan’s ascender. I attached myself with a long loop of webbing and we started up in unison. I’m sure we looked like the junk show we (I) was. My head was a couple feet behind Evan’s back, and if we lost our rhythm my split board would knock his pack.
We made steady progress up the fixed lines as a couple guided parties made their way down. I can only imagine the explanation the guide had to give his clients as to what they just witnessed. Topping out a little bit after Jordan and Anton we donned puffy jackets and sat down to take in the view.
As we ate and drank the skies cleared enough to allow us glimpses of the slopes above the Autobahn (see map) and all the way down to 14 Camp. After a half hour or so we headed down the lines. Unfortunately it hadn’t snowed enough to cover the ice on the fixed lines so we descended with crampons. Jordan, Anton, and Evan used their ascenders, while I rigged a klemheist (friction knot) that I had to untie to pass every piece of fixed gear.
We began skiing at the bottom of the fixed lines. Powder! Aside from a couple wind stripped areas the slopes served up creamy dreamy supportable fluff. True “type-1 fun” on a trip made up almost entirely of “type-2 fun” was extremely refreshing. We hooted and hollered as we slid past teams descending on foot. Like most good times it was over much too quickly and we were skating past tents, CMC’s and the smell of early dinners in camp.
We all felt terrific at 16,000 feet and are hoping to head to 17,000 feet or more tomorrow. Like everything out here the weather will dictate what happens. The forecast is for clearing weather and with any luck we will have the opportunity to finish this off sometime this week.
(‘Ski The Big 3 is an Alaskan ski mountaineering expedition cooked up by four deprived (or perhaps depraved?) guys who never get enough ski and snowboard alpinism. Aaron Diamond, Evan Pletcher, Anton Sponar, Jordan White. The idea is to ski Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition. The crew had success on Mounts Hunter and Foraker, now they’re in position at 14,200-feet on Denali. They began d the trip with 6 weeks worth of food and enough camera gear to outfit a small army. We wish them safe travels, especially on their last objective, Denali!)