#SkiTheBig3 CONGRATULATIONS Denali Ski Descent TR

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | June 6, 2014      
Aaron taking the last few steps to the Denali McKinley summit in the never ending evening light. In this view you're looking south over the Alaska Range.

Aaron taking the last few steps to the Denali McKinley summit in the never ending evening light. In this view you’re looking south over the Alaska Range. Click image to enlarge.

Update from the editors, June 7: The 4 Big Three skiers got back to Talkeetna yesterday and say they’ll begin the drive south ASAP. Now that communication is easier, they sent me a pile of photos we’re sorting through this morning and lining up for publication. I had a good phone conversation with all 4 guys. They’re still stunned by what they did, but also have a pleasantly humble perspective in their take that they had a about a “5% chance of doing all three peaks, and weather is the biggest single factor — we get them all done because we had the weather windows, and that’s just chance.” Here at WildSnow HQ we’d agree with that somewhat, but fortune favors the prepared, and when those weather windows happened the guys were able to take advantage by doing epic pushes, utilizing their fitness, teamwork and alpine climbing skills. So we’d say they can take a bit more credit but still defer to the mountains — which of course have the last word.

Update from the editors: We moved this post to the top as the SkiTheBig3 epic was not quite done this afternoon of June 6. It sounds like the clouds socked in on Kahiltna Base. When that happens the bush planes stop flying and their passengers have to wait– and sometimes wait for quite a few days. Then, when the clouds lift it’s crazed panic as the over-rested beer bloated climbers roust their kit in a matter of an hour or two and drag it over to the craft on the snow-strip like bunch of Egyptian slaves constructing a pyramid. If everything goes right, about 45 minutes later they’re on the tarmac at Talkeetna, and in the Fairview soon after. So, when we get an update that says the guys really are back in civ’ we’ll update this post, and that’ll be it for the glacier blogging. Don’t despair, however, I think I’ve got Jordan convinced to do at least “what gear we used on Hunter/Foraker/Denali post, and perhaps getting a recap or retrospective from one of the other guys.

At the summit, Mount Hunter.

About three weeks ago at the summit of Mount Hunter. From right to left: Jordan, Evan, Aaron, Anton. The trio is the first to climb and ski Mount Hunter, Mount Foraker and Denali during one expedition and the second to ski all three (first was Andrew McLean, who deserves a shout out for coming up with the concept of skiing the Denali Family). Aaron is the first to snowboard all three peaks. This could possibly be the first time all three peaks were climbed during the same expedition as well. Need to verify that; anyone know the answer?

Waking up was hard this June 3 morning. I’d had less than six hours of sleep combined in the past three nights. Groggy is an understatement. Nerves had played a part in my lack of shuteye. I’d lost count of the days we’d been camped at 14,200 feet on Denali waiting for a weather window — blue sky that seemed to always be coming the next day. Of course when we woke up the next day and unzipped the tent door, clouds or winds would say “not today boys.”

Yes, the mountain speaks, you don’t have to like what it says — but you’d better listen!

Today was no different. At 6 am, Evan (our morning person) woke up to clear skies and huge plumes of snow blowing off everything above camp. About an hour later the rest of the team was awake looking at the same thing.

Our forecaster Joel Gratz (Joel is a huge part of the success of the trip. While the NPS has been botching the forecast Joel has been spot on. If you’re looking for great weather info check out www.opensnow.com)

Joel had told us that today, Wednesday, and Thursday looked like good summit days. We decided to wait it out for an hour before heading up the fixed lines. Worst case scenario: Joel’s wrong and it’s another acclimatization day.

We skinned up the ski hill toward the fixed lines, passing a few guided groups making the move to 17k, and found ourselves behind three unguided climbers trying to figure out their ascenders (a situation our group is not immune from, see previous post). To make the pass we switched to the downclimbing rope for a short bit, then crossed back to the upclimb rope. You can do that when the crowds have dissipated.

We reached the top of the lines and continued up the ridge around the massive rock that is Washburn’s Thumb and towards the high camp at 17,000ft. The climbing on the ridge is similar to the ridge between Crosson and Foraker except without the glaciation and with more knife edge. Like prodding lions at the zoo, the fun factor is high while the chance of major issue is low.

Arriving at the windswept plateau that is 17k camp around 2:00 we found our timing was working perfectly. An hour before, nobody could leave their tents because of high winds.

We ran into our friends Matt, Bean, and Marc, otherwise known as the “Coloradbros.” We had made plans to avoid a long sloping traverse to Denali Pass known as the Autobahn to allow more fall line skiing was well as spare me a long, icy, heel-side traverse on my snowboard. Instead we would climb the face above the Autobahn and eventually rejoin the West Buttress route by gaining the climbers left ridge and traversing over it. The Coloradbros joined us in the plan and were nice enough to put in the staircase booter to about 18,600 feet, where we finally caught up with them.

After a short food and water break we crossed over the ridge and quickly regained the wanded highway formally known as the West Buttress. I set a slow pace as we gained elevation crossing over the top of classic ski routes such as the Messner Couloir and Orient Express (unfortunately those lines were not in condition today). Breezy winds combined with sub-zero temps forced the entire team into their down jackets as we 3-count rest stepped around Arch Deacons tower and onto the Football Field at 19,500ft.

At 19,500ft I fell apart while Anton and the rest of the team seemingly found the second (third, fourth?) wind. They raced up the 600 foot Pig Hill while I struggled with a headache and shortness of breath whenever I sped up my 3 count rest step. This was a new altitude high for me and clearly I had not done my acclimatization homework.

At the top of Pig Hill (see our detail map below)I rejoined the group and we stared down our final obstacle between us and the summit of Denali, a heavily corniced ridge with the added difficulty of being at 20,000 ft. Luckily, this is the most popular summit in the Alaska Range and old tracks, wands, fixed pickets, and other climbers everywhere make the ridge a straightforward route to the 20,320 summit. We embraced each other on the summit. Half in shock at our success, half in pure happiness we took in the sights of the entire Alaska Range, the Talkeetna area and the North Slope.

Denali summit USGS monument.

Denali summit USGS monument. It’s an understatement expressing we were all quite happy to see this in person! Click to enlarge.

Slowly, but as quickly as possible, we transitioned from crampons to skis and snowboards and made our way down the classic ski route from the summit block to the Football Field. Right before we skied off, the Coloradbros joined us on the summit. Matt snapped us a summit photo (thanks!) and we were off. Conditions ranged from white ice to cold, sticky, breakable sastrugi. Our wasted condition paired with the extremely difficult snow made for a poor downhill showing for the couple of climbers making their way across the Football Field.

A short sidestep brought us to a rolling pitch with similar snow conditions as the summit pyramid. Quickly we found ourselves at the top of the Autobahn Face. Conditions were still variable but much improved over the West Buttress proper. Two thousand feet of fall line skiing brought us to the low spot below 17 Camp. We cramponed back through a much more crowded camp than when we left, and headed back down Washburn Ridge.

We descended the fixed lines and transitioned back to skis as the sun passed below the horizon, illuminating Hunter and Foraker in bright red alpenglow. Midnight boot deep powder skiing ushered us back to the tents, and warm sleeping bags.

(Editor’s note: Due to time constraints the crew is planning on providing photos once they’re back in civilization. Autobahn Face is the area above what’s labeled as “Autobahn” on the map below. It’s a nice ski line that’s much more direct than circling around on the standard climbing route.)



Map showing routes of Ski The Big Three; note 11,000-foot camp on Denali route.

Map showing routes of Ski The Big Three; note 11,000-foot camp on Denali route. Autobahn Face variation is not marked on this map. Click to enlarge.

(‘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.)


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30 Responses to “#SkiTheBig3 CONGRATULATIONS Denali Ski Descent TR”

  1. Lou Dawson June 4th, 2014 10:18 pm

    I just want to be the first to CONGRATULATE these guys on their official trip report post for their third and final descent of the triad, Denali family, Hunter, Foraker, McKinley. It’s hard to express what a cool adventure this turned out to be, how creative and well executed. I’m sure we’ll have more coming, especially photos once they’re back in civilization where it’ll be easier to get the images sent to WildSnow.

    For now, it is just so wonderful they’re safely down to Kahiltna. One other thought: It’s just amazing how fast these guys have been moving around up there, I can barely keep up sitting in an office! Pretty exciting producing all the blog posts, and an honor to be involved in chronicling this type of alpinism.

  2. Hchagood June 5th, 2014 1:22 am

    Congrats guys! It’s been really fun following the trip, unreal adventure!

  3. John Young June 5th, 2014 7:26 am

    Yes, congrats!

  4. Lisa Dawson June 5th, 2014 8:08 am

    Congratulations on a well executed mission!

  5. Mike Marolt June 5th, 2014 8:09 am

    Big props to the guys! But thanks to Lou as well for covering this. It was a lot of fun checking in to see the progress. Not sure what I will be doing first thing in the AM all summer when I turn on the computer now that it’s over. I just really enjoyed it!!

  6. Lou Dawson June 5th, 2014 8:29 am

    Thanks Mike, I don’t think I’m overstating things to say this is one of the biggest things in ski mountaineering to happen in this decade. It’s right up there with Andreas Fransson’s descent of Denali South Face. I say that not because of any pioneering of new routes, but rather the whole ethos of the trip, from the “enchainment” of doing all three peaks in one trip, to the human powered and no porters nature of the journey, to the teamwork and logistics management, as well as the overall spirit of the crew which is about friendship and working together. I’d imagine they had their moments, but since one of the prime directives of alpinism is to “come home friends” I’m trusting they were able to do that. My saying all this is not to denigrate who has come before, especially Andrew McLean — my point is that rather than just repeating something that had already been done, these guys got creative with the time honored concept of “enchainment” and made a chain that’s a bit hard to even comprehend. For example, just getting a Denali summit has a high failure rate, and Foraker only gets a handful of people a year even trying it.

    I’d also like to shout out those who cam before and pioneered skiing these peaks. That’s not a long list, but I’m working from memory right now so I’ll not attempt to name names Perhaps later, but Jordan and the guys stand on the shoulders of some incredibly impressive feats of ski mountaineering done over the years.


  7. Luann June 5th, 2014 10:26 am

    Including your shoulders, Lou. Not just the mountaineering feats you have accomplished but the mentoring and guiding you have done for these guys, especially Jordan, for this trip, the Denali 2010 trip and for life! I so appreciate you and your support for the climbers and for those of us who wait at home.

  8. Caleb Wray June 5th, 2014 10:39 am

    Nice attempt to put this into perspective Lou. Unfortunately, the vast majority of people have not spent significant time in the AK range, and without that personal experience it is nearly impossible to comprehend how far these guys pushed themselves in relation to normal human limits.

    I personally think trips should only be judged by people that have completed the same feat. Which in this case is currently no one.

  9. Lori Phillips June 5th, 2014 12:18 pm

    Congratulations guys! So proud of your success! Those of us “watching from afar” have really enjoyed the adventure. Thanks for sharing and can’t wait to see our hometown boy, Aaron!

  10. Valerie Oden June 5th, 2014 12:43 pm

    I’m not a climber, barely even a skier, but because of being connected to the Whites for 2 decades, I’ve followed this adventure of the guys closely, and I’ve been at different times enthralled, impressed, amazed, awed, nervous, excited, and inspired by their courage, teamwork, and journey.

    Thank you to each of them, to all who supported them, and to Lou for letting us ride along. Wow. Just wow. (And, Luann, you handled it like a champ!)

  11. Drew Tabke June 5th, 2014 1:44 pm

    Unreal. You guys are freaks.

  12. Mike Marolt June 5th, 2014 2:47 pm

    Lou, first I don’t think it denigrates those that came before. This sport, all sports, are a product of progression that relies on the backs and blood sweat and tears of all that came before. Andrew didn’t have the physiological advantage of having knowledge that it could be done. These guys did, but they stepped it up and did it in a single expedition. They are the same level but in the process pushed the sport a little bit further, so it’s a big deal. And I agree, this is one of the biggest ski mountaineering accomplishments but not of the decade, probably ever. When I look at it and consider the amount of subjective and objective danger they had to manage, there really are not a lot of places with mountains of that magnitude that expose a climber to that much of it. Really. It’s crazy when you think about it. And they managed it and succeeded. All that not to mention the conditions and physical and mental aspect of climbing in that area, this is huge. Not that I am a mountain god or expert, but based on my experiences, that’s how I see it. I can think of a lot of really amazing ski mountaineering accomplishments, but none really any greater than this.

  13. Matt Kinney June 5th, 2014 3:56 pm

    This is a big deal so congrats. It hasn’t made the papers up here but someone (lou?) could send out a press release. Spending that much time high in the AK range is really admirable. It won’t be done again anytime soon, all three summits at one time, let alone with ski descents. Timing is everything and the weather gods blessed this crew. It so easily could have gone the other way. I can’t imagine how worn-out and exhausted they are.

    There are other gems. There are three outstanding Alaska Range peaks: Hess(11,940), Debora (12,339) and Hayes(13,892) to the east of Denali that receive little ski-mountaineering attention. They are stunning, high snowy summits. Doing those three peaks in one shot would be notable for sure if not as worthy. Any one of them would be off the charts. More recent was the group of AK skiers who did a month of notable touring, peaks and descents east of Cook Inlet and ended by paddling across the water to downtown Anchorage watering hole to end that expedition with pure style. Luc Mehl is an animal. Skiers never heard about the Revelations Mountain til 10-15 years ago. McLean is even discovering great stuff above Chitna of all places! I was looking at an FAA camera of the Brooks Range last week still smothered in snow. No one thinks of skiing up there in spring and it laced with super couloir skiing from the Bering sea to Canada.

    There is so much yet to ski up here, places few people know of, let alone ski. Highest is not alway the best, but it is hard to beat in this case. Alaska has a rich history of mountaineering and this expedition certainly adds to it.

    (lou…you site had a banner ad promoting tourism in Oklahoma. Funny for sure!)

  14. Scott Nelson June 5th, 2014 5:26 pm

    Yeah, being one of those that cannot comprehend the depth of what these guys just accomplished in the world of ski mountaineering, it sounds utterly impressive! Congrats !

  15. lechero June 5th, 2014 6:52 pm

    There’s gonna be a party in talkeetna! I’ve climbed and skied, found failure and success in the high Alaska. I got half a clue of what it takes. These dudes laid down a whole new level of bad ass. Congratulations

  16. Michael June 5th, 2014 7:22 pm

    Wow, what a feat. Congratulations you four.

  17. Douglas Sproul June 6th, 2014 9:19 am

    A memorable push Gentleman and one that will inspire many who follow. Congratulations on your epic journey! Thanks for sharing your thoughts with us. Jordan: Superb and brave writing about your Papa, thanks. And thanks to Lou and Wildsnow for covering the event. I hope you have a bluebird day for the flight back to The Lower 48! It’s quite the site flying along the coast with The Big 3 visible along the skyline.

  18. Caleb Wray June 6th, 2014 10:39 am

    Anton’s and Jordan’s phones are still going to VM. So there they sit at Kahiltna base in bad weather apparently. I hope they don’t run out of beverages. If purgatory exists, I am fairly certain it is similar to waiting for an air taxi on the glacier after all the objectives are complete. The AK range is giving them a last reminder that she is still the ultimate decision maker. Oh the irony.

  19. ptor June 6th, 2014 2:04 pm

    Nice one!!!! Awesome effort and execution!!! Wonder if these guys still remember what green looks like after all that time up there;-)
    Lou..I’d still say Chris Brazeau’s solo of Mt Bryce NFace is the descent of the decade. Powder trumps a bunch of rappels.

  20. Bard June 6th, 2014 2:59 pm

    Well done fellas! The Alaska Range is the real deal. Have a tall one for me at the Fairview!

  21. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2014 4:22 pm

    Ptor, glad you dropped by! I’d agree Bryce is amazing… hard to say what’s “of the decade” really, as the Alaskan stuff is more of a combined expedition/altitude/technical/do-what-it-takes type of thing, while things like Bryce or what you guys did on Robson are more straightforward (though not easy and of course super impressive). I think what I like about SkiTheBig3 is it was a somewhat unique enchainment due to the location and choice of peaks, as well as an expression of expedition craft, group dynamics, etc. I especially like the contrast between it and the S-show on Everest.

    For comparo, I lke your Canadian bro’s descent of Archangel Ridge on Foraker, to me that was bold and ground breaking in terms of Alaskan ski alpinism. But yeah, Bryce, wow.


  22. Brad S June 6th, 2014 5:06 pm

    I spoke with Jordan a couple of hours ago and they are indeed back in Talkeetna. They will stay there tonight and start their drive back down to the lower 48 in the morning. Jordan and Anton are both employees of mine and they are eager to start making $ again. We have all been following their trip here and would like to thank Lou for making that possible. I hope that they will have a slide show of their trip here at The Red Onion at some point this summer. Very proud of what they accomplished.


  23. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2014 5:25 pm

    LOL I’m the last one to know! I think he did call but for some reason didn’t leave a message. It’s probably that they’re partying too much as well as gettin on to the big drive. I’ edit the post. Lou

  24. Luann White June 6th, 2014 7:25 pm

    Jordan’s way of leaving a message is to call and not leave a message. It means call me. I have learned this….

  25. Lou Dawson June 6th, 2014 11:16 pm

    Just had a nice long convo with the guys in Talkeetna, sounding so good!

  26. Robin Shaw June 8th, 2014 3:57 pm

    Heartfelt congratulations to a worthy crew. In my estimation, more than three summits were attained: the unspoken fourth alluded to above is the successful negotiation of the group dynamic. The intensity and duration of this type of expedition, coupled with the uncertainty of success, often either fragments a party or forges their relationship into one of lasting strength. Kudos on the daily patience and persistence needed to accomplish that goal; you’ll be brothers from now on, and over time that may become an even bigger source of satisfaction for you.

    I credit Denali with sparking my interest in backcountry skiing. Tromping up and down the Kahiltna on snowshoes in ’81 while an Austrian group glided by on skis was an eye-opener – ok, so first I had to learn to ski – but it eventually came to fruition with a ’98 Logan trip. Also, the concept of summiting from 14,000 is intriguing and incomprehensible to a mere mortal like me after an exhausting day cramponing up and down from 17,200. An expansion on your planning and strategy there including your hydration, calorie intake, and energy management would be fascinating. Hope you didn’t wash those memories away at the Fairview! Thanks again for sharing your story.

  27. Lou Dawson June 8th, 2014 8:04 pm

    Good point about the “4th Summit” Robin! This will probably continue on the drive south, which apparently all four guys are doing again. Have to say if it was me I would have been sorely tempted to get dropped off at Anchorage International and ending up in Aspen a few hours later, even if my Visa card got melted edges. Lou

  28. Mark Morford June 9th, 2014 7:23 pm

    Hey guys. I’m super impressed by your whole adventure and glad you made it back safely. I met you as you were desceding the knife edge ridge on Hunter and then again when we were all back at Kahiltna base. As we clawed our way up Hunter, I was consistently impressed (sometime distressed) by your ski tracks. You guys skied some knarly lines–stuff I wouldn’t ski under any conditions–and you did it with huge packs. You will always live in my memory as the most impressive ski mountaineers I’ve ever encountered in person (I’m pretty old and have encountered quite a few more than you youngsters). I also was stoked to find out that several of you are MRA members. Thanks for giving back with your impressive abilities.

    Please give me a shout if you are ever in Portland,

    Mark Morford, Portland Mountain Rescue

  29. Anton June 12th, 2014 5:16 pm

    Thanks Mark,
    Glad you guys were able to make the top as well. Seems like everyone who set foot on Hunter this year had an epic, although it might be like that all the time. That is one beast of a mountain.
    Always good to meet other Mountain Rescue people out there. Now if only we could get credit for training hours for doing stuff like this…

  30. Joel July 8th, 2014 12:10 pm

    Way to get after it fellas. I’m just catching up on all your posts right now. Such a huge accomplishment! Congrats, congrats, congrats.

    Just a note about line above the Autobahn that you skied; I heard it referred to as “Fantasy Ridge” by some folks (Kilian and his crew). Might be a good way distinguish the route you descended.

    Hope to see you guys soon in Colorado, Wyoming or perhaps even Chile.

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