Well, it is done. We’re back in Talkeetna Alaska after skiing off Denali just a few days ago. Lou published a Denali ski trip report from us, but due to how our satellite connection was working we didn’t get him the Denali photos till now, so here is a climb and ski gallery from our travels above 14,000 Camp.
Evan at 16,200 having just cleared the fixed lines that the guides and Park Service install on the Headwall every season. The ropes come in handy but are not particularly essential if you’ve got good spikes and not too heavy of a pack. On the other hand, if you’re doing the climb with a camp at 17,000 feet, you might find yourself here with a huge pack and some kind of rope work could be essential. In that case, if the fixed ropes were not there you’d get a ridiculous tangle due to so many people crowding this section during weather windows. Over the years, the Park Service has developed their Denali infrastructure into quite an impressive construct. In terms of route-camp strategy for the upper mountain, it’s become ever more common for climbers and especially climber-skiers to not use the 17,000 foot camp but rather do one big push from 14,200 Camp. To be safe, doing so requires a few acclimation climbs as well as a good 24 hour weather window. Click all photos in this post to enlarge, and perhaps try out the ‘forward and back’ gallery view option when doing so.
Evan, Aaron, and Anton on the West Buttress approaching the 17,000 foot level. This is a decision point in several ways. First, when you get past here you’re off any easy-to-find ridge and in bad weather you can get lost on the vast upper reaches of the gigantic mountain. Second, you can follow the common route that starts with a lengthy traverse across the Autobahn, or take a more direct route up the peak that can be better for skiing back down and is perhaps slightly more efficient for climbing if your comfortable with less traveled terrain.
Foraker and Sultana ridge dominate the skyline.
Anton and Evan approaching the summit of Denali.
The final ridge is impressive, though by this time you’re mostly concentrating on your breathing! That’s Pig Hill in the background with the climbers on it (see maps in previous posts).
Anton and Evan elated to be on the summit of Denali. Lots of work to get here. We’re all a bit stunned at this point as we were giving ourselves about a 5 percent chance of success in doing all three ‘Alaska Family’ summits.
Another photo of Aaron at about the 20,300 foot level. Incredible looking over the Alaska range and curvature of the earth.
Colorado friends Mike Bean and Matt Kamper coming around the corner to the summit.
Marc Barella topping out on Denali just a few weeks after completing his quest of becoming the second snowboarder to ride all of Colorado’s 14ers.
The four of us on top of America, just about to complete SkiTheBig3. Last but not least 20,320 ft.
Anton skiing at 19,600. This is about the time that my camera batteries decided that -30 F is too cold. Whatever. At this point in the day, photography is not job one. When doing the one push style climb and ski from 14 Camp, in these kinds of temperatures, you’re concentrating on getting things done safely — and just getting back down to a hot drink and warm sleeping bag.
Denali, looker’s left is what the rangers call the Phantom Headwall, also our descent. We’ve also heard this called the Autobahn Face. It avoids the winding traverse route through Denali Pass of the normal ascent, and if in reasonable condition makes a much better ski route and perhaps even a better climbing route if you’re willing to go steeper. Only problem is that just like the Autobahn it can get icy and super dangerous. Today is was skiable, though not optimal.
Once off Autobahn Face and-or down across Autobahn, you have to reverse Washburn Ridge. Conditions here vary pretty much from day to day. Sometimes you can ski more of it, sometimes less. Today was pretty average and some of the icy knife edges required crampons. It’s just about midnight at this time, still enough light to keep moving — and the frigid cold near 30 below zero F makes movement essential. Another thing that makes Denali somewhat unique compared to most big ski descents is you usually have to deal with arctic cold. Things like normal sized ski boots will freeze your feet, mittens might have to be substituted for gloves, if the wind blows at all you have to protect every bit of exposed skin. A demanding environment.
Mother Sultana to the right, Son to the left. Hard to get our heads around the fact we were on top of both peaks not too many days ago.
Anton skis as the light fades on Mount Hunter. Of course the light returns in just a couple hours so getting benighted is not too much of a concern. Instead, your main goal is to keep moving before your physical reserves totally deplete from dealing with the temperatures and maximal effort.
Packing up camp for the cruise back to Kahiltna Base. If your loads are reasonable and your ski skills are okay, you can get down there fairly quickly from 14,000 provided Squirrel Hill and Motorcyle Hill are not too icy. We made good time only to end up at Kahiltna Base waiting for flying weather. Oh well, tradition in Alaska. And we did eventually make it to Talkeetna for a burger.
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 group skied Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition in spring of 2014.)