Lou originally asked one of us to write down some retrospective thoughts about the Big 3 expedition when we returned to the lower 48. With snow beginning to fall in the Western US I feel as if I’ve finally had enough time away from the trip to put something together.
First off, climbing and skiing the three big peaks of the Alaska Range during one expedition was a whimsical idea from the beginning. But when approached cautiously, the whimsical ideas are always the best ones.
When the four of us met in Aspen and began our journey we failed to grasp the difficulties that awaited us on the Kahiltna. We knew luck would play a huge role in any successes we had; it always does. That said, I’d like to not talk too much about the luck that we carried on the expedition and talk a bit about things that were within our control before and during the trip, as well as some random thoughts that have occurred since we returned home.
I’m amazed how well the team fit together. Everyone played his part in the support system you need to function in a prolonged high stress environment. (Sometimes it was a pat on the back, other times it was a kick in the ass.) I really wish I could put the dynamics of the team more eloquently but I lack the vocabulary to do it justice. To sum it up, I have gained three friends I will have for the rest of my life.
Of course the weather is beyond our control but I’d still like to give Joel Gratz another e-high-five. Spot on forecasts are essential and he nailed it day in and day out. When you plan an expedition of any kind make sure you don’t skimp on the weather guy.
We managed to go the entire trip without any big gear failures. This is due partly to luck but speaks mostly to the quality of the gear that’s out there these days. It also speaks to the size of Jordan’s repair kit (huge). My gear post is here and Jordan’s is here. I’m sure we will hear from Anton and Evan at some point (probably when they can’t ride their mountain bikes anymore). I’d like to thank Dynafit, Intuition, Bern, and Black Diamond for their support in the gear department. It is much appreciated.
Gear sidenote for you aspiring live expedition bloggers out there: Our blogging setup was not efficient and used a lot of Lou’s satphone minutes. (We failed to thoroughly test it before flying out.) The only upside was that our system is lighter than Lou’s 2010 Denali setup. Nonetheless I’d suggest avoiding the Iridum Axcesspoint stuff until they get it figured out. According to Lou, the best bang for your buck is still an Iridium satphone (which you usually carry anyway on these sorts of trips) USB connected to the smallest cheapo Windows netbook you can find, running UUplus comm software. This has to be combined with knowledge of how to professionally process photos to smaller file weights, as well as a learning curve for UUplus. Beyond an increase in weight, downside of Lou’s system is the hookup between phone and computer takes some getting used to as it has to be connected in a certain sequence due to the lame Iridium firmware and USB system, and the computer needs to work in some pretty extreme conditions. No doubt there might be other systems out there that are as affordable and perhaps lighter. Your comments appreciated by both Lou and I.)
If the team isn’t the crux on which a successful expedition hinges it is the food. Planning food that’s tasty for everyone is extremely hard and having food that is hard to eat will destroy team morale and eventually leave team members incapable of climbing to their physical abilities. Honey Stinger hooked us up with some bars, waffles, and gummies for snacks. Amazingly, I still find them tasty even after the trip. If you haven’t tried some I highly suggest you do, they are the bees knees. (Get it?)
The rest of our food consisted mainly of freeze-dried food from Honeyville Farms that we packaged in our hotel room in Anchorage. Evan did pretty much all the food planning (and nailed it!) so hopefully he can also talk a bunch about that as well.
Some Retrospective Thoughts
- When I flew off the glacier I was physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. It is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
- The Big 3 was also one of the most rewarding things I’ve ever done.
- We pushed our luck on Mount Hunter.
- I severely underestimated Hunter.
- I am thankful for the experience on Hunter. I am in no rush to ever repeat it.
- When you drop your food, go get it.
- Mount Crosson exists only to crush the soul of climbers and skiers attempting the Sultana Ridge.
- The Sultana Ridge was by far my favorite route.
- Great ski mountaineering lines don’t have to be steeper than 40 degrees.
- Penitentes still don’t ski very well and can be added to the list of things that are easier on a snowboard.
- Single carrying from 7800’ to 11000’ on Denali isn’t a great idea.
- I’d probably single carry from 7800’ to 11000’ again.
- Ascenders are much more useful on your harness than in your Subaru.
- The most aesthetic and reasonable (i.e not the South Face) ski routes on Denali are on the North Peak. I’ll be back for them.
- Time spent acclimatizing is time well spent.
- A single trip above the fixed lines will not acclimatize you properly for 20,000’ even if you were above 17,000 the week before.
- The rangers are a hard working group of girls and guys.
- Guides on Denali earn every bit of their salary and tips.
- If you plan on skiing downhill with your sled, rigid poles on your sled are the only way to go. Especially as a snowboarder.
- People in the military can drink more than Anton and Jordan.
- You’re not allowed to spend more than one night crashing in the fuel tent at basecamp.
- The Talkeetna Roadhouse still serves the best breakfast. Ever.
In closing, Id like to offer some advice to anybody planning to ski the Big 3 that is different than the well informed “Don’t do it!” the team offered immediately after flying off. Do it; plan every last detail, be ready to change your plans, give yourself plenty of time, be cautious, don’t underestimate, go only when you know you’re ready, go without an ego, and remember, in the end, it’s not about climbing or skiing, it is about having fun with your friends.
(‘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. They successfully skied Denali, Mount Foraker, and Mount Hunter all during one expedition in spring of 2014.)