Early morning groomers around the country, once lonely wastelands until the lift bell rang, now host a burgeoning bustle of skimo gear, tight pants, and Strava segments. Fitness uphilling has surged in the last few years into an all-out inbounds antigravity movement drawing on backcountry ski gear and human-powered stoke, with a fitness forward goal in a controlled environment. Fitness skiing has birthed several uphilling goals, one such target being an ‘Everest’ worth of vert in 24 hours.
Last March, Protect Our Winters motivated some incredible uphill efforts as part of their #crushitforclimate campaign. Quite a bit of coverage went to Caroline Gleich, Joe Grant, and a number of other athletes and enthusiasts chasing an inbounds ‘Everest’. The idea is simple: skin 29,035 vertical feet (the elevation of Mt. Everest) in 24 hours. With this, ‘Everesting’ was thrust into recent backcountry vernacular. A worthy goal in the age of uphilling, the Everest is no doubt a huge lift. That said, all of the Everesting efforts I’ve seen have been in-bounds, on groomers, with support from lights, and lodges, and trail signs, and indoor restrooms. I offer an alternative with hopes of returning “uphilling” to its backcountry roots: “Denaliing.”
Everest may be the tallest peak in the world, but Denali is the skier’s mountain.
Back in the fall of 2020, my friend Tom threw out the idea of a 20,000ft backcountry day as a goal for the season. I said “sure” before really considering how much this might hurt. We only really talked about ‘training’ once, with a fairly simple strategy: ski all day. In Alaska, the days are mighty short at the beginning of the season, so we figured through January and February, our tours would slowly increase with the daylight and magically produce the perfect training plan…plus, skiing in the dark is scary. We originally figured by April, the days would be long enough that 20k would just happen naturally. The second week of March, I got a call from Tom on a Friday afternoon, “F-it, let’s go for it.”
I was actually skiing when I got the call, and as much as I’d wished I’d been able to take a rest day before such a lofty goal, I couldn’t think of an excuse — so, the next morning, we packed up a pile of Snickers bars and Gatorade and headed to the Kenai Mountains.
My car thermometer read -18F at the trailhead. We stashed some extra food, water, and socks at the bottom of our chosen run, and got to work at sunrise. The first few laps were wicked cold. As the sun picked up some steam, the ridgetop we were using as our high point warmed up nicely, but the valley bottom never did. I wore a down skirt and mittens for warmth most of the day.
We’d set a nice up track that felt efficient, but variable snow made the downs increasingly challenging. There was 1000’ of perfect snow in the middle elevation of our 1800 foot runs. Still, it didn’t take long before 65mm underfoot skimo skis and puny boots on hardpack up high and chunder down low took a toll; my knees were hurting. By mid-day, the one hundred vertical feet of breakable crust sitting at tree line started whispering, “I will break you,” like Ivan Drago in Rocky IV. Fifteen thousand feet into the day, pretty much everything hurt. Turns got sloppy, water ran out, despair set in, but up and down we went. Up and down. The bitter cold set back in mid-afternoon. Morale returned at about 18,000 accumulated feet.
It’s hard to eat an Elephant. As they say, you have to do it one bite at a time. In the morning, we had the attitude that we would do a few runs and see how cold we got. Mid-day, we figured a couple more runs wouldn’t hurt. About a third of the way in, Tom remarked that we only had to do that 7,000 feet twice more. Halfway in, I commented that we only needed to ski 3,000 ft three and half more times. Thirteen thousand feet in, we started counting down the runs–Tom was fond of a straight count, one at a time. I employed a self-barging strategy of counting two runs at a time, so the number didn’t scare me.
By sunset, we were done.
On the skin track that day, Tom and I discussed the varying degrees of exhaustion in skiing. There is, of course, “being tired,” but soon after are the progressive feelings of being beat, tuckered, pooped, knackered, whooped, ridden hard and put away wet, shellacked, and eventually finished. The day after our tour, I asked Tom where he was on this spectrum. He responded, “whichever it is, it’s hard to put on your socks.” We skied 20,433 feet in 11 hours and 46 minutes. It was indeed hard to put on socks Sunday morning.
Now, Tom tells me that we need to rack up ten thousand feet to get in a strong half day.
So…if you want a big backcountry goal for the season, think about having a go at the “Denali.”
[One thing I love about this, is that while it is a huge day, you can do it without skiing avalanche terrain or taking on any technical terrain.]
Ski at least 20,310 vertical feet (the elevation of Denali), with the task completed between sunrise and sunset. Most importantly – you must complete the challenge self-supported in the backcountry. That means you carry what you need, no travel on maintained ski trails or ski areas–just the mountains and grit.
Bonus points if you break trail and poop outside.
Be warned, you will want to have a pair of flip-flops at home for the next day.
Dr. Alex Lee lives in Anchorage, Alaska. Alex is a professor at Alaska Pacific University, teaching philosophy and environmental studies. He also works as a sometimes guide, naturalist, writer, and photographer.