Denali is one of those items that has long been on my list. Clocking in at 20,308' above the sea, it is the tallest mountain in North America and holds some of the most prized snowboard/ski descents in the world. Although the climbing along the traditional route is straightforward and relatively non-technical, its altitude, cold temps and potential for tent crushing storms have been known to break even the most seasoned mountaineer. Earlier this winter, I decided that I wanted to finally experience "The High One" with a group of friends with hopes of riding off the roof of North America.
Being such a popular peak, the red tape surrounding the permitting process for a first-timer on the mountain requires a two-month application process, thus becoming somewhat of a commitment well in advance. I threw out the invitation to eight friends, all of whom accepted without hesitation. Rarely do I go into the mountains with more than a small handful of partners, however, it seemed fitting to share an end of season celebration with a larger crew on such a massive mountain. Our team soon dubbed the Denals Surf Team, consisted of Jerry Mark, Nathaniel Murphy, Harry Kearney, Clark Henarie, Forrest Shearer, Dan Davis, big wave surfer Ian Walsh and myself. At the last minute, we gained a 9th, cameraman and token skier Erich Roepke, to document the expedition for a short film.
Most of the packing took place the night before flying north, with frantic organizing, repacking and shuffling during the two days in Alaska before flying onto the glacier. The majority of our food and last-minute supplies were picked up in Anchorage before driving to Talkeetna. On the morning of our scheduled flight onto the Kahilthna glacier, cloud coverage and a slight trickle of rain from the sky had us in a holding pattern. Sitting under a canopy at the hanger, after already running through my mental check-list over a dozen times, there was nothing left to do but wait. Shortly after that, we got the call; time to go.
On June 8th, loaded into a small bush plane captained by the owner of Talkeetna Air Taxi and legendary pilot Paul Roderick, emotions ran high. The flight was somewhat like a religious experience; a monumental rite of passage for anyone looking to attempt big things in the mountains. Out the window of the plane, we stared in awe. The views were absorbed in feelings of nervousness and excitement for a month on another planet.
The sun beat down upon us at the airstrip, magnified from an endless sea of towering whitecaps. My gear load was split between my backpack and a plastic hauling sled weighing in around 140 pounds. We moved at a snail's pace on the long slog over to camp One. Scale and perspective are instantly skewed as each roll and bench on the horizon proved to be further away than the last. After several hours we round the bend and received our first view of the mountain in its entirety. I couldn't help but stop every 30 seconds to admire its grand stature. We set camp at 8k with clear skies in perfect temps. Being so far north in latitude, the sun does not set this time of year thus preserving time in an endless sunset. I covered my eyes with a wind buff and fell directly to sleep after a long day of movement.
ONWARDS AND UPWARDS
The next few days would pass by in a blur of selective memory. I'm
able to ignore the strain of a heavy load pulling at my waist and
focus on the beauty of such a surreal landscape. Scores of climbers as
well as a handful of skiers descend the mountain past us, telling us
of the fantastic conditions the past week.
Camp two was made at 11k. It is lively with climbers, decorated in flags, wands and brightly colored neon tents. Packs were filled with heavy food and fuel items to cache just below 14 camp to make the next day a little easier. We followed the well-marked route up Motorcycle and Squirrel Hills, a short but harsh steep pitch directly out of camp. As the clouds grew in the distance, we buried our supplies at the shoulder below Windy Corner and quickly switched over to board mode as not to get stuck in a whiteout. Our first turns of the trip were full powder down the gentle slopes next to the boot pack. This quickly reminded me of the primary reason I came here; to snowboard.
Packing up our two-night accommodations at 11 camp, we opted for an alternate way up, avoiding the agony of Motorcycle/Squirrel Hills altogether. Murph and Clark had punched a new skin track up a powdery face the day before that led directly to the flats of the glacier, bobbing and weaving through large yet obvious and manageable crevasses. Windy Corner proved to be a relief, as the high volume of travel and consistent snowfall over the last few weeks has made the notorious traverse totally civil. By the end of the fourth day, we had reached our new home at 14,000ft, where we would spend the remainder of the trip seeking lines. Here we took it upon ourselves to dig out a proper living situation to make operations run as smoothly and comfortably as possible.
Over the years, I've come to learn that the two key ingredients to riding at altitude are patience and respect for the mountain. Though the weather was stellar from the get-go for us, a slow-roll was necessary as to not get smoked by illness right off the bat. Hearing that a handful of people were heli-vac'd off the mountain due to HAPE (high altitude pulmonary edema) just a day before made this mentality all the more potent. With no more heavy loads to carry, each time up the mountain was a steady increase in elevation in order to get more acclimatized for the eventual summit push.
Over the next week we gradually chipped our way upwards, starting from mellow tours to the apron of the Orient Express and up to several days at 17k on the Rescue Gulley, the Dog Leg and a more obscure notch through the rocks along the West Rib. Going top-down on any line requires a certain level of caution due to unknown patches of blue ice that may lie lower down the slopes. Conservative riding is a must when falling is not an option.
By the 12th day, after one failed summit attempt, we made another push for the top. The flagging wind off the summit set the tone along the climb that this might not be our day. Along the traversing stretch from 17 camps to Denali Pass at 18,500', also known as the Autobahn, hordes of climbers descending the section did little to boost motivation. "It's gnarly up there," I heard from those aborting their ascent. Regardless, we pushed to the pass with hopes that the wind would dissipate over the next few hours.
Sure enough, we arrived at the Football Field, a flat section just below the summit pinnacle, under a breathless sky and without a soul around. Climbing the final feet of the ridge brought a flood of emotions, unlike anything I'd ever felt before. Maybe it was the lack of oxygen or the fact we had reached the high point of North America under perfect conditions, but the sight of the summit marker with its prayer flag decorations literally took my breath away. Soaking in the views until the cold crept back in, Danny, Murph, Clark and I strapped in our boards at 9 pm to make our down to the entrance of the Messner. We passed the rest of the crew starting their way up the final 500' to exchange hugs and high fives.
The Mountain Gods were certainly shining their light down on us. There is so much room for error on expeditions like this that could have easily given us an outcome far less favorable than what occurred. The Messner couloir held ideal steep powder conditions from the start of the headwall down through the apron, over 5,500' of sustained fall line snowboarding back to camp. We leapfrogged our way down from one island of safety to the next until my legs burnt and cheeks were sore from a permanent grin of happiness.
As Kerouac said, "when you get to the top of the mountain, keep climbing." Two days later, on June 23rd, after some much-needed rest, a few of us set our sights on another giant line, the Orient Express. Climbing via the West Rib, we once again found ourselves over 19,000' looking down the Kahiltna Glacier with fantastic conditions below us. Energized by the heavenly sight of a dreamscape, Forrest, Murph and I cherished every second of the descent.
A forecasted weather system coming in two days left us debating our plan of action moving forward. There was one week left on our permitted window on the mountain, and our team had ridden just about every line on the mountain except one, Black Rock peak off the North Summit. This face had only been skied once in 2007, on a session spearheaded by Clark Fyans, Chris Davenport and Greg Collins. This striking face made up of several couloirs stares you in the face along West Buttress with an undeniable attraction.
The idea of putting tracks down this elusive canvas minimized the fact that I was completely beat from the previous day's outing on the Orient. Motivated that this would possibly be the last chance for stable weather, the eight of us set out on one final push. Without saying much, everyone chose a line that looked appealing to them and slowly made their way back up to Denali Pass to climb up the backside of the peak.
The route wanders through a maze of loose smooth black stones to reach the top of the lines. By some magical alignment of the stars, everyone safely navigated down the face in smooth and soft conditions with their own signature style. Perhaps the most impressive to me was our token surfer, Ian Walsh, completely out of his comfort zone and making a proud first snowboard descent.
Ultimately, time and efforts are rewarded with the lines of your life. A huge thanks to the Denals Surf Team, the rangers, Talkeetna Air Taxi and most of all to "The High One" for an incredible journey.