June 25, 2009
By Seth Waterfall
I’ve always dreamed of skiing off the summit of Denali. This spring I had an opportunity to make that dream come true.
I’d planned to do a fast ascent, with minimal time for acclimatization. Having just returned to the States from my first trip to the Himalaya and a summit of Everest, I felt that I could comfortably pull it off. The only problem with the plan was the weather in the Alaska Range. It is notoriously unpredictable. Climbers frequently get trapped for days waiting for “flyable” weather. I’ve never had a chance to run up a 20,000-foot-tall mountain, so I wasn’t sure how my body would react if I was delayed waiting to fly onto the glacier.
But I got lucky. The weather held, and I found myself safely set down on the biggest glacier in North America with a backpack, a duffel bag and a pair of skis. I even got there a day earlier than planned. At the airstrip, I met up with my good friend and fellow RMI guide, Tyler Jones, as well as two other Denali guides, Lee and Elliot.
After spending a full day at base camp, we set out for our next camp at 14,200 feet in a single push. But as often happens, things changed. Tyler broke one of his ski bindings. Fortunately, he’d stashed an extra pair at base camp. So while he took off down the mountain, Lee, Elliot and I headed up. By 12:30 a.m., we’d reached the 11,000-foot camp and decided we’d wait for Tyler there. The next day, the four of us blasted up to 14,200 feet.
Over the next couple of days, we got almost a foot of new snow. Good for ski conditions-not so good for avalanche hazard. But since the snow was very light, it didn’t consolidate into a cohesive mass, and we didn’t see any evidence of slab avalanches.
Our plan was to bypass the camp at 17K and go directly from 14,200 feet to the summit. To do this, we had to leave a lot of gear behind so we could travel very light. At 10 a.m. on summit day, we left camp and headed up the West Buttress. We had great weather, and eight hours after leaving our camp-less than a month after standing on top of Everest-I was standing on the summit of Denali. It was a great feeling, made even better because we had the place to ourselves.
But this was only half the journey. My real reason for coming was still in front of me. As Lee and Elliot walked off the top, Tyler and I clicked into our skis. I figured the conditions on the descent might be pretty icy, so I wasn’t sure we’d be able to ski the whole way. But with just a moment’s hesitation, I followed Ty off the summit.
Unbelievably, we found powder snow right off the top. It was really fun to ski, but it’s seriously hard work making ski turns at 20,000 feet.
The next moment of uncertainty came when we reached the top of our main ski objective-a large, 3,000-foot face overlooking high camp. Clouds were swirling all around us, and I was nervous about dropping onto the face without being able to see our route. Navigating around ice and rocks on a 40° to 45° slope is tricky enough. I didn’t want to do it in a whiteout.
But as Tyler and I talked strategy, the clouds peeled back. Skiing conservatively, we dropped down one at a time in short pitches. Halfway down the face, we paused to let the weather and our legs settle a bit.
Less than an hour after we left the summit, we were in high camp. We rested there until we made radio contact with Lee and Elliot. Upon hearing that they were doing great, we continued down. Again anticipating ice, I had figured we’d have to carry our skis down the West Buttress. But when we reached the headwall (17K), we discovered that someone had skied down one of the chutes dropping off the Buttress. We scratched our way down the narrow entrance to this chute. Below that, we had perfect Denali ski conditions. Light powder lit by the evening sun. It was great stuff, but by the time I reached camp at the bottom, I was smoked and my legs were jelly.
When Elliot and Lee pulled into camp, we stayed up super-late making quesadillas and drinking tons of water. But eventually, the excitement of the day wore off and the fatigue of the effort set in. We headed for our tents and crashed.
It snowed most of the next day butI was laid out in my tent anyway, thanks to a GI parasite that I picked up while in Nepal. That night, we looked at the forecast and saw that a big low-pressure system was bringing in a storm off the Bering Sea. We decided to make a break for base camp the next night, hoping to get to base camp and get a flight off the glacier when the weather improved.
We left just as the storm was getting going. Skiing with a 50 lb pack and a 40 lb sled is not easy, and as soon as we dropped down to the lower Kahiltna, the storm really got going. After taking a few hours of traveling straight into the wind, we decided that our strategy was a little too brazen and we stopped to set up a camp. Setting up a single tent, we spent the rest of the night nibbling on the few scraps of food we hadn’t given away, and laughing at our strategy for a quick getaway.
In the morning, the weather started to break just a little. Breaking camp, we headed down toward the landing strip. We picked up our pace, not wanting to miss what might be our only shot to get out of the range for awhile.
I got a spot on a flight with a guided group that had spent the night at the airstrip. Ten minutes after we took off, a good-sized earthquake set off an incredible display: all the hanging glaciers in the range avalanched simultaneously. I’ve never seen anything like that before. And my camera was tucked away in my backpack! It was an amazing spectacle. Thankfully, I heard later that no one was hurt.
I took it as the mountain’s reminder that I was merely a guest, passing through at its convenience… and to always have your camera ready!
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