Denali, Splitboards & Mother Nature

Denali, Splitboards, and Mother Nature

Vancouver - Seattle - Anchorage - Talkeetna, everything was going like clockwork. The ranger briefing was a reminder of the importance of communication and preventable injuries, along with some quality advice for the steep skier, mainly: climb everything you plan to ski. Something I was glad we kept in mind later on. We got completely packed, weighed up, and ready to fly but bad weather had moved in, and thus began our grounded epic... Waiting and waiting we started all sorts of new activities to stay sane.

It was our first reminder that weather dictates your plans on Denali. June 1 after 6 days of waiting we were finally loaded up and our plane took off up the Kahiltna Glacier.

The glaciers we pass seemed like they could fill the Fitzimmons valley up to the peak to peak, adding to the magnificent scale of the range.

Mt. Hunter, looming over Kahiltna int'l on the glacier below.
Mt. Hunter, looming over Kahiltna int'l on the glacier below.
Brian O'Rourke

We made quick work of the lower mountain, reaching the 3300m camp in two days and making a double carry to reach 4300m in four.

 Our first camp. We turned our pent up energy into a 12 hour day, only stopping to camp around 4am.
First Camp.
Brian O'Rourke

At about 115 lb each these were some of the most exhausting days I’ve experienced. Sometimes we would wobble into camp, struggle to get on puffies and pass out in all our layers, with harnesses and beacons on.

Brian O'Rourke

After our first carry to 4300m camp, we emptied our packs into a hole and made a cash, to go back to our camp at 3300m to pick up the rest of our gear.

4300 m camp on Denali.
Brian O'Rourke
The light packs felt amazing, finally we got to shred!
 The riding was so variable, lots of blue ice mixed with some nice powder.
Brian getting the goods.

After settling at 4300m we take a rest day and the next day head up for some acclimatization. We get a late start skinning up towards the fixed lines and things slow to a crawl with the altitude. Andrew hatches the plan of Liam, Adrian and I climbing rescue gully, while Andrew ascends the fixed lines with Ali. We take off skinning towards the gully roped up. It gets steep and we start booting, crossing a small crevasse. We reach a shoulder high bergshrund and Adrian fishes around for a solid snow bridge unsuccessfully. I think this obstacle might turn us around but somehow Adrian manages to top out like a boss.

He puts in an ice screw that we realized later was of questionable placement… but no worries as by the time I get to the shrund he had placed several more on a solid ice bed below the snow. I managed to get over the shrund with one ice axe and a splits maneuver and Liam follows with the usual whippit ice axe combo. We start booting again with Liam in the lead. We are moving well until about halfway up the gully and Liam's yells down that he's hit some blue ice. Liam anchors in and we re-group and inspect. There is no way I want to ride this. 5-10cm of snow on top of blue, blue ice. Great for making an anchor but a pretty sketchy ride out and not something I’m prepared to try and keep an edge on. Liam puts in another screw and we all get secured into the anchor. There is no way to make a reasonable platform on the ice and Denali presents another new challenge. The solution I come up with is to hang off the anchor, weighing it to put my board on. This is nerve wracking but successful and we ski the slope, awesome pow!

That night, Ian, a guide we had been chatting with, said tomorrow was a potential summit window, we prepped for a big push the next day. Day 7 was really early in the trip to attempt a summit from the 4300m camp, but we knew we had to take advantage of the window. We got off to a rough start heading up the fixed lines with -25C temps, but finally the sun hit us reaching the top of the fixed lines. 

We were making good time and reached high camp in 5 hours, on schedule and feeling optimistic. We roped up and started on Denali pass where things took a nosedive. One of our party got paralyzed by altitude sickness on the fixed pro, the most dangerous part of the mountain. There was no opportunity for an alternate route, splitting the group, or turning back as there was a group behind us. At the top of the pass we assisted our friend to get his skis on and two of our party headed down. The rest of us were left with a tough decision. Altitude wise we felt ok, but another 600m was left between us and the summit. The weather was moving in around us with vis deteriorating. We had already spent nine hours at altitude. It seemed totally logical to descend and wait for another window, summiting on day seven being mostly unheard of, but there was a nagging feeling we should continue. In the end we decided to descend, with a gripping ride down Denali Pass. If someone had shown me the future, and told me we wouldn’t get another weather window, I wonder if I would have had the energy or acclimatization to make it that day. The balance of risk and reward weighs on my mind but as the storm rolled in; I felt we had made the right decision. We tried for the summit two more times before we ran out of time, but each time we were turned back by high winds and threatening frostbite.

Arriving back in Talkeetna is strange. Hearing the first bird, seeing the colour green, walking on concrete all seem like unfamiliar experiences that put us in a strange state. The conversations we have I think are important for reflection and decompressing. We talk for hours about the trip, dynamics, and how it all went down. Before the trip, I thought reaching the summit would be a major part of the experience. Back on the ground in Talkeetna, I soon realized that the experience and adventure really came from the weeks of being in the unfamiliar, technically challenging and spectacular terrain. It's the biggest trip I've been a part of and the experience has been truly unique. Hopefully I'll find myself in the Alaska Range in the future, but for now it's on to the next adventure!

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