West Buttress Alaska Grade 2, 50-degree ice
Trip ReportDenali Ski Descent 1991
With Vitaly and Hamik off on a big great adventure.. the up and coming whitemeat bearing down on the future..countless other unsung young badasses doing their thing.. It seems I'm wanting to remember ..
Seems maybe a few of us are feeling the same way. Don't you remember when it was all so simple.. all you had to do was climb everyday...
Trip Report Soundtrack. From a couple Albums I took up the mountain.
Others I like
Three kids grow up or Our version of Al Bundies 4 touchdowns.
In 1989 three geeky kids met during their Junior year in highschool. Beginning what turned out to be friendships that would push limits and in some ways define the rest of our lives. This is a story of our journey from nervous defensive competitive young snots to slightly less annoying young men who became brothers. Deep friendships that have endured now for 25 years.
It started out with a simple desire to ski. Always, everyday and that meant hiking up the mountains around Anchorage Alaska once the ski areas closed.
I met Todd Deis on the bus to Alyeska Ski Area in the Spring of 89. We went to the same highschool but had never really met. Excellent skier we hit it off and had a good day. Bummed about the end of the season we both talked about hiking and skiing during the summer. I had never met anyone else who hiked up and skied so I remembered him next fall when I saw him in the hallway. We immediately talked about stuff we had skied that summer and made plans to hike up a glacier in Crow Pass the next weekend.
That ended up being a good trip we bagged a couple small peaks and in doing so found another bigger glacier with an amazing looking run from the top.
First Trip of Todd and Derek (bigger glacier in the background)
Came back 2 weeks later and had the trip that changed our lives.
It was September and we found ourselves high among the peaks of the Chugach mountains with 6 inches of fresh snow on a perfect smooth glacier with no crevasses. We summited Crystal Peak and the view was beyond spectacular. I had never imagined I’d be in such a place. Brilliant white clouds far below us lapping along the bottom of another bigger glacier. This glacier was huge and crevassed and lined by vertical alpine like peaks. I had seen some Gaston Rebuffet photo’s in a book my dad had and we were living them! This was the moment that the sickness really took over. We became total addicts, obsessed with real mountaineering.
A moment where your life changes forever.
That winter we totally immersed in learning everything we could get our hands on, purchased Randone gear and skins, took Avalanche courses , read voraciously and learned about people like Saudan, Vallencant, Boivan. Endlessly looped ski films like Warren Millers Steep and Deep, Greg Stumps Blizzard of AHHHHS.
Read about real mountaineering, Mesner, Roskelly, Boardman, Lowe's, Waterman, Stump, Tackle, and Donini. We read anything and everything. We had a voracious appetite.
Most importantly we climbed and skied everywhere.
Todd introduced me to his other partner in crime Matt Howard. I do mean actual partner in crime. Seems Matt and Todd had gotten busted at Alyeska skiing out of bounds. Arrested juvi’s! Their sentence.. ..take an avalanche course from world renowned experts Doug Fesler and Jill Fredston. Fantastic place to start and from then on the three of us became scholars, serious scholars of Avalanches and accidents. We basically memorized every issue of ANAM and Snowy Torrents. We watched snow everywhere, began to understand how it changed and when it dangerous.
As we gained experience and looked around for more stuff to ski there was one obvious but perhaps ridiculous possibility that would beckon on those clear cold winter days. In the distance like a massive ghost lay a towering challenge on the horizon. Denali.
Skiable? Well it had been skied. We knew that, but the folks we read about were Legends.. the best ever, Saudan, An American who fell and didn't die named Landry. Not much to give us hope that WE could do it.. but the question nagged and one spring day serendipity smiled on me.
I got a job working next door to a guide company called Genet Expeditions. Genet? Wasn’t that the famous Denali guide? Hmm.. so of course I stopped in and said hello. Some bearded guy was there and I’m not sure how the conversation went but I definitely asked him if Denali was skiable. And basically he must have said yeah.
So I began making a nuisance of myself, stopping in from time to time to spray about the cool stuff my buds and I were doing until at one point this guy mentioned they had an apprentice guide program and if we wanted we could join.
HOLY SH#T.. So Todd and I signed on but Matt didn’t seem quite so interested in it. It was too late that season but we made commitments for the next summer and got to training and gearing up.
In the meantime I turned 18, graduated Highschool a couple days later and three days after that caught a flight to Jackson Hole Wyoming where I would spend the next year skiing at the best Ski area in the USA. Freedom baby! Ha! Yeah sure kid...Lots to learn.
That fall I tore my meniscus jumping off some rock by Cody Peak and ended up having surgery in January. Sadly I called Genet expeditions and explained I didn’t think I’d be confident with the knee as an apprentice guide the next season. They were awesome and still hooked me up with pro-forms and training and expected me for the next season in 1991. That spring I snagged up a ride and made my way back home to Anchorage.
Todd did have his apprenticeship trip with Vern Tejas as lead guide. I was climbing in Hatcher pass when I got word Todd was back and managed to pick up a speeding ticket getting home to ask him the big questions…
Did you summit? Yes.. Can we ski it…..
It was on! Period full stop.. nothing was going to stop us from that point.
That winter was boot camp and serious. We ice climbed, skied steeps, traveled on glaciers .. learned more about avalanches from Doug and Jill, Classes from Dave Staheli, Got involved in Mountain Rescue, Basically we got very serious. If it made the least bit of sense we did it. If it didn’t make sense.. we did it.
DIDN'T MAKE SENSE
We each got jobs at the best climbing and skiing shops , Matt was at AMH , Todd at REI, Myself at the top ski shop in town.
We endlessly planned and modified gear and took every obscure bit of information we could.
Todd and I took on early April and May trips with Genet Expeditions. Todd was now a paid Assistant and I got apprenticed to Scott Woolums and assistant guide Harry Hunt.
SCOTT WOOLUMS and buddy Gordie(?) BEER?? hmm.. This 19 year old truly geeky kid wasn't sure what to make of that.
Holy crap, you wanna talk about some incredible mentors we were getting to learn from? At that time in mountaineering and to this day there simply could not have been a better roster of instructors.
Oblivious little deviants we were .. self absorbed and focused on one goal.. how these folks managed to stomach us I to this day do not know. We were horrible little foul mouthed opinionated cretins. Seriously! Jill Fredston about wanted to kill me one time, I’m sure of it. Speaking of getting killed, lots of folks seemed to think we would. Supertopo is certainly not the first place I heard "Yer Gunna Die! We were determined not to.
Two days before we were to land on Kahiltna glacier we committed one more notch. We shaved our heads. Burning the bridge..No turning back till our hair grew!
Solstice June 21st dawned at the TAT bunkhouse and we were ready to go, Owner Dave Lee had a new kid flying for him, Paul Roderick and we loaded up the 185 with 35 days of supplies. Weather be damned! “To the Summit”. 5 weeks of supplies should ensure the summit. More importantly it would allow us to do any project we wanted and have extra acclimatization in order to ski well at 20K feet.
We had 3 plans, A, B, C.. In order, Wickersham Wall, B. Both summits with descents and via the Saudan Coulior (Mesner). If all else failed we would just ski the south summit and descend via the Rescue Gully for a complete descent.
We paid a bit extra to fly over the Wickersham.. URP!! Holy living sh#t.. that things insane, HUGE.. did i mention MASSIVE! Nothing but avalanche slope with serac triggers all over it.. plus who wants to climb back up to 14,200 via Kahiltna pass to to retrieve our camp? Plan A was out. Intimidation was to high for that one.
So we landed at Kahiltna Base unloaded and had a leisurely day one in perfect weather. Sauntered over to Base camp peak and did a bit of skiing.
Basecamp peak and a little shakedown run in the June slop.
Then were were off on the adventure. We travelled after 10pm on the lower mountain in order to avoid the daytime heat. You'd be surprised how hot normal daytime can be up there. It never really gets dark in June even when the sun drops slightly below the horizon. We made the first of two carries to the bottom of Ski Hill through a few miles of more or less flat glacier with a some big crevasses to easily go around.
Also we were keeping an eye out for a buddy of ours who we knew should be coming off the West Rib about this time. I had headed up the mountain without a big down parka. Pretty much the last piece of gear I had not been able to purchase before the trip. Our buddy had gladly offered to loan it to me if we managed to find him. Low and behold on the first or second carry there Dave was coming down the trail. I got a comfy big camp and summit Parka! Not and absolute necessity but a very nice thing to have up higher.
Just another bottomless hole to make you feel warm and fuzzy
These things are impressive and common.
The view up the Valley of Death from the first camp at the bottom of Ski Hill. Many of the most popular routes are visible
We had excellent weather the first 12 days of the trip all the way into Genet Basin and 14-2 camp. Just a touch of rain on the lower glacier but the next days allowed us to spread out and dry out. Pleasant camping and not taking care of clients. Such an enjoyable place to be in perfect weather.
Matt Howard Chillin
Getting our grub on! Lotsa water bottles and two stoves. We planned to leave enough equipment at 14-2 for a second camp. This would be useful if we decided to ski the Saudan Coulior or Orient Express. Allowing us to leave the camp at 17-2 in place and pick it up later.
Derek Roland and Matt Howard
Matt and Derek. Hair starts growing back pretty fast it seems.
The next camp would be at 11,200 feet. Bypassing the camp many folks use around 10,000 feet a bit past the top of Ski Hill. Above Ski Hill is not a good place to camp. It tends to get socked in due to weather pouring over Kahiltna pass. More than a few times folks have spent days weathered in their tents when just around the corner at 11-2 the sky is blue. Just a little tip I learned from Scott Woolums.
Todd Deis in white and Derek Roland. Around the corner with Kahiltna Pass behind and right.
11,200 foot is a nice camp. You start to get into some steeper terrain and it begins to feel more like mountaineering than slogging from here up.
At this point our group dynamics took a nosedive. It's not at all unusual for a group to have some irritable days on a long trip. Especially if the group is made of three 20 year old immature high energy motivated dipshits. We had a tendency to tease each other mercilessly and push each others buttons. I doubt any of us realized how that could impact a long trip in close quarters and it finally came to a head on a carry above 11-2. Tired and grumpy we came to a rock above squirrel hill. We proceeded to have the biggest knock down drag out 2 hours + nothing but screaming at each other whenever we could catch our breath. Had we more energy perhaps we would have murdered each other.
Looking back it seems this argument had to be done. We vented and we did it big enough that we actually realized we had to start being a bit kinder to each other. It was just a beginning and we didn't turn into saints overnight or even in 25 years but it marked a change in how we treated each other. It also was severe enough that it left behind some long standing negative feelings. Things would not always be great between the three of us during the next 5 to ten years. Don't read too much into that we did many things together after this trip and we all stayed friends. Just in various stages and changes in flavor from time to time. Kids have to grow up. No worries, life is a journey and we all had a lot to learn, among those lessons and ongoin is the real value of friends.
Skiing down from Argument Rock.
The day we moved camp to 14-2 was surprisingly tough. We picked up some stuff we cached and our loads were the heaviest of the trip. From about windy corner we simply could not push further than a couple rope lenths before stopping and catching our breathe. Literally could not make one foot step forward. Legs simply would not move. I had never hit that limit before and it made you feel a bit vulnerable. Fortunately perfect weather was still with us. When we pulled into 14-2 we simply stopped and laid down on a foam pad. We slept for hours. I think we were still roped up.
Early stage of "The Fortress"
Once we recovered from our comatose states. We picked out a big site and dug in. We planned 3 rest days for 14-2. Longer than most parties. We had time and wanted extra acclimatization for skiing. Three days at 14-2 can be a blast. We had time to hike around and ski. We went over to a spot called the edge of the world and looked down into the "Valley of Death". We had a potluck with some folks from another group. We also built "The Fortress". This thing was insane and fun. Double tiered snowblock walls much higher than our heads with a long curved and ceilinged hallway. We reinforced it with bamboo wand rebar. The walls were a great place to hang out with hot drinks and enjoy the views.
On the fourth day we made a carry to 16 camp. The weather was holding out and the snow conditions were perfect. Matt and I dropped off our skis but Todd decided he had to ski the headwall. He was more willing to carry them back up than we were. I wish we had kept Todds camera for that. The headwall is fairly steep. A bit over 45 degrees near the top and quite extended. Todd made quick work of it while Matt and I glissaded. All three of us whooping and smiling and having a blast!
Our perfect weather was about to run out. It seems we had used up our quota of fine sunny calm days during the first couple of weeks. We didn't know it yet but from here on wave after wave of storm fronts would give us very short breaks between generally 3 day storms. This mountain decided it would give us a taste of her dark side.
The first of many storms moving in.
Summit windloading into the upper mountain and Saudan Cuolior
Pretty good sized Avalanche ripping down our preferred route of descent... Hmmm interesting.
Just another in the endless series of Avalanches that poured off the faces for the next 6 days.
About 3 days after Our first Carry to 16 we decided to give a shot at moving camp up in marginal weather. There was a lot of new fresh snow and more storm predicted in the next few hour. We hoped to dash up to 16 and get dug in before it hit. The new snow was knee to waist deep. But unconsolidated and basically "dead" it was pretty safe stuff. As we managed to plow our wa y to the bottom of the fixed line the weather continued to deteriorate. The wind picked up enough that it was knocking us over. Especially Todd who was bringing his ski's up after having skied the headwall. I enjoy storms and I felt strong and comfortable and felt fine with continuing on to 16.
Unfortunately snow stability conditions were changing with amazing rapidity. Within an hour of reaching the fixed lines the snow went from loose sloughy safe snow to consolidating and propagating ever longer fractures. We became extremely alarmed and made the decision to retreat as quickly as possible. It was very clear that these faces were going to begin slabbing very very soon.
Plowing up into the storm
Just minutes before we decided to make beat a hasty retreat in rapidly deteriorating stability.
We had a bitch of a time dealing with the rope we had stashed in a pcak once we reached the fixed lines. A frozen spaghetti nightmare we had to slow down and concentrate on untangling it efficiently when all we really wanted to do was get the hell out of there as fast as possible. Visibility had whited out and dropped to about 10 feet by the time we headed down. Even moving downhill, plowing through the snow was slow going. In the whiteout we heard booming and cracking, sounds that accompanied the myriad slopes that were now avalanching all around us.
We finally reached the far end of a flat area just above the last hill into 14-2. Within seconds of sitting down the slope above us exploded with an the loudest booming CRACK!.. We could hear the massive avalanche flowing above us and simply hoped we had put enough flat ground between us and it. A few days later we found that debris within 20 feet of our stopping point.
Knowing that our camp was directly down the fall line we managed to stumble almost straight into the Fortresses doorway. We looked at each other with at least for myself a few tears and we KNEW we had nearly blown it. We were lucky to be standing there and not buried under debris. Big hugs all around as we remade camp at 14 and waited out the storm for another three days.
The Fortress looking a bit seiged. Winds became so violent during the next few days that several times all three of us were picked up off the ground inside our tent
More drama was unfolding on the upper mountain. A polish climber had not returned to high camp after a summit attempt. After several days there wasn't much hope of finding him alive on the exposed plateu due to the storm. The Llama Helicopter was sent up as soon as it cleared enough. It too had trouble. After setting down at Denali Pass there was a tense period trying to restart the engines that conked out. Fortunately the Llama did not become an expensive mountain ornament and later spotted Krzysztof Wiecha crawling out of a crevasse shelter at 20,000 feet. He was sucessfully rescued but later lost both feet. Meeting him a few months later he was already walking around on new ones. A remarkably cheerful guy. Polish climbers seem to have a deserved reputation for toughness.
Finally the break we had been waiting for allowed us to move camp to 16K.
We we promptly got stuck in another storm for a few days. Not as bad as the last couple but enough to keep us off the ridge above.
Finally a clear perfect day. We took advantage of excellent acclimatisation to do a carry to high camp at 17,200' and then promptly packed camp and moved up on a second carry. This section of the route is one of the most enjoyable parts. Great views and fun terrain.
Once we reached High Camp we once again got stuck in a two day storm before getting a shot at the summit. A Genet guided group with Dave Staeheli and Will Rindom came in at the same time. It was nice hanging out with familiar faces.
Time was now becoming an issue. 35 days of supplies and we were on day 25. SOme supplies were left down at 14-2 in hopes that we would still get a chance to ski the Saudan Coulior or Orient Express. Due to time and weather we could not be sure we would be able to get back up to 17 to retrieve camp if we gave that a shot. After two more days of snow and wind we were almost certain that these slopes would be deadly avalanche traps. Looks down the rescue gully showed that it was sheltered somewhat and was not loading up. However it was quite icy. A strange aerated blue ice that would be difficult to sideslip let alone turn on.
This information in hand we still awaited summit day to make final decisions.
Summit Day finally dawns. The Genet group gets an early start.
Catching up at Denali Pass we took a turn breaking trail to the summit ridge.
Matt Howard, Derek Roland. Will Rindom is heading up.
Todd at the top of the Cassin Ridge, Foraker behind.
Getting super excited now! The summit is assured we ditched the rope, we babbled our way up the summit ridge. Couldn't stop talking. I think the clients on the Genet trip thought we were from another planet. The energy of youth and extra days acclimatising.
Yes! We made the top. Thanks for taking the picture Dave! With all the bad weather he said that it was the lowest pressure he had ever seen in his 17 summits. Perhaps 1000 feet higher than usual.
Two different groups made the summit. Five of us were Genet Expedition employees and Alaska Mountain Rescue Group Members. Had to get a picture of that right?
Top L-R Matt Howard, Dave Staehli, Todd Deis. Bottom Derek Roland, Will Rindom.
Final decisions made we decided to ski back to High Camp and descend the Rescue Gully in the morning. Small slabs along the summit ridge made it clear that we had no other choice.
Time to remove the overboots and clip in... WE ARE GOING SKIING!
Tracking up the summit! Intentionally knocked out a little slab in the upper middle of the top of the ridge. Made good turns and even straightlined a bit of the bottom in order to get across as much flat stuff as possible.
Then we dropped into a little chute above Denali Pass and traversed over to the rocks that make a direct line down to camp on skiers left. Cut a couple more small slabs out then made powder 8s on down!.
Love this picture approaching High Camp. Looks like just another great backcountry day.
The next morning we packed up and prepared to ski the Rescue Gully. This had been skied at least once by a Japanese group. The entrnce is very steep. Aproximately 55deg the first 20 feet or so. Icy and we were each carrying at least 60 lbs. We damnwell wanted a complete descent without aid. No rapping.
Todd went first. We sideslipped the first 3rd before making a turn above the rock that chokes the middle of the fall line. This no place to fall. a few more turns and we traversed into clouds that made it impossible to see the line into camp. We knew there was a clear line of traverse back to the fixed lines so we did that. Then back down familiar ground to pick up the remaining gear at 14-2.
Lunch and a brief rest and we decided to get back to Basecamp that day. Skiing with the annoying sleds now, we dropped into the lower glacier quickly. After about 16 hours we made Basecamp and managed to catch the last flight to TAT. WOOT! 27 days up 1 day down. It's a pain in the butt climbing mountains that require you to acclimatise. Otherwise you could just wait for good weather and zip up these things in a day or 2.
Flying out after 28 days on the mountain is quite strange. The first green we saw was breath-taking. Landing in Talkeetna was like no feeling before or since. This was a big dream fulfilled!
Go get your dreams!
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