Climbing season in Denali National Park typically begins around mid April. Though there are winter assents of routes and peaks, the majority of the Alaska Range does not see consistent winter travel. Similarly, though there is a fare bit of skiing that takes place within the range, Denali National Park does not have a “ski season” per say. Most ski descents outside of the obvious peaks have gone undocumented and have occurred as part of climbing expeditions. Therefore, it is always quite difficult to say whether a specific line or zone has been successfully skied, or even attempted. That being said, the names we have dubbed lines and zones from this trip are not official. Though we’d love to claim credit for being the first to descend them, we do not have the necessary documented history to do so. In fact, being that the B.S. Glacier is a fairly popular climbing zone, it is likely that many of our successes on this trip have been duplicated. I can; however, discern that if our successes were not firsts, they are far from frequent or common. I certainly encourage anyone with further information, history or documentation to please get in touch with me, as I would love to hear more about it.
After a dismal winter all around in AK, and a few weeks of researching logistics and snow packs throughout the state, on March 22nd of 2014 Michelle and I arrived at our buddy Ray’s house with some critical decisions left to make. We had narrowed our trip down to the Alaska Range, which, given that we were scheduled to fly out of Talkeetna the next morning, left us with a number of key details to figure out that evening. We wanted terrain that would provide for long and steep couloirs as well as fun glacier skiing. Of course, these are not difficult things to find in the Alaska Range. We ended up deciding on an area near the Moose’s Tooth, south east of Denali. The year before, we had gone into an area called Little Switzerland and could not have asked for better weather, despite the mega cold spell (temps around -30 deg F). Tracking the surrounding weather and the forecast for the week, all signs pointed at a large blocking high-pressure system for the foreseeable future. This was our second year in a row of being among the first groups into the Denali National Park for the season. Having another trip with what was lining up to be almost perfect weather may not sound that lucky to some; however, anyone that is familiar with this mountain range would probably agree that late winter/early spring in this region can be quite the toss up weather wise, and can change very quickly.
The next morning, March 23rd, Michelle, Ray and I left Anchorage well before sunrise in order to get to Talkeetna with time to finalize our permits, packing and check in with Talkeetna Air Taxi (TAT) in time for our 10 am departure. Though the temperatures looked to be quite a bit warmer than what we had experienced the prior year, we opted for a little extra comfort on this go-a-round, and acquired an Artic Oven Tent for base camp. For those not familiar with this tent, lets just say is comes with a full on wood burning style stove! As a result, we were almost 100 lbs. over our weight allowance for the flight. However, because our buddy Cody was scheduled to fly into join us a couple of days later, TAT lets us factor his allowance in as well. Thank you TAT!!! By 10:30 or 11am we were wheels up, which on these kinds of trips is well within what I would consider “on-time.”
The flight into the range was, as always, mind blowing. The size and vastness of this place is unbelievable. The Moose’s Tooth is a rock peak that tops out at 10,335 feet, and is famous for its spire like characteristics that create awe inspiring visual aesthetics, in addition to a variety of highly technical climbing routes. As we flew closer to the tooth area, these famous rock towers grew more prominent. It was like flying into the skyline of a city, only the buildings are spires of rock and ice. Truly out of this world. Paul Roderick, legendary TAT pilot, took a few laps around the area to help us scope the terrain, and then we touched skis down on the glacier. Stepping out of the plane onto the glacier in a setting like this is always an incredible feeling. Even more incredible, as well as ire, is the feeling of silencing isolation as the plane takes off and disappears into the horizon.
Once Paul was out of sight and on his way back to Talkeetna, we started in on the afternoon project of digging out and setting up camp. Needless to say, this involves a little more than finding a flat spot and setting up a tent. However, this year we just had one 4-6 person base camp tent, instead of the various personal tents and kitchen tarps that we had made camp with last year in Little Switzerland. As I mentioned, this camp setup was pretty plush with the tent being fairly insulated, large enough to stand in, and inclusive of a wood-burning stove. After camp was organized, and more importantly, the trail to the designated commode was probed and established, we decided to set out on a short evening tour. With such a dry winter throughout much of Alaska, a major concern this year with glacier travel has been the low snow pack and potentially inadequate snow bridges being formed over crevasses. To say the least, we were pretty eager to get a handle on what we would be working with over the next 7 days. We went about a mile up glacier and could definitely see a lot of sags (potential crevasse snow bridges). There was an enormous landslide in the past that actually covered and displaced a large portion of the glacier at this point, and we were able to skin about 100 vertical feet up the side of it to gain an elevated vantage point of the glacier. You could definitely see a large number of covered crevasses out there, possibly a by-product of a lower snow pack. It is always good practice to be prepared for and cautious of crevasses when traveling on glaciers. Though we felt pretty good about the conditions, we took all appropriate precautions when traveling on this glacier and did not have any issues throughout the week.
Day one, March 24thWe woke to some early morning wind, but welcomed the slightly above 0 deg F temperatures. Not to mention that waking up and firing up the stove made getting ready WAY more pleasant. Our objective for the first day was to head down glacier to link up to a tributary glacier that would lead up toward the pass we had flow over the day before. As with most things in the Alaska Range, getting to the tributary glacier took about twice as long as we had figured. This tributary glacier was also bordered to the south by a prominent peak that adorned 3 very esthetic couloirs. Two of which looked to be around 55 degrees and variable at the top. With the third being more like 45 degrees, not quite as much vertical and higher likelihood of being able to top out. We opted for this one. Though this couloir was the shortest of the three, it was still pretty long.
We were able to skin up to the bergschrund and then set a boot pack from there. About an hour later and over a thousand vertical feet later we were ready to click in. On the way up we encountered a number of shallow instabilities and former crowns. I dropped in getting a feel for the snow pack and further checking these areas as I descended. It was stable, with some good and not so good turns throughout the descent. Still, there is nothing like skiing a steep and long couloir in a setting like this. It was great. Oh, yeah, and I found a snow snake about half way down and did a bit of a high angle summersault, of which I was able to ski right out of, thankfully. Michelle followed, also making her 100+ turn signature down the esthetic couly, and without the extra credit summersault. Then Ray blazed down, probably making 1 turn for every 2 of ours. It was sick!
As a result of my summersault, in addition to several other day one kinks we had worked out, and being that there were three couloirs and three of us, we dubbed this area “The Three Stooges”. The couloir we had just skied was Curly because it was shorter and fatter, with Moe in the middle and Larry on the right. On our way back down to the main glacier, we took the time to scope some additional zones that we had seen on the flight in. This place was huge. Just the general area we had been though on this day could provide weeks of skiing. Upon arriving back into camp that evening, the sun was setting and we had been out for 8 or 9 hours. This would prove to be a standard days work to ski anything significant in this area.
Day two, March 25thWe woke to our now usual routine of AM winds, fire, coffee, breakfast and then roping up. We were somewhat undecided as to where we wanted to go, but figured that since we had a track laid most the way up to the pass, we’d start in that direction. This time on our way down, we took note of a massive pillow zone that could be skied on our way back to the main glacier. As we headed back up the tributary glacier and neared The Three Stooges, we had to decide whether we wanted to start up Larry or Moe, or continue onto the pass.
We choose the pass, thinking that we could have a look and still have the option of skiing back down glacier to The Three Stooges. Right as we arrived to the pass, de-packed and broke out our lunches, the pass proved to be quite windy and cold. So we made quick work of our snacks and decided that we would skin to the head of the glacier, where we could see a col. Ray had seen a wall of spines as we flew in and believed that this col could be an entrance to this zone. He was right. When I first peaked over the edge, all I could really see was the glacier about 1,500 feet below. Once we got a handle on the cornice and stability of the potential entrance, we could see the spines and couloir. The entrance was insane, close to vertical for about 10 – 15 feet, then a 60-degree chimney for another 50 feet, and then a 45 or 50-degree couloir that was lined with spine walls on both sides. At first, I was puckered and not into it.
Ray stepped up and said he was a go if we could belay him through the chimney. Michelle, with her pure love for building anchors jumped at the opportunity. With a bomber anchor set and the belay on, Ray worked his way down the upper section and into the chimney where within a couple of minutes he freed himself from the belay and began one impressive descent down the couloir. After watching Ray, I decided to go for it. I locked to the rope and worked my way down the first section and released the belay to ski the bottom half of the chimney.
It was quite steep and narrow and I came out of it with some heat with a 45-degree couloir or 50+ degree spine wall to choose from. I carried my momentum across the couloir and laid a couple of turns down the edge of the spine wall. Everything seemed to be sloughing out and accumulating in the couloir, the snow was really good. After a few turns of pretty much getting pummeled with slough in the couloir, I jumped back to skiers left and worked my way though the lower spines and over to the wider exit of the neighboring couloir around the corner.
I pointed it down to Ray and looked back at the wall with slough still billowing out onto the two aprons. WOW! What an amazing zone. Big big props and thanks to Ray for stepping up to the plate and convincing us to make this one happen. Also big big thanks to Michelle for the belays. After disassembling her anchors, Michelle snuck her way around and lined up a nice long glacier pow run to meet us down on the glacier. From there we had to poke around for a bit to work around a broken up section of the glacier and some interesting terrain features. It was worth the time because we found the awe-inspiring pillow zone that we had eyed as we passed beneath it this morning. Michelle found a couloir hidden in the midst of literally thousands of pillows, and was able to help guide Ray and I down our lines via radio. Probably should have eyed the zone in a little more detail that morning because it was freaking steep, only allowing view of one turn or pillow below you at a time. That is pretty tough when you’re talking about a line with 50+ pillows in it. That evening when talking about the day, Ray kept referring to the wall of spines and couloirs as “The White Wall” because it was just that. Additionally, when talking about the mega pillow zone, it was described as having to fight your way down it and listing to someone ski it sounded as such. So we dubbed it “Pillow Fight.”
Cody was supposed to be flying in to join us sometime that morning and this would allow us to help unload the plane when he landed. In the midst of an extra cup of coffee and some nice lounge time next to the fire, we heard the buzz of the TAT Beaver in the distance. Right on time, Cody touched down on the glacier at about noon. This left plenty of time in the day so ski and also left us divided, with two opting to rest for the remainder of the day and two wanting to get out for a short tour. Cody was coming off of a two-week shift and only a couple hours of sleep in the last couple days, and I was pretty tired. So we decided to kick back at camp, enjoy the sun and watch Ray and Michelle climb and ski an area near camp. Plus, I got to use Ray’s camera and telephoto lens to snap some shoots of them.
Day four, March 27thGoing to bed the night before, we all new we were in for a big one today. Our objective was over 6 miles up glacier, through what looked to be a huge crevasse field and at least 1,500-vertical feet of steep couloir. B.S. Gap was a couloir in a cirque at the head of the glacier and right next to the Moose’s Tooth. According to our maps, if we could manage to get around the massive cornice at the top, we should be able to view the Ruth Glacier and Denali on the other side.
We had read about a group in the 80’s possibly using this gap as part of their historic 3-month traverse through the heart of the range. Sure enough, our commute to the base of the objective was not short of interesting terrain features and navigation of the glacier. There were some really impressive bridges and holes that left more than enough for the imagination. This kind of thing gives me goose bumps even writing about it after the fact. As we got closer to the base of the Moose’s Tooth, the reality of its sheer size began to set in. To add some perspective, this massive rock towers approximately three and a half times the height of the Empire State Building over the glacier.
Once again, we were able to skin up to the bergschrund and started booting from there. This time; however, crampons and ice axes were a necessity. It was steep and firm. As we ascended, we felt good about the stability, but just as in Curly, we did encounter a few variable sections.
On the left we had some wind loaded pockets with shallow trigger points, and the right half of the couloir was directly beneath the massive overhanging cornice at the top. There was a manageable route up between the two and we made it happen. Approaching the top, I could see that there was a flat bench to the left of the cornice. Then, once I reached the bench, I could see a wind-scoured hallway of sorts. On one side of the saddle there was the cornice that overhung the couloir we climbed up, and on the other side there was cornice that faced the opposite direction. Interestingly, between the two was a hallway of ice that allowed passage to the other side. And there she was…..Denali. What an amazing vantage point of this beautiful place. Looking directly across the Ruth Glacier at Denali, I aimed my camera to snap a photo and thought, “Wow, not many people have this photo.”
After a few minutes of awe-ing over the views we realized how cold it was up there, and that we still needed to descend and get all the way back to camp. It was about 5pm when I starting down the 50+ degree couloir. It was NOT good skiing. In fact, I can only remember a few times where the term “survival skiing” was so prevalent. Ray and I convened at the bottom, both glad to be down. As Michelle and Cody worked their way down to the bergschrund, I heard a big pop from the Moose’s Tooth. I turned my head just in time to see a column of icefall from a hanging ice field. Talk about being speechless. Based on how long it took for the ice to fall to the glacier below and the size of the powder cloud that followed, we estimated that it fell about 2,500 feet and may have been as tall as a football field is long (300 feet) when it released.
Ray and I were out of harms way, but did feel some of the ice crystals from the powder cloud. This was by far the biggest natural showing of power I have ever witnessed in person. Shortly there after, Cody and Michelle were able to put their tongues back in their mouths and join us on the glacier below. After a pretty exhausting commute back to camp, we finally slide in around 9pm. We were worked at that point, so getting geared down, water melted and dinner made was no easy task. Going to bed that night felt pretty good.
Day five, March 28thNot sure how the bodies would feel this morning, we chose to head back down glacier toward the Three Stooges, White Wall and Pillow Fight. This would give us familiar options, as well as the ease of utilizing an existing track. When passing below Pillow Fight, we decided that no matter what else we skied, we had to go back through there because, well, how often do you get to ski what seemed like endless pillows. Further up we approached The Three Stooges and just did not have 2,000 feet of setting a boot pack in us. This left us with two last options; to continue up to the head of the tributary glacier, and either enjoy a long glacier ski down to Pillow Fight or to drop over the other side and into The White Wall. Well, once we made it all the way to the head of the glacier and knowing what was right over the other side, we could not resist the pull of The White Wall.
This time, with a complete U-turn from my first reaction to packing over the entrance, I chose to drop into The White Wall unsupported (no ropes). This was not an unsafe decision; it would just require some careful and precise moves. As I prepped to drop in, Cody, also having a great amount of enthusiasm for building anchors, worked with Michelle to setup a belay to lower Ray and Michelle. I slowly worked my way down the upper section and through the chimney. It was not bad at all, especially after having a roped in trial run a few days prior.
Once through the chimney, I traversed far skiers left and was able to get on top of the massive fin that separated the couloir and spine wall from an even bigger couloir off the other side. This fin was pretty narrow with an almost vertical drop to the left and very steep spines to right. Not o mention, it was steep. Certainly one of the coolest terrain features I have ever skied or even dreamed of skiing. As a bonus, when I made it to the bottom, it ended in a wall of spines down to the bergschrund and glacier. The amount of slough I created as I descended was breath taking as it billowed out onto the apron of both couloirs. I was incredibly excited about this one. Ray followed, surfing the spine wall this time for most of his decent. Then, Michelle confirmed over the radio that she was a go and would have Cody belay her in. I am sure she was nervous, but funneling that fear into calculated moves and solid skiing, she nailed it! Michelle impresses me on a daily basis, but I was really impressed, however, not surprised at all to watch her pick this one off. Big big thanks this time to Cody for the belays!
He was also able to score a long glacier pow run along side Michelle’s tracks from a few days prior. This time, we had a better idea of how to get down to Pillow Fight from The White Wall. Also having skied through there once before, round two on Pillow Fight was awesome. Seriously, what a rad area and even cooler that it is on the way out from skiing these other amazing zones. And almost just like that, we were back at camp with another long day in the bag.
Day six, March 29thI think the 2-day soreness theory might have caught up to us. I could feel a significant reduction in energy and strength, as we were all pretty worked at this point. However, we were on for an AM pick up the next day so we all wanted to dig deep and ski whatever we possibly could that day. There was another pillow zone closer to camp, that we had seen throughout the week.
It was not as high up as the other lines or as big as Pillow Fight, but it looked fun and manageable given our fatigued state. It was pretty warm out with almost no wind, and this provided for a really easygoing tour. Sun, pillows, corn and glacier pow…..It was a great way to end the trip. That afternoon we got back to camp much earlier in the day than days prior. It was really nice to just take it all in, start packing up camp a bit and enjoy our last evening out. We had setup a time lapse to capture the sun setting behind camp. It was not until we were home and going through the footage that we realized a major avalanche or icefall had occurred at the head of the B.S. Glacier.
That evening we experienced a pretty good earthquake, which given where we were, was a bit nerve-racking. As it turned out, this earthquake was likely the cause of the major event we unknowingly had caught on camera. In the frame, the debris came from lookers left, tracked across the glacier (over a kilometer wide) and carried upwards of 1,000 feet up the slope on the other side. Talk about goose bumps.
Unaware of this awesome display of natural power, we spend that last evening recapping the week, planning future trips and playing Farkle next to the fire! Once again, what a trip!!!
The Volkl V-Werks Katana is a stiff, high performance big mountain ski, but lightweight for touring. The carbon fiber build allows for the best of both worlds as far as performance and lightweight touring. You can really utilize this ski in any terrain and in any conditions.
Marmot’s Isotherm Hoody offers additional warmth with breathability at minimal additional weight, as wells as compressibility for storing in your pack when not in use.
Scarpa’s Freedom SL Freeride Touring Boot is by far the most versatile boot to hit the Freeride/Touring genre to date. It is stiff enough to handle the big lines, but light enough to not hold you back on the hikes and tours. The walk mode provides a great range of motion and because the boots natural position is ski mode, you do not have to worry about that untimely shift to walk mode while skiing.
Marmot’s Col MemBrain sleeping bag is 800 fill goose down and rated to -20 deg F. I have used this bag numerous expeditions, including several trips into the Alaska Range and Denali National Park. It has kept me warm and rested for some very big and long days in some very adverse conditions.