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Steep Skiing on Denali

Steep Skiing on Denali

journal
Tom Grant
December 2019 | Read
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In early summer this year I gathered three of my most trusted ski buddies for a journey to Alaska. Our aim: to see if our expertise from skiing steep lines in the Alps and around the world could be applied to the biggest lines in Alaska.


It proved a humbling experience. Reward was mixed with frustration and we almost lost one of our team

Last year, 2018, didn’t start off well for me. I tore my ACL – which was the first major injury I’d sustained since skiing almost full time over 10 years - and I didn’t take it very well. My good friend and prolific steep skier Jesper Peterson had been through the same gruelling recovery process the year before. His support and encouragement was a big boost during my rehab and when he proposed a trip together to Alaska for the following spring, I knew I was in. We invited Ben Briggs and Enrico Mossetti to round off an experienced team.


Travel to uncomfortable places is a useful way to keep growing as an athlete and a person. The Central Alaska Range was certainly the right place to take all four of us outside our comfort zones. Denali is a mind-blowingly huge mountain renowned for its extreme cold, harsh weather and severely thin air. Flying in from the remote outpost of Talkeetna on the edge of the Alaska Range, our first glimpses of Denali filled us with awe and trepidation. It’s 3,000-meter south face is a well-known ski mountaineering challenge and is one of the very biggest steep ski lines in the world, cutting through an alpine face of mythical stature. We decided this would be an option to try. Our other option involved attempting a very complex but compelling-looking line on the unskied north side of Mt. Hunter, which is conveniently in plain sight directly above basecamp. 

Finally some warmer sunshine at Kalhiltna Basecamp.

We arrived in basecamp and fried some eggs for lunch while staring at Hunter. The line looked simply too dangerous, and conditions were worse than what we’d seen in photos from previous years. We decided to load our sleds with two weeks’ worth of supplies and start the long slog up Denali, hauling our heavy sleds up the mountain for three days. 


After positioning ourselves high on Denali, we passed a couple of stormy days playing chess. It was bitterly cold at first; a deep, raw cold. I wondered if my holiday time would have been better spent somewhere a little warmer where we could actually do some skiing. On the first day of good weather we headed up the classic Orient Express couloir. Jesper and I pushed our bodies hard to get up to 5,800m only five days after arriving at basecamp. The frustration of the previous days was soon ironed out by the intense physical exertion it took to boot up 1,000m at that altitude, and then the bliss of a few good powder turns coming back into camp.

Jesper skinning up towards the start of the Orient Express.

The cold and high winds continued and I began wondering if my first trip to Denali would be my last. The stable weather we were counting on never came and the enormity and logistical challenges of skiing the South Face weighed heavily on us. We knew it would be a long shot to pull off. Our patience and food supplies began to run thin. At last it seemed as if our window had come and the four of us packed for a three-day roundtrip to attempt the South Face. Moving up the mountain I instinctively felt our packs were too heavy and we weren’t moving fast enough. The wind whipped up well beyond what was forecast, and we ground to a halt.


Ben and Enrico felt the time had come to bail. They moved back down to basecamp, while Jesper and I stayed up one more day with the intention of at least taking our skis to the summit and skiing the classic Messner Couloir. This time the weather turned out better than predicted with summit temperatures a relatively balmy -25 degs C. It felt a joy to move at a good speed and with a lighter pack. Some altitude-induced pain was nothing compared to the intense pleasure of pushing up the mountain at a decent pace. Jesper and I finally peered into the depths of the South Face as we neared the summit. We were too late in the day to ski it and the weather wasn’t stable enough. The view into the South Face was almost nauseating. It was of a scale like nothing I’d seen before. My ambition to ski it was there but I knew it wasn’t the time for it.

Jesper peering into the depths of the colossal South Face

Arriving on the summit I was alone for twenty minutes in near perfect weather. It was a powerful moment to be there alone, and then joined by Jesper. As we stepped into our skis atop North America’s highest mountain, it felt good to share and savour the moment with such a trusted ski partner. After making a few fast powder turns straight off the summit, we entered the Messner Couloir in mesmerizing evening light. To be in Alaska and on Denali was a challenge and a new experience for us. But skiing the Messner, one of North America’s biggest and most classic steep lines felt trivial. As we skied back into camp we were amused to be welcomed by whoops and applause from the dozens of other climbers and skiers camped out there who had watched our descent.

Acclimatising high on Denali.

On North America's highest point.

Tom shredding in the Messner Couloir - Jesper Petersson.

Tom skiing down the Messner above 14k Camp- Jesper Petersson.

Jesper and I were pleased with finally having achieved some success. Yet we also felt slightly cheated that we had not skied anything that really challenged us. We wanted to take our niche steep skiing skillset and apply it to these incredibly big and beautiful mountains. Back in basecamp we were reunited with Ben and Enrico and planned for one last big line. 


The 1,000m West Face of Kalhiltna Queen was an obvious target. First skied in 2010 by a French team, it is a stunningly beautiful and technical ski objective. Holed up back in basecamp during two days of sleet and blizzards, we rested up and waited. On the third day we left early for the Kalhiltna Queen. Cramponing up the main couloir of the face at a relatively low 3,000m above sea level, it felt as though I had boot packing super-powers.


As we climbed up higher following airy ridges and spines, I was in rapture at the raw beauty of the place. I felt we were surely going to be ending the trip on a high. Finding a way to the summit through some very exposed terrain with rocks and ice never far under the snow, we planned our descent precisely. I had an unshakeable confidence that I could safely ski the line without using the rope.

Ascending beautiful ridges and spine on the Kalhiltna Queen West Face.

Kalhiltna Queen summit selfie.

Halfway down, on the steep bank of a small choke in the couloir I stopped immediately when I instinctively felt it wasn’t safe to make another turn. A small 10cm deep slab broke off at my ski tips. Not sensing any greater danger, I waited as Jesper skied down to me. To my alarm he skied faster than I expected coming in straight below where I had stopped. A small but much deeper slab instantly broke off around his skis. Within less than a second the slab had pushed him backwards into an ice runnel and then rocks. 


Moments later he was gone, out of sight having accelerated at an incredible speed down the couloir. I suppressed a rising panic that in all likelihood Jesper was either dead or seriously injured and also some relief that it wasn’t me. I immediately got out my InReach and hit the emergency SOS button. I prayed it worked. Fear and stress flooded my body as I skied as fast as possible to get to Jesper. As I was descending it was with huge relief that I saw a distant figure below stumbling around the debris from the small avalanche. I was also afraid of what I would find. Arriving at Jesper I found him badly beaten up, but seemingly without any life-threatening injuries. It was awful to see him in such a state though, totally disorientated and in a lot of pain.


Enrico soon arrived with us. He tended to Jesper while I raced back to basecamp to round up a rescue party and to see if he could be flown out. I sprinted through basecamp and to our tents to grab Ben who had decided not to join us that day. Together we skinned up the glacier as fast as we could with a sleeping bag and stove to warm Jesper. A team of rescue volunteers joined us and the helicopter eventually made it in through a break in the cloud to fly Jesper away. 

Enrico Mosetti.

Packing the plane to leave the Glacier.

Ben, Enrico and I flew off the glacier the following day and back to civilization. Jesper spent a few days in hospital near Anchorage before getting flown back to Sweden. He sustained a broken neck and ribs but very luckily nothing life changing.


Attempting these big lines is the culmination of hard-won experience and dedication to the craft. It requires a level of mental and physical mastery in order to have a satisfying experience. I have an instinctive urge to seek out adventure and risk, yet this urge has been tempered over time with the numbing reality of losing some good friends in the mountains. Experience and skill can count for a lot but no matter how much I rationalize, the uncomfortable reality is that luck, good and bad, also counts for a lot.


Things happen fast in the mountains and can go wrong very fast. So often we rely on intuition to make split second decisions that can keep us safe. This intuition is the brain making calculations faster than we can consciously process and is based on pattern recognition. As skiers this can tell us where to turn, where not to turn, where the snow is safe, where it might be dangerous. But it is not fool-proof. All we can do is try our best to be humble, self-aware and therefore always be learning. And to keep questioning what it is we are doing and why we are doing it.  

“Experience and skill can count for a lot but no matter how much I rationalise, the uncomfortable reality is that luck, good and bad, also counts for a lot.”

Tom Grant is a member of the Jöttnar Pro Team. Find out more here.

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