Note: This trip report is part of the TetonAT Trip Report Contest. AJ is now in the running to win a FREE pair of Black Diamond skis based on viewer response and the TetonAT panel of judges! This trip report was originally posted on WagnerSkis.com. Good luck AJ!!
AJ Lindell on the West Rib of Denali with Mount Foraker in the backgrouond
I woke up on the morning of June 14th to temperatures well below zero, with frost caked around the hood of my sleeping bag and a layer of the stuff coating the inside of the tent walls. Every move brought a shower down from the ceiling. I could hear Jaime firing up the stoves in the cook Megamid while we blearily put on layer after layer of clothing and rammed our feet into frozen boot shells. The snow squeaked underfoot as we walked around camp, strapping snowboard and skis to our packs and donning harnesses that we wouldn’t remove until well past dinnertime. Looking up, I saw with apprehension a curl of spindrift blowing off the summit plateau, but the lower half of our climbing route was clear, and though the sun was hours away from us on the other side of the mountain I had a good feeling about what we would find once we got up on the Rib.
Juiced up on coffee and oatmeal, we walked out of 14-Camp and deeper into the shadow of the upper mountain, breaking trail through 20cm of fresh snow from the last few days’ flurries. We roped up to cross some bigger crevasses and work our way across the head of the glacier, arriving at the West Rib cutoff (16,200′) just as the sun hit the Russian team that was camped there. Looking down the lower Rib, it seemed like there could be some potential for a 7000′ snowboard/ski descent down to the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier, but on another day, on a different trip. (First descent, possibly?) Our objective was to climb the Upper West Rib for 4000′ to the summit and then ride/ski the Messner Couloir back down to 14-Camp, 6000′ below.
Basecamp at 14K on Denali.
We had been in the Alaska Range for two weeks by the time summit day rolled around, alternating days of hauling sleds like donkeys on skis with days of making turns around camp, allowing our bodies to acclimatize to the altitude. “Rest” days typically involved a few thousand feet of climbing and riding–it felt rejuvenating to travel with light loads, purely for play. We took a week getting to 14-Camp, where we installed a basecamp that would be our home for the remainder of the expedition. Chest-high snow walls protected our tents from winds, and an excavated Megamid provided a place to escape from the snow/sun for cooking, playing cards, listening to NPR in comfort. We took advantage of good weather to climb and ride routes up to 17,200′, giving our bodies as much opportunity for acclimatization as possible. (And scouting the lower reaches of our routes for summit day.) But clouds kept us pinned closed to camp for most of our time there. We got plenty of practice riding through the whiteout, trying to find good routes back down to camp. (“Is that a crevasse? Should we rope up?”) Every day, usually multiple times a day, we wandered over to the rangers’ compound to check the weather forecast, looking for a window for our summit push.
AJ Lindell climbs the West Rib of Denali.
Nobody had been up the Rib for days, so we had unblemished snow and rock stretching up to the summit plateau. The climbing started with 800′ of 60-degree snow and ice to a bench, and then layed back to ~45-degrees for the remainder of the climb. Punching steps into the snow, winding our way through pink and brown granite, finding the route for ourselves and watching the Russians follow our steps a thousand feet below, all on a windless sunny day. Wow. Jaime and Alex decided to stop at the top of the Messner Couloir (19,500′) to retain some energy for the descent while Twinkie and I continued to the top. It seems ridiculous now that 800′ of climbing would take almost two hours, but at that altitude it did.
AJ on the summit of Denali.
The sun was low in the sky when we reached the summit, giving a brilliant glow to everything around us as we removed crampons and buckled down our boots for the descent. Riding off the top was the realization of a dream I had entertained for almost 10 years, and looking down at the descent that awaited us was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped. That squeaky snow turned out to be remarkably sticky—I had never ridden in conditions this cold, and hadn’t anticipated it. And riding at 20,000′ is hard, much harder than I had expected. But the knife-hard nevé held an edge, and we eventually re-joined the rest of our team back at the top of the Messner.
AJ Lindell descends off the summit of Denali.
Looking down 5000′ of continuous 45-degree snow on a perfect fall-line was as unnerving as it was sublime. The sense of exposure was terrifying, and wonderful. The consequences of an uncontrolled fall were clear as we looked down at the tiny dots of 14-Camp in the basin below. We all recognized the risk though we never spoke of it, just stayed focused on riding well. We had great turns on 20cm of windslab over firm nevé for the first 1000′, with the sun shining full on the couloir as we rode from safe zone to safe zone. Dropping further towards the narrows halfway down, the windslab turned to breakable windcrust and the riding got spicier. There is a remarkable clarity that comes in a time when every turn counts and the consequences of blowing a turn could be big, a focus that I don’t often get to experience in the rest of my life. Riding through the narrows, breaking the crust with powerful turns while looking at the continuing descent below, I felt the clarity in all its glory and had one of those rare moments when this was all I wanted to be doing, in the only place I wanted to be.
And then, just after exiting the narrows Alex made a turn through the crust and hit blue ice underneath and fear joined the clarity, threatening to replace it entirely. Every turn resulted in a short slide until our edges found full purchase and we stopped. Then another turn to a slide to a stop. Turn, slide, stop. Repeat. Alex and I had scouted the lower slopes a couple of days before and could see the point when we would reach softer snow once more, but there was a lot of wind-scoured crust over ice above that point and we were tired. Good judgment found Jaime side-stepping down while Twinkie put his crampons back on and down-climbed it. Alex and I continued making relatively controlled turns next to each other until we rode over the small crevasse at the transition to better snow, and a chance to breathe.
AJ rides crusty snow in the Messner Couloir.
The rest of the descent was pretty straightforward, with fast turns on 20cm of light powder to finish it. Riding back into camp 16 hours after our departure, the sense of what we had done was subdued, dulled by fatigue and hunger and thirst. We sat in the cook ‘mid laughing about the day while I cooked ramen and quesadillas and melted pot after pot of water until the wee hours of the morning. It wasn’t until I woke up late and made coffee on a lovely, warm, sunny morning and looked back up at the route that I was able to appreciate our accomplishment, and feel the glow of a long-lived dream realized. As we made our exit down the Kahiltna toward the case of ale cached at basecamp, I felt content, tired, and a few pounds light. Ready to call it a successful expedition and go home.