Going big. In every way, that’s how this Denali trip has been. More prep, more time, more money, more gear than I’ve ever sunk into one single endeavor. As much mental terra incognita as the physical glaciers and ridges we’re headed north to ski on.
From the exciting moments of reserving an air taxi or the confirmation of our permits, there’s a transition into what to do to get ready. Much like climbing or skiing, there’s plenty of decisions to make along the way. You can go it alone, use some help, or pay someone to guide your success. There are a number of Denali prep courses available—a quick survey throws the price tags between $2,500 and $1,500. Most take place in the Cascades, as spring conditions in March and April can be similar to what goes down up north. But we’re going as our own guides, and besides, it’s not like I’ve the cash to throw down on a guided trip. And it’s not like we’re doing this alone either—so many people have come together to make this all possible. Though we didn’t really plan it, the prep process, just like the way we plan to approach the mountain, has been on our own terms with lots of help, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Looking back, it seems better organized. Or at least more consciously thought through than it actually was. In my case, “training” for Denali started with a long winter of skiing, working on my skis, and traveling to ski. Not that this was really any different from what I would have been doing anyway. There’s no question that constantly being on skis develops the muscles needed to ski sastrugi with a heavy pack.
More than any other, this winter was one of touring. I got to go out skinning with my friends, and the reward came in the form of shredding more untracked, soft snow than I ever have. The planning and decision making for backcountry travel on a day trip crosses over into the expedition ski mountaineering we’ll be doing up north. Many of the days I was out saw 4,000-5,000ft of vertical gain, which isn’t any sort of record, but it kept the hiking stamina from last summer and fall mostly intact. One thing to watch out for: if your friends know you’re headed to Denali, they might let you break a bit more trail than you planned for in the name of “training.”
In mid-April, Clay Roehner and I spent three days in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park. It was the first trip that really felt relevant to what Grant and I will be doing up north. Initially, Clay had been thinking about a weeklong traverse of the touring zones along the west side of the Middle Fork along US 2. As things shook out, we didn’t have time to place the caches or do the whole thing. With the weather heading towards storm after several weeks of sun, it seemed better to scale back. When I mentioned Many Glacier in the 10pm phone call the night before we left, he was down.
Meeting up at seven the next morning, the junkshow bloomed quickly. I’d left my fuel bottle in Kalispell. We went back from the gas station to grab his skins. In a moment of totally obviousness, Safeway had no white gas and the hardware store saved us. My dad left work to get us a fuel bottle from his shed. All which goes to show that flexible planning and good cheer are probably the best tools to include on these sorts of ventures.
A stop in West Glacier yielded our backcountry permit and the info that the road had been plowed. Another stop in East Glacier saw the last supply getting and arranging our packs.
By virtue of the scope of the trip, the pile of gear is large. Intricacies come along with that pile. Simple things like how to pour white gas from large cans into the narrow MSR bottles. When full, the spout is too big. It spills. What happens if you overfill? A minor problem, but still frustrating. Easily, the solution is a funnel. But what interests me is the way that these things are learned. In my case, the folks at the East Glacier mercantile had a funnel I could use. A checklist could theoretically prepare you for all the small issues like this. Make it possible to anticipate them. Personally, I’d rather go out with friends, deal with small mistakes, and write the “To Fix” issues in my Rite In The Rain.
The turnoff in Babb had snow, and Clay’s Suburban made it all the way to the gate at the foot of Lake Sherburne. Skis went on packs, packs on backs, and we saddled up on our bikes for the six mile trip to the picnic area that was to be our campsite.
I can’t really recommend riding a bike with such big bags. We managed the slush, puddles, and winds with no incident, but we’re skiers. It was a close thing. Wheels were a means to an end from which a skin track can start, in our case the picnic area north of Swiftcurrent Lake.
After avoiding death by bighorn ram near the caretaker cabin, our complaining asses rolled into the picnic area to some serious amenities. Unlocked pit toilets. Picnic tables. A fire ring to put the Whisperlite in. Bearproof food storage in the garbage containers. During the summer, this is the domain of tourists who can park and eat Fritos in the shade of some pines. Though not open for public travel, crunching across bare asphalt in ski boots didn’t quite feel like backcountry.
Without much visibility, it was hard to say what was going on in the alpine. The whole area has seen 8-12” of snow in the last week, making the snowpack we skinned into below Grinnell Point a bit of scour, refreeze, and buff atop a solid crust. Nothing moved on the mellow slopes, but we weren’t convinced. Rapid warming could quickly destabilize the new snow making for wet slabs or point release slush gushers. It seemed smart to keep expectations low. Over dinner back at the picnic tables, we decided to head up to Grinnell Lake the next day. We’d be closer to the alpine and wouldn’t see work trucks heading past.
After waking, we packed up and headed over to dodge open water patches on Lake Josephine. Navigating the creek between the head of Josephine and Grinnell pushed us up on the hillside below Grinnell Mtn, and we arrived at the head of Grinnell just as the clouds parted. Immediately, we saw point releases moving into the cirque we’d need to skin through to make it up to Grinnell Glacier. Retreating to the shelter of the big trees, we pitched camp and went for a recon skin with the argillite face of Angel’s Wing towering above. The crust was somehow bonded to a foot of new snow, though we skied conservatively. For good measure, I alternated Clay’s tracks out the bottom for some powder eights.
Transitions while winter camping are more than just skins or goggles. Pulling into camp means going from sweaty active gear, perhaps a softshell, to down and mitts. Insulating boot liners in the toe of my bag. Insulating water so it won’t freeze. It’s not the easy luxury of summer backpacking, but then again, snow allows you to build your own kitchen.
Ours had two seats, a counter for prep and cooking, a fridge box, and sat down out of the wind. Still, lessons learned: don’t keep your glove liners off in wind. Bring extra socks just for camp, as your usual ones are sweaty.
Hauling big bags and the bike ride of the day before had tired us out. Couscous came quickly and we gulped it before it got cold. As they say, hunger is certainly the best sauce. Planning an early morning, the tent door zipped up by six pm.
I woke up to ten degrees in the tent, ice crystals all over the walls, and six am. We’d been asleep for a full twelve hours. Best of all, the clouds of the previous days were gone. Clay rallied first into the sunshine; we powered out of camp to the bottom of the headwall. Just after layering down, I had to race back to the tent for my beacon. Lesson: put that thing on first. Then, we headed up the ramp towards the glacial basin. Summer sees this area as a set of cliffs with waterfalls running down them, so cutting a track through windbuff atop the crust required kicking in at nearly every step. Lesson: use the ski crampons I subsequently purchased.
Though hard, we made it up the first bench. Clay lead the second and popped out into the scoured steps of the glacial basin with a whoop. Our route went up to the moraines above the pond, to the left, and we skinned through the flats between the Wing and Mt. Gould and up to the summit of Angel’s Wing.
Dropping off the summit, we milked crust that became the first true powder that either of us has skied in a few weeks.
A lower bowl was even deeper. Stoke was very high. Sounds of joy were being yodeled. As it was getting close to eleven am, we leapfrogged our way down through the headwall and reached camp congratulating each other on a safe descent.
After packing up camp, we headed back down the lakes.
Reaching the bikes, we caught a ride out with a service truck. Good thing, too—there’s a likely chance our flatish tires wouldn’t have survived the trip back to the ‘burban.
As we put on shoes and stowed our gear, I reflected on my sunburn. On the trip, and how it had become a learning experience. A tip here, an idea there. Not “training” in some sort of artificial, detached way, but an adventure in its own right. Good times had. Powder skied. Most importantly, safe decisions made that got us up and back to the car. My kind of fun.
Thanks again to Clay for his photos and company.