Months of preparation, planning and training were finally done. We sat in the grass at Talkeetna Air Strip amongst our mountain of gear waiting for our Otter ski plane to take us to the glacier. We had an ambitious plan that we did not give ourselves much of a chance to complete; we wanted to be the first to ski from the summit of each of the three peaks that make up the “Alaska Family”: Mt. Hunter, Mt. Foraker and Denali. Knowing our chances were slim, we got on the plane with our gear thinking one or two of the peaks would make the trip a success. All three would make it something truly special.
The day after landing at the Denali base camp/landing strip we were on our way to our Hunter base camp. The Denali base camp sits below the menacing north face of Mt. Hunter. Our planned ski route would take us up and down the slightly more mellow south face of the west ridge on the only route that holds actual snow from the summit all the way down. But first we had to get there. We loaded our sleds and packs with over 100 pounds of gear and food and started down the Kahiltna Glacier. After about five miles of slow moving, we found the arm of the glacier we were looking for and saw our first major obstacle. We simply called it the icefall.
We set up our camp near the base of the icefall and promptly waited out a two-day storm. Once visibility came back we went on a probing mission into the icefall with light packs. It had only been navigated two times before us. The first team to ski Hunter approached from the right side under scary-looking seracs. The other team climbed a very exposed rock/ice route to the left of the icefall, skirting it completely. Neither of these options looked in good condition, so we decided to take on the icefall head on. Our route took us into the walls of ice on a slightly less broken section on the left side. After a full day of route finding, ice climbing, and hoping that everything stayed together, we finally found ourselves at the top of the icefall looking at our first part of the true ski route on Hunter, the Ramen Couloir. We quickly retreated to our base camp and packed enough gear to camp and a few days’ worth of food.
We left camp early and with an established route were able to make it up the icefall in only a few hours. We set up a camp below the Ramen Couloir and tried to get a few hours of sleep in before setting out for the summit. Our plan was to leave camp at 9 pm. We would climb through the night in order to get back to the south-facing Ramen Couloir before it got too warm to ski safely. It was the beginning of May so the sun never got too far below the horizon, giving us enough light to climb the Couloir at night. The only information we had on the climb and ski was from Andrew McLean’s group when it became the first to ski from the summit. It took the group 12 hours from the location of our camp to the top. We figured we could do it in about the same amount of time.
After a few hours of laying – but not really sleeping – we set out. The Ramen Couloir is a 3,300 foot couloir that is between 50 and 60 degrees from top to bottom. One foot in front of the other, we kicked steps up the couloir for six hours, finally topping out on the west ridge at 3:30 am. Exhausted. The climb was not kind to us. The first half went smoothly, but as we got higher the snow fell harder until we hit black ice about 200 feet from the top on the steepest part of the couloir. We decided to rope up and place protection in the ice to the top. A fall here was not an option. Sitting in a small col on the famed west ridge felt good though. We had gotten past the hardest part of the climb. We felt confident in getting this peak done.
Andrew had said that once he got to the same spot his team was able to skin to the summit. This was not our reality. Blue glacial ice was all over the broken ridge in front of us. Crampons stayed on our feet, ice tools in hand, and we kept moving. We were tired, and this ridge was harder than we expected. Crevasses shooting in all directions, ice blocks blocking our way and massive exposure slowed us to a crawl.
We made it up to the summit plateau at 10 am, totally beat down and not so sure about making the summit anymore. Across the plateau stood the north face of the summit ridge with nothing but blue ice on it. Totally unskiable. Things were getting tough mentally. We were tired. No sleep and hard work made us just want to quit. We had enough food though, and we could not ski down the Ramen anyway. It was too late, too warm. We knew that the summit plateau extended to the south side of the summit ridge, but we had no idea what that south face looked like. Might as well take the chance. We skinned around and found what we were hoping to find, a skiable ramp up to the ridge that extended to the top! Again, we moved forward.
The steps were slow, and there were only a few of them between each rest. Finally at 9 pm we made it. We stood on top of Mt. Hunter as the sun began to set, 24 hours after leaving camp. Celebrations were muted. There was still so much to do, and all of it either unpleasant or scary. First was to sleep. We were exhausted. Trying to ski down the west ridge and then the Ramen at night was suicide, so we skied back down to the plateau and dug a hole, put all our clothes on, and positioned ourselves into a 4-way man spoon. What will forever live in our minds as the “shiver bivy” was the most unpleasant night of sleep I can remember. The alarm we set was useless. We were all wide awake when it went off. We quickly got ready. We would get off this mountain today- we had to.
Physically and mentally we were all reaching our breaking points. Everything we did took too long and was not done well. Skiing back down the west ridge’s icy, exposed and crevassed terrain was terrifying, but we know what lay ahead was worse.
We had to rappel the top section of the Ramen. Skiing 60-degree black ice was not an option. We made a running belay across the black ice to the top of the couloir and set a v-thread anchor in the ice. Slowly we took turns rappelling to the end of the rope where there was a rock to use as an anchor for the next rappel. After the second one we found snow and were able to transition to skis. With every turn we used all our concentration and strength. This was not fun skiing. This was survival skiing in its purest form. We only relaxed at the bottom where the couloir hit the glacier and we were able to stand on flat ground.
We were elated; we had just completed the third descent of an iconic peak, but you would not know that from looking at us. We were dehydrated, hungry, tired and in shock that we had done it and were still alive. We got back to our high camp 41 hours after leaving. We melted snow in a pot and drank straight from it in huge gulps. We shoveled all the food that we had left into our mouths. It was glorious. And then we slept.
The next day we truly completed the descent when we retraced our route through the icefall and got to our main Hunter base camp. We packed this up quickly and started the hike back up the Kahiltna Glacier to the main Denali camp and to the rest of our gear and food.