Denali Adventures

In May of this year I gathered three of my most trusted ski buddies for a journey to Alaska where we wanted to see if our expertise from skiing steep descents in the Alps and around the world could be applied to the biggest lines Alaska has to offer. Our first trip to the Central Alaska Range was a humbling experience where reward was mixed with frustration and where we almost lost one of our team.   

2018 didn’t start off well for me. At the beginning of what was to be an epic winter I tore my ACL. It was the first major injury I’d sustained since skiing almost full time over 10 years and I didn’t take it very well but I had a burning determination to come back stronger. For 6 months of each year skiing is an all-consuming passion for me and guiding is my profession. I knew it meant a fairly lengthy break from both. My good ski buddy and prolific steep skier Jesper Peterson had been through the same gruelling recovery process the year before. Jesper’s support and encouragement was a big moral boost during my rehab and when he proposed a trip together to Alaska for the following spring, I knew I was in. 

It can be hard to leave the Chamonix ski scene especially in spring when the more ephemeral lines come into condition. But I was hungry for a big adventure, the type of adventure that the Alps can’t quite provide. We invited Ben Briggs and Enrico Mossetti to round off an experienced team. Ben, Enrico and I had skied the first descent of the Caroline Face of Mt. Cook on our last trip together in 2017, one of the world’s biggest unskied lines. I knew a trip with these three good friends would mean our sights would likely be set on some fairly ambitious ski mountaineering objectives. 

I think travel to uncomfortable places is important in order 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. Towering above the other colossal peaks of Alaska Range, Denali is a freak geological phenomenon. 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 was would be on the table to as an option to try. It was first skied solo by the ground-breaking Swedish skier Andreas Fransson in 2011 and since then we hadn’t heard of any other teams attempting it. Our other plan 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. 

We arrived in basecamp and fried some eggs for lunch while staring at Hunter and to finally deciding where we were going to focus on. The line on Hunter looked simply too dangerous and conditions were worse than what we had 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. This was not something any of us were accustomed to. However, I secretly enjoyed the simplicity of the physical toil while we all had a thorough complain to one and other. It felt as though we were moving up the mountain at a snail’s pace until we realized we were moving twice the speed of the large guided groups and most other teams who cached supplies along the way.

After setting ourselves up at 14k camp, we waited out a couple of stormy days passing the time playing chess. It was bitterly cold at first, a deep and raw cold in the evening and before the first rays of sun hit the camp. I wondered if my holiday time would have been better spent somewhere a little warmer where we could actually do some skiing. Wrapped up in all my clothes inside my two kilo down sleeping bag, it was difficult to get out and eat breakfast before 10am. Everything froze solid and we had mistakenly neglected to bring a cook tent. 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. 

The cold and high winds continued, and I was already thinking maybe 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. Yet, Denali is Denali, and regardless of whether we could ski the South Face I had a burning desire to at least ski from the summit. 

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 bags 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 and move back down to basecamp while Jesper and I stayed up one more day with the intention of 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 degree Celsius. It felt a joy to move at a good speed and with lighter packs. Ahead of all the other teams, we had the mountain to ourselves. 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 I’d never before seen, even compared to the Caroline Face. My ambition to ski it was there but I knew it wasn’t the time for it. 

Top of North America

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. Surprisingly, we were able to make a few fast powder turns straight off the summit slopes. Entering the Messner Couloir in evening light was breath-taking. 1,800m vertical of skiing straight back into camp. 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 classic steep lines was trivial. The snow was of poor quality until two thirds of the way down, but the incredible ambiance of the place made up for it. Skiing 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. 

Skiing the Messner above 14k Camp

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 though I had boot packing super-powers. The acclimatisation had paid off and everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. The weather was stable, the snow felt stable, the team was motivated.

Kalhiltna Queen West Face

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 steep and exposed terrain with rocks and ice never far under the snow, we planned our descent precisely according to where we placed the boot pack. I had an unshakeable confidence that I could safely ski the line without using the rope. 

The skiing from the upper slopes was as engaging and demanding as any descent I’d ever done. Picking a line onto 55 degree spines overhanging an 800m drop I was totally in the zone making turns with the joy of knowing I was beyond any risk of falling, at least not from a technical mistake. This was what we were there for and we were living out a rare and perfect moment. 

55 degree spines above the void

Jesper and I made our way off the most exposed sections of the upper face and re-joined Enrico who was waiting just below. Continuing down easier terrain, I started to relax. A few careful powder turns later 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. The temperature had critically started to warm a little. 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, sending a signal to a 24-hour response centre. I prayed it worked and then told Enrico to ski carefully behind me and collect Jesper’s skis in case he wasn’t too badly hurt and needed to ski out to basecamp. Fear and stress flooded my body and no longer finding any flow 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 it seemed that he didn’t have any life-threatening injuries. It was awful to see him in such a state, totally disorientated and in a lot of pain.

Enrico soon came down to 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 camp 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. Behind us a heavily laden team of volunteer rescue rangers brought up a sled and medical equipment. The heli eventually made it in through a break in the cloud cover and it was with huge relief that we watched Jesper being flown away. 

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.

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 many good friends in the mountains. I have a 7-year-old son and seeking adventure versus not exposing myself to too much risk is a frequent mental push and pull that I’ve become accustomed to. Experience and skill can count for a lot but no matter how much I rationalize with myself the uncomfortable reality is so does luck. 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 which is what attracted me to this trip. And part of the appeal was to simply spend time with three good friends in a wild place.

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 thoughts 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 full-proof. The risk can be increased when a skier is away from their home mountains, dealing with the unfamiliar. 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. 

I left Alaska with satisfyingly strong experiences that tested my resolve and patience. I was pleased that we’d pushed to new altitudes, learnt how to deal with the cold and made turns on some incredibly beautiful and exposed slopes. Jesper still faces a lengthy recovery from a serious injury, but he will recover. No one needs reminding of how easily it could have been different. The four of us all returned home, and we returned still as friends. That makes it at least a partially successful trip. 

Sweet Caroline

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Top half of the Caroline Face with the East Ridge on the right.

‘2000m of steep skiing on a continuous face?’ I pondered the possibilities for a moment. It was 2013 and my long term mountain partner and good buddy Ben Briggs had just excitedly described the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Mt. Cook to me. Late steep skiing legend Andreas Fransson had just asked Ben if he wanted to join him on a trip to New Zealand that autumn. Ben declined the invitation, but we were left with little doubt as to what Andreas’s intentions were. A 2010 ESPN article by ski journalist Devon O’Neil listed the face as one of the world’s top 10 biggest unskied lines. The calibre of the challenge was clearly laid out. Attempts had been made by some of the world’s leading ski mountaineers and a Red Bull team had allegedly spent one million euros on an aborted ski descent of the face. That autumn of 2013 Andreas ended up going with another Chamonix friend of ours, Magnus Kastengren. Tragically, Magnus fell to his death while skiing towards the Caroline Face from the summit, the exact cause of his fall remains unknown. I have no doubt they would have succeeded had Magnus not fallen.

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Our line down the Caroline Face. It roughly followed the Clit Route, the line first ascended in 1970.

Highly visible from the road into Cook Village, the Caroline Face of Aoraki/Cook is of national significance to Kiwis even featuring on their five dollar bill. On first inspection the Caroline Face appears to be an unlikely looking mess of steep broken glaciers and formidable ice cliffs. An internet search reveals the rapidly changing nature of the face; the seracs can alter dramatically on an almost annual basis. The Caroline Face had not even been climbed until 1970 when it was ascended by Kiwis Peter Gough and John Glasgow over two days. These two renegade long haired hippies called their line the ‘Clit Route’, one can only assume this was due to its vague resemblance to female genitalia. The first ascent was major news and it had been rumoured Walter Bonatti had had his eye on the face.

When Ross Hewitt and I first went to New Zealand in 2015, it was with little expectation to attempt the face even though we told ourselves we would do so if it didn’t look to be a suicidal prospect. Our trip in 2015 was a success. We skied some adventurous new lines on prominent peaks and amassed many vertical meters of good skiing. After studying photos we took of the Caroline Face we envisioned a potential line that avoided much of the objective hazard on the face but we never got the weather window to launch an attempt. We knew we would return.

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Ben putting the track up the East Ridge.

During our summer of 2017 New Zealand had a really fat winter. Our man on the ground in Cook Village and local ski mountaineer Cam Mulvey reckoned it was as good a time as any to come for steep skiing. Very unfortunately, Ross sustained a bad back injury and ruled himself out of the trip. Without hesitation I recruited Ben and Italian maestro and self-styled punk skier from the Julian Alps, Enrico Mossetti. Enrico and Ben had never met, however I had total confidence in the team from the start. The three of us booked our flights and three weeks later we were off.

Upon arrival in NZ we were treated to a week of rain and there was plenty of time to ruminate over just how dangerous a proposition the Caroline Face is. I went over the familiar pattern of searching my inner motivation and think about my young son. I think of Andreas and Magnus and my dozen other fallen friends in the mountains. My approach to risk has become wearier, my own mortality felt more acutely with experience and tragedy. Yet I want to act decisively when the time is right and the pull of extreme adventure remains strong. I had total confidence in my ability and that of the team but what scared me is that which I can’t control, namely avalanches and serac fall.

We finally got our window. On the approach heli flight into the hut we flew as close to the Caroline Face as possible. The face was white and we spotted a crucial weakness in the gigantic middle serac band. Two scouting trips to the bottom of the face later and we were brimming with anticipation, knowing that we could navigate the serac band without exposing ourselves to unjustifiable danger.

The alarm went off at midnight. Predictably, we didn’t get much sleep. Leaving the warm safety of the hut just after 1am, we headed to the bottom of the East Ridge, our chosen line of ascent. The rumble of serac fall just behind us gave the cold night air some menace. The first 300m of climbing was on 50 degree breakable chest deep snow which slowed our ascent to crawling pace. Wordlessly we toiled on, each of us wondering at the time whether turning back was the better option. Finally we were off the crust face and onto a delicate knife edge snow arête with huge drops either side. The exposure and cold weighed on us and it was with relief that at 9am we topped out the ridge and descended towards our line. After rappelling over the 100m vertical ice cliffs guarding the face, we knew we were totally committed. As fortune would have it, we had judged the conditions to perfection and coming off the rope we landed in stable boot deep powder.

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Enrico skiing in the vastness of the upper Caroline Face.

Arcing out big turns we skied till our legs burned and then realised we had descended but a small fraction of the upper face. A route finding error would have proved disastrous, but we had done our homework and drawing on the sum of our experience we navigated a way down as fast as possible. The skiing was a pleasure and stress dissipated from my body with each smooth turn knowing that we were going to succeed. Halfway down the face we skied into a couloir dissecting the colossal middle serac band, making one last 40m rappel. Pausing to gaze up at the overhanging serac wall above me, we then charged through spring snow, losing hundreds of vertical metres in a matter of moments. Each blind roll gave us pause for thought, but Ben skilfully located the right exit line. An hour and a half after putting skis on our feet, we were safely off the face. Relief swept over me and also the immense satisfaction of knowing that we had skied the face in the best style possible and with what felt like a healthy margin of safety. To go in the first place was a gamble, but we had faith in our instincts and we were well rewarded.

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In the upper Caroline Face

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Our first descent of Malte Brun.

Making a quick turnaround, two days later we flew back into the mountains knowing we had to grab the remainder of what was a stellar weather window. Ben, Enrico and I turned our sights to Malte Brun, a very steep and unskied peak known for its climbing routes and with an entire sub-range named after it. Our line followed a 600m long grade 4 climbing route, but had no idea what a Kiwi grade 4 route entailed. We found climbing the line almost a relaxing experience after Aoraki/Cook, with one short pitch of ice climbing. Intricately weaving through rocks, it was highly exposed and made for an elegant and interesting ski descent. We found ourselves making tight turns above cliffs and manoeuvring our skis over dry rock and agreed that the skiing was more technical than on the Caroline Face. The three of us thoroughly enjoyed it.

Everything was going almost too well. Skiing and hiking our way back to civilisation, the sting in the tail came in the form of having to down climb a towering steep moraine wall full of teetering loose car size blocks and compact, steep dirt we could barely stand on. Over the last few years global warming has wreaked havoc on the Southern Alps causing what were once trivial access trails to become very serious undertakings as the moraines have gotten far steeper and bigger. It was probably the most dangerous thing we had done all trip.

moraine

Skiing the Caroline Face was the biggest descent the three of us have ever made, and not the sort of line I want to try and ski every year. However, I’ve found that probing the limits of my own psychology and propensity to risk taking has its rewards. To leave our mark on a small piece of New Zealand history was a special thing and we were amazed at the warm reception we got from enthused locals who are very proud of their mountain. We did what I initially considered too risky back in 2013 after first looking over pictures of the face. The challenge and the scale of the mountain daunted us, yet we were able to find a way to succeed which didn’t amount to playing Russian roulette.

The trip ended with Enrico, Ben and I preforming Neil Diamond’s ‘Sweet Caroline’ at the Cook Village local karaoke night. Singing is not our speciality and the audience was too drunk to listen to us. But we didn’t care in the slightest.

An Italian February

Throughout late January and early February, southerly storm cycles continued to pummel the Italian side of the massif with copius amounts of snow. While a strong foehn wind wrecked havoc on the Chmonix snowpack, the lure of good coffee and endless deep untouched terrain had us going through the tunnel on an almost daily basis.

Photos courtesy of Jason Thompson Photography

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Cable Face. My favourite go to line.

Tom Grant, Hellbronner  Italy

Italy delivers.

Couloir Cache

Last week, Luca, Minna, Kirsti and I went over to explore one of the beautiful freeride descents emptying into the Brenva Basin. One of the charming features of the ‘Couloir Cache’ is that it is a half hour skin from the lift. Cache of course means hidden, and it is indeed well hidden. To access the entrance, 2 diagonal raps are needed to get over 2 other couloir systems. No doubt this line was spotted by an alpinist on the Brenva Glacier, or perhaps somewhere high on the Peuterey Arete.

Once in the couloir we were pleased to find 30cm of cold, stable powder snow. Although the couloir is only 400m long, it’s a really pleasing consistent pitch. We were the first team in there this season.

Out onto the Brenva glacier the snow was perfect and rippable. With how much the glacier has receded, more of the skiing is on rocks to the skiers left side which provides a perfect playground of small natural booters. At the moment, there is no ideal way off the Brenva, and we had to contend with a hideous gully exposed to the crumbling mass of the disintegrating glacier above.

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Minna at the first anchor.

Kirsty-2-1024x768Kirsti side slipping to the entrance. Optional 2nd bolted anchor.

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Tom

lucacache (1 of 1) Open for the season.

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Boys at work.

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Minna-Kirsty-1024x768Finnish chicks rip.

img_1887Photo taken by Dave Searle from Brenva Glacier.

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Dômes de Miage – Arête Mettrier

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The autumn can be a good time to get into the high mountains, not just for mixed and ice climbing, but also for skiing. With the right weather systems and conditions, steep faces can get plastered in sticky snow. However, the lifts close and the long approaches often deter speculative excursions. Getting a big line in good conditions is possible, but usually a long shot, and a willingness to suffer a little is often a pre-requisite. After some decent snowfalls at the beginning of Nov, Ben Briggs, Brendon O’Sullivan and I were keen to hike for some turns. The north face of the Domes de Miage looked white from afar, so that’s where we went. The north face is one of the most aesthetic and cleanly skiable 1000m north faces in the Alps.

Photos from Ben Briggs

p10806711Me on the approach by the Chalets du Truc. Its a little over an hours hike from the lower car park. With a burly 4×4 you can drive up to here.

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The trippiest sunset I have ever seen. This isn’t photoshopped, the sunset lit up the clouds in the valley turning them into flames.

p10807191The Plan Glacier hut has a genuinely remote feel in autumn/winter, set at the back of a glacial cirque in a quiet part of the range. From the chalets it took us another 4-5 hours of trail breaking.

p1080738Approaching the face. It soon became apparent that the north face was not going to be skiable. We instead decided to boot up the Mettrier. After 600m, the wind had stripped too much snow off the ridge and we turned around with another 400m to go to the summit. However, we were treated to some great exposed skiing on variable but generally pretty good snow.

p1080748On the  way up.

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Skiing high on the arete.

p1080784Ben approaching one of the lower chokes.

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Tacul Triangle

In the autumn when the Midi opens late and closes early, the options for day routes are quite limited. The Tacul Triangle offers some of the most reliable mixed climbing in the Massif and provides a perfect training ground for bigger objectives. Besides the overcrowded and easy Chere gully, there are several very good quality 2-4 pitch mixed routes. It is easy to seek out some spicy climbing, and it is equally easy to avoid it or bail from almost anywhere. The quick approach means that you can get stuck into the climbing without stressing about missing the last bin down.

2nd pitch of the Perroux gully after a Sept storm

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Credit Davide de Masi

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Credit Davide de Masi

Dave and Liz seconding the 2nd pitch.

1240267_10100864799798068_1002534479_nIn mid October I headed over with Carsten for some more mixed cragging. We climbed a superb 2 pitch route to the left of Temp est la Assassin. 1st pitch was Scottish IV/V 2nd pitch takes a steep direct line up the mini headwall and was quite meaty, Scottish VI/VII.

P1050585Carsten crushing.

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Me climbing the excellent corner pitch of Temps est la Assassin. We rapped into this after climbing the above pitch. It is pitch 2 of Temps. Similar difficulty to the above pitch, Scottish VI/VII. 2 bolts ease the mind and if the crack is not too iced, a no. 3 protects the crux at the top (bold if iced).P1050601 P1050599