Thin air. Dead bodies. Horrible weather. The allure of high-altitude mountaineering and skiing never made sense to me. The simple fact that most mountaineering involves walking down a mountain counteracted my entire sense of being a lifelong downhill skier. But there was something different about the highest mountain in North America. Something that drew me to it. So on June 16th of this summer, I stepped onto a plane bound for the base of Denali to depart on a trip that would change my perspective on mountains forever.
Little did he know it at the time, but when fellow professional skier Ian Macintosh told me of his upcoming plans to climb and ski Denali with Johnny Collinson, I was figuring out a tactful way to invite myself on his trip before he even finished his story. A humble request two months later, and I was in. Michelle Parker ended up repeating this humble request a month after mine. Suddenly, we had a four-person crew lead by veteran NPS volunteer, Shane Treat, on a mission that wasn’t centered around filming, photos or anything else that equates doing our job as professional skiers. This was simply a summer vacation for a bunch of mountain-obsessed skiers.
One of the defining characteristics of climbing Denali is the long slog from Base Camp to Advanced Base Camp at 14,000 feet. A nearly 13-mile, 7,000-foot climb that is weighed down with the more than 120 pounds of fuel, food, camping equipment and climbing gear. Over the course of five days, we huffed, puffed and ski toured across a minefield of crevasses to reach 14K camp.
Upon arrival to ABC, a cirque of couloirs and skiable lines towering more than 5,000 feet above us stole my gaze. The infamous Rescue Gully and the intimidating Messner Couloir rose straight out of camp and suddenly filled my skier’s brain with blissful thoughts of high-speed turns and June powder skiing. Yet my dreaming was also handicapped with the thought that the elevation I currently stood at was the highest altitude I’ve ever been to. More than 6,000 feet of climbing to the 20,000 foot summit was a menacing barrier to fulfill my sudden ski dreams.
After our first acclimatization hike to 7,000 feet and a snow-check run down the 3,000-foot long Rescue Gully, our team’s confidence began to beam. We had all spent the previous months training harder than we ever had before; the altitude didn’t feel too burdensome and the snow was surprisingly fantastic. With an unforeseen stretch of windless weather and clear skies, we made the decision to go for the summit on Day 9 of our trip.
On summit day, as we crossed the infamous and deadly Autobahn traverse and rounded the corner to eighteen thousand feet, suddenly our confidence built the days before began to wane. We had rushed our acclimatization process. We had started the climb at too quick of a pace. Suddenly the merciless effects of altitude were taking its toll on us.
Our heads began to throb, our thoughts blurred and our climbing pace slowed to a shuffle. Famed climber, skier and expedition leader Jimmy Chin had texted some advice for a high-altitude newbie like myself right before the climb. “Your goal is to go as slow as you can, to be last in camp.” With that thought and the fact that the Alaskan summer sun stretched for nearly 24 hours a day, I kept the pace slow and trudged through the thin air of 18, 19 and 20 thousand feet. The last push up the final 300 feet to the 20,310-foot summit was like nothing I’ve ever experienced. Everything in my body hurt—I wanted to stop and yearned to give up. But somehow I knew I could push harder, to keep putting one foot in front of the other and make it to the summit.
The feeling of standing on top—with four other friends in pure celebration—was like no other feeling I’ve had in skiing. The sensation of pushing harder than you thought possible, of standing on the summit of one immense challenge, and of simply taking in the breath-taking clarity of the horizon stretching for hundreds of miles around was paralyzing with contentment.
Despite the stoke and happiness of the summit, the best was yet to come. Rolling over the blind entrance to the cirque I once laid eyes upon from 14K camp, I stared down the 5,550-foot long Messner Couloir. Below me laid a nearly mile vertical-long stretch of wind-packed powder. I arced Super Giant Slalom turns for what felt like an eternity and slid into camp nearly an hour after our descent began.
Sitting at camp, reveling in the day, I began to think about how my first high-altitude expedition was nothing like the horror stories I had associated with this sort of trip before. Granted, we had perfect snow, amazing weather and a great crew, so perhaps my perspective is a tad warped. But all in all, that feeling of pushing yourself further than what you thought possible, of climbing through a huge challenge, and of course, of skiing five grand of powder is something that I may go back for.
Cody Townsend is a Professional Skier, unprofessional surfer, fisherman, climber & fun-haver. See more at @codytownsend.