By Jed Porter
Does something about skiing off the summit of the continent tickle your fancy? You’re not alone. It’s a darn compelling and inspiring feat to aspire to. We aspire to do it too. Even those of us that have already done it.
What is it like? What does it require? I’ve thought a great deal about how to answer those sorts of questions. In advance of actually guiding a modern, summit ski of Denali and since doing so, I’ve pondered and reflected, hoping to translate some of the realities to digestible bites.
First, pardon the general “tone” herein. It is my assumption that the endeavor and accomplishment paired with the media you might have encountered, speak for themselves. It is sweet up there. I don’t need to tell you that. What I do hope to do is to outline a little bit about what it requires to complete a guided ski descent of Denali. The aforementioned “cautionary tone” commences after a couple more lines of stoke; No matter how distant the following preparation, benchmarks and milestones may seem, huge mountain skiing is a juice well worth the squeeze. In fact, it is because of the significant investment required that the reward is so high. A Denali summit ski descent is not the culmination of three weeks on the mountain; is is the culmination of years of preparation. Way more so than many, many other prominent mountaineering feats.
Alright, into the nitty gritty. Prior to our 2022 trip (In late May and early June of 2022 I guided Mountain Trip’s (and the mountain’s) first modern, largely unroped ski descent with a co-guide named Jake and a client named Dave. I penned this response to a direct question about “prerequisites.” Take a moment to read through that. Note my own post-trip reflections and corrections.
Rapport between guide and skier is absolutely crucial. Serious ski mountaineering is an exercise in trust. What makes the recent ski descent so special is the lack of roped skiing on the descent. What makes trust in a team so crucial is the lack of roped skiing on the descent. All we have to keep ourselves and each other safe is trust, communication and rapport. That doesn’t form overnight. If personalities don’t mesh, it might not form at all.
Here’s a glimpse into the history that Dave and I had prior to our 2022 Denali trip. In addition, of course, to his own ski pursuits over decades and continents.
- Unsuccessful expedition to Cerro Marmolejo in Chile (world’s southern-most 6000m peak. And, therefore, high on my list of the best prep peaks for Denali. Logistics are pretty simple too; fly to Santiago, rental car or charter a few hours out of Santiago, self-contained and human powered up and back on the peak itself)
- Lake Louise ski mountaineering long weekend
- Mt Hector
- Aemmer Couloir
- Wapta traverse in a day
- Another unsuccessful (no summits) expedition in Chile. This time high on 2x 6k meter peaks. This trip was the best prep we did, despite the lack of any summit. 13 days, self-contained and with serious skiing to manage together.
- ~2 dozen Mid winter Teton day trip classics. 10k pow skiing days, shorter tech days, etc.
- And then some Teton mega classics
- N Couloir Eagles Rest and Black Hole Couloir link up
- Skillet Glacier, Moran in just under 9 hours car to car.
- Grand-Middle-South ski link up. First time this had ever been done as a guided endeavor. Dave is almost certainly the oldest to have done it (age 59 at the time of completion) and our team is probably around the 20th team to do so.
- Pickets Traverse, North Cascades. Again, first guided completion and Dave and I set the route’s “Fastest Known Time.”
That level of preparation is overkill (and also enumerates a “resume” that any skier might consider a lifetime of adventure… We got most of the way through that list before Denali even entered the conversation). Dave and I were very, very well prepared together. But the line-up suggests some good benchmarks for any guide-guest team.
Here’s another way to look at the importance of guide-guest rapport in huge mountain ski mountaineering. This historic season on Denali there were three guided teams on the mountain with summit ski aspirations. Of those, two skied every inch of the mountain. Not coincidentally, both of those teams had guide-guest rapport that spans years and many aggregated weeks of serious skiing together. The third team met in Anchorage in advance of this specific trip. Of course, mountain travel is complicated and there are many variables that inform a team’s progress and success. Team rapport is the one thing we can most closely control in advance. Weather and conditions are obviously variable. Individual health, skill, fitness, motivation and fortitude can come and go. Interpersonal rapport is durable.
If you’d like to prep towards a ski descent of Denali, please contact the good folks at Mountain Trip and they can connect you with me to help tailor a personalized program for you.