Climbing & Skiing Denali

The 2017 Balthasar Award applications motivated me to set a lofty goal, to climb up North America’s highest mountain, and make a continuous ski descent of it. At this point, I had just completed my first mountaineering season, and was beginning to learn to ski for part of my Baden-Powell Award. When I received news that I had been successfully granted the Balthasar, I was as equally nervous as I was excited.

I planned on completing the expedition in May/June 2018. After receiving the award, I spent the next twelve months living in Whistler, Canada to learn and practice all the necessary skills I’d need, plan the logistics and put together a team. A great part of the challenge would be undertaking all of this myself, rather than hiring a guiding company. This would be an entirely self-led expedition.

After a monstrous amount of planning, training and a 3,200 km drive, my two teammates, Felix and Pep, along with myself, arrived in Anchorage, Alaska in a beat-up Nissan, packed to the roof with gear. We had to go grocery shopping for the expedition. Imagine the amount of groceries needed to feed three young men for 24 days! With no other options, we left for Talkeetna with it all strapped to the roof of the car!

We had one day in the small town of Talkeetna, to enjoy life’s creature comforts before being thrust into the harsh environment of Denali. We savoured our last chance to shower, eat decent food and sleep in a warm place. This also gave us time to talk to the national park rangers so we could register, and find out recent conditions on the mountain. We also weighed in all our gear with our pilot who would be flying us from town to the base of Denali, dropping us and all our gear on the glacier before leaving us.

After a minor mechanical issue with the small fixed-wing aircraft, we took off on our planned departure date with clear, calm weather. The first few days on Denali consisted of towing our supplies for the climb behind us in ‘sleds’ all the way from 2,200m, the elevation which we were dropped off at, to 4,400m. As a side note, Mt Kosciuszko’s summit is at 2,228m, and Denali’s is 6,190m.

We set up ‘Camp 4’ at 4,400m, which was our base camp for the rest of the trip. It was a good altitude to acclimatise at, and a good position from which to make a summit attempt. We spent the following two days making gradual ascents up to 5,200m to aid the acclimation process. I was anxious to make this process as quick as it was safely possible. Good weather doesn’t last long on Denali, and there had been ten days of superb weather by this point. Making it only a matter of time before the high pressure weather system which guarded the mountain from incoming storms, dropped and allowed the lenticular clouds to envelop the mountaintop. These storms have been known to last weeks, so it had the potential to take away the opportunity to summit.

Our planned summit day was the 5th June because it was the last forecasted day of good weather before an incoming storm system. Being this far north, the sun never truly sets, allowing us to leave at 3am under the light of the midnight sun. Tied together as a team, we crossed snow bridges over bottomless crevasses, climbed up fixed lines to the West Buttress ridge and then clambered our way along until we reached an altitude of 5,200m, also known as ‘Camp 5’, eight hours after leaving Camp 4.

Felix and Pep were both feeling fatigued at Camp 5 and were moving slowly. We calculated that they wouldn’t make it to the summit and back down without getting caught in the approaching storm. Storms on Denali are famous for being viscous, bringing temperatures down to -50°Cand winds up to speeds of 150 km/h. We made the decision for them to descend back to Camp 4 together, and I would continue on solo. The team had discussed multiple scenarios like this previously, so everyone was prepared.

I unloaded a considerable amount of group gear from my pack as I would no longer require it. This lightened my load so I would be able to move fast enough to the summit and back down without getting caught out alone. I made my way up the next section, known as the ‘Autobahn’. The name is morbidly inspired by which the speed climbers slide down if they fall. As I climbed up to ‘Denali Pass’ at 5,500m, I was conscious of the snow conditions. To be able to claim a continuous ski descent, I’d have to ski down this no-fall zone in a fatigued state after summiting. This was the section that I was most apprehensive about. 

Reaching Denali Pass, I was feeling the unwavering effects of altitude. I knew I had to maintain a good pace, but I seemed to only link ten steps together before resting to regain my energy. I reached what is known as the ‘Football Field’ at 5,800m. I could see the predicted storm brewing around me, but the fierce storm clouds were well below me at this point, and I knew I still had time to move across the field and to the summit ridge.

There are three peaks on Denali, the true summit is the peak which reaches the height of 6,190m. I was reminded of a lesson I learnt as a young Venturer on the walk out of Mt Hay Canyon. If you see the top, never get your hopes up until you’re sure it’s the top. Being emotionally and physically exhausted by this stage, I was crushed to find out the first peak wasn’t the summit. Then, again, when the second peak wasn’t the summit. But I was sure that I was right when the final summit ridge finally crept into view.

I was beginning to get nervous about the storm by now. To speed things up, I dropped my pack and continued to make the final climb up with just my skis and GPS. I surmounted a bergschrund (a major crevasse), climbed up and tip-toed along the knife-edge ridge, reminding myself not to fall, until I reached the summit. It was just after 9pm, 18 hours since I’d left camp and I was completely alone, on the top of Denali looking down on North America. 

I was on the summit with just enough time to send a message from my GPS device, then hurriedly transition my gear to start the ski descent, the storm always present in my mind. Skiing down, the conditions varied from hard blue glacial ice, to soft blower powder. I only had to jump one crevasse, and was able to cross snow bridges for the rest. I paused for a brief moment above the Autobahn, and establishing visibility was still good, I dropped in to make the crucial turns down icy snow, avoiding the open crevasses and weak snow bridges.

The last section to get back to Camp 4 was known as the ‘Rescue Gully’. On one of our previous acclimatisation days, we climbed up and skied down this as a reconnaissance. This was the other technical crux of the descent, with the steepest sections at an angle of 55 degrees, a narrow cliff-lined chute leads to a crevasse-riddled, steep and icy slope. To make it more interesting, there is a large crevasse which crosses the entire face, leaving only one narrow snow bridge to cross. This descent demanded the rest of my energy to focus on it. The storm had finally caught up to me and visibility was rapidly diminishing as the clouds started to rise up and roll in. Without time to even catch my breath, I dropped in and made jump turns through the steepest section until I reached the face. I carved my way through the safest path, avoiding open slots and lining up so I could make the final crevasse crossing. By this stage, I was navigating from memory, as I couldn’t see more than 40 meters ahead, and I needed to thread the needle here to hit the crevasse’s snow bridge at the right point. I was successful, and within ten minutes of the crossing, I was sliding into Camp 4 in a complete snow storm. It was 10.30pm when my friends greeted me with hot tea, and I crawled into my sleeping bag with all my gear, and passed out. I had been on the move for nearly 20 hours.

The rest of the trip was dedicated to getting the rest of the team up. Felix made a successful summit a few days after me, in the last good weather window. Unfortunately, Pep was not able to make it all the way to the summit, but we did get as high as 5,500m with him. After our last team attempt at the summit, we skied down to 2,200m and managed to get the last flight out on day 18, just before a seven day storm system set in, making it impossible for planes to fly in and out. 

The process of planning, training and completing this adventure repeatedly pushed me far outside my comfort zone throughout the past eighteen months, which is an excellent catalyst for personal growth. The brief moment I had on the summit, I was stoked, but it wasn’t the highlight. The highlight was the experience as a whole, and the many lessons learnt, which are highly beneficial in all other aspects of my life.

This opportunity wouldn’t be possible without the Balthasar Award. I’d like to thank the trustees of the award, for giving me this opportunity and Dick Smith, for his generosity in starting the award fund. Also the many Scouting leaders who have taught me valuable lessons both on and off the rock, and all my friends in the Scouting Movement who have adventured around with me. 

Matt Miller
Normanhurst Rover Crew