Steep Way Down

extreme skiing in the central Alaska Range

Feature type Story

Read time 15 min read

Published Mar 13, 2020

Author Tom Grant

Tom Grant

In May 2019, I travelled to Alaska along with three of my most trusted ski buddies, where we wanted to apply our expertise from skiing steep lines in the Alps to the biggest and steepest descents in North America. Our first trip to the central Alaska Range was a successful but humbling experience, where reward was mixed with frustration – and a very close call for one of our team. 

2018 didn’t begin with a flying start. At the beginning of what was to be an epic winter in the Alps, I tore my anterior cruciate ligament. It was the first major injury I’d sustained through skiing, and I’ve been skiing almost full time for over a decade now. Needless to say, I didn’t take it very well but I had a burning determination to come back stronger. For six 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 Petersson had been through the same gruelling recovery process the year before. Jesper’s support and encouragement was a big moral boost during my rehab process, and when he proposed a trip 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 friends – all of them strong skiers – would mean our sights would likely be set on some ambitious ski mountaineering objectives.

Travel to uncomfortable places is important in order to keep growing as an athlete and a person. The Central Alaska Range was the right place to take all four of us outside our comfort zones. Denali, the highest peak in North America, is a mind-blowingly huge mountain renowned for its extreme cold, harsh weather and thin air. Flying in from the remote outpost of Talkeetna on the edge of the central Alaska Range, our first glimpses of Denali filled us with awe and trepidation. Towering above the other colossal peaks, Denali is a freak geological phenomenon. Its 3000 metre south face has been 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 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 line on the unskied north side of Mt. Hunter, which is conveniently in plain sight directly above basecamp.

Travel to uncomfortable places is important. It means you keep growing as an athlete, and as a person.

The skiing from the upper slopes was as demanding as any I’d ever done. Picking a line on 55 degree spines above an 800m drop, I was totally in the zone.

When we finally arrived in basecamp, we fried some eggs for lunch while staring at Hunter, and discussed what exactly we were going to focus on. The line on Hunter looked simply too dangerous, and the conditions were poorer than what we’d 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 gear 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 although, we all complained profusely to one and other. We felt as though we were moving up the mountain at a snail’s pace – until we realised we were moving at almost 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 began to wonder if my time away 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 ourselves hard to get up to 5800 metres 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 climb up 1000 metres at that altitude, and then the bliss of a few perfect powder turns coming back down into camp.

The cold and high winds then continued, and I began wondering if 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 still 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 round trip 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.

Back in basecamp, we were reunited with Ben and Enrico, and we planned for one last big line.

The 1000 metre West Face of Kalhiltna Queen was an obvious target. It was first skied in 2010 by a French team, and it’s a stunningly beautiful and technical ski objective. Holed up in camp during two days of sleet and blizzards, we rested 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 3000 metres, it felt as if I had some boot-packing super-powers; the acclimatisation on Denali had paid off and everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. The weather was stable, the snow felt good, and the team was motivated.

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 ski down the line we’d ascended safely.

The skiing from the upper slopes was as engaging and demanding as any descent I’ve ever done. Picking a line on 55 degree spines overhanging an 800 metre 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 here for, and we were living out a rare and perfect moment.

Fear flooded my body, and I skied as fast as possible to get to Jesper. It was with huge relief that I saw a figure stumbling in the avalanche debris far below.

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, deep slab suddenly broke off at my ski tips. The temperature had started to warm a critical few degrees. 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 towards a rock band.

Moments later he had disappeared out of sight, having accelerated at an incredible speed down the couloir. I suppressed a rising panic, realising that there was a high chance 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 as I skied as fast as possible down to get to Jesper. As I was descending, it was with huge relief that I saw a distant figure below stumbling around amid the debris from the small avalanche. I was also afraid of what I would find. I found Jesper badly beaten up, but it seemed that he didn’t have any life-threatening injuries. At the same time, it was awful to see him in such a state, totally disorientated and in a lot of pain.

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 a lighter pack. 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 on a scale I’d never before seen, even compared to the Caroline Face on Mt Cook. My ambition to ski it was there, but I knew that now wasn’t the right time for it.

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 shortly afterwards 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 simply breathtaking, and we were rewarded with an 1800 metre vertical descent straight back into camp. To be skiing on Denali was a whole new experience for us, despite the snow being of poor quality until two thirds of the way down; the incredible ambiance of the place made up for it. Skiing directly back into camp, we were amused to be welcomed by whoops and applause from the dozens of other climbers and skiers camped out there.

Jesper and I were pleased with finally having had achieved some success, but 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 awesome mountains.

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 basecamp 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 civilisation. Jesper spent a few days in hospital near Anchorage before flying back to Sweden. He sustained a broken vertebrae and ribs, but nothing life changing.

I have an instinctive urge to seek out adventure and have to accept the risk it involves, yet this urge has been tempered over time with the numbing reality of losing many good friends in the mountains. I have a seven year-old son, and the need to seek adventure whilst not exposing myself to too much risk is a frequent mental struggle I’ve become accustomed to. Attempting these big, steep lines is the culmination of hard won experience and dedication to the craft; it requires a level of mental and physical mastery. Experience and skill can count for a lot, but the uncomfortable reality is that luck plays a huge part in it too.

The four of us all returned home, and we returned as friends. I my mind, that made the expedition a successful one.

Stuff happens fast in the mountains, and things can go wrong very quickly. So often, we really 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 and where it might be dangerous. But it is not fool-proof. The risk can be increased when we’re dealing with the unfamiliar. All we can do is try our best to be humble, self-aware, and therefore always in a  learning mindset. And at the same time, we need to keep questioning what it is we are doing, and why we are doing it.

I left Alaska satisfied with the strong experiences I had there, experiences that tested my resolve, skill, and patience. I was pleased that we’d pushed to new altitudes, learnt how to deal with the extreme cold, and made turns on some incredibly beautiful and exposed slopes. Jesper still faces a lengthy recovery, but he will recover.  Whilst it could have easily been different, the four of us all returned home, and we returned as friends. In my mind, at least, that made the expedition a successful one.

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