Saturday 25 June 2011

Check out Colin Haley's account on his Alaska trip!

Good friends Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen where on Denali at the same time as Magnus and myself. Here the story of their trip trough Colin's perspective. Check it out at

Friday 24 June 2011

Denali Adventure part 3 – Skiing the south face

Denali with its south face to the lookers right of the Cassin Ridge in the middle (Photo: Maxime Turgeon)

We left camp at around 10 o’clock in the morning. There was almost no wind but it was very cold. I was ready before Magnus, but I couldn’t wait around for him because I was freezing my toes of, so I set out by my self up the Autobahn. I was racing for the sun that was shining half way up the face as I could hardly feel my toes. I had passed a group of climbers just above the bergschrund and could not see them anymore when I arrived in the warmth of the sun. It was still really cold, but nothing like in the shade further down. I sat down on my backpack and took my ski boots of to warm my feet and wait for Magnus. He caught up in a few minutes and then we continued to Devils Pass where we met a nice party climbing the mountain from the other side. They had a really cool adventure biking in to the mountain from the other side, then doing a full traverse, descend the normal route and next hike down to the big river where they floated back in small rafts all the way to Talkeetna.

We kept on ascending the route without being to stressed and were enjoying our time on the mountain. At around 2 pm we got to the summit and I became really happy on discovering the conditions up high. The hard wind the week before had not ruined the conditions too much (I would discover it had further down) and the weather was stellar and actually pretty warm in the afternoon. I didn’t want to waste too much time on the summit, because I was guessing that it could take a while to get down the face.

Magnus had been carrying my rope and gave it to me and I gave him my extra pair of gloves and then I took of my thick down jacket and down pants. I remember asking Magnus for some water, then I gave him a hug, checked the bindings and set of down the summit ridge. I was surprised on how normal it felt skiing this high. It felt like any day in Chamonix, and even though the snow on the arête was pretty hard, it was easy to get the edges in to the snow. I met a man in a one piece down suite.  He said good luck and kept on going towards his big goal. Mine were in a different direction.

After the ridge I turned left on to the south face. It starts of fairly steep and the snow was as hard as snow can be and still not being ice. I could just get my edges in to the snow and was skiing really slowly and even sidestepping with the ice axe on some parts. But after the first pitch the slope eased up a little bit and the snow turned in to chalk, really easy to ski.

I kept at it down the face enjoying every turn and the fact that I was just being on a place few people had ever been before. At one point I stopped and caught my breath and told my self; this is not a place for human beings, this place is huge. I was skiing and skiing but the slope just kept on coming. Finally I arrived at the seracs and by traversing skiers right I could find a way trough, navigating on a little bit of ice and jumping over a small crevasse. Next I started skiing towards skiers left and the traverse, but even though it looks like a big traverse on photos the slope is leaning a bit to the left still giving a falline feel to the skiing.

I crossed a few thin crevasse bridges and soon I ended up on big windslabs created by the winds, probably in the last few days before I got there. I was now quickly traversing in high speed between safe spots because the snow was feeling really hollow. I even got the infamous  “whoomp” two times, and this was not, as you can imagine, a place to get a ride with the snowpack. Doing something big in the ski or climbing world people is always raising their heads exposing their necks from nature’s blows of objective danger. We all just have to hope we are not unlucky that day. It’s just a simple fact.

At the end of the traverse at the rocky spur I had hoped to be able to keep my skis on, but when arriving there I discovered that it was a between 50-70 degree ice and mixed traverse for a bout 50 meters. I had no other choice than change over to crampons and ice axes, put the skis on the backpack and do some ice climbing. A half hour later I clicked in to my bindings and skied in to the hidden couloir. The snow got harder and harder and I only skied a few hundred meters before I had to change to crampons again. But this was only 60 meters above a big cliff so it didn’t take too much more time. After the cliff I once more put my skis on and skied about 200m and then again changed to rappel mode. I wouldn’t ski for a while after this point but I didn’t know this yet.

It was warm, really warm and the time where around 4:30 pm. A few rocks had already flown past me but it just got worse and worse. I did the first rappel over a cliff and started to have a bad gut feeling. I immediately started to search for a safe spot. Another rappel down I found one and sat down behind a rock and started to play the waiting game. For a while it was raining rocks from the sky and I felt pretty calm and happy behind my rock while the time was passing by and I had time to look in to myself as well as out on the view.

At 11 pm the situation had calmed down and I continued rappelling down a few cliffs and icefalls in the couloir. Its worth to mention that I only had one 60m iceline with me as two ropes had been out of the question because of the weight, and my Chamonix rappel line in Kevlar just take to much time in the rope work because its really hard to handle and is not good for multiple rappelling.  When I got down to the face below I discovered that it was not at all in the same conditions as it had been on our recognisance trip before the hard winds. Most of it was still skiable though and I would have done an effort if it had been day time but in the middle of the night it felt a bit contrived to start skiing something that was faster to just down climb and I still had to do plenty of short rappels over ice patches and still almost every couple of minutes a rock came down the face. Priority no 1 was to get down safely. So I down climbed around 400-500m before I put my skis on on the slanting traverse above the bergschrund. There I was mostly sliding and sidestepping but it was still faster than with crampons. When I got down to the schrund I couldn’t see the bottom, it was all just a blur in the dark and I did one free hanging rappel down into the darkness and, with knots on the end of the rope, hopped I would get down before the rope ended. The bergschrund was well over 20 m and I just made it over to the other side with the rope. Continuing skiing down the glacier was not an option so I slowly skied down to the middle of the glacier, negotiating the crevasses in the bad light to find a spot where I should be safe from the rock missiles. The time was around 2.30 AM.

And then I just sat there, in the middle of this glacier in the middle of the night; tired, hungry and thirsty. But happy to have done what I came to Denali to do. The first thing I did was to start melting snow and to put on all the clothes I had. Then I drank three liters of water before I ate my food. The sleeping was out of the question; I was way to cold to be able to sleep.

At around 5 AM I started skiing down the glacier towards the last big crux of the outing, the ice fall, a 200 vertical meter big and highly crevassed steepening in the glacier. I was hesitation quiet a bit on which way to go at first. The crevasses were really big and the bridges thin and I was walking back and forth trying to find a good way on the convex slope. Finally I remembered I had taken a zoomed in photo of the icefall on the recognisance trip so I took up my camera and started memorizing the run. It felt like in the old days; memorizing a competition run for a freeride competition. I found one way that seemed possible on the whole face so I knew I really had to get right from the start.

The snowpack was very slabby an I got “whoomps” every now and then. Skiing down the face went really well. I skied fast and found my way from the start and got to straight line a wall of ice in the end; skiing in high speed out on the gentle glacier. Skiing down the east fork I knew that the hardest challenges were behind me, now I only had to keep the concentration to not end up in a hole. When an hour later finally arriving at the big track leading from basecamp to ABC I, for the first time in a while, felt safe. I skied down on the lonely track, (the climbers had yet not started out for the day) as far as I could and when it started to mount towards base camp I just did not have any more energy left. I stopped, lay down on my backpack and fell asleep. After some time passing climbers started to wake me up to see if I was ok. I told them I have had a long day and then got back to my dreams. I lay there for 6 hours before I continued the last 30-40 minutes up to base camp.

On arrival there I put up my extra tent and opened a pack of Pringles chips to celebrate the adventure. I had hoped that my friends Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen would be around so I could borrow a sleeping bag from them. But they where up on the north buttres of Mt Hunter and didn’t come back before early morning the next day. I got another cold night.

The following day I hang out with my friends in camp. We where a tired group and spent most of the day eating and enjoying the sun. It was a great feeling having the big objective behind me and I thought that if I got to do anything else on the mountain it would just be a bonus.

After a warm and long night in Colin’s extra sleeping bag I packed a sled with some extra food and took of towards ABC. I really wanted to get back to Magnus as soon as possible so we could concentrate on trying to climb the Cassin Ridge. I had done what I came for, but I also wanted Magnus to get his big goal realised.

It was the hottest day on the whole trip and I was tired from the last adventure. It took me 5 hours to get to 11000 camp where I brewed up and ate dinner, but then it took another 4 hours to get the last 3000 feet up to ABC. I was tired for sure, but when the sun went down over the mountains it got really cold and windy. In the end I had all my clothes on and walked as fast as I could but I was still so cold that I could not even put on my ski crampons for the last hills up to camp. I stumbled in to Will and Jon’s tent late that evening just begging to get warmed up again. I instantly got handed a few warm water bottles and a sleeping bag and it didn’t take long before I was warm again - Its worth more than anything having good friends on the mountain. That day was for sure my hardest day on the whole trip.

The next day I did barely leave my sleeping bag except for eating. The weather was good and the forecast said it was going to hold up for another 3 days and then a big low-pressure system was on its way in. Time was running out. I had to rest fast…

Some last thought on the south face descent…

I don’t see this descent as a true first descent, more like a great mountain adventure and a challenge and dream lived trough. I’m a challenge driven person more than sensation based ditto and I usually look for adventures where I wont know the outcome or the result. Can an adventure be an adventure if you do know the result? I don’t think so.

Skiing big faces one will never know the conditions before one is there trying – and that’s where I think the beauty of skiing, climbing and alpinism lies; in the act of trying to realise a dream. And if you are not accepting the risk of failure that is the thing that’s going to keep you from realise your visions.

The skiing on this face was by no means difficult. Its snow, ice and rock like any other face in the world. The challenge was to not get touched by the collective fear that is always built up around something that is not done before as well as having a strategy that will give you the best possible chance of success and survival.

Mark Twight’s saying that; “strategy is beyond technique, technique is beyond the tools” always rings true in the mountains.

I down climbed and rappelled around 400 meters of the face that would be easy to ski in the day in good conditions. And 250 out of those meters where still possible to ski when I was there, but it would have been pretty contrived. Around 200 meters will probably always be obligatory to rappel or down climb if not generations to come will take true freeriding in to the big mountains where you cant fall.  That still means I skied just over 3400m of a total of 4000 meters

There are three different ways to pass the rock wall a bit more than half way down. I was aiming from the start to take the far skiers left because I thought the rock rib was going to be possible to negotiate with skis on and that looked like the way to get most skiing in.
I took the middle way on my descent because I was already past the rib and the slopes further skiers’ left was much icier. I think that, with the knowledge I have now, I would recommend taking the skies right option that will skip the rib and then follow a ramp after the rappels to get back to the main slopes.

I know two parties who have tried climbing up the face intending to ski it. Dan Corn and a friend climbed halfway before they returned down, also doing some down climbing and rappelling to get down the main slopes. Greg G Collins and a friend also tried it a few years back, but they turned around early because of rock fall.

This is definitely one of the best ski descents I can imagine. It is huge, it goes from the highest summit in North America, and it offers great skiing potential, some challenging skiing and ski mountaineering and it is a mind game. It also demands a good strategy to avoid the objective dangers such as stone fall, bad weather, the cold and avalanches. I would not by any means call this a contrived ski – but an excellent face for really big mountain skiing, with everything that comes along with that.

I don’t know what it would take to do a complete descent or even what would be fair to regard as a real descent and the subjectivity of the sport sometimes tires me.  I’m happy to give things a try as long as they give me a challenge, beauty and a good adventure – that’s all I’m looking for and then, afterwards, I just want to let them be as they where when I was out there – great adventures.

I’m greatly thankful for everything I got to experience on this adventure as well as for the great people I got to meet and hang out with and I’m already immersed in the research for the next quest to come! 

Myself and Magnus hanging out at Devil's Pass

Magnus snow walking. Mark Twight once said he failed to climb the West Buttress even though he summited - he couldn't find any climbing... 

Its all a snow walk...

But a very breath taking one... in many ways...

The summit ridge

Taking a look down the south face

Magnus and myself on the summit of Denali

Skiing on the south face

Looking up towards the summit

Mt Foraker in the sun rise. At the end of the descent I didn't really focus on photos, so this is the first one just before I took of down the glacier.

After the icefall with the mighty south face of Denali in the background

Me having a rest in the tent...

Colin Haley and Nils Nielsen in camp

Myself and Nils, the south face of Denali in the background

Mt Hunter in sunset

It's a long way from basecamp to ABC

Looking back at my sled and the view after Squirrel hill 

And later on I enjoyed a beautiful sun set over the Alaskan lowlands... 

Tuesday 21 June 2011

Denali Adventure part 2 – ABC and the Orient Express x2.5

I would say that arriving in ABC was the start of the fun part of our Alaska adventure. When we finally got there we where able to do what we came to Denali to do: ski and climb. And of course hang out with old and new friends.  Upon seeing the poor ski conditions Magnus quickly decided that skiing up high was not for him, so I got the whole mountain for my self.

Being keen as always I woke up early our first day in camp with the goal of getting as high as possible and then ski back down. I first went for the Messner couloir but turned around because of a sketchy bergschrund (I later found a better way) and turned to the Orient or rather the West Rib. At around 17000 feet I got hit by the altitude and felt like that was enough for the day so I sat down on my backpack, put on all my clothes and turned my attention to the view and my iPod for about two hours. I wanted to profit as much as I could from the thin air and when I started to feel cold I clicked in to my skies and skied down to camp in one go. It was a great feeling to finally do some semi steep turns on higher altitude.

The next day came with bad weather and the following day hard winds but I still made another try on the Orient. I didn’t really care where I was going as long as I got as high as possible and got some good old workout done. This time I made it within 200 meters from the top cornice but I got so cold by the wind (even though I had down pants and 3 down jackets) that I turned around and enjoyed some pretty good chalky skiing. The weather turned in to a storm the next day and gave me some good rest and then calmed down a bit the day after allowing me to get all the way to the top of the Orient Express and then ski all the way back to camp.

These where some good calm days where I got to tune in to the mountain and get a feeling for the conditions. Magnus joined up with our British friends Jonathan Griffith and Will Sim and did a couple of fast pushes to 17000 camp as well as the Devils Pass (18500).

But the weather was not really allowing for summit pushes and no one had sat their foot on the summit since we got to ABC so we started to feel like we wanted to optimize our time, get acclimatized and be closer to where its happening. So we moved up to 17000 camp even though the forecast was not to good. We had met some really nice guys from Iceland: Siggi and Balder and we wanted to help them out realising their big dream of making the summit. So the next day we went up the Rescue gully in three hours with their tent to build a mutual camp at 17000. It was really windy in high camp and we built a fortress around their big Hilleberg tent. While I were building walls Magnus turned down to meet our friends to get some food they had cached before and then came back up for dinner.

When evening turned to night our friends had yet not arrived and we started to be a bit concerned. It was a raging storm outside our tent and we where half asleep in our sleeping bags. But we felt like we had to do something. Magnus went down the ridge again by him self but turned around because he was to afraid going on to the arête by him self in the hard wind and zero visibility. Then we alarmed the rangers, but they did not want to take any risks in the storm, so we went down the ridge together as far as we dared but turned around when it was starting to feel to crazy. There were nothing we where able to do for our friends so we went back to our sleeping bags hoping they had turned around. However, at 3.30 at night our friends stumbled in to the tent after the biggest adventure in their lives and over 18 hours after they sat out. That was one of the happiest moments of the trip.

The next day it was still stormy and we all hang out together in the tent eating and drinking and listening to Siggis crazy stories from the past. Then the following morning we woke up to a cold and calm sunny day. We were on!!!

The Messner couloir and the Orient Express from below

Having a rest on the Orient

Mt Hunter

And Foraker

Skiing the Orient the 2nd attempt

And then the third

Further down

Our friends the volunteers building a shelter for the shit house 

Jon and Will coming over for a visit

Magnus on a cold day

Our camp

Magnus making his way up the rescue gully

Magnus coming back with the food

And taking care of me on our rest day in the storm

Check out Will Sim's account of his Alaska adventure!

My friends from Chamonix, the Brittish climbers Will Sim and Jonathan Griffith, where on Denali at the same time as Magnus and myself. One of the highlights of their trip was a speed record of the Cassin Ridge. Check out Will’s account of their trip on his blog:

Sunday 19 June 2011

Denali adventure part 1 – Preparing for fun times

Coming back home to the north of Sweden after our Alaska adventure it’s hard to know where to start my story. I guess it began a year or two back when I got to hear about the south face of Denali for the first time. I got to see photos of the face and the first thing that came to my mind were that; “I can do that, I want to ski that” and I immediately started dreaming about going there.

It felt like a good challenge and a great adventure and I put it on my invisible wish list. But as time went on and easier fetch able adventures came and went, this dream kind of fell asleep. However this winter, over a couple of beers, it got brought up one evening at good friend Max Turgeon’s house.  He had been to Denali several times before and even climbed the huge south face by a new route. He was also looking for a good adventure and almost immediately agreed to go for the south face.

Said and done. It didn’t take long before we had everything booked and ready to go. But about 3-4 weeks before we where leaving I got a phone call from his girlfriend giving me the bad news. Max was sick, really sick. He had some growth in his stomach, he had just had a surgery and they where waiting for the lab results if he had cancer or not. In a moment I lost all my motivation for the mountains and just put all my hope and well wishes towards Max and his recovery.

During this time I went out skiing and ice climbing solo, knowing that’s usually what Max does when he’s in the same situation. But then, a week later, we got the results: Max did not have cancer and his prognosis for recovery was really good. The first thing that came to my mind was that I had to try to realise this dream, the big thing I had had in mind most of the winter. So I started calling my best friends to see if anyone was interested in joying me. One of the first I called was Magnus Kastengren. He is one of these rare persons that I know that are almost always free to take on any kind of adventure, and when you are out there, he does have neither negativity nor limits making him a wonderful friend and traveling partner. He is of course also really strong in the mountains. My objective was still skiing the south face, but our mutual goal now also became climbing one of the most famous alpine route - the Cassin Ridge. 

So, less than three weeks before leaving Magnus joins the expedition and we start replanning the trip. There were just a few obstacles to overcome. First of all, someone going to Denali for the first time need to apply for a permit 60 days before the trip. We only had like 17 days before we where leaving. In the end we where able to ad him as a third member of our expedition, but it still meant we could not start climbing earlier than 30 days after registration. But starting the climbing a week later than planned was better than not going, right? That also meant I had to change my flights so we could stay longer in Alaska.  After this was figured out it felt like we where on our way. Now we just had to sort out the equipment. Max and me had most of it planned, but Max, as he had been there a few times more than me he had most of the stuff we needed as a team. Now, we had to spend lots of our time just prior to the trip to get that sorted between myself and Magnus, and hours everyday where spent on skype.

But in the end we got everything sorted and after two intense layover days in Chamonix (see link) I flew to Anchorage, Alaska, to meet up with my friend at the airport. The one and only day we had in town before we took of to the wilderness was really intense. We had so much equipment to buy and then of course food for one month on the glacier. And it’s pretty important that one get everything one need while in civilisation because once out on the mountain there is nothing one can do if one is lacking something.

Shopping food for a month was the most difficult task, as we had no clue of what we where buying. Everything looked so different, it was different bags and measuring, new brands, etc and lots of the food is just so different. If we would have been in Europe it would probably have taken us 1,5 hour to get everything we searched for, but now it took us 7h. We walked around the whole store first without selecting a thing before a salesman came and helped us out.

After a full day of shopping we went back to the bed and breakfast and packed and repacked for most of the night. The next day we where off for Talkeetna, the last outpost before going to Denali. We stayed there for one night and then, the 9th of May, we flew in to the Kahiltna glacier and the Denali Base Camp.

The Base Camp consists of a tent village and an airstrip and it’s where everyone aiming to climb Denali by its normal route, west rip or south face will fly in. It’s a place most people are coming to or going from and very few are actually staying there for more than a few days, even though great skiing and climbing is really easy accessible from here.

We left as soon as we could with the aim of reaching advanced base camp (ABC) as soon as possible. It took us five days to reach it and it was only on the third day when we had a rest day in 11 000 feet camp that Magnus said; “this is the first time I’m having fun on this trip”.  Then again we had almost 80-90 kg of load divided on our sledges and back packs; Food for a month, full skiing and climbing equipment, clothes and all the camping gear. On the way we also made a detour past the east fork of the Kahiltna glacier to get a view of the south face. The weather was mostly really cold, especially at night and really windy making us pretty prepared for the storms higher up, but we also had a taste off how warm the sun can be when it just chooses to shine! Looking back at our first days out they where a good warm up, easy going acclimatisation as well as a preparation for the fun times to come. 

Arriving late at night we slept the first night at the airport

And then had a huge american breakfast. 

and then some shopping

Magnus and the plane

The south face of Denali from the plane

Magnus and his sled

First camp, Denali in the far background

First view of the Cassin Ridge

This stuff is heavy

Magnus above Squirrel hill

Our 11000 camp 

First view of the upper slopes of Denali and the 14000 (ABC) camp plateau. Messner couloir in the middle, the Orient on the right.