Skiing Alaska’s peaks
Aspenite Evan Pletcher and three friends already are talking about what might be next for them in terms of ski mountaineering adventures.
But for now, he said, “I think we’re just excited to wear the flip-flops and get on our mountain bikes and have a couple months off.”
That’s because Pletcher, fellow Aspenites Jordan White and Anton Sponar, and Jackson, Wyoming, resident Aaron Diamond have just returned from a month in Alaska pulling off what is being hailed as one of the top ski mountaineering accomplishments in many years.
In a single expedition, the four climbed and skied Denali, which at more than 20,000 feet is the highest point in North America, and neighboring peaks Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter. Foraker tops 17,000 feet and is Alaska’s second-highest mountain, and the sixth-highest in North America.
While it’s the third-highest peak in the Alaska Range after Denali and Foraker, Hunter only tops 14,000 feet.
But Carbondale-area adventurer and author Jonathan Waterman, who once worked as a ranger on Denali and in the 1980s penned “High Alaska,” a look at the history of climbing on the three peaks, has called Hunter steeper than Denali and Foraker and the most difficult Fourteener to climb on the continent.
“I would be the first to shake their hands if I met these guys. It’s an incredible accomplishment,” Waterman said.
Only one person, extreme skier Andrew McLean of Park City, Utah, previously had skied all three peaks. This year’s group became the first to ski all three in a single expedition. And because one of them, Diamond, was on a snowboard, he became the first to snowboard all three, and the first ever to descend Hunter via snowboard.
For White in particular, it also represented yet one more way in which he has moved on to accomplish great things in the climbing and ski mountaineering world, after a 2005 tragedy in which his dad, Kip, died when the two fell while roped together on the Maroon Bells near Aspen.
“It’s really cool to see that even though that happened to our family, he’s kind of triumphed over it,” said White’s sister, Aubrey, who works with her brother at the Red Onion restaurant in Aspen. “I just love him for it. I’m very, very proud.”
Brad Smith, the restaurant’s manager and owner, said he’s been on Denali himself, “and it’s quite an undertaking, so to do all three of those is just extremely impressive, especially within a month. I think the whole mountaineering community is pretty much in awe of that accomplishment.”
Lou Dawson, a Carbondale skier and guidebook author who was the first to ski all of Colorado’s Fourteeners, chronicled the foursome’s Alaskan outing extensively at his website, http://www.wildsnow.com. The four were able to provide photos and firsthand updates during tent time on their trip, including a moving tribute by White to his father May 30, the anniversary of his death.
On the website, Dawson ventured to call the Alaskan accomplishment “one of the biggest things in ski mountaineering to happen in this decade.”
He wrote that “just getting a Denali summit has a high failure rate, and Foraker only gets a handful of people a year even trying it.”
Waterman called it a feat to climb any of the three.
“But to do it in a season and to do it on skis, it’s just amazing.”
He said the success rate for climbers on Denali is only about 50 percent, and it is much lower for skiers.
He added, “It’s one thing to ski Denali, but to ski Hunter in particular is a pretty stiff undertaking, and the same (goes) for Foraker.”
Aspenite Mike Marolt has skied high peaks in Alaska, South America and the Himalayas, and he and his twin brother Steve were the first Americans to ski from above 8,000 meters in elevation. He said the foursome’s Denali/Hunter/Foraker adventure is among the top rung of Arctic ski mountaineering feats, and then added, “Worldwide, I’d put it up there among the top accomplishments.”
Said White, as he and his friends were driving through Wyoming on their way home this week, “It certainly felt like an accomplishment. It was a lot of work to do it.”
Pletcher said the full significance of it only began to sink in once the four had gotten off the glacier in Alaska and had the chance to really start reflecting on it.
“It was a lot of work,” he agreed. “I think we’re all happy to be back in one piece.”
FIVE PERCENT ODDS
As if to underscore the magnitude of what the group was taking on, they themselves only had given themselves about a 5 percent chance of succeeding in climbing and skiing all three peaks.
They flew into their base camp May 4 with 45 days of food, and flew off the glacier June 6. White and Sponar, also a Red Onion employee, needed to get back to work by June 20 to help with Aspen’s Food and Wine Classic that weekend. While they started out facing a lot of unknowns, the greatest was the highly unpredictable weather in the Denali area.
Marolt said that while climbers deal with thinner air climbing in the higher Himalayan mountains, the Alaskan weather is typically colder and more punishing, with conditions allowing for climbing generally only one day out of every three.
The group dealt with their share of adverse weather that kept them tentbound, but also benefited from what they said was precision forecasting by their friend Joel Gratz.
He run a website, http://www.opensnow.com, that’s designed to help skiers know where to expect the next powder dump, but provided customized information for the Alaska outing, helping alert them to good weather windows.
White, Pletcher, Diamond and Sponar’s itinerary involved establishing a base camp in the middle of the three peaks, which form a triangle, and then making separate excursions to each peak.
Their pack loads at times reached as much as 75 or 80 pounds.
White said the most difficult day was when they summited Hunter, continually moving over 41 straight hours, aided by the long Alaskan daylight this time of year.
“That was definitely the hardest physical push,” said White.
He said it was a mental game not to give up and turn around during that summit attempt, and the whole time the group had to be alert to the dangers of crevasse and steep terrain.
Some luck is required for such an adventure when it comes to things like the weather, but observers also praised the skill and physical strength the four brought with them to Alaska, along with their ability to work together.
White and Pletcher agreed that teamwork was essential.
Said White, “Everybody’s got to have the same level head, be willing to drive themselves pretty … far physically and mentally to do it.”
He said climbing is a team sport, even if it’s not necessarily looked at that way. In their group’s case, they succeeded in part because “each person offered their own piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Pletcher said that from the weather, to the lack of injuries or illness, to the way the group worked together, “everything just kind of seemed to have fallen into synchrony I’ve never experienced to such an extent for such an incredibly long amount of time on any trip.
“That isn’t to say we didn’t have 20 hardships, but we were able to work through them.”
ACHIEVING THE IMPOSSIBLE
Given the hazards the peaks present and the need for everything to go right when it comes to things like the weather, Marolt said that for the group to have succeeded in climbing and skiing all three peaks at once “is nothing short of a miracle, it really is.”
But he also said the group had built up their ski mountaineering skills in Colorado and elsewhere to prepare them to take on the challenge and succeed in the right conditions.
“For practical purposes people don’t plan on doing (what they did) because it is so impossible, and they trained and they prepared and they got the luck and they pulled it off. It’s a really big deal.”
The four range in age from just 23 (Diamond) to 32 (Sponar).
White also has skied all of Colorado’s Fourteeners, accomplishing that in 2009, when he was the fifth to do it and the youngest, 23 at the time.
He’s also skied Denali before, joining Dawson in doing so. White spread his father’s ashes there the first time he was there.
“Dad and I never made it to Alaska. We talked a long time about climbing Denali together,” he said.
White wrote in his May 30 tribute, “So while here on Denali, sitting in a tent at 14,200 feet, I just want to say thank you, Papa, for getting me started in this lifetime journey as a man, and as a mountaineer.”
White says that after his father’s death, the tragedy itself compelled him to get back out into the mountains. But that’s not the motivation these days.
“The point I’m at now, I love being out there, I love the challenge, I love the adventure, I love doing it.”
Aubrey White said her brother’s ongoing adventures are nerve-wracking for her and her mother, Luann, who lives in Littleton. But White’s family never pressured him much to give up climbing after his dad’s loss.
Said Jordan, “I think my mom, she kind of knew from the beginning I wasn’t going to quit and it probably wasn’t worth her time to try to make me.”
Aubrey said being afraid for her brother doesn’t help anything. Instead, she focuses on his achievements.
“I brag about my brother all the time,” she said.
As for her, she snowboards, but said she doesn’t have the same need for adventure in the mountains as her brother does.
“He got those genes. I’m OK with him having them all,” she said.