Skiing Denali

Aron Ralston

Aron Ralston Skis from Denali Summit

After his slideshow at the Albuquerque REI store in spring 2002, speed-record-holder Gary Scott invited me to join him on a climb of Denali’s West Buttress. The iconic mountain fascinated me both as the highest peak in North America as well as a proving ground for future expeditions to 7,000- and 8,000-meter peaks.

In addition, Gary was leading a team of elite adventure racers including ultrarunning champion Marshall Ulrich. For years, I’d been debating my future beyond an engineering career, and the opportunity to climb with Gary, Marshall, and the Stray Dogs was a catalyst.

I gave notice to my manager at Intel, held an everything-that-can’t-fit-in-my-truck-must-go garage sale, and jumped into a life aligned with my passion for outdoor adventure. Maybe I’d become a wilderness photographer. Or perhaps a ski bum. Or a mountain guide.

Summiting Denali that Father’s Day in 2002, I knew I’d be back to the mountain for more. Plunging our snowshoes through endless trapdoors on the lower Kahiltna Glacier, I resolved that when I did return, it would be on skis.

The following June, I organized a trip with my good friend Jason Halladay. Planning first to climb to the top with our team, I then hoped to attempt a solo speed ascent that would possibly break Gary’s decades-old record.

It wasn’t to be. A month prior to our departure, I pulled a huge boulder onto my right arm in Blue John Canyon and was still recovering from my amputation when Jason and our friends made it to the roof of Alaska. In a surreal sense, I was with them: Jason carried my head on a stick — a life-size cardboard cutout of my face — that he held up in various group photos.

By 2008, others had re-set the speed record beyond my grasp, so I undertook my second expedition with other ambitions: to solo-climb the West Riblet and ski the Orient Express (so-named for the multiple teams of predominantly Asian climbers who mistakenly attempted to descend the couloir only to plummet to their deaths.) Hauling 200-pounds of gear on my back and in my sled, I spent five days trudging up to the 14,000′ Camp below an array of couloirs that drop from above 17,000′ on Denali’s western shoulder. To warm up for a summit descent, I skied one of the Rescue Gullies, then broke trail to a high camp on the West Rib.

From my aerie at 16,600′, I mounted my summit push and after 10 hours of climbing, I clicked into my skis at 9pm on top of Denali. With round-the-clock daylight bathing the route, I skied the hardpan slopes of Pig Hill and the Football Field to the entrance of the Orient Express. There at 19,600′, I looked a vertical mile down the 55-degree couloir to the amassed humanity of 14-Camp. I wondered if anyone was watching. If anyone might therefore see me take a fatal ride on the Express. And then, putting aside such outward thoughts, I skied.

Or rather, I delicately side-stepped down the 10-foot-wide gully, kicking my ski edges into a surface that more resembled a slab of milk-jug plastic than snow. It was white-knuckle anxiety for an hour as I descended three inches at a time. Then, I reached softer snow conditions at 18,500′ and could link four jump turns before having to stop to catch my breath. (I’d ascended from sea level to summit in eight days; it was slow enough to prevent altitude sickness, but hardly adequate time to allow such exertion three-and-a-half miles into the atmosphere.)

The snow kept getting better and the air richer. Shortly, I was painting tracks through eight-inches of confectioner’s powder down the lower wide-open slope. I jumped a few small crevasses at high speed around 17,000′ and traversed back to my camp by 11pm, relieved and triumphant. To this day, skiing the Orient Express remains as a reminder that the line between bold and foolish is as thin as the edge on a ski.

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