High altitude snow-bound

Colorado ski mountaineer sets sights on skiing the ‘Alaska Family’

A storm over the mountains of Argentina
Anton Sponar

Anton Sponar’s first trip to ski Aconcagua was enough to justify a life of in-bounds skiing, but what he carried with him, as he hiked out of the valley that houses the tallest peak in the western hemisphere on frostbitten toes and fueled by little more than a few Snickers bars, was a little self knowledge, a lot more knowledge about mountaineering and the will to continue returning to the peaks. The  budding ski mountaineer, who  spends his summers guiding in Chile, has mapped out a plan to spend the early summer in Alaska, working on the trio of peaks called the “Alaska Family,” Mount McKinley, Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter,  over a six-week period.

In 2009, he undertook his first expedition to Aconcagua to ski the 22,841-foot-tall peak in western Argentina. He and his partner, Ollie Nieuwland-Zlotnicki, hiked for three days across crusty snow fields in tennis shoes, cutting steps with their ski gear. From base camp, they ferried gear even higher for a camp at 19,000 feet that would position them to push for the summit and then ski down.

“We finally started to acclimate ourselves to where it didn’t hurt all the time,” he says. But those first turns, he admits, “kind of sucked.”

From that high camp, however, they could see a storm hovering over the city of Mendoza, Argentina, just beyond the next ridge of mountains, lightning bolts sending shots of light through the thunderheads as the sun set. Sponar and Nieuwland-Zlotnicki lingered to watch the storm until the chill drove them into their tent. Word came later that another storm was rolling in, this one expecting to crash over the summit of the peak and trap anyone at elevation in a white-out. They rushed back down to base camp to avoid being buried at elevation in three feet of snow.

That storm, however, had a bright side. “It put all the snow where we needed it,” Sponar says.

Wind scoured snow off base camp enough that they felt comfortable heading back up to 19,000 feet, this time with ski mountaineer Kellie Okonek, now a Scarpa athlete, but arrived only to be caught by another two-day storm so dense the tent disappeared if they took more than five steps away from it. Everyone peed in bottles.

When the storm broke, they headed up again, pursuing a more advanced route, an alternate to the standard approach to the summit. They bootpacked up 4,000 feet of 30- to 50-degree slopes that got both increasingly steep and increasingly deep as they ascended.

“We got to a point where it was just too steep and the snow was just too deep and we just weren’t making forward progress,” Sponar says. “We had to essentially dig out the snow in front of us, push it back behind us, and then we were able to take a step. … It was slowing us down too much. We couldn’t keep going.”

So they skied down from 21,000 feet, more than 1,000 feet short of the summit. But summit fever wasn’t done with them yet — they snagged a couple hours of sleep and started the traverse around to the other side of the mountain to try the standard route, which meant climbing up a loose scree gully.

“Everything at 22,000 feet is brutal, but that was just demoralizing,” Sponar says.

They made the summit and then reached the pitch they wanted to ski, the Polish Direct Glacier Route, thought about the avalanche danger posed by the recent snowfall, and decided to ski nonstop for 4,000 feet, starting at 23,000 feet.

“We didn’t think how difficult it was going to be,” Sponar says. The few photos he was able to snag show the sagging forms of exhausted skiers.

They’d realized during their Thanksgiving meal that they were running low on food and had begun to ration it out. But almost a week later, what little they’d had left was almost gone. Returning to the base at 10 p.m. after starting at midnight, they pulled boots off, took a look at their purplish, frostbitten toes and their nearly empty food cache, and decided to push to get out of the valley and back to supplies — making for a 36-hour day of hiking to the peak, skiing down and hiking back out.

People were hiking in at the time, psyched on shooting for the peak Sponar and Nieuwland-Zlotnicki had just completed. The exchanges went something like this, Sponar recounts:

“Did you summit?” the in-bound hikers would ask.

“Yeah,” he’d reply.

“How was it?” the eager and upwardly mobile would ask, to which, Sponar laughs as he recalls, they would demand, “Do you have any food?”

They bummed a few more candy bars to hold them over for the rest of the hike out, slept 36 hours to recover, then headed to the Chilean coast to go surfing.

He’s spent the years since, and a few before, working summers in South America snowcat powder guiding for Ski Arpa, a ski guiding company founded by his father. There have been worse ski mountaineering trips — mostly trips where they didn’t actually make the summit.

“It’s always hard when it doesn’t work out,” Sponar says. “When it does work out, it’s pretty amazing, and even if it doesn’t work out, it’s the whole process that’s really enjoyable to me. … If you don’t make it to the top, yeah, it sucks, but the whole thing is, usually, the stories you bring back don’t usually happen on summit day. They happen either before or getting out from it.”

That trip to Aconcagua taught him how to deal with no food and bad gear, he says, but adds, “The main thing I also learned, I would say, is what it actually takes as far as the physicality of it — how difficult it is. I know what’s coming now whereas then it was kind of like, ‘Oh my god, this is really hard.’ It makes it a little bit easier, you know, knowing what’s going to happen or what probably will happen.”

What lies ahead will put that fortitude to the test. Sponar, now sponsored by Avon-based Liberty Skis, is heading for an ambitious trip to Alaska to put his ski mountaineering skills to the test on a trio of peaks with three other skiers, Jordan White and Evan Fletcher, who, like Sponar, live in the Aspen area, and Aaron Diamond, from Jackson, Wyo. White was the fifth person to have skied all 54 of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks.

The peaks they will be climbing are in close enough proximity to Denali, North America’s tallest peak, to be named by Alaskan natives as its family — Mount Foraker is known as Sultana, meaning “wife,” while Mount Hunter is Begguya, for “child.”

Mount Foraker, 17,400 feet tall, the second-highest summit in the Alaska Range and sixth highest in North America, is 15 miles southwest of Denali. The 14,573-foot-tall Mount Hunter sits immediately south of Denali, only eight miles away. The main summit’s long ridges are heavily corniced with sheer, 5,000-foot faces known for avalanches and icefalls.

Sponar says the plan, at this point, is to spend five to six weeks on the project, using the Denali base camp as a primary base, then building secondary base camps closer to each of the peaks where they can wait out the notoriously rough weather.

The only other person to have skied all three peaks is ski mountaineer Andrew McLean, who has chased steep lines for over two decades and snagged more than 200 first descents across all seven continents. McLean, a Utah native who lives in Park City, has been voted one of the greatest skiers of our time by Powder Magazine and has been featured in films by PowderWhore, Warren Miller, Sony Pictures and Piton Productions.

McLean’s take on skiing the “Family”

The project of skiing the “Alaska Family” was a cumulative one, McLean says.

Denali, or Mount McKinley, had been enticing as just a big, beautiful peak and, despite the altitude, has a high success rate, relatively straightforward conditions and a stunning ski route, the Messuer Couloir, a 50-degree pitch that begins at about 19,000 feet and goes all the way down to base camp. He made that ascent in 1995 with little experience, knowing that you “learn as you go.”

He was near the top of the second peak in the trio on a push for the summit that started at about 10 p.m. in the nearly 24 hours of daylight afforded by Alaskan summers, when he looked over and saw a surprisingly skiable face on Mount Foraker.

“It was almost like this beaming beacon, so that’s when I first started thinking about skiing all three of them,” McLean says.

He skied them over the course of 14 years, but estimates he spent nine weeks at the base of those peaks, waiting for the right conditions to try for the summit. For Hunter alone, he and his partner, Colorado-based Lorne Glick, spent three weeks camped at the base looking for a window of good conditions to go for the summit. Hunter required two tries for Glick, who’d made an attempt in 2002 that at least ended with the victory of discovering the route they skied in 2003.

The most challenging point of the route is a 3,000-foot ice field that either has set up right, or it hasn’t.

“Over the years people have been emailing me about skiing Hunter and that’s always just the main crux — you see it flying in, if it’s a sheet of ice, it’s an unskiable face, but if it’s in good condition, that makes it skiable,” McLean says.

Mount Foraker took two tries for McLean, the first in 2005 on the Arch Angel Ridge, an ambitious line off the back side that was too icy. Then, in 2009, he completed the Sultana Ridge.

“I think people, including myself, underestimate it. You think, ‘Well, it’s 17,000 feet, so it’s 3,000 feet smaller than Denali,’ but it’s kind of right in the wind pattern,” he says. The safest route up it, he says, is the Sultana Ridge, but it’s still not safe or easy.

“The Sultana Ridge is very long and meandering, and you go across a high altitude, windy ridge line for a couple miles — so nothing all that hard, step by step, but it’s just a matter of attrition. It just kind of wears on you as you’re weaving in and out of crevasses and over cornices and things like that, so that made it very hard. And that’s got a very low success rate on it for a variety of reasons. There’s a lot of hard routes on it and it gets a lot of weather. People, I think, underestimate it quite a bit.”

All three peaks required roping up to cross crevasses, but McLean says they never faced climbing so steep they had to set an ice screw.

“I would say that to do the whole project takes a lot of patience — a lot of experience, but patience is definitely number one,” he says. “If you just rush into them, bad avalanche conditions or icy conditions, then you’re going to get yourself in trouble. If you were to be plopped perfectly on top of each peak in perfect conditions by a helicopter, the skiing itself would be doable by a lot of people, but there are endless pitfalls — crevasses, avalanche danger, bad weather, storms, surviving the cold, all that type of stuff would make it more of an advanced outing.”

In an essay he wrote for The Ski Journal in 2011, he describes the feeling of that final summit as “like skiing through a graveyard.” The routes were marked by encounters with fatalities or accidents, friends lost and bodies unrecovered that lay buried under avalanche snow.

Alaska can make or break a ski mountaineer’s career — either you make it on the many high, skiable peaks, or the peaks break you.

In the years he’s been skiing Alaska peaks — an ongoing mission, though his interest has shifted farther south to the Wrangell St. Elias range, the largest national park and preserve in the United States with many options that don’t require topping out above 14,000 feet to establish something new and exciting — he says the key has been patience, and a generosity with the weather.

“The Alaska Range can really dish it out in terms of weather, that’s just something you have no control over,” he says. “But part of what makes the Alaska Family such a challenge and great experience is that there are so many wild cards thrown in. For me, I’ve just learned to add in lots and lots of extra time because, that way, you’re not charging out into the middle of these things in less than ideal conditions, because they’re so big and unforgiving that if you’re on a timeline and you go up one of these huge peaks and it’s avalanche conditions, it’s unsurvivable.”

So squeezing the entire mission into a single month and a half stretch of the summer season? Sponar and company wouldn’t be the first to have tried, but they’d be the first to succeed.

“They would have to get perfect conditions for it, and that’s hard to do,” McLean says, adding that in addition to cooperative weather and snow conditions, they’ll have to craft a strategy, like perhaps skiing the lower peaks earlier. “I wouldn’t doubt that somebody sometime will do it, do them all in one season. I’ve heard other people talk about trying to go up there and spend two months up there trying to tick all them off, and sometimes the mountains have other ideas.”

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“Obviously, we’re going to take whatever any of these mountains will give us as far as routes,” Sponar says. He’s eyeing the Messuer Couloir and the Orient Express on Denali “just because it’s a little more exciting.”

The length of the trip is expected to be tough — it’s a lot of food to pack, a lot of books to have on hand (thankfully, handy electronic devices have made it easier to pack enough books to be mentally transported away from a snow-bound tent) and a long time to be sleeping on the snow. But then, of course, there’s the basics: “I think the climbing is going to be tough,” he says.

“The climbing on Hunter is definitely going to be the hardest, and that’s my weaker suit for sure,” he adds. “Looking at all the skiing stuff, obviously the conditions will dictate a lot, but I’ve always felt way more confident once the skis are on my feet than the crampons.”

To prepare, he’ll also be skinning uphill inbounds at ski resorts and hauling sleds loaded with rocks or water bottles up mountains near Aspen.

“It’s a pretty fun time in history to be a ski mountaineer,” McLean says. “There’s lots of great peaks to be skied and the sport is relatively young in the U.S. and growing rapidly, so a lot of great exploring to be done.”

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