Summit seekers

Four men ski three of Alaska’s biggest peaks

Anton Sponar

Four ski mountaineers (well, three skiers and one snowboarder) seem to have set a record in Alaska this season. It’s tough to know what, exactly, and from the audible shrug and laugh when he talks about it, it’s clear that Anton Sponar doesn’t much care.

Sponar, Aaron Diamond, Evan Pletcher and Jordan White went to the northern reaches of the United States and skied the “Alaska Family,” — Mt. McKinley, or Denali, the tallest peak in North America, and the neighboring summits of Mount Foraker and Mount Hunter — in a single expedition, a single season, and reached the third summit in just 31 days.

“We know for sure they’ve never been skied in one season, because only Andrew [McLean] had skied them,” Sponar says. “I can only imagine that if they haven’t been climbed all in one season, it would take someone getting even luckier than we did to have done it that fast, because we essentially didn’t stop. We had four rest days total during the whole thing.”

The only other person to have skied all three completed the project in nine weeks’ of expeditions, which included a repeat try at one of the summits, spread over 14 years. These four were giving themselves six weeks — 45 days of food. They flew out after 33 days on the glacier.

They’ve set a speed record for ski mountaineering these three peaks, and Diamond was the first to snowboard all three peaks. But they may have also set a speed record for climbing the three peaks. Asked how that feels, Sponar says, “Not totally sure, really. We knew we were trying to do something in the ski mountaineering world. We had no idea — if that’s even the case — that we were doing something in the alpinism world, which to us is a very proud thing because ski mountaineers are kind of a different sort of group of people in the whole alpine world, just because we don’t usually climb like climbers, we have different goals, different ideas, we look at the mountain differently, so things are different. As a ski mountaineer, you’re not pushing the limits in the alpine world. So having done something that might have pushed or progressed something in the alpine climbing world is pretty amazing. We never set out to do that, but if that’s the case, we don’t even know what to think about it, really.”

The Denali National Park and Preserve’s Walter Harper Talkeenta Ranger Station tracks Denali and Foraker climbers, who have to register with the office, but records for Hunter are less complete.

Marueen Gualtieri, with the park service, says at least one other person has summitted all three peaks in one season — almost definitely in more than 31 days.

“But even though we don’t compile a running list of the triple crown, I’m confident in saying it would be an extremely short list — like only a handful,” Gualtieri said via email. “Particularly in 31 days…”

Asked about the endeavor in February, when Boulder Weekly reported on the upcoming “Ski the Big Three” expedition, McLean said, “They would have to get perfect conditions for it, and that’s hard to do. And I suppose there would have to be some strategy involved as far as skiing maybe the lower peaks earlier and the higher peaks later.”

That’s just what they got, and what they did — starting with Hunter before moving up to Foraker and finishing on Denali.

“I think the story of the whole trip is the weather — we just got super lucky,” Sponar says. “It really was as if when we needed a good weather window, we got it, and when it snowed it was when we were on rest days anyway, so it didn’t even matter. It was pretty incredible. It was almost as if we asked for that forecast for the whole month. As far as I’m concerned, that’s how we got it done. That’s the main reason. We were prepared and ready for anything and it just kind of happened. It was kind of amazing.”

It wasn’t a great snow year on the Alaska Range, he says. The routes they’d hoped to ski on Denali were blown off to blue ice. The only route on Hunter was nothing but black ice on the top of the one skiable line, a south facing route that was likely in its last skiable days of the season and already showing bare rock in places.

Both Hunter and Foraker are down the Kahlitna Glacier from the main base camp that flights come into, which abuts against the north face of Hunter. Their route, however, was on the south side, so they began their expedition by hiking across the Kahlitna Glacier around the base of Hunter and then up an icefall to the route. They banked left around the icefall, a place Sponar described as like “the jaws of the glacier,” in his blog written during the expedition.

“Hunter was definitely the most technically demanding in every aspect, the ski and the climb, quite a bit more than Foraker and Denali,” Sponar says.

They climbed up the route they’d chosen to ski, the Ramen Route, some 3,300 feet of a 50-degree slope, to see it before they skied it. They began up it at 9 p.m., hoping for more solid, more easily climbable conditions on a route typically only used by climbers bailing on rappel from the ridge above.

“The climb on that was pretty tough — you encounter a lot of different snow, a lot of super unconsolidated crap that we were swimming through,” Sponar says. “Then when we got to the top, it was all black ice that we were actually having to swing our ice tools and do almost real ice climbing to get through.”

From there, they crossed a ridge spotted in glaciated areas and crevasses, a summit plateau they had to wrap all the way around from the West Ridge to their ski route and summitted the 14,573-foot peak at 9 p.m. Though Alaska was moving toward 24 hours of daylight, and the only time Sponar would use his headlamp was on the climb up Hunter, it was still too dark to ski down after the summit. The four dug a pit into a wall of snow, covered it in their ski poles, a tarp and snow, squeezed in together, replacing their ski boots with down mittens, and rested for the few dark hours.

“It’s not comfortable, but you get through the night,” Sponar says. “I don’t know how much anybody actually slept.”

When the light increased, they skied down toward the camp they’d left 41 hours before. By the time they got back within reach of their camp, they were out of food and water, and immediately boiled snow and drank from the pot.

The ascent of Foraker, 17,400 feet in elevation, came next. A narrow weather window forced them to make the decision to do the climb alpine style, going base camp to base camp in seven days — a project that most guided trips give 21 days over to completing. They squeezed four people into one tent and packed just enough food for four days.

“We knew if we tried to do it full expedition style, which a lot of people do, which is carrying a bunch of stuff up but having to do carries, there was a good chance the weather window would slip by us while we were still messing around on the lower mountain, and we didn’t really have that time to let that happen, so we just went for it,” Sponar says.

One storm caught them on the Sultana Ridge, and they hunkered down for a day of white-out that caught them at the top of a four or five-mile ridge before the broader ridge that leads to the summit.

“Nothing really was super technical, but you’re just exposed to weather for a really long time,” Sponar says. “Foraker is basically the first thing that any storm hits, so if a storm was coming, we could see it for a long time before it got to us.”

They saved Denali for last. It took four days of hiking to get to a camp at 14,000 feet in elevation — the height of the tallest summits in Colorado — to stage for the summit of Denali. That camp sits on a plateau, set back from the main face of Denali to leave room for avalanches, at what’s called the Edge of the World, where the plateau drops off and the views pick up. A tent city pops up every year during Denali’s climbing season, where aspiring climbers gather and socialize and wait for their weather window.

When theirs arrived, as with Foraker, it was short enough that they prioritized speed and set off to climb from the camp at 14,000 feet to the summit at 20,322 feet in a single day. Given almost 24 hours of daylight, Sponar says, they were able to sleep in until 8:30 a.m. and start for the summit at 10 a.m. After pushing through strong winds that often drove them to the snow, crouched down to wait the gusts out, they reached it at 9 p.m. then were able to ski back down the route they’d just ascended, the Phantom Headwall, which cuts straight up from the Autobahn traverse on the main route.

They summitted Denali 31 days after being dropped off at the airstrip base camp. Eager to sleep somewhere other than on the snow, and eat something that hadn’t been freeze-dried, they skied down to their camp, rested just a little, and then headed all the way down to the base camp, hoping to catch the last flight out of the day and missing it on a technicality. They made camp and planned to fly out the next morning, only to find themselves stuck in a snowstorm that day, Sponar recounts, “which was fine, because we had a lot of whisky.”

The skiing conditions themselves had varied from bad to worse — high altitude snow is just never good, Sponar says, and they saw glaciated to almostcorn snow to snow with a consistency like hard chalk. In the lower section of Foraker, Sponar says, they encounted  “some of the worst possible skiing I could ever imagine.”

The snow had formed penitentes — towers of snow left standing after dirt blown onto the snow around them sped up the melting of the surrounding snow — that looked ready to impale an unwitting skier.

“It was pretty desperate skiing. It wasn’t scary or anything because it’s not that steep, but it was just like, ‘This is impossible,’ it was so much work,” Sponar says. “But we left our skis on the whole way and made it all the way down. It varied, we got some decent turns in there and then some were just like that, where you’re like, ‘I don’t even know how to do this.’” Acclimatization days allowed for some good powder skiing, peak days did not. But then, if good skiing were the point, Sponar says, they’d have gone somewhere else.

“It’s not really just about the skiing, it’s about the whole process for me,” Sponar says. “Your skis just become another tool, much like your ice ax is. It’s a faster way to get down, so if you’re confident on your skis, it actually could be a lot safer as well. So it was just a great way to be out in the mountains and doing a little bit differently than just climbing up and walking back down. It’s a little bit more exciting.”

The crossover between alpine climbing accomplishments and ski mountaineering is thin. The pursuit of one or the other leaves one looking for aesthetic lines running opposite directions — not clear, rocky ridges upward but an obvious snow line from summit to bottom.

But ski mountaineering is a way to do something new in a peak that’s been climbed before — and the push is for new methods, faster methods. While they were there, Sponar says, they watched Killian Jornet training for the speed record he just set on Denali, finishing the peak in 11 hours and 48 minutes.

The “Ski the Big Three” kind of expedition is a mission in “enchainment,” Sponar says, a term he credits Lou Dawson of with providing.

“So taking either big peaks or a few different peaks in a range that are significant within that range, just going in and doing each one of them using the idea of alpine climbing alpine style where you’re moving fast in the mountains, and making it faster with skis,” Sponar explains. “Obviously, you’re not necessarily going to ski the gnarliest thing on the mountain by doing that, but you’re out there doing a lot. … So many things have been climbed — there’s still so much out there that hasn’t been — but these bigger mountains, these iconic ones, it’s like something else that you can do on them that’s new and a pretty incredible thing, so people are really getting into it.”