Alaska 2011

The Denali film!

Here is the edit from my adventure on Denali this last spring… Enjoy!

Edited by Bjarne Salhén on

Denali adventure part 6 – Good times in Alaska and skiing in the Chugach Mountains

Denali seen from Talkeetna
The next day we skied all the way down to BC. On the way down we got surprised how much snow that had melted during the weeks we had spent in ABC. Nothing seemed to be in really good shape and to be able to climb the good stuff one had to climb at night. We didn’t feel up for more high objective risks or more rock n rolling so we put ourselves on the waiting list to fly out to civilisation. But it turned out to be harder than expected. Just when we got up in the air the next day we had to turn around and go back to BC as the clouds had completely filled all the ways out. The pilots obviously have to see where they are going so with no visibility there are no flying.
So we just had to spend two days in BC finishing every drop of alcohol we had left and hanging out with all our new and old friends. We where not really complaining, but non the less it was really nice to eventually get on that plane and get back in Talkeetna. The first thing we did was to take a shower and then next on the list was eating dinner. We met the North Face team that was just about to fly out to Denali and had dinner with them and when they left for packing we kept on going to the next restaurant for a second dinner.
We spent three days (and long nights) in Talkeetna before we left with Lisa and Greg to go to their friend Kramer’s compound in the middle of no where. We spent two days there and then we kept on going for Girdwood and the Chugash Mountains. Our team was made up of me and Magnus, Greg and Heidi Adamson and the goal was to find some good skiing in the coastal mountains.
So what we did was to just drive along the way and pick the most beautiful mountain we could find and then ski it. With that combined with Greg’s local knowledge we ended up at the foot of a mountain called Mt Byron. It turned out to be a great and long ski in perfect spring conditions. Ok, maybe a bit warm, but nothing some ski cutting couldn’t handle. We ended up having a blast and it was with mixed feelings we left for Anchorage the next day and said good bye to Heidi and Greg. We still had one more night in this town before we jumped on our flights back to Europe
All in all we had a wonderful Alaska adventure. We got to fulfil all our small everyday goals, but more important we had a beautiful time together, we met really cool people and it felt like we got the full Alaskan experience.
Skiing down with heavy sledges
Rice porridge in BC
Team Iceland
Trying to fly out the 1st time
Our pilot
The master Greg Collins
Seth and Lisa
Greg and myself
The Magnus!
Alaskan wilderness
Dinner with the North Face team
Lisa, Greg and Seth
Happy climbing friends
Road trippin
At Kramer’s compound
Gypsy skiers lifestyle
In Alaska, thats a small car
Approaching Mt Byron
Greg showing us some great ski-mountaineering skills
Anything is easy after a few weeks on Denali
Greg skiing
And Magnus
Greg, Heidi and Magnus
Alaskan icebergs
The mythic bar
Finally back in Europe… Chamonix mountains from the plane window.. Mt Blanc on the right
And the Eiger Nordwand

Denali adventures Part 5 – Skiing the Messner Couloir

The most classic ski descent on Denali must be the Messner Couloir above ABC. The 1500 vertical meter couloir could be the Gervasutti (the most classical easy steep ski in Chamonix) of North America and it’s often the objective for skiers coming to Denali. I really wanted to ski this classic and I knew I would never come back to Denali just to ski this single couloir so I went for it on the second day after we where back from Cassin.
The weather was not very good, with strong winds and fair visibility.  But on the other hand it’s a couloir and the navigation was easy and the snow stable. It took me about 5 hours to climb the couloir, but then again I was exhausted long before I started. Most of the couloir was filled with knee-deep snow making the tracking hard work. At the upper parts the wind was really strong and it was cold. I climbed up to the top of the couloir close to the Football field, but I did not go all the way to the summit because the weather was really bad and I was just after the couloir not a third summit ascent.
It felt refreshing standing at the top of the couloir in the storm and it was with a smile that I took of with the first turns down my last ski on Denali. The skiing was not perfect with a bit of powder here, a bit of stratugis there, but I enjoyed every bit of it. At one point I ended up on blue ice, but I just dug my axes in, put my crampons on and down climbed 15 meters before I kept on skiing.
At the end I traversed the schrund, took my rope and extra clothes that I had left there on the way up and cruised down in the fog all the way down to camp.
It was a nice and easy solo adventure without too much pulse, but I could definitely feel that my body had had enough of this strain. Eating dinner that night I felt like the Denali mission was accomplished and that it now was time to get down to enjoy the thick air. 

Denali adventure part 4 – The Cassin Ridge

When I got back from the south face adventure I was really tired. But on Denali the time is always ticking and the weather windows can be short and sparse. The biggest reason people fail on their objectives is that they run out of time and I did not want this to happen to us. I had already done what I came there for, but I also wanted Magnus to get his objective done so I tried to rest as well as I could.
The forecast foresaid a four day weather window before a low pressure and I needed to get my rest pulse down to at least be able to perform on 80% of my potential. On my rest day in camp my rest pulse where around 85-90, and even though we where on high altitude that meant I was really over trained.
So I could have waited for my body to be at its strongest and missed the window, or I could rest as hard as I could for one day and then go for it on the next. I chose the later. So after sleeping in on the second day in camp Magnus and myself took of in the afternoon towards the West Rib to approach the route via the Seattle Ramp.
After less than an hour we reached the rib, but we where greeted with really strong winds from the east and dark clouds coming in. What was supposed to be a high pressure seemed to be something else. I was tired and the weather was anything but perfect so we sat down up there to gather ourselves and see if it was going to improve.
An hour later nothing had changed. But then we thought that at least we can start down the big glaciated ramp and then walk back up if it didn’t feel good further down. I went first with the map in my hand focusing on my altimeter on my wrist and the next few meters ahead to not walk in to one of the monster crevasses. The visibility was almost zero and at times it was even hard to see each other in the fog. The navigation however was pretty straight forward so we slowly descended the big glacier, but what would have taken 2 h in good weather took 6h in the clouds. We also stopped two times to talk the fairly bold decision trough, to keep on going or not, when we got under the big seracs. Once we where under them it would have been a very bad idea to turn back and expose ourselves for hours under these objective dangers.
My altimeter told me the pressure was not changing, the forecast was really good and warm, and we both had a good feeling for the situation we where in. Its funny how the mind games play such an important role in the mountains. Just because we had a bit of a whiteout we where thinking about retreating. Didn’t we learn simple navigation in first grade? We kept at it, now with stronger determination as ever, we where going to climb this route.
After plenty of down climbing and crevasse hopping we found ourselves in the basin where the route started. Our next objective was to find the initial Japanese couloir as we where under the clouds and everything above us where just white. As we where melting snow at the bergschrund we tried to count formations from the guidebook, to read contour lines on the map and to meditate on the problem (just kidding), but in the end we just had to make a guess.
Of we went up in to the unknown. I had the first lead and as we where planning to climb everything on running belays I wanted to climb the 300-meter icy couloir in one go. Entering the couloir I found pitons and old fixed lines and finally we where sure we where on the right track. As planned I climbed the couloir in one go, just placing a Ropeman after the crux pitch. The calves where burning on the black ice, but in an hour or so we where past the couloir and up on the ridge. Arriving at the first rock crux we where above the clouds and Magnus took over the lead. The views where magical and it felt great moving steadily up the mountain.
Magnus took us up past the razorblade arête and then I kept on going past the first rock band after we had brewed up for a second time. The climbing was really fun with no really hard sections so we where able to keep on moving the whole time. Just before the top of the rock band we got passed by our British friends Jonathan Griffith and Will Sims, who had started e few hours after us from camp and had followed our tracks. They would later break the speed record (top to bottom) in 14,something hours.
We kept on moving at a steady pace, but at the top of the rock band we found a perfect bivy spot and Magnus told me this is it for the day. I felt strong the first day, but as we would see the roles, as always in the mountains, would change.
The night was clear and relatively warm and we slept well without freezing too much. Eating, sleeping, brewing up and eating again took us 9 hours and then we where of again.
Magnus took us past most of the second rock band before I finished with the last cruxes and then we only had the slough left. The great big slough of the Cassin Ridge – 1000+ meters of snow climbing to the summit of the highest mountain in North America.
Most people that have climbed the route remember the last slough with a tormented smile. One has already climbed 1500+ meters of fairly technical climbing on altitude and then gets a bit of a smash in the face. I started of feeling strong, but about half way up Magnus had to take over and lead us up to the summit. We where both exhausted and on the last few hundred meters we walked a few steps before we lied down on our axes resting for half a minute, repeating this procedure for what seemed like ages. But as we kept at it we finally ended up on the shoulder just a couple of hundred meters from the summit.
Magnus had arrived ten minutes before me and as I got up and lied down on my backpack I gasped out; “lets finish this”! Most parties seems to descend from the shoulder ignoring the summit, but in strict climbing ethic we knew we had to get up there to be true to ourselves. If we had suffered for the last few hours, we might as well suffer a bit longer.  And as always suffering in the mountains are relative. We thought we where slower than ever in the end, but we where still almost running past the line of down balls struggling up from the normal route.
Arriving at the summit for the second time in a week we hugged took a photo and then started the decent. Luckily enough the descent from Denali is dead easy and 2,5 hours later we where back in camp finishing a 33 h round trip with a 9 h bivy included. I will always remember the descent though, as I had developed trench foot in my warm mountaineering boots, every step down the mountain felt like I was walking on needles. Magnus wanted to stop and brew up, but I just wanted to end my suffering so I kept at it letting him catch up further down.
The next day I could not walk on my feet and we where both spending most of the day in the tent – happy to have got everything we came there to do.
The low pressure had come in and we planned to get down to base camp to maybe do some ski touring or climbing at lover altitude. But even though my feet where hurting and I was more tired than ever I knew I just had one more thing to do before I could leave – The Messner Couloir.
On the way up towards the Rib
Down climbing the Seattle ramp
Walking around in the fog
Looking back at the Seattle Ramp
Magnus brewing up
Looking down the Japanese couloir
Looking down from the top of the Japanese couloir
Magnus with Cassin ledge in the background
Magnus on the first rock crux
On the Razorblade Arete
Mt Foraker with a hat
First rock band
Jon and Will
On the summit of Denali
Walking down
In camp afterwards, Magnus are telling the stories!
The Chamonix crew: Jon, Will, Nils, Myself, Colin and Magnus!

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…