For the last 50 years, Mount Hunter has been flown over, climbed on, photographed and admired, but never skied. Part of it this is because it’s a near vertical massif of granite, ice and snow with no easy way up, let alone down. Perfectly suited for hard Alpine climbing, it has been called “the most difficult 14,000’ peak in North America.” When we told people that we were going to try skiing it, a common reply was “Is that even possible?”
At 14,570’ (4777m) it is the third highest peak in Alaska’s Denali National Park, right behind Denali (6197m) and Mt. Foraker (5186m). Referred to as “The Child” of Denali and Foraker by Native Americans Indians, Mt. Hunter is by far the most technical peak of the trio and only gets climbed a few times per year. Aside from being steep, it has the added difficulties of extreme Alaskan cold, northern latitudes, endless crevasses and omnipresent avalanches. It is also the only peak of the three that had never been skied; Denali was first skied in 1970 by Tsuyoshi Ueki from Japan and Foraker received its first descent in 1981 by Pierre Beghin of France.
While people talked about skiing Hunter, it was Lorne Glick from Ophir, Colorado who actually tried it. After much research, he thought there might be a way around the technical difficulties on the lower West Ridge and attempted it in May of 2002 with three partners. Defeated by bad weather, he returned a year later with John Whedon, Armond DuBuque and myself for another attempt. With all three of them being expert telemarkers, I was the only person using Alpine Touring equipment.
The adventure began with a flight to Anchorage, then a four hour van ride to Talkeetna where we waited for clear weather to fly a bush plane into the Alaska Range. Landing just below the standard Kahiltna basecamp, we unloaded hundreds of pounds of food and equipment, then shuttled it up to our Base Camp at 6,500’. Anticipating long spells of bad weather, we brought all the amenities – CD players, speakers, bacon, eggs, four tents, books and plenty of whiskey.
Our first chore was establishing a route through an ice-fall to place a gear stash at 8,000’. After this, we waited out five days of bad weather, then performed a Beefy Jerky puja ceremony to the Mountain Gods before starting up the route at 9:00pm under a rising full moon. With skis, we would never be more than a few hours from our tents, so we left all bivy gear behind and climbed with only light day packs. After booting up the initial crux couloir, we intersected the West Ridge at 11,000’ and began skinning our way up the wildly exposed ridgeline. Aside from Armond going headfirst into a crevasse, our biggest concern was the –30ºc cold, which was slowly melted away by a magnificent alpine sunrise.
Twelve hours and twenty-eight minutes after starting, we were standing on the summit. There was a lingering moment of intense happiness which was only interrupted by knowing that the most dangerous part was about to begin. Putting on skis, we began scratching turns over our faint up-tracks along the summit plateau. This fell away to sweeping fields of powder, turns through ice towers, exposed traverses and face-shots down an ever narrowing ridgeline. When at last the ridge tapered to a knife-edge, we were forced into the final 50º couloir. Looking straight down 3,000’ to the top of our tent, a tiny yellow speck far below, caused a wave of panic and nausea. As thinking rarely helps in times like these, I turned my brain off and slid onto the slope, relying on the ingrained habits of a lifetime of turns to get me through. The next hour was spent in a tense silence as we side-slipped through heavy powder on top of old, hard ice. Being careful not to avalanche one another, we took turns descending while always being alert for the sound of an avalanche from above or the shouts of our friends from below.
At last, the final bergshrund was jumped and we let our skis run through the chunky debris down onto the glacial flats. Whooping with joy at surviving the descent, we turned to admire our tracks just as an avalanche wiped them out. It was as if the mountain was telling us that although it had let us ski it that day, it was the one who was always in control, not us. Soon afterwards, our tracks were erased by wind and snow, leaving us with only long lasting memories of friends, mountains, adventures and the longing to return again some day. If only all trips could be this good!