Atop North America’s highest perch, with the midnight sun still glowing overhead, Nick DeVore and Danny Brown took a quick self-portrait, then sat to enjoy the view.
The clock read 8 p.m. on May 21, but it felt more like 4 in the afternoon. The prolonged sunlight had provided the duo with the resolve to keep pushing toward the summit after friends Jesse Durrance and Adam Moszynski turned around at 17,200 feet. Once DeVore and Brown reached Denali’s 20,320-foot pinnacle, time came to a standstill.
“It was real dreamlike up there,” Brown said. “It felt like the middle of the day.”
“It was perfect,” DeVore said. “We hung out for about 20, 30 minutes.”
The pair could have sat a little longer, in retrospect. According to DeVore, the sun doesn’t slide behind the peak until after midnight. After putting on the skis they had lugged up the West Buttress Route for 10 hours, it took DeVore and Brown ” two of the Roaring Fork valley’s most talented freeskiers ” only two hours to reach their tents at 14,000 feet.
“To be on hard snow, with crampons and everything, yeah, it’s a little unnerving when you’re up that high and it’s so narrow,” said Durrance, 21, the grandson of Aspen skiing legend Dick Durrance. “But as soon as you click your skis on, I don’t know, I just feel so much more comfortable on my skis. I just crossed [the ridge] and didn’t really think anything about it.”
Above 17,000 feet, the skiing conditions were less than ideal. Hard, wind-whipped snow formed a layer of uneven waves on top of the blue ice of the glacier, making for a washboard descent.
Still, skiing down was a hell of lot better than walking down, DeVore said.
The final approach to the summit from the Kahiltna Horn at 20,120 feet had been a tightrope walk across the crest of an exposed ridge that, according to DeVore, shrank to a foot in diameter in places. On one side of the crest lay an 8,000-foot plunge down the South Face; on the right, the ridge dropped into a massive crevasse.
On exhausted legs, each step was an exercise in concentration.
“If you fall on either side, you’re definitely going to die. Walking it was pretty scary,” said Devore, 20. “It wasn’t too bad on skis. We just traversed on one side of the ridge, and then when it opened up a little more, we started making turns. I feel much more comfortable on my skis than I do on my feet.”
Ditto for the other three members of the group. Two days later, after spending a night at the highest camp on the mountain, at 17,200 feet, Durrance and Moszynski made a summit push of their own, then a memorable descent back to camp.
The best skiing the four encountered during the two weeks they spent on the mountain was below 14,000 feet, where they sliced down seemingly endless chutes of virgin snow.
Skiing directly from the summit was the reason all four had made the trip, however. And Durrance said that experience superseded any of his previous ski mountaineering feats ” including charging down a handful of Colorado’s famed fourteeners.
A spontaneous idea. A bunch of personal conversations. Even more phone calls: That’s all it took for the group of four friends, linked by their love of steep lines, to make a dream become reality.
That, and a winters’ worth of savings. All four had floated the idea of skiing Denali for a while, but the plan didn’t fully come together until late February.
That’s when they had to drop $200 apiece for a permit from the Parks Service to climb Denali ” which means “The Great One” in the region’s native Dena’ina language. The flights to Anchorage were cheap ($330) and the bus ride to the Talkeetna airstrip was reasonable ($75), Durrance said. As for the 50-mile flight in a bush plane to the base of the Kahiltna Glacier ($425), that felt like extortion, but the group didn’t really have a choice.
Shortly after arriving on the mountain on May 12, all four agreed the money was worth it. Since 1970, when two Japanese climbers first skied from the summit, Denali has attracted a number of challenge-seekers.
Still, DeVore and Durrance both noted that skiers were rare among the throngs at Denali this year. And after ascending to the encampment below the head of the glacier, the four basked in a freeskier’s paradise. They dropped 55-degree chutes and launched off cornices, nearly always under crisp blue skies. Brown, a local who recently graduated from the University of Colorado with a digital art degree, captured hours of footage and thousands of photographs for a short film he plans to piece together.
On May 21, the four set out with the necessary supplies to summit, but with the intention of only climbing high on the mountain to acclimate. Moszynski, from Connecticut, struggled to keep pace with the rest of the group. The 900-foot slog up the steep glacier headwall sapped his energy, and after arriving at the final camp before the summit, Moszynski wanted to head back down to rest.
Durrance would join him, while DeVore and Brown ” encouraged by the beautiful weather and their fitness ” opted to continue on.
Denali, formally known as McKinley after the U.S. president, is not a technical climb, but is famous for its bulk and rise from the surrounding plain below. Mount Everest is 9,000 feet higher from sea level, but its base sits at 17,000 feet, giving it a real vertical rise of little more than 12,000 feet. The base of Denali is a plateau at roughly 2,000 feet, giving it an actual rise of 18,000 feet.
DeVore said the final summit push, while not technically challenging, was a grind. But the decision to keep climbing had paid off. The weather had remained ideal, and with high winds predicted to arrive a few days later, the two had made the most of the window of opportunity.
Instead of having to spend a night in a tent at 17,000 feet, as Durrance and Moszynski did the next night, DeVore and Brown climbed from 14,000 feet in one day, then blasted back down.
“We were feeling it, and just kept pushing it, and it wasn’t getting too late,” Brown said. “We were feeling pretty confident in our ability to ski down and get down pretty quick if we needed to. Got down, and it only ended up taking us about 12 hours. We were super-lucky.”
Even better, below 17,000 feet, Durrance and Moszynski had packed out the chute back to camp ” which made for an even faster descent.
“It was just survival skiing at that point, because our legs were so dead,” DeVore said. “Above 17,000, the snow sucked, but below it was awesome.”
Durrance and Moszynski were also fortunate. On May 24, the morning after they reached the summit, winds of more than 80 mph engulfed the top of the mountain. If the duo hadn’t skied safely back to 14,000 feet the previous day, it’s likely they would have been socked in at the highest encampment.
The four still had enough food for another seven days, but with the weather deteriorating, they decided to head back to the base of the glacier and catch a flight out of the national park May 25.
All four spent part of their last night at the base of the mountain socializing with guides in a large tent beloinging to 36-year-old Vail climber Sue Nott.
Nott had already left for a summit attempt on neighboring Mount Foraker with her climbing partner, Karen McNeill of Canmore, Alberta. By the time the four arrived back in Colorado, a search was under way for the missing Nott and McNeill.
On Wednesday, the Vail Daily reported that clouds surrounding Alaska’s Mount Foraker had stymied attempts to search the south summit of the mountain by helicopter. Rescuers have not called off the search yet.
Durrance, who wasn’t aware Nott was missing until Tuesday, noted that he felt fortunate he and his friends had arrived home safely.
He then added that Nott ” a true mountaineer ” understood the risks of climbing at such high elevations. He said it’s the same risk he and his friends were willing to take to complete an odyssey that initially began as a crazy idea.
“We took our opportunity when we had it to summit,” he said. “When you’re climbing, the weather is always an accepted risk. You plan for the worst and you know that the weather can really be dangerous when you’re up that high.”
Nate Peterson’s e-mail address is email@example.com.
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Vail and Beaver Creek resorts Senior Communications Manager John Plack said the company agrees with the state’s assessment that the ski industry must be out-front in its approach to ensure a safe and successful season in Colorado.