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Trip Report: Denali Base Camp
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Trip Report: Denali Base Camp

Trip Report: Denali Base Camp

Time had been running out and after spending almost 3 months up in Alaska I was super satisfied with all we’d accomplished. Weather is never forgiving and if you allow yourself a bit of time, its possible to walk away with memories to last a lifetime. While I’m thinking of heading home, it’s also about this time of year that I have a handful of friends who head out to Denali Base Camp and pursue big alpine climbs. While I’ve done a fair amount of climbing, it’s not something I generally pursue. However, I’d heard stories of great snowboard terrain out near Denali. While 99% of the terrain is unrideable, a small percent lends itself to the type of steep terrain I’m after. And I just had to go and see for myself.

Denali Base Camp
On weather hold in Talkeetna, but with spirits still high.

Unfortunately, my budget had all but run out from sponsors so I posted a couple ads on Craigslist in hopes to sell some gear. Luckily I had some takers and next thing I knew I was off to Costco to stock up and then to Talkeetna to head out to base camp and I couldn’t wait. Plans were loose and I just assumed to make do with whatever came my way, as Denali Base Camp was just a bonus trip to my season. We loaded up with Sheldon Air Service and soon were landing on the Kahiltna Glacier. It was like summer camp almost as I looked around and saw a dozen or more friends camped out amongst the few dozen other tents already on the glacier. The majority of people who go to base camp are off to attempt Denali or do some test piece ice or snow climb, but I was here strictly to snowboard and could care less about standing on the tallest mountain or suffering through a strenuous climb. While being on a high peak is fun, often I enjoy the technical faces of the sub peaks that hold steep spines and the more aesthetic terrain instead. The novelty of Denali seems to be more of a long slog through thin air amongst guided groups to stand on a high point. While just nearby there is spine terrain that can test the world’s best snowboarders or skiers if they so desired.

Denali Base Camp
CMCs or “poo buckets” are mandatory in Denali Park. Also, I’m clearly still 100% a punk snowboarder.

Across from base camp was Annie’s Ridge just a few minutes walk away. A new friend, Andrew Muse joined along and we set off for a steep walk. The spine we chose got so steep at the top so I had to excavate a platform for us to stand on so that we could change over and drop in. Unfortunately, the glory light was in and out and after a while we could only wait out so long for good light, and it just wasn’t going to get any better so we dropped in. An incredibly fun Hollywood line for all at base camp to see. I considered Annie’s Ridge to be a perfect training ground for riding those types of steep exposed lines. Apparently, I’m not the only one either.

Denali Base Camp
Looking down Annie’s, later dubbed “The Joda Spines.”

A couple of climber friends out there were new to ski and splitboard touring, but saw that it offered a much faster way to get from A to B than snowshoeing. Of these climbers, Joda was looking to test his skills on the spines coming down Annie’s Ridge. As a snow climb it’s not very difficult, however if you’re unaccustomed to riding steep lines it could be a whole new ball game on the way down. The whole hillside of base camp was watching as Joda got on his belly and crawled into the line after accessing it from above. This alarmed me as most I feel would ski or snowboard directly into it from where he transitioned. Anyways, his second turn down was directly fall line of his first turn and immediately the slough that had began moving with his first turn hit him when he turned back into it. After the slough hit Joda he then proceeded to tomahawk 700 vertical feet down the spine face, flipping over the bergschrund and onto the glacier below. The hillside went silent. Joda was instantly moving though and cheers roared from the peanut gallery stoked he was alive and well. Although not entirely. A broken arm was a result of the violent fall. With Wilderness EMT’s on the scene he was cleared and soon we had a plane on the glacier able to take him back to a hospital thanks to some quick actions and good weather.

Denali Base Camp
Risk vs. Reward in Alaska. This place will truly test you. Watching size 4 avalanches rip down Mt. Hunter just beyond base camp will keep you humble.

We therefore decided to rename the Annie’s Ridge spines to the “Joda Spines.” A little bit of weather was in and out so no big objectives went down. However, Zach Clanton and I were able to take the pow surfs (bindingless snowboards) up glacier for some first decent pow surfing! It's super fun to initiate big speedy turns without anything holding your feet down and really allows unique snowboard pow shapes - a fun twist on the ordinary. We bring these pow surfs out on most camps with us and they provide some excellent down time activities. Some of our Jackson Hole friends even built a bank slalom course with jumps over tents and such down the base camp hill. I tried it on the pow surf but was unsuccessful in completing the course despite an all-day effort. It was important for us to stay loose and have fun which I think is often overlooked a lot out at base camp. We did have some complaints from guided groups to the park service that we were howling at the moon, and we were. But a couple buddies had their birthdays out on the glacier and I’d made damn sure to bring ample whiskey for us to celebrate! Besides, it’s a giant glacier and if you don’t want to camp right next to others just walk down glacier! We’re all here for fun.

Denali Base Camp
Zach and I out for some first decent pow surf laps down a mellow glacier.

Denali Base Camp
La Madre and some little spines I’d hoped to ride next to it.

A little more riding took place but soon we all began to pack up a. It’s been a long season traveling and following snow. This type of snowboarding can really break you down, especially if you’re trying to document it all. I always walk away wanting more, however this season I feel we really did a lot and dealt with the cards given, lending us some cool material to come our way. You can’t make weather cooperate, and being at the right place and time allows us to luck out some on productivity. After a full season in Alaska I generally walk away with only a handful of truly memorable lines. Transworld Snowboarding was excited to hear of our plans and my next moves are working with them to formulate some “how-to” words for others looking to follow similar steps into foot accessed big mountain riding. I’m always so relieved to head home safe after such an enduring season. This season really tested our patience but helped build a great deal of knowledge useful for the future. We’ve got big plans for next year, and I can’t wait to share them!

Denali Base Camp
Old friend and infamous mountain man, Travis McAlpine and I looking out over the range on our way back to town.

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