Gearhead Adventures: Skiing Denali
Mikell Bova’s Tale From the Top of North America
Gearheads get outside—a lot. From ripping local mountain bike trails to skiing in Norway, they’re the friends whose adventures make you wish you could tag along. Gearhead Adventures are their stories of curiosity, exploration, and the experiences that come with launching into the unknown. These are the stories that make our Gearheads outdoor experts.
When Backcountry Gearhead Mikell Bova first heard about the West Buttress route on Denali, he set his sights on climbing to the top of North America. But just climbing wasn’t enough. Mikell and his friends headed to the Alaska Range to ascend (and descend) the tallest peak in North America—on skis.
Denali is the tallest mountain in North America, standing 20,310 feet above sea level. It’s the third most prominent and third most isolated peak on Earth. Bradford Washburn, who pioneered many routes in the Alaska Range using aerial photography, established the easiest and safest route on the mountain in 1951—the West Buttress—now the most popular.
After learning about Bradford Washburn and the West Buttress route, I set my sights on climbing and skiing Denali. In June of 2018, I headed to Alaska with three friends to attempt to summit this iconic peak.
As we flew over the Alaska Range, I was overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the mountains. They are steep, with blue ice clinging to their walls, and the vertical relief is immense. We all had our faces pressed against the plane windows, occasionally turning to each other to shout that we could see the “great one.”
The hustle began as soon as the plane doors opened to Base Camp at Kahiltna Glacier. Base Camp sits on the Southeast fork of the glacier, on top of Heartbreak Hill, so the climb starts with a 500-foot descent as you ski onto the Kahiltna Glacier proper. We loaded our toboggan sleds with all our gear, roped up for crevasse safety, and began to make our way towards the bottom of the ski hill to spend our first night.
Over the next four days, we slowly worked our way up to the Basin Camp at 14,200 feet. It’s in a giant amphitheater, with many different views of Denali. Since we planned to ski from the top of North America, which would allow us to descend much faster than other climbers, we were able to skip the high camp at 17,200 feet and camp at Basin Camp for the rest of our trip.
We spent one day resting at Basin Camp and then had one acclimatization climb to get our bodies used to the altitude before we attempted the summit. The great weather we had getting up the Kahiltna Glacier was forecasted to deteriorate in the coming days, so we didn’t want to waste time at camp. We decided to go for the summit, and if anyone began to show signs of altitude sickness, we would turn around.
The Summit Attempt
We left camp at 8 am and skinned up to the fixed lines on the West Buttress, where we put crampons on our ski boots and roped ourselves together to prepare for the steepest part of the climb. One by one, we clipped ourselves to the fixed lines and started the 1,000-foot climb up to the ridgeline at 16,000 feet.
From the top of the fixed lines to the high camp, there’s a beautiful knife-edge ridge where you are afforded 360-degree views with Basin Camp below you to the right and the Peters Glacier stretching out to your left. We could also see more of our route up the South Peak of the mountain and got a glimpse of the North Peak for the first time.
We refueled at the high camp (17,200 feet) and quickly made our way across the “Autobahn,” a notorious part of the West Buttress route that climbs out of the high camp basin up to Denali Pass. This area is particularly dangerous because it traverses out of the basin over seracs and open crevasses, but we navigated it seamlessly.
Once on Denali Pass, we overtook climbers that started the day at high camp and passed other groups that were on their way down after summiting. We gained a little pep in our step as we congratulated those that had summited and encouraged those still climbing.
The West Buttress route crosses a large plateau around 19,300 feet, aptly named the Football Field. At the end of the field is the Pig Hill—the final “hill” before the summit. This brings you to a horn where the famous Cassin Ridge route ends and all there is between you and the top of North America is a ridge walk.
The summit itself had room for about ten people to stand on, so our group hurriedly stripped skins to get ready to ski while we waited for our turn to take photos. We were elated to be up there but ready to begin our descent to safer elevations. The upper mountain had been blessed with a few inches of fresh snow over a firm and stable base, making for marvelous skiing.
Skiing Off the Top of North America
We retraced our route back to the 17,000-foot camp before we dropped into Rescue Gully, a 3,000-foot couloir that offered a direct line back to Basin Camp.
Back at Basin Camp, we had to force ourselves to drink water and eat a meal because we were so exhausted. Our climb had taken 13 hours round trip—a ten-hour ascent followed by three hours of skiing.
The next day, we woke to clear skies but increasing winds. We had other skiing and climbing objectives so we planned to wait out the approaching storm. After mostly sitting around camp with some occasional powder skiing during brief lulls in the storm, we decided to leave the mountain seven days early during a good weather window.
As the plane lifted up from the Kahiltna Glacier, the prominence of the mountains staring back at us, we admired what Mother Nature had created—humbled, exhausted, and hungry for more.
Mikell enjoys traveling through the mountains by any means possible, whether on skis, a bike, or his own two feet. When he is not outside, he’s helping Backcountry’s customers gear up for their own outdoor pursuits.