The North Face Athletes: Conrad Anker, Jimmy Chin, Sage Cattabriga-Allosa, Ingrid Backstrom, Jim Zellers, Hilaree O'Neill, Lucas DeBari, Emilio Previtali, Giulia Monego
Expedition Dates: June 2nd-22nd 2011
Location: Denali, Alaska Range, AK
Goal: The goal of this expedition was to provide a platform for athletes with a more ski specific background to learn about mountaineering and high altitude climbing. In other words, Outdoor athletes to mentor Action Sports athletes on the ascent; Action Sports athletes to mentor Outdoor athletes on the descent.
Expedition: The trip was a huge success in this regard, but also in many ways that couldn't have been predicted at the start of the expedition. The facts of the trip were that 8 of the 9 athletes attained the summit. Giulia Monego was the only one who had to turn around due to potential frostbite on her feet. The rest of the group that summited were able to ski fabulous conditions back down to camp at 17,000ft. All in all, the team skied a fair amount for such a big objective and the mentoring was a success. What wasn't expected was how much fun the group would have as a whole and how well they worked as a team to give everyone the best chance to succeed. Another added plus was how much Sage and Lucas added to the dynamic by reverse mentoring the seasoned mountaineers!
The North Face® Product Featured:
'We already knew that we wouldn't all reach the summit together.
I mean: I knew it. Perfectly well. Our levels were too mixed, too different to think of reaching the top together. This was clear from the beginning, for me it was, I don't know what the others thought. Probably not. Probably not for everyone. Anyway.
That morning- on the 16th June - I was the last one to head up, it was midday. It was cold - minus 27° C - and on the ridges up high there were snow flurries. The sky was blue, not even a cloud. What was worrying was the stability of the slopes that lead to Denali Pass, diagonally crossing a couple of sections exposed to avalanches. Then the cold. The weather caused no problems, it was beautiful. Finally. There were a few winds slabs, due to the previous day's snowfall, but no big deal. At least, to me, everything seemed ok.
Nobody had moved that morning. Nobody had wanted to break trail, obviously. Conrad Anker was the first one to set off - he likes to take everybody by surprise - wearing his alpinism boots, his light back pack and no skis. He arrived three quarters of the way up towards Denali Pass, breaking trail, he then called via radio. He said everything was ok. That everything was stable. You could tell from down here that it was stable. Therefore everyone set off, and last in line me, too. I tried to go slowly, as slow as possible but nevertheless little by little I caught up with everyone and found myself on Condrad's tracks. I had cold feet, so I stopped and loosened my boots a bit, changed my gloves, and had a drink. The usual things. The others caught up with me, but they were taking it easy. So I changed to my own pace. Steady. I turned behind Denali Pass and the snow was hard and icy. It was easy to walk on the tips of your crampons. There was a bit of wind. After a while I put on my down jacket. I ate some more - I always eat too little - and then I set off again.
The snow, once more, was deep but I could no longer see Conrad's tracks, due to the wind. Considering he had set off an hour before me, it seemed normal. I climbed up following the logical route and a few flags which marked the itinerary. It was amazing, I had the feeling of being on my own on that mountain. In fact I was. I turned round a few times, and I saw that behind me they were going slowly and that they were all together. But they were far, very far away. I could not see Conrad in front of me.
So I kept going. The ascent is long, there are a series of mounds, one after another, I imagine when it's foggy here it can be very easy to get lost. I then reached Football Field, a flat area situated before the final section. I looked over to the right to see the entrance into Orient Express. So if I decide one of these days to ski down it, at least I know where it comes out. After Football Field there is a steep section which is called Pigs Hill. I saw Conrad there for the first time, he wasn't that far away. Not at all. He looked down towards me from above a serac. But he didn't say anything, he made no signal to me. Therefore I started moving on without stopping. It was tiring anyway, I was walking with telemark boots on and my skis on my pack. Quite a heavy load. The final ridge which leads to the summit starts on top of Pig's Hill. I don't know why, but I had imagined it differently. Wider, less exposed and especially dangerous to my left. Instead it was the opposite. The last metres before the summit are amazing. First of all the Cassin route comes out onto the ridge, a perfect pillar which carves through the south face. I looked down. Then, a hundred metres before the summit, there is a beautiful couloir which heads towards the south face. This is where Andreas Fransson skied down a couple of weeks ago. This is the most remarkable feat achieved this year in the entire Alaska Range. The first descent on skis of Denali's south face, onsight. Looking down really makes you want to ski it, apart from when you notice that at the bottom of the face there is a jumble of rocks and crevasses, all of a sudden you lose that poetic wish to end up in a place like that. He is crazy, Andreas. Down there, on his own. He told me about it as if it were no big deal. It was the day I had just arrived at Talkeetna and he was leaving. He did something awesome, bravo!chapeau.
I got to the top of Denali and Conrad had just arrived. I think five minutes before me, probably not even that much. He was taking his own photo. It was only the two of us, on the top. In silence. We hugged and talked for a bit. We told each other how lucky we were to be there on our own. That day no one else had set off to climb the summit. We took a few pictures, ate, walked up and down along the ridge. Ate again, took some more photos. We jumped up and down to warm up. The first people to reach the top after us got there after an hour and fifty minutes. Then came the others. The last ones arrived three hours later. All in all I was on the summit for three hours and fifteen minutes. And if you think that it took me four hours to get to the top and that it was freezing cold, all in all it was a long time. We shook hands, we shot some more video and took a few photos. Lucas de Bari arrived, he is a snowboarder and is only 22. He is a freestyler. But he made it up there. Well done to him too. Then, finally, we started to descend. We went down directly below the summit, along a steep slope, and-spectacularly- in forty centimetres of powder. When I set off for my first turn I was a bit worried to find a sastrugi under the soft snow. A block of ice or a hidden slab. You cannot afford to fall or hurt yourself out there. Then I noticed how great the snow was, how light it was, I then just let my skis go full speed. Just as if I were back home, in Foppolo or in Japan or in one of those places I had been to this winter. In Canada or in Valdez. No big deal. I don't know how many turns I made skiing down Denali, maybe one hundred or so. They were all simply amazing. Special. Special because in each one of those turns there were all the turns of this world, all the turns I have ever skied in these past years. It was a distillation of telemark, my personal telemark style, simply what came out of me while skiing there on the summit. There was nothing to think about, I just had to go downhill. I was not making the turns, the turns were making me. It was not me descending, it was the slope coming towards me. I don't know if I can explain this sensation. Lightness. Purity. Everything and nothing, together. Being skied rather than skiing. This is all I am saying.
At the beginning of June, before setting off from home, I was free to choose to go to Denali with my telemark skis or with my snowboard. I chose to go with my telemark skis with two things in mind. The first is a poem by Pablo Neruda - well it is really written by Martha Medeiros.
He who becomes the slave of habit, who follows the same route every day, who never changes pace, who does not risk and change the color of his clothes, who does not speak and does not experience, is slowly dying....
He who does not turn things upside down, who does not risk certainty for uncertainty, to thus follow a dream, and does not forego sound advice at least once in his life, is slowly dying.
The second thing is something I have thought about many times these months. During my training sessions, while on a run, while cycling or climbing I kept asking myself: what is style? I thought about it for a long time. And I reached the conclusion that style, for me, is the ability to do the same thing in many different ways. And I like this idea. To change. To adapt. To go for it. Probably it is for this reason that I like to climb a mountain more than once. One single time is not enough for me, usually.
The descent from Denali was fantastic. We all skied down, one at a time, one bit at a time. The pleasure was not only to ski down, but also to observe the others. Observe. Understand. Understand Sage, understand Ingrid, understand Lucas, Jim, Jimmy, Hilary. Understand their turns, their lines. Understand what came out of them, understand what their personal distillation was. Their style. Their sense of a turn. We filmed and took photos, then around half past eight we were back at camp at 17,000 feet. Happy. Relaxed. We all hugged each other. We smiled. We hung out outside our tents talking and looking at our tracks. It was a good feeling of lightness, of happiness, of nothing. Exactly, that feeling of nothing. We then went to sleep.
The day after, we got ready, had breakfast - not much, there was hardly anything left to eat - and then we skied down Rescue Gully. This is a steep and exposed couloir, which we hadn't climbed up during our ascent. It was difficult to understand its conditions. Sage was the first. From the bottom he said something by radio. I was behind, all I heard was exposed, icy and gnarly. Which coming from Sage must be something serious. The others must have thought the same thing, because no one was going down. I therefore stepped forward and looked down at the entrance to the couloir. It didn't look too bad. Not at all. In the meantime Giulia went down - she was annoyed since she hadn't reached the summit yesterday, it was Lucas' turn then mine. They asked me if I wanted a rope. You've got telemark skis, how are you going to get down? I said: I'll get down. I do not need a rope. And I got down. At the beginning the snow was hard. You just could not fall. Then below it was beautiful. Steep, but beautiful. I started to make telemark turns because the snow was not so hard, then it became powder and it was amazing. Super. I got to the bottom of the couloir, which then becomes a wall, I crossed the terminal glacier and I reached the others. Sage then asked me how I had managed to ski down on telemark skis. I'm impressed, he said. Impressed. He said to me. He to me. I started laughing. I was a bit embarrassed, I didn't know what to say, therefore I brought out the camera and to play down the situation I took some photos. Me and him, Giulia and Lucas had already set off. Impatient. The others were rappelling down, we waited for them there, chatting for a long time. He is a good guy Sage.
When everyone else reached us we all skied down the last icy section together. We got to home-camp at 14,000 feet. We shook hands once more and then we drank some whisky from a water-bottle, pouring it delicately into the plastic top. We each drank a top-full. I then went into my tent, took off my warm clothes - it was hot - and lay down on my sleeping bag. I took my boots and socks off and just lay there with my bare feet, enjoying it all. Then I fell asleep.
And that's it.'
Photographer: Adam Clark - Denali, Alaska, 2011