Words by Max Lowe
Photos by Kalen Caughey
Slogging step after heavy step through the thinning air atop Archdeacon’s Ridge, the fight to hold onto the fleeting strength that kept our feet moving and fingers from freezing was ebbing away. After 4 pushes for the summit of Denali, only to be shut down by unforeseen weather patterns above 17,000 feet, this was our day. Moving fast and strong we were set on the summit. Coming over the ridgeline with the plateau of the “Football Field” ahead and our path to the summit within sight we celebrated a premature victory over the grand massif. Minutes away from the summit ridge and our certain road to the top, a deep guttural rumble shook the spectrum around us. As the afternoon eased on, large cumulous clouds had gathered like ominous cotton balls blotting out all signs of the land below. They now boiled up and engulfed our team, snuffing our desired route to the summit. Electricity permeated the air within the white fog as we stumbled downward to gather as a team on the Football Field. Freckles of lightning danced along our ice axes and brims of our helmets. Conrad Anker, the leader and most experienced member of our team made it clear that we had to get down, out of the snowstorm and under the electrical storm. We were beaten within an inch, temps were dropping and we still had another 6 hours of tactful and delicate movement down the mountain.
Three weeks had passed since we set out with a team of some of the best climbers, skiers and snowboarders in the world, with sights on climbing and skiing off the summit of the tallest peak in North America. This endeavor was to take us the better part of a month and would be one of the largest backcountry expedition style missions that many of us had embarked upon. Ralph Backstrom, world-class big mountain snowboarder and winner of last years Snowboard Free-ride World Tour, was one of the newcomers to the high altitude realm of mountaineering. “Immersion in Alaskan mountains has been one of my favorite forays in my world of riding over recent years, and in fact I spent almost a month this spring in the mountains of AK riding big lines. When I received an invite to come on a trip to Denali from Conrad, I knew it would be an experience unlike any I had yet to embark upon” – Ralph
Marching slowly up and across the mass of the upper Kahiltna Glacier made for some of the most challenging days on the mountain. The sheer will power and endurance needed to survive in the environment that Denali National Park provided was truly something that the newcomers on our team had never experienced. The guidance that we received from the senior members of our team including Conrad, Jeremy Jones and Jon Krakauer kept spirits high and attitudes eager. This stellar cache of leadership was also what made decision making in our group sharp and direct when we were faced by the lightning storm on our summit push.
As the blizzard raged around us we abandoned hopes of our push to the top. Directives from Conrad made it clear that our only goal was to safely arrive at our established camp 6,000 feet below. Propelled by necessity, we pulled from our final reserves, sharing what little water we had left and a tin of Voke tabs to propel our aching legs and tired minds on the long descent to the comfort of our high altitude home.