Last week I met with my buddy Ken Leiden. I hadn’t seen him in years, but he took part in the very first race I ever ran in the Flatirons. We raced from Chautauqua Park to the top of the Third Flatiron and back. We’d heard that Gerry Roach had done it under and hour and wanted to see if that was bullshit or not. That was the seed which would eventually grow into Satan’s Minions Scrambling Club and the 12-year-running Tour de Flatirons.
Ken and I and others also got in the mountains doing some winter 14er ascents. Like Derek and I now, he used them to train for Denali. He and his partner Eric summited and he called it “the adventure of a lifetime.” He heard about my plans and generously offered all his advice and gear. I’m constantly amazed at the generosity of my friends. I’m a very lucky guy. Ken brought me $1000 of clothing that he “never uses anymore.” Yes, this is speciality gear. Denali, with its 40-below temperatures and 100 mph winds is a unique environment. Still, to lend out gear with that value is something. And not just lend it, but offer it, and demand that I take it.
Ken gave me lots of great advice about the mountain and surviving on it and he really emphasized how happy he was to have used skis on the mountain. He said the skiing was relatively easy - not tight trees where you can’t control your speed, anyway. Treeline in the Denali area is around 2000 feet. We’ll land on the glacier about 5000 feet above treeline. That’s funny. We’ll start our climb 5000 feet above treeline, while in Colorado you can only get 3000 feet above treeline on the our tallest summits. Even starting that high, we’ll have to gain over 13,000 feet - the equivalent of climbing three Colorado 14ers stacked on top of each other (from the trailhead, obviously). Denali is huge. Beyond huge. There are taller mountains, but few on earth rival the sheer size of this Arctic behemoth.
Back to skis and skiing. Derek still needs to gain skills and experience on skis in order to be comfortable and efficient and safe on Denali. Others might give up and just go with snowshoes, but Derek isn’t much of a quitter and we’re staying with the ski plan until it isn’t impossible. Derek needed a better learning environment than the icy, narrow, backcountry trails we’d been doing. He needed to learn how to control a ski in a soft mountaineering boot vs. a downhill ski boot or an AT boot or even a big, plastic telemark boot. Skiing in mountaineering boots is more like nordic skiing than any of the above. It requires much better balance when you don’t have a rigid plastic boot to bail you out. Of course, crappy backcountry snow and a heavy pack also make things much more difficult, as nearly any loss of balance will take you down. So, to build skills and confidence, we headed up to Breckenridge.
On the wide, groomed slopes of a ski area, Derek would be able to safely practice a kick turn and a snowplow, plus the balance of carrying some speed and the confidence to ride things out when turning or slowing down isn’t possible. My extended family share a condo right on the slopes at Breckenridge, so we drove up Saturday night. Ever fearful of the Sunday afternoon ski traffic, our plan was to get in a few laps of skinning up the slopes and skiing back down and be on the road back home by noon. The main goal here was downhill skills.
We started up the next morning around 7:20 a.m. It was an absolutely gorgeous day - clear and with hardly any wind. It was going to get quite warm, but still only 18 degrees as we started climbing. We wore our light gloves, with the down mitts in the pack, and almost pulled them out but after 15 or 20 minutes my hands were comfortable. We skied up to the upper restaurant on Peak 8. This is two miles and about 1600 feet of climbing. Once there, I pulled off my skis and put them in the rack. It was then that I realized we didn’t have any ski straps. I said as much to Derek and he responded, “What are ski straps?” Ah, youth. He doesn’t know about the Andy Griffith show either. I said, “They are what people used to use before ski brakes.” He said, “What are ski brakes?” Clearly Derek hasn’t done much skiing. Anyway, straps or brakes are required at Colorado ski areas. I wondered if the ski patrol would fine us or make us walk down or something worse. We decided to head down at once. The area was open now and skiers were starting to fill the slopes.
At first Derek started down with his skins on, because it was steeper. It wasn’t long before I convinced him to pull off the skins. Keeping skins on for the descent is a reasonable strategy when you are on terrain where you can’t turn or snowplow, like a narrow trail, but when you have a wide open slope, it is better to pull them off and traverse and kick-turn, as necessary.
I showed Derek a kick-turn - the absolute staple of the backcountry skier and he got to practice it about ten times. He had it down pretty well. Once the terrain got a bit less steep and with his rapidly increasing confidence, Derek started making real turns. We weren’t flying down the slopes, but we were descending many times faster than a snowshoer would. Further down, we practiced some sustained snowplowing and Derek was looking pretty comfortable, and getting a good quad workout.
We took a half hour break back at the condo before starting up again. It was just enough time to get a drink and a bite and for Derek to check his heels. Two days earlier he made another trip to the boot fitter at Neptune Mountaineering. He got a new fitter this time - Elaine - and she seemed to be much better than his last fitter. In fact she basically said that everything the other guy was doing was wrong. When he left there, his boots felt better than they ever had. His boots treated his heels much better on this outing, though there seems to be still some minor tweaks left to go.
On our second trip out we didn’t climb as high, for fear of the ski patrollers catching us without straps. I have straps and will bring them next time. We went up as high as we seemed prudent and then pulled off the skins and skied down to the base of the mountain. We went up to the same location one more time and skied back to the condo, getting there around 11:30, putting us right on schedule to get out of there by noon.
We might return to the slopes of Breckenridge for more practice, but even if we don’t our next backcountry outing will be much more efficient, I’m sure. Just one more step in our preparations for Denali.
We also got out MSR XGK stove. This baby is the standard for high-altitude mountaineering. It runs on white gas and is a lot trickier to start than just turning a knob and pressing a button like on my anemic (at least in the cold and at altitude) JetBoil. Derek and I have been practicing with pumping up the fuel canister and getting the XGK started. So far it takes us 2-4 separate pumping sessions of more than 100 pumps each. The directions say 20-30 pumps. Either we really suck at this or those directions are very optimistic. Anyway, once that baby is going it's like a jet engine. Up at 11,000 feet in the cold, we had to boil two JetBoil mugs to get a liter of boiling water and it took us more than 20 minutes. On my back porch, in warmer weather, we boiled one liter of water in a big pot in under three minutes. It isn't a fair comparison just yet, but I have high hopes for this stove.