Video: Bike/Ski/Raft Denali Traverse
Below, the video, we’ve included a companion blog post.
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Early in the winter Brad Marden asked if I was interested in ‘doing something on the Muldrow’ in May. I knew ‘the Muldrow’ was a glacier in the Alaska Range, and I like glaciers, so I signed up. A month or so later I learned that that meant going up Denali from the North. I’ve never been very interested in Denali because the standard West Buttress route sounds like such a scene. After studying the maps and pricing flights, I proposed that we go road-to-road: bike in, ski over, raft out. It took no effort to rope in Josh Mumm and Eben Sargent.
I don’t know if a trip like this is possible outside of Alaska. We borrowed equipment, found legs and shoulders to help carry the load, and were buoyed up by our incredible friendships during the 25 day traverse. It was awesome.
We met Friday night at a Search and Rescue fundraiser in Healy. Nine friends were on board for the bike in. We discovered a handful of classic ‘small world’ Alaska connections. Anne Beaulaurier, our local connection and the key to getting our bikes out of the park, was childhood friends with Alex Nord, a good college friend of mine. Kevin Sullivan was friends with Eben’s roommate in college and was supposed to have stayed there on his drive to AK this winter. Katie Moerlein biked our skis in; Hannah Griego, Mike Mumm, Jeremy Wood and Alex Schutz all took a trailer as well. Alex impressed everyone by wearing jeans and a cotton jacket.
The real wildcards were Jeff Crompton and Melk the Swiss architect. I’m still not really sure how these guys got drawn into the fold. Jeff and I had some ski partners in common, but hadn’t skied together. Melk was hilarious. The thirteen of us spent that night on the floors of Anne and Shannon’s cabins at McKinley Village. I slept next to Melk, he gave me his ‘party’ ear plugs to bring on the trip in case it got windy. I said in a sweet familial voice, ‘Good niiiight Mellllk.’ And he responded in the same tone, ‘Good niiiight. Wait. What’s your name?’
Jeff, Melk, and Mike Mumm (Josh’s brother) spent an extra day helping with out approach, which was huge. Melk kept saying things like, ‘Is it okay if I start pushing my bike through the snow?’ and, ‘Is it okay if I start carrying this pack up there?’ Yes yes! Go for it Melk.
As we approached Wonder Lake we caught up with the snow plows. The upside was that the snow coverage was good enough that we were able to ski almost the entire approach to Muldrow Glacier. We left our bikes about five miles short of Wonder Lake and sent a message to Anne with the location.
Snow and weather conditions were ideal through the approach to McGonnegal Pass, Muldrow Glacier, the ice falls, and Karsten’s Ridge. We made it to Denali Pass, 18,200 ft., in 7 days from the bike drop-off. That evening the summit was engulfed in lenticular clouds, so we knew we were in for some wind. But we were above the only exposed part of the route (Karsten’s Ridge) and our good pace left us with 18 days of food and fuel.
We sat out the wind storm for 7 days at a camp at 16,600 ft. We took turns reinforcing our snow wall when there were lulls in the wind. Two of those days Josh didn’t even step out of the tent! It was interesting to reflect (there was a lot of time for reflection!) on how good we were at moving fast but how bad we were at waiting.
When the storm broke we cranked up to the summit. It was great to be up there by ourselves for a little while before Andreas Frannson and Magnus joined us. We watched Andreas start his ski descent of the South Face, a line that hadn’t been skied before. We all felt reasonably good at the summit. Short of breath and pretty weak, but without headaches. Eben and I skied back to camp and Brad and Josh soon joined us. We all had headaches back at camp.
The next days were a blast. We cruised through the 17k camp and found our friends Kevin Wright, Anthony Larson, Mike and Mic, and Michael Burmeister. It was so great to see our friends! We continued down and spent the night at the 14k camp. I was trying to find Billy Finley to see if he could take some of our gear out for us, but the Hilleberg tent I approached turned out to be Vern Tejas. He was psyched about our traverse.
At base camp the next day we unburied our packrafts that Thomas Bailly buried for us, and after hob-nobbing a little, we found Pat, an AMS guide, who was willing to take some of our altitude gear out to Talkeetna to be left with John Sykes. Awesome awesome friendships!
The ski to Pika Glacier from Basecamp was amazing. With a solid morning crust and tail wind we were able to cruise down glacier, skate skiing most of it. Eben suffered from AVS (Acute Valley Sickness) and managed to throw up his dinner the first night. Josh drank water from a little pond and then discovered a dead bird in it.
We met Sarah Heck and Erica Madison on the Pika Glacier. They brought in apples, strawberries, glorious heavy dinners (fajitas with moose backstrap, chili with reindeer, curry, yum!), and loud, giggly, one-sided conversations. We were a little late for good couloir skiing conditions, but we spent three days touring and skiing some scrappy/soggy lines.
The exit to Tokositna River was harder than I expected. We were able to ski to Granite Glacier via a couloir behind camp rather than backtrack to Exit Pass, but the snow was pretty gross. Travelling was good on Granite Glacier until we reached the moraine which was shifty because it was so young. We spent a night in the tundra across from Granite Creek and fried some fiddleheads that Josh collected. The next day we climbed to our final pass- it was awesome to look out and know that we had 80 miles of downhill waiting. After a day of snow-slogging and bush whacking we punched out to the bank of the Kanikula River just a few miles upstream of the Tokositna. Everyone took a very welcome rinse in the river and then we built a huge fire.
The raft out was uneventful, which was nice. We spent one night at the mouth of the Ruth River, and then floated to Talkeetna the next day. At Talkeetna we completed our 20,000 ft. elevation drop. I don’t know where else that is possible.
We spent a couple days in Talkeetna at Art and Karen Mannix’s house waiting for Kevin and co to fly out. Nobody was ready to jump back into the real world, so this transition was very welcome. Much ice cream was eaten.
THE SUPPORT TEAM
Melk the Swiss Architect
Pat from AMS
Bryn and Louis
Art and Karen Mannix
I’m sure I forgot some people. Let me know…
About Luc Mehl
I grew up in McGrath, live in Anchorage, teach at Alaska Pacific University, and play outside as often as possible. Anchorage has an incredible group of recreation partners; I feel very lucky to be here. I lean on a huge community of friends for trip and gear advice. Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any questions.