Spring skiing in Denali National Park

Double Mountain and Denali
Double Mountain in the foreground, Denali in the background.

On Sunday the weather was fantastic,unbelievably fantastic, perfect, and gorgeous. My friend Sam and I drove down to Denali National Park to go skiing. Not knowing ahead of time how far the road would be open to, we brought both touring and cross-country skis, crampons, avalanche beacons, shovels, probes and left Kate with a list of possible itineraries based on how far we could get up the Park Road. As luck would have it (pretty sure this didn’t matter) the road was open to the Savage River at mile 15.

We decided to try kick wax on touring skis instead of skins in hope that we could travel a bit faster. This worked awesome; until I took the first step off of the packed trail. I immediately sunk about thigh deep and began to flail. Tiny three foot hills became horrifying obstacles. Eventually I realized that if we didn’t put the skins on a bear would surely be waking from hibernation to find two injured and sick ‘caribou’ trying to find footing in the snow and go for the easy meal. Once the skins were on, we were once again on our way tramping uphill for a while and then descending into the Savage basin.

I’d like to take a minute to digress and talk about my ‘injuries’ sustained during this outing. Yesterday and today I have a sore right rib-cage, left shoulder, and left leg. The funny thing is, I don’t think I ever fell while skiing. My first slip was on ice walking from the parking lot to the trailhead. I managed to break the lens hood to my 18-105mm lens and I’m guessing that is where the shoulder pain is coming from. When I went to toss my skis on the ground the first time my finger got caught in the binding and bent it back hyperextending it a bit. Every once in a while, when taking a rest I would go to plant my poles in the snow to my side and faceplant as the poles sunk down to the grips. Yeah, the snow was that deep and soft. I’d also end up in the snow every time I tried to push my way over a little hill with just kick wax. During one of these falls I managed to twist in such a way that I pulled a muscle in my rib-cage, simultaneously knocking the wind out of me. I’ve always been a pretty good skier and climber, yet for some reason I have never mastered the intricacies of actions such as standing and walking. Long story short, I was a slow moving nightmare last weekend.

Part of what made Sunday nice was that we weren’t trying to get anywhere. We just enjoyed being able to move around the valley without being hindered by the tall alders and willow that must be negotiated in the summer. We wandered uphill toward the mountains until it was time to eat, turn around, and head back to the car. It was downhill most of the way back, so we took off the skins and made it back in less than half the time it took us to get to our highpoint. Backcountry skiing is fun!

Wow, that was a lot of words, look at some pictures:
Savage River Valley
The Savage River Basin.

Snowy Landing
There were a lot of bird tracks in the snow like this. Cool patterns.

Stopping to skin up for some light uphill sections.

I like sparse tundra.

Skiing next year
I think this is the ski trip for next year. Anyone want to join?


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