South Face, Denali. Photo: Talkeetna Air Taxi
This story has been posted in cooperation with the good crew over at OuterLocal.com, which is a great website that you really ought to be checking out on a daily, if not hourly, basis. Text by OuterLocal.com. Images added by ChamonixInsider.com.
Readers of [OuterLocal.com] are by now familiar with Andreas Fransson. The Swedish skier has come onto the international radar screens with a number of notable ski descents over the last year in his adopted hometown of Chamonix, France. But in May, on his first trip to Denali (20,320’ / 6193m), Fransson set a different standard. His ascents and descents on North America’s highest mountain, made in quick succession amidst difficult conditions, have defined a new level of competence as it relates to ski mountaineering.
On May 9, Fransson and his partner, fellow Swede Magnus Kastengren, arrived in base camp on the Kahiltna Glacier, the traditional staging area for Denali aspirants. Kastengren was on the mountain with Fransson to climb, but Fransson planned to do the skiing on his own. His main objective? The 9,000-foot [2743 meter], unskied, south face of the peak—solo.
The pair took their time acclimating, spending four days to ascend to Advanced Base Camp (ABC). Along the way they went a “little ways up” the Northeast Fork of the Kahiltna Glacier to scope out the south face. “It looked really good,” said Fransson.
On the pair’s first day at ABC, Fransson attempted to climb and ski the Orient Express, a 5,000-foot [1524 meter], 45-degree couloir high on the mountain’s west face. “I got a bit blasted by the altitude, as you can imagine,” said Fransson from Talkeetna.
After one day spent recovering in ABC, he tried it again. Climbing solo, he quickly ascended the route, clicked into his skis, then skied back to camp. The couloir is skied with some regularity, and Fransson used it for a simple purpose: “To get as high as possible as fast as possible.”
To further facilitate that acclimatization process, the next day he climbed and skied the Orient again.
Wanting to continue their acclimatization, the pair ascended the West Buttress route to the standard camp at 17,200 feet [5242 meters] . “The weather was so bad, we camped there for two nights. On the first good day, we went up to the summit.”
West Buttress, Denali. Photo: Bradford Washington/NPS/Alpinist Mag
The storm that had pinned the Swedes at “17,” as the camp at 17,200 feet is commonly called, was violently windy. Low amounts of snowfall over the winter and high winds at the upper elevations had contributed to blue-ice conditions on sections of Denali that are normally filled in. These conditions have resulted in a number of fatalities; the 2011 season is already one of the deadliest on record.
When the storm abated, “We started from camp at around 10 a.m.,” recounted Fransson, “and got to the top around 2. A couple of other guys were up there, doing a traverse [of the mountain], and were now going to ski down the west buttress.”
Fransson planned to do something similar, but in the opposite direction.
Kastengren had helped Fransson by carrying his 60-meter rope to the summit. After half an hour on top, they said goodbye. Kastengren went back down the West Buttress, while Fransson dropped in on the south face alone.
The first 5,000 feet [1524 meters] of descent took Fransson half an hour. He described the conditions as “hard.” Snow that had looked “really good” on his reconnaissance had been stripped off the face by the storm.
“It was possible to get an edge the first two-thirds of the descent, but the further down I got, the harder it became,” said Fransson.
A mile [1609 meters] into his descent, Fransson was forced to traverse to the skier’s left, to an area that he thought would be skiable. Instead, he found “65- to 70-degree ice. So I put on crampons and tools and climbed for maybe half an hour on a fifty meter traverse.”
From there he regained a couloir and continued skiing, but “I could see the snowfields [below] were totally blue—totally ruined.”
Fransson was forced to do four rappels to get into a connecting couloir. He skied “perhaps 100 meters in the couloir where there was snow,” but as the temperatures continued to rise, “it started to rain rocks.” The massive wall above him had begun to disintegrate. “I got a bad feeling, so I stayed put.” It was 5 p.m.
Fransson spent the next six hours in the couloir, hunkered down, avoiding rockfall. He calls the decision to stay put “really technical.”
By 11 p.m., “I knew I had to get down. So I began downclimbing and rappelling.” He continued descending in this manner for 600 or 700 meters, skiing whenever conditions permitted, until he was about 200 meters above the bergschrund that separated the face from the glacier below it. At this point, he put his skis back on, and skied down to and over the bergrschrund.
When he reached the glacier, he skied out “as far as possible” to get out of the way of falling debris.
At this point, “It was really dark—it was really hard to know what were cracks [in the ice] and what was not.” Trapped by lack of visibility, he simply sat down for the rest of the night, melted snow to drink and looked at the views.
At 5 a.m., it became light enough to continue. It took Fransson an hour and a half to ski down from his resting place to the “autobahn” of the standard West Buttress route. Fransson called this solo negotiation of the heavily crevassed glacier “one of the cruxes of the route.”
When he reached the “autobahn,” he simply lay down on it and went to sleep. He remained there for six hours, sleeping as climbers walked past.
Fransson reached Base Camp later that day. After a day of rest, he climbed back up to ABC.
Cassin Ridge, Denali (Alaska Grade 5: 65°, 5.8 AI4, 2743m)
One day later, Fransson, together now with Kastengren, wrapped back around the mountain to climb the Cassin Ridge (Alaska Grade 5: 65°, 5.8 AI4, 2743m), a classic alpine objective immediately to the climber’s left of the face Fransson had just skied. The pair managed the route in a notable 33 hours round trip, which included a nine-hour bivy. “We were really fast on the climbing,” said Fransson. “It was a really good experience because we never got cold, never got tired. Until the end, of course.”
(At the first rock band, the pair were caught by their friends, the British alpinists Jonathan Griffith and Will Sim. While Fransson and Kastengren bivied, the Brits kept climbing, establishing a new speed record for the route of 14 hours 40 minutes.)
Fransson and Kastengren returned to ABC. One day later, Fransson climbed and skied the Messner Couloir, another 45°, 5,000-foot couloir high on Denali’s west face. Afterward, the pair descended to Base Camp. Though they had hoped to keep climbing, warming temperatures had adversely affected conditions, so they flew back to Talkeetna.
On his blog, Fransson called his descent of the south face a “try”—an attempt. “When you downclimb that much…,” he said, then let the remainder of his sentence linger.
“Half of what I downclimbed at the end would have been possible to ski during the day, in better conditions, but I wasn’t really thinking of that,” he continued. Upon further reflection, he said, “It’s going to be hard for anyone to do it much better—you could probably ski 300 or 400 meters more than I did. Plus, there’s a lot of rockfall….”
But was it really an “attempt?”
“Out of 4000 meters, I skied 3000 or so,” he replied. “So it’s still OK.”