Story and Photos by Brett Carroll
I don’t consider myself to be an especially emotional person. I think that I tend to cry at appropriate times. I cried when my Grandpa died. I cried when my girlfriend and I broke up. I cried when my friend Joe died. And I cried my way up Pig Hill, the last 700’ of Denali’s West Buttress.
Flash back to late winter/early spring, 2014. My friends, Greg and Joe, and I had each been skiing in the backcountry for a couple years, and together we began to enter the realm of what I would consider to be ski mountaineering.
This entailed a number of epic early-morning adventures, involving 1 or 2am wake ups to be able to ski a new line in the Wasatch and be back in time for class or work at noon. The three of us skiing the East Face of the Salt Lake Twin Peaks in perfect boot-deep powder still stands out as one of my favorite runs of my life. Everything we did was so new and exciting; we were discovering a new world within a sport that we already loved.
May, 2014: Greg and I, along with a couple other friends, drove up to the Tetons from Salt Lake City and made our first (failed) attempt to ski the Ford/Stettner on the Grand Teton. After getting off the mountain I went straight back to Salt Lake City to catch a flight home to visit my family for a couple weeks. Greg stayed in the Tetons to meet up with Joe and his girlfriend Melissa, who were arriving the next day.
A couple days later I received a call from a mutual friend checking in to see how I was doing. I was confused and asked if anything was wrong. I learned that Joe had fallen near the top of the East Face of Teewinot and passed away that day. I was crushed.
Over the next couple years Greg and I continued exploring that new world of ski mountaineering. The accident caused us to approach everything with an added level of caution, but also inspired a greater appreciation for the beauty of the places that our adventures took us to, and for the passion that we shared.
June 16, 2016: Greg and I left our camp at 14,000 feet at 7am. This was the 9th day of our trip, and we were hoping to take advantage of what appeared to be a perfect weather window to climb the West Buttress of Denali and ski from the summit. Each step produced a satisfying crunch as our crampons bit into the cold snow. The basin was still in the shade, which was honestly a welcome relief from the heat of skinning under the midday sun the previous few days. Behind us Foraker and Hunter stood proudly in the morning light, and a cloudless sky provided incredible views of the southeastern portion of the Alaska Range.
We reached the top of the headwall, just over 16,000 feet, at 9:15. This matched our high point on the trip thus far, as we had climbed up to the same place the previous day, trying to balance acclimation with rest before our summit push. We took a short break here before continuing up 16 Ridge.
I found 16 Ridge to be the most fun and aesthetic portion of the West Buttress route. Sections of 3rd class scrambling, some steep snow, and endless views off both sides of the knife edge ridge (admittedly, a dull knife) combined to make this the most enjoyable part of the climb (and the source of at least half of the pictures we took that day). A couple hours on the ridge brought us to 17 Camp around 11:30.
After another quick break at 17,000 feet we started up a section of the route called the Autobahn. This is where I started to notice the elevation, and definitely started moving slower. The Autobahn ends at Denali Pass, at just over 18,000 feet, and by that point I knew that the rest of the climb was going to be a survival-mode slog to the top.
We left Denali Pass at 2:00pm. With an approximate turnaround time of 7pm we had 5 hours to climb the remaining 2000 vertical feet, a pace that we were confident we could maintain no matter how badly we were hurting.
We made it to 19,000 feet before taking another break and were happy to see that, despite how slowly we were moving, that we were still on pace to make it to the top in time. I sucked down an energy gel, but didn’t have much water left to wash it down. Not thinking much of it, we got up and continued plodding upwards.
Within about 10 minutes of our break, I started feeling sick. I could tell I was hitting the wall, but didn’t want to admit it. We were so close to the top I was sure I could suck it up for the last few hundred feet. Crossing the football field, a large, flat bench just before Pig Hill, it became too much. I sat down on my pack and promptly spent a few minutes dry heaving.
Greg, moderately alarmed that I might be suffering from high altitude edema, sat down next to me and started asking me typical medical assessment questions. “What’s your name? What’s the date? Where are you?” Mentally I still felt sharp, and after a few minutes of conversation we determined that the dry heaving had been the result of exhaustion, elevation, and the energy gel, rather than any serious altitude illness. At that point the conversation switched and Greg, graciously and without a shred of ego, said that we would only go as far as I felt capable of going. If I needed or wanted to turn around, he’d go back with me, despite being a mere 700’ below the summit.
Somehow, dry heaving had provided a small amount of relief, and I told Greg that I wanted to try to keep going. He was stoked to continue, but still left it to me to decide if I needed to turn around at any point, “and,” he said, “I’ll carry your skis.” In my exhausted, mildly delirious state, this gesture brought tears to my eyes. I said that he didn’t have to do that, but he insisted, saying that he wanted us to have the best chance of skiing from the summit together.
We talked for a minute, and realized that we were both trying to draw upon Joe’s childlike excitement about this type of adventure, and his generous, egoless nature. After all we had been through together skiing from the top of Denali, essentially in Joe’s backyard (he was from Anchorage), felt like a culminating moment in the journey that we had started with Joe.
Minutes later I was slowly plodding up Pig Hill with tears streaming down my face. I can’t remember ever feeling such a strong mix of joy, gratitude, and sorrow, that all combine into a strange euphoria.
Just before 7:30pm Greg and I reached the summit of North America’s highest peak. Greg sprinkled some of Joe’s ashes, we took a few pictures, and clicked into our skis to return to camp.
In planning our trip we had hoped to be able to ski the Messner Couloir, a 5000 foot, 50 degree line that drops from near the summit straight back to our camp at 14,000 feet. Unfortunately the Messner, as well as a few neighboring lines, sported just a few inches of crusty snow covering blue ice. While we were a bit disappointed, we had known going into the trip that there was a fairly high probability that we wouldn’t find these steeper objectives in skiable condition. So we were happy to accomplish our primary goal, of simply being able to ski from the summit.
We descended the West Buttress, following the same route we had climbed. Before dropping in off the summit, we were a little nervous that ice would make even the relatively moderate angle of Pig Hill too dangerous. After poking around for a minute we found the wind-scoured sastrugi to be just chalky enough to be edgeable. As spent as I was, I didn’t make the prettiest turns of my life, but just skiing in that location was exhilarating.
We skied back down to the 17,000’ camp; both silently laughing at and feeling sorry for all the regular mountaineers (as opposed to ski mountaineers) we passed who still had long slogs ahead of them. At 17 Camp we threw our skis on our packs one last time to downclimb 16 Ridge. The sun was “setting” (a 6 hour process in June on Denali) and we enjoyed the most incredible views of the trip as we continued down. We put our skis on below the headwall, and did our best to enjoy the last 1500’ of slightly refrozen mashed potato snow back to camp.
There is inherent risk in backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering, and sadly I’m sure many of the people reading this have lost someone close to them in the mountains. These losses are tragic, and the pain that we feel makes us question why we do what we do in the first place. We mourn, grieve, and celebrate that person’s life, and try to figure out how to prevent something similar from happening again. And rightly so.
But I think that we also take something away from each of these accidents. A piece of the person that we lost lives on inside of us. I know that I often find myself drawing strength from memories of people that I have lost, trying to embody the best qualities that I remember them by.
Death is a part of life and, at the end of the day, is what makes life beautiful. Death provides the impetus to appreciate what we have; the motivation to do what we love, love the people we’re with, and see the beauty in every moment we’re given. It’s our own mortality that drives this appreciation for life. And while I’d rather have Joe back, I am grateful for everything that he taught me.