Ski vacation to north America's highest mountain

Brody Leven gives us the lowdown on a trip to America's highest mountain with an all star crew.
Brody Leven on the approach. ©
By Brody Leven

Brody Leven just got back from a mountaineering all-stars trip to Denali, the highest peak in north America. In an exclusive story for he gives us the lowdown and shares the epic shots from the trip. Check out the photo gallery here and the gear he took here.

“We’ll put in one week of hard effort. After that, we’ll have a two-week ski vacation above 14,000 feet (4,267m). We just have to get up there, first.”

Conrad Anker excites our team every time he says it. Methodically, he chooses to remind us during the most tiring moments—atop a steep climb with a tough sidehill; while loading heavy duffels onto sleds that we pull behind us; setting up tents after a hard day. Ski vacation. Ski vacation. Ski vacation. We are going on ski vacation. …But aren’t ski vacations supposed to have heated lodges, warmed by fireplaces and aromas of hot chocolate?

Not when your ski vacation is in June. And not when it’s on Denali.

Even guys like Conrad Anker pull their own gear. ©

A team of fourteen skiers and snowboarders—professional athletes and industry folk—set out to climb and ride off the tallest mountain in North America: 20,320-foot (6,193m) Denali in Alaska’s Denali National Park and Preserve. Jeremy Jones, Conrad Anker, John Krakauer, Max Lowe, Ralph Backstrom, KT Miller, Ryan Hudson, Kalen Caughey, Phil Henderson, Jacqui Edgerly, Kasha Rigby, Rachel Pohl, Robin Hill, and I.

A ski vacation. Not a sponsored expedition. Not an author looking for a storyline. Not a film crew documenting a movie. We were in Alaska for a trip with like-minded friends, all in (or only slightly out of) our realms of expertise. Apparently, riders of their caliber go on trips without camera crews—vacations.

The journey is half the fun. ©

Five arduous days after landing planes low on the Kahiltna Glacier, the team relaxed in our new camp at 14,200 feet (4,328m). Those five days had been spent sweating and struggling to pull uncooperative kiddie sleds full of food staples and Everest-ready equipment from 7,000 feet (2,133m) below and 12 miles away in glacial summertime heat. Reflecting off the snow, the sun burned any exposed skin: the inside of nostrils, the roofs of mouths, earlobes.

Snowboarder Robin Hill. ©

After setting up what would be our most-used camp, Jeremy, Robin and I climbed the West Buttress to 17,200 feet (5,242m). From there, we rode the Rescue Gully—a steep, runnelled, double-fall-line couloir atop a 2,500-foot (762m) face that is highlighted with large patches of nearly unedgeable blue ice. Even on ski vacation, Jeremy Jones rides that terrain with excitement that’s contagious and competence that isn’t.

It’s hard to imagine ever learning such proficiency. The way he snowboards in movies is exactly how he snowboards at 17,000 feet (5,181m) an astonishing feat by a snowsports legend. Dodging crevasses and negotiating multiple bergschrunds required his attention but didn’t tax his abilities.

Considering he was on vacation (snowboarding in Alaska) from work (which is snowboarding, typically in Alaska), Jeremy’s skillset while climbing and riding at high altitude remained very much at “work”.

Conrad Anker and Jeremy Jones are two of the most admired and respected mountain athletes of all time, mainstream or alternative. And now, acclimatized and prepared, they invited me to climb to the summit of Denali with them. After a rest day, the plan was to climb the 5,000-foot (1,524m) Orient Express and link up with the standard route at 19,200 feet (5,852m).

From there, we would tag the summit and ski the line of our choosing. The apple of our eye was, if deemed safe during our climb, was our ascent route. With the fact that it hadn’t snowed in months, Denali hadn’t seen many recent ski/snowboard descents. We hoped to add a few.

Denali offered varied conditions through the trip. ©

As super-athletes, Conrad and Jeremy reached the summit before Robin and I. As super-people, they celebrated our collective success when we joined them on top, as if we’d all walked the final steps together.

Conrad and Robin skied the West Buttress to Rescue Gully. Skiing off the summit toward the Orient Express, a piercing altitude-induced headache was pushing my skull outward as we bumped over huge ice formations called sastrugi, created by the strong and relentless high-altitude winds.

Denali descent? Chalked that one off. ©

Luckily, skis allowed me to descend quickly and safely. Jeremy and I rode firm chalk down the Orient, crossing the bergschrund exactly where we’d hoped, and rode into camp, ecstatic at having safely ridden off the tippy-top of North America.

We still had weeks of ski vacation left, but even my heroes can’t make a heated lodge out of an expedition tent. And that’s the way we liked it.

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